If you’ve been following along over the last month or so, it won’t come as a big surprise that I’m a big fan of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Despite the fact that we still have 7 months to go in 2015, I think it’s safe to say that spending an afternoon on the set of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. during my recent #AvengersEvent | #AgentsOfSHIELD | #ABCTVevent press trip will remain the highlight of the year. As always, travel and accommodations were covered, but all thoughts are my own.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Visiting the set of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a dream come true. As a loyal fan who watches the show each week, the fact that I sat down with nearly the entire cast (hello! Everyone knows Agent Coulson!) and physically experienced the set is still unbelievable to me.
But when the day started with this? There are no words…
As we began our interview with Ming-Na Wen (“Agent Melinda May”) and Clark Gregg (“Agent Phil Coulson”), the very first thing Ming did was pull out her phone and tweet a picture of us. At the same time, Clark asked us if we had seen Avengers: Age of Ultron (we had). They hadn’t seen it yet.
Ming: “Is he in it? Seriously because I keep bugging him that he’s in it. And he’s not telling anybody.”
Clark: “No one believes me. ‘It’s like you’re secretly in it, and you’re not telling us.’ I’m not!”
We confirmed to Ming that Clark was officially NOT in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Despite the fact that they protested for half a minute and thought it was a better idea for them to interview us, we decided to carry on. I’m so glad we did! Both Clark and Min were hilarious (Ming is a complete opposite of her character in the show!).
Clark: “It’s hilarious to watch the taciturn and lethal Melinda May and then hang out with the giggly and hilarious super sweet Ming. I mean you don’t want to mess with Ming either…”
Becoming Agent May in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
We were curious to know how much information about Agent May Ming received at the beginning of the show, before they started filmed Season 1.
Ming: “They gave me the name of my character and that I was an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that she left the field for a reason and that’s about it. I didn’t get very much.”
Clark: “Even in the pilot, though, just from the script…The first scene where we meet May, is me going to find her where she’s behind stacks of boxes and paperwork having checked herself out of S.H.I.E.L.D. And we only gradually come to learn that she’s got this reputation as the Cavalry and that she’s a legendary warrior who quit and pushed away from the table because of a traumatic experience.”
Ming: “And I used my thing as an actor not wanting to quit. That’s what I draw from.”
Clark: “It was referenced a number of times. There were little hints of it in different episodes of what had happened. Eventually some pieces got filtered in that this involved a powered person and deeply scarring stuff, which I always really liked. It’s where the show kind of veers into something topical, the concept of people who do defend other people militarily, the scars they carry in PTSD. But it’s only been little piece meal hints.
So we were kind of excited three days before we started shooting when we found out that this was gonna be the reveal.”
Ming: “We’ve heard a lot about Bahrain. And there were always references to it. But the details of it weren’t really known until the episode (Season 2, Episode 17, ‘Melinda’). Or maybe a couple of episodes before there were some hints about that storyline but nothing very specific. A lot of times for us when we’re acting it’s almost as we’re the audience member because we’re discovering it the way an audience member would discover it watching the show. They don’t tell us anything.”
Clark: “They tell me some stuff.”
Ming: “That’s because you’re the director. You’re Coulson.”
The Most Emotional Scenes to Shoot
There are some pretty emotional episodes in both Season 1 and Season 2, so we wondered which episode or scene has been the most emotional for either Ming or Clark to shoot.
Clark: “In Season 1, episode 11, I think. I think it was called Tahiti. It was when Coulson was put in the memory machine by Raina. And the people we did not yet know were Hydra and kind of forced to confront the fact that he had been dead that he’d been through this tremendously excruciating experience.
And also that stuff about the cellist and the things he had lost. And that part of the journey of someone who’d been a kind of no-questions-asked company man realizing that he too had been lied to by all kinds of people.”
Ming: “I think for me, there was this episode about this kind of ghostly figure that May had to fight with. It really brought back her own personal issues about having to let go. So it had a reference to Bahrain, and I think that particular episode, she was struggling with various things of just not wanting to engage but having to, to take care of a situation and allow herself to…yeah, there’s a lot going on over there, isn’t there?”
How Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Has Become a Family
Then Ming and Clark agreed on a scene that was really painful for the entire cast to shoot.
Ming: “Then of course, I think the other scene was when Skye was–“
Clark: “When Skye was shot. It’s the family. This is a show about a family. People who don’t get to have real families ’cause they work too hard. I suspect you know what that’s about. And how they become a family. And at the times when the bonds, the trust is questioned when people are hurt, we lose people on this show.
We lost B.J. Britt (“Agent Triplett”). And most of us are still recovering. You know, even some of the bad guys, we love them so much off screen. It’s a really fun– this is a really good set. We have fun and we take care of each other. And when we have to say goodbye to people it really is painful. And a lot of times you feel it in the scenes. And it’s just dark around here for a little while. We loved B.J. so much. And he was such a kind of discovery and such a buoyant person. I think we had five different goodbye parties just to keep him coming back around.”
Tackling the Stunts on Set
In a show that’s so physical, with lots of fighting and fancy stunts like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we asked Ming and Clark about their experience preparing for stunts…and how much of the stunt action is done by stunt doubles.
Ming: “It’s a very collaborative effort between our stunt coordinator a lot of people who do rigging and special effects, and our stunt doubles. I have sometimes two or three depending on their levels of skills of what they can do. And it’s always an intense but really fun process. And I learn the entire choreography of every single fight scene.
The only thing that I don’t do are the more dangerous things where it’s the wire works. And you’re being pulled across a room or you have to smash into a wall.”
Clark: “She’s pretty remarkable. We both I think we can divulge this crossed a number with a five in it. It’s a huge motivator to stay in shape.
We both really love that part of it. She gets to do a bit more of it. But I’m always fighting for a little bit more. It gives us an excuse, when you really have worked late the night before and you don’t want to go to the gym. You remember that at any moment you’re gonna be thrown into one of these fights. And you’re gonna not want to have them pull you out ’cause you can’t do it. And we have amazing doubles who really make us look good in the moments where it gets too dangerous.
And I mean, people doubling for me get carted off a couple times this year. It’s for real. And yet they let us kind of work in. Matt Mullen (choreographer) and Eric Norris, they really do an amazing job of tailoring the fights to stuff that I do. They know that I practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a workout. And every once in a while they’ll let me throw in a move of that ’cause I might have some practice at it.”
Do S.H.I.E.L.D. Actors Ever Get to Ad Lib Their Lines?
Clark: “I have ad libbed a couple of them, but not a lot of them. I’d love to claim more of them. But a lot of them are (thanks to) our terrific writers. From the get go, Joss in the pilot and these writers, one of the reasons they brought Coulson back to life is that, to their surprise, in a super hero movie like the first Avengers and the ones leading up to it there was something that the audience really connected to in the super hero world, someone who was quite vulnerable, this was kinda their job. Like, what does this guy have for a super power? And, I got to have some kinda snarky lines.
It’s always been something that people really responded to about Coulson. And they give me some great ones. They’ve accepted the fact that at the end of most scenes where it’s appropriate I’m gonna do one extra pass and throw in a couple. ‘Boo-ya’ might’ve been mine.”
“I’ve always felt that Coulson was kind of the crazy uncle of the Avengers. And he never likes to choose favorites.” – Clark Gregg
Executive Producer and Co-Creator Jed Whedon and Executive Producer Jeff bell
I’ll shift gears a little as Ming had to go off to get “bruised” by the make up artist in preparation for the scene that she was shooting. I was sad to see her go (can we just go out to lunch and hang out for a while??) but I was thrilled to also have the chance to chat with the Executive Producers of the show, Jeff Bell and Jed Whedon (who is also co-creator).
We started out by asking them if they were limited in the TV show in what the could or couldn’t do because of the Marvel cinematic universe.
Jed: “We definitely have free reign but it does limit us in that we can’t kill Captain America like we plan to each week. No, obviously there’s guidelines. They have these huge temples and we sort of move between them and there are things that are off limit to us for sure because they have either big plans for them or have already shot stuff that they’re going to use. But we don’t feel limited by it. It’s sort of a fun puzzle for us and, we get big toys to play with because of it. So, it’s sort of a privilege to live in that universe. We get the privilege of seeing what’s coming down the pipeline and sort of catering our stories to move between it. I think we have more fun with it than we do.”
