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February 01, 2018

Dark Matter

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Jeff Ward isn't afraid of the dark.

David M. Gutiérrez
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • Yasmine Kateb

Jeff Ward likes venturing into the psyche's darker side.

After turns as Charles Manson in Manson's Lost Girls, and the dangerously mysterious Seth in Channel Zero: No-End House, Ward plays the morally ambiguous space-scavenger Deke in the fifth season of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Based on the Marvel Comics characters and comic books, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series follows a team of secret agents specializing in handling super-human threats. The series took a sudden leap into the future when the Agents found themselves trapped in the Lighthouse, a Kree space station under the control of the alien Kasius (Dominic Rains).

Deke proves to be the unreliable source of information for the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, as he continuously makes them and series viewers question on whose side he operates. As Deke, Ward plays a character whose motivations slowly present themselves – he's an orphan who discovers his father might be alive, and he may need the Kree to find him.

But Deke isn't afraid to sacrifice the S.H.I.E.L.D team for the welfare of the dwindling number of humans on the Lighthouse or to save his own skin.

Marvel has been notoriously guarded with its plans for their series and features, so you weren't able to share much about Deke prior to the show airing. What can you say about your character now that we're a few episodes into the season?

There's not a lot more [I can share] for fear of losing my job. Deke's locked up in a room [in the Lighthouse] right now. I think it's clear there's probably more at play than the obvious, in terms of what's motivated his actions.

You've learned about his connection to his parents, to a prophecy, and everything going on with the S.H.I.E.L.D agents. It's more complicated since he just turned over the Daisy Johnson character to Kasius, because Deke and Kasius have a real complicated relationship. [He's] looking at the man that killed his parents.

It's crazy to be in the proximity of the person that took everything from him. But he doesn't have a choice. It's a complicated, sticky situation you'll learn more about. There's good stuff coming up.

Once you were cast, were you given a lot of information about your character or are you finding out about him as the scripts arrive?

I'm learning about Deke script by script. I've never worked that way before, so it's an interesting challenge. It's bothered me less than I thought it would because it's fun to live out a character on a moment-to-moment basis. He doesn't know where he's headed. It's more lifelike in that sense. I'm used to mapping out a whole story.

But this has been interesting because I've found stuff out recently that has been mindblowing. In retrospect, the fact that I didn't know these things when I started [playing Deke] makes it funny to think about because it's such big stuff. But it's appropriate that I didn't know. There's some fun stuff you'll learn about my character – especially for fans of the show.

What was it like coming into a show in its fifth season? It must be a well-oiled machine at this point.

That was the question I had when I started. I didn't know what it would be like because they're a tightknit family after being together for five years. Everyone has been so incredibly nice and welcoming. It's an incredible environment because everyone really cares and they're telling stories that excite them.

They have a lot of fun, and that's created a warm and unique atmosphere. It was already a great place, and everyone's received me with open arms. It's been a tremendous experience. It's their playground and it's been fun to be there with them.

What were your feelings when you learned you were going to part of this giant Marvel world?

I've loved this stuff since I was a kid. Spider-Man and Batman were important to me. I was super into Tim Burton's Batman. I loved it so much. It was the first movie I saw in a movie theater. My dad said I sat there silently and loved it. It's a crazy feeling. Every time I see the Marvel logo in front of the show, I say, "Whoah. It's funny I'm in this."

I just can't say enough about my experience with S.H.I.E.L.D, with everyone understanding how important it is to so many people. I think it's really cool because we all take it seriously. I think it matters. It's the kind of stuff that got my imagination going when I was a kid. Sometimes, I don't think about the impact.

But then someone will ask me about it, and I'll remember I've always dreamed of being a part of something like this. It's pretty cool when it doesn't disappoint and is better than you thought it could be.

Is this the most physical role you've had? There are number of stunts and special effects on the series.

