Before his Mike Peterson became the deadly Deathlok on ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” before his role as the assassin Mr. Blank on the hit CW show “Arrow,” and even before working with Joss Whedon to become a vampire-slaying hero in “Angel,” J. August Richards was just a boy from Prince George’s County who loved comic books and acting.
The acting part came naturally. The comic books came every weekend.
Richards’s long, winding path from Prince George’s County to Hollywood started before he was born, when his parents moved from Panama to Bladensburg.
“I believe we were the second black family to move into that neighborhood,” Richards said. “For me, I had a very diverse upbringing in the area with being exposed to a lot of different people.”
His family made sure there was a lot of culture surrounding Richards in his formative years.
“I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household and it was really very culturally all over the place for me as a child growing up there,” Richards said. “It was very different, but I love the area and I love coming back there as often as I can.”
Growing up, Richards wanted to be an actor. His family, in particular his mother, had other plans for him.
“My mom wanted me to be either a lawyer or a priest,” Richards said. “You kind of hit the jackpot as a Latin American mother if you raise a priest. They had great hopes for me because I had very incredible grades and I was always being put into these talented and gifted programs.”
With top-notch grades, his family was stunned when he said he wanted to be an actor.
“The idea to them was like, ‘What a waste! Why would you want to be an actor?! You have great grades, you’re really intelligent. Why on Earth would you want to be an actor?’” Richards said.
The why was simple — he loved performing and he loved television. When Richards was 14, he convinced his mother to let him go to an acting camp in New York because he knew the casting director for “The Cosby Show” would be there.
Richards met with the director, read for him and was invited to come to NYC to audition for the show.
“I did and I got a part,” Richards said. “From then on, my entire family was like, ‘Um … I think he can actually do this.’ They got on board once I got on ‘The Cosby Show.’”
His mother, however, really got on board when he starred in Suitland High School’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“My mother saw me on stage — this wasn’t the first time, but it was a very memorable time — and after the play, she said to me, ‘Don’t ever do anything else,’” Richards said. “She told me don’t ever do anything else other than acting because I think she finally got how important it was for me. Then she became incredibly supportive from that moment on.”
Richards said he fell in love with television from the very first time he laid eyes on a TV. From then on, he knew he wanted to be on it.
“I really haven’t ever really wanted to be anything other than an actor or a director,” Richards said. “When I was a kid, I also auditioned for ‘A Christmas Carol,’ which was being done by a Prince George’s cable access channel … it was an all-kid cast. I auditioned and ended up getting the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge, so that was kind of my first part on television. I always did plays in schools, from like the third grade on. My very first role, I was in the third grade and I played the sexton in the church play. That was my first lead role as well. I’ve been acting my entire life.”
For as much as he loved acting, Richards loved comic books just as much. Growing up, he and his buddies would beg someone’s parents to drive them to Geppi’s Comic World, which is now Alliance Comics, in Silver Spring every weekend.
“We would call and make sure they had the comics we were looking for,” Richards said. “We’d have them save us copies so that they wouldn’t sell out. I was a tremendous comic book fan as a kid.”
This past Easter weekend, Richards came home to participate in Awesome Con at the Washington Convention Center in D.C. True to his nature, Richards signed autographs, took pictures with folks there and begged fans not to ask any specific questions about “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” that might get him into trouble.
Richards said it was incredible to do Awesome Con where he was the hometown favorite.
“I was definitely groomed by where I grew up, being the D.C.-Virginia-Maryland area,” Richards said. “I got a lot of culture from the area. I got a lot of exposure to a lot of different things. I was lucky enough to be a part of the NAACP ACT-SO competition when I was in high school. I went to a performing arts high school in Suitland, Md. My mom used to take me to the Kennedy Center all the time. I participated in so many programs and workshops there in D.C. So it’s kind of awesome to bring those things back there and maybe share my experiences and the experiences I’ve gained once I left there. I feel very connected to the D.C. area, obviously, and a lot of my family still lives there. It feels really great to be coming back home and sharing.”
After graduating from the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts, where he attended on scholarship, Richards went on a series of auditions, getting bit parts here and there. It wasn’t until 2000 that he auditioned for the “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” spinoff called “Angel.”
After a crazy audition — he had spray-painted his hair red, which definitely caught the attention of director and creator Joss Whedon — he landed the role of Charles Gunn, a guy who hates vampires (for a good reason), but works with the vampire-with-a-soul Angel to fight against the bad guys.
“When I was doing ‘Angel,’ every day I would go to work thinking, ‘This could be the best job I ever have in my life,’ because every episode was different,” Richards said. “A lot of shows, you can play a character and you can get in a rhythm with that character and do that for many, many years to come, but every single year of doing ‘Angel,’ I remember there was always one day where I was afraid to go to work because I was being asked to do something I didn’t know if I could do. Something that I’d never done before or something that I never thought I’d be doing. It was amazing because it was so challenging and it was never boring. That was the beauty of doing ‘Angel.’ I learned so much from everyone around me. It was my first series-regular job and I couldn’t imagine a better one.”
Of course, the show has been off the air for 10 years and David Boreanaz, who starred as Angel, has gone on to play Agent Booth in the FOX series “Bones” for the past nine years.
Richards said it’s sometimes hard to believe the show has been over for a decade already.
“It does seem just like yesterday and it’s still amazing that it’s in reruns,” Richards said. “There’s a whole new generation of fans for the show. It’s just one of those gifts that keeps on giving. I don’t know what I did to be so blessed to be on a show like that. The fans are so committed to the show. That show was nothing but a blessing.”
Whedon has a tendency to cast actors he’s worked with in the past for his shows. Actors such as Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Eliza Dushku, Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, all have been in more than one Whedon show or enterprise.
Despite having a great relationship with Whedon, Richards said he still had to audition for the role of Mike Peterson for “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Richards said even the Joss Whedon All-Stars have to fit the part in Whedon’s eyes.
“One of the things I love about Joss is, while he is loyal to the actors he’s worked with in the past, he never gives handouts,” Richards said. “It’s always what’s right with the story. So I had to audition and it entailed me doing a lot of things that no one had ever seen me do — play a father … there were a lot of elements to the character that I didn’t necessarily do on ‘Angel.’”
Normally, if Richards’s manager gives him a call saying he has an audition that day, he would pass on the opportunity. Thanks to a promise he made to himself, Richards didn’t pass on the audition of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“The joy for me is creating the character and figuring out what from my past correlates with a particular character’s current situation,” Richards said. “But last year, I made a New Year’s resolution that I was going to start trying new things. I was just going to throw my old playbook out the window on a lot of topics and try new things. So when my manager called me, she said ‘Sweetie, I know you’re going to say no, but you have a same-day appointment and it’s for ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’”
Before getting the audition, when Richards heard Whedon was going to be doing “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” he knew he wanted to be a part of it.
“When I heard they were doing this show, I called my manager and I asked her if there were any roles for someone like me,” Richards said. “And she said, ‘No, I’m reading the breakdown and there’s nothing for you.’ And I was like, ‘Really? Not a guest star, co-star, nothing?’ And she said, ‘No, you don’t fit the bill for any of the parts.’ Still, in my mind, I felt like I really wanted to be a part of that show.”
He went into the audition cold — no advance script readings. He read the script once he got to the audition and fell in love with the role of Mike Peterson.
“I felt like I just had to play this guy because there’s a line in the pilot that was also in my audition where Mike says, ‘I could be, you know? A hero,’” Richards said. “That line just spoke to me so much because prior to doing ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ I was out of work for 18 months. I was going to audition after audition after audition and I wasn’t booking anything.