It's so fun and another dream come true. The level of action is amazing. Channel Zero: No-End House had a bunch of effects, but nothing to the level of fighting I do on Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. I'm amazed by the stunt team and the actors that do it.

My very first day was learning a fight with Ming-Na Wen. That was the first scene I shot. I went in thinking, "Yeah, I can do this. I'm going to impress everyone." And they were saying, "Yeah, you'd better be able to do it." The stuntpeople are such badasses and incredible athletes, you don't want to get into a scrap with them.

I think a lot of Marvel stuff in general, and this show in particular, lets you do some serious action, a ton of comedy, and then some moving, emotionally earned moments. I've been struck by how deftly it can go between all three of those feelings. That's really hard to do. You'll get a fight, a laugh, and a cry in eight or nine minutes. It's so impressive to me.

You've played Charles Manson, one of the most notorious figures in American history, in Manson's Lost Girls; Seth in Channel Zero: No-End House, and most recently, Deke for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. All three are extremely mercurial, dark characters, and, in Seth and Deke's case, morally ambiguous. Do you find playing these characters appealing?

Very. They're certainly the most fun. I don't mean to sound pretentious, but I feel like they're the most like real people. The way I looked at playing Charles Manson, I attacked it as his modus operandi was wanting to save the world. Everyone is the hero of their own story.

I feel like wherever they end up laying on the objective spectrum, subjectively they all think they're good people, or, at the very least, conflicted. Nobody thinks they're a bad person.

I certainly think Manson thought he was a good guy saving the planet, saving the entire human race with Helter Skelter and his race war. I am drawn to playing people that have obscured intentions. I've enjoyed going from Seth to Deke because they're very different people that operate differently.

Where Deke is a person that gets out in front with finesse and charisma, Seth is much more of the quiet, wounded puppy who baits someone in. I love villains. Othello's Iago is my favorite character in anything. He's the smartest character ever. Evil characters get a lot of opportunity to be smart.

I also think they're a puzzle I'm able to solve. With a straight good guy or hero, I don't often know a way in. With the ill-intentioned characters, I think, "Oh, yeah. I can understand that." I don't know what that says about me. It probably says some very bad things about me. Hopefully, it's because I'm boring in real life.

Those three characters all share tragic childhoods and lost their parents. Except for Manson, who wasn't around his mother for years at a time.

With all three of those characters, I worked a ton out in my mind about their childhoods and their relationship with their parents.

With Manson, I obviously had a real person I could work from. For Seth, I looked at Dave Pelzer's book, A Child Called 'It,' which looked at his journey moving through orphan's homes. Because we know Seth was an orphan, it gave me something rich and specific to draw on. It's the same with Deke, being in space without his parents.

There's a lot that comes along with a role like this. Many other actors make convention appearances. You might be an action figure at some point.

I haven't even thought about that. This all happened in a crazy, unexpected way. In my first episode, there was a character named Virgil who greets the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. He had been waiting for them and tells them about this prophecy he was studying. His was the part I originally got. I auditioned for Deke, but got Virgil.

I went to the table read and it felt like people had a positive reaction to what I did. One of the showrunners called me when I was walking to my car and asked if I would come back to read for Deke. I went back and read for it, and found out that night I got the Deke role. I haven't had time to think about it - which I think is a good thing.

The writers gave me super-fun things to do right off the bat. But watching the shows now, I feel like I was still treading water and didn't know what I was doing yet. I think the writers and I got on the same page with who Deke is and what his voice and perspective are. If Deke ever comes back, you'll get more fully realized stuff with his character.

Did you research the show's comic book history?

I'm familiar with the Marvel Universe. I had seen only little bits of the show when I first got hired, but then I started watching a lot of it. I was impressed by it and think it's a good, fun show. As I learned more about the series' own micro-universe, [I found] there are some really satisfying threads they've been weaving since the beginning that are coming back around right now in interesting ways.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D airs Fridays on ABC.

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