“There was one particular day in those 18 months where I was working on an audition and I was working on it so hard and I kind of zoomed out from myself for a second and I said, ‘Wow, you haven’t worked for so long, but you’re still throwing yourself into this 100 percent as if you just started.’ … So when I read the audition scene for Mike Peterson and he said, ‘I could be, you know? A hero,’ I just really understood that moment because I know what it feels like to have your back up against the wall and still believe in yourself so completely. Once I read that line, I really understood who the man was and from there it was just easy.”
After getting a phone call from his manager later that evening saying they liked what they saw, Richards sent an email to Whedon.
“I said, ‘Listen, I auditioned for your show today. I really love the character. I would love to play this character and if you see anything in my audition that you think will work for the character, I promise you I’ll give you 110 percent to bring this thing to reality.’ Then I fell asleep,” Richard said. “Woke up the next morning, had totally forgotten about it. My phone was ringing off the hook with my manager saying ‘You got the part! You have a meeting with Joss at 2 o’clock.’ So I drove over there and I said, ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe I’m going to be working with you again! Did you get my email?’ And he goes, ‘What email?’”
Richards said he had no idea at the time of the audition that he was going to become Deathlok, Marvel Comic’s resident cyborg. He assumed that he was just going to be a one-time guest star and that would be the end of it.
Later, he got a phone call from production saying he had a costume fitting. Of course, he was a little taken aback, having to drive ‘very far away from L.A.’ to a weird location.
“I went in … and I’m being measured and fit and they’re putting weird things on my body and I’m just thinking to myself, ‘What is going on?’” Richards said.
On his way home, Richards received a phone call from Maurissa Tancharoen, a writer, producer and co-creator of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Tancharoen, who has worked with Whedon on several projects, including “The Avengers,” is married to another co-creator and writer on the show, Whedon’s brother, Jed.
“She said, ‘Listen, I’m sure you’re wondering what’s going on. Your character is going to be turned into Deathlok from the Marvel comics,’” Richards said. “I just had to pull my car over and just celebrate quietly with myself because of what it meant and I was so incredibly excited that here I am, this huge comic book fan as a child … honestly, if you would have asked me when I was a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a superhero. It was such a full-circle moment and I just sat there on the side of the road so happy and excited.”
Once the costume fitting was complete, which took a couple of weeks, Richards said he felt like a real superhero.
“I felt like Deathlok,” Richards said. “But there’s so much psychologically that goes into being Deathlok. In his first appearance in a comic book, on the cover it says ‘The Steel-Smashing Origin of the World’s Most Offbeat Superhero.’ It’s very true. The Deathlok character is very offbeat and I just feel like I’m the perfect person to play him because I’m very offbeat as well. Just who Deathlok is is so unique and specific and it’s just a great role. I’m so happy to be playing it.”
Richards found out right before Christmas that he had landed the role. When he came home to visit his family for the holidays, he brought out his old comic book collection to start his research.
“I tweeted a picture of my comic book collection the other day because when I went home for Christmas, I wanted to investigate the collection and see if I found anything about Deathlok,” Richards said. “I wanted my research to start with my comic book collection. I thought there would be really something special about that. And lo and behold, I did find some information about Deathlok in my comic book collection. So I started there, then I contacted Marvel and they made some of the old comics available to me. That’s how I started my research process.”
As for his favorite comic book character, Richards points out that by sheer volume alone, his favorite has to be another popular Marvel superhero.
“If I left it up to the facts, I guess Spider-Man would be my favorite because I have the most Spider-Man comic books,” Richards said. “Me and my friends, a real highlight for us was ‘Secret Wars,’ when Spider-Man got his new costume. I’d have to say, statistically speaking, Spider-Man is the character I have the most books on.”
Although Richards wouldn’t give any spoilers about the final episodes of this season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Deathlok will be in this week’s episode, “Nothing Personal,” and next week’s, “Ragtag.” Whether he’ll be in the finale is a mystery.
“The only secret I can give is that it’s going to be really exciting and that it’s all connected,” Richards said.”
And will Deathlok pop up in “The Avengers 2?”
“Anything is possible.”