Jeff: “The only challenge really was when we first launched we knew that Hydra was the big bad guy in Captain America 2 and there was one word we were not allowed to say on S.H.I.E.L.D. We called it the ‘H word’ and so we knew that was coming and we knew we were building to that and we knew we were gonna reward that way and we knew it was gonna blow apart the team but it might have been helpful to have said the ‘H word’ earlier for big comic fans. They’re going, ‘who are these bad guys?’
If we said, well, he works for Hydra, people would have been ‘oh, they’re doing Hydra, that’s cool,’ but we couldn’t say that. That was really the only limit, but the upside was it just exploded in our show and having the word turn like that and letting Brett do that and become that, that was awesome. And then it really depends on each movie. Like Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t have much for us to tie in with.”
Jed: “And you can consider it a limitation to have a film that literally destroys the organization that your show is named after. We took it and saw it as an opportunity and I think that us working around that and finding a way to make that (work) our show came up with some of the best story that we had. It generated things that we never would have thought of and put us in a tight corner that we had to ride our way out.”
How Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Has Changed Since Season 1
Jed: “I think that the big advantage we have now is that people know the characters. A huge disadvantage for us was that they were original characters, where most Marvel properties launch with something that you are familiar with.”
Other than Agent Coulson’s character, everyone else in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is new. Jed continued, “That was new for the Marvel fans so I think that initially people reacted to that. They were saying ‘okay, well I’m not seeing things I know of and this has a big Marvel flip at the top of it.’ But as time goes on and you get to know the characters you start to become familiar with them and Skye becoming who she became was more rewarding because you spent a year with her getting to know her and it wasn’t like the first episode, here’s this character you’ve heard of. You had to spend some time with them but I think there was a little barrier to entry because these were new names, new faces.”
Jeff: “And from our perspective, part of that was we’re an ABC network show. We’re not a sci-fi show. Our mandate was not just to do a show for hardcore Marvel fans. Our show was to try to get as many people in as possible and so it was an opportunity for a lot of people to come in, characters they didn’t know. And so if you’re not a big Marvel fan you don’t know that Skye or Ward were not part of that cannon but for the diehards they’re like well if Mike Peterson isn’t Luke Cage we don’t like him. And then we go ‘oh, but we’re building him to Deathlock and you have to be patient to do that because we’re doing 22 episodes and they were like ‘oh, that’s cool.'”
Jed: “So our approach hasn’t really changed. It’s just been easier. Initially, you have to spend time introducing the characters and now you can just throw them into trouble. Everyone goes ‘oh, no and they’re making their way into comics.’ You know, FitzSimmons are now in the comics which to us is so fun and it starts to just weave together and who knows where stuff started and where it ends.”
The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Writing and Production Schedule
Jeff: “We start June 1st and the writers room broke today (April 10) and then Jed and Marissa and I will be here until the second week of May finishing the episodes and then for two weeks we go crazy and sleep and then we come back June first.”
They discussed how challenging it is to keep up with 22-episode seasons.
Jeff described writing and shooting 22 episodes in such a short amount of time like a train wreck. “They say go and you start running down the train track and six weeks later they let a train behind you, all this and you try to stay ahead of that train until next week and you’re trying not to get run over by the train.”
Jed: “Also, you can plan, you can generate all the story you want but there’s always a bump in the road. Schedules. There’s a lot of actors. There’s rain. There’s things that you can’t anticipate that when those bumps in the road come you just have to deal.”
I’ll end our interview with a quick quote from Jeff about his favorite episode to make this season, “Honestly, one of my favorite moments of the season is (‘Melinda’). Okay, so this is a human story and then there’s this May flashback story and when you realize no, this one thing happened here and she says it was her daughter and the girl steps in. I still get chills but I love that moment for us and the fact that those two stories which I think hopefully felt separate came together in a surprising way.”
I am amazed at the job that they do – creating a story that is captivating and complex…and I can’t wait to watch the 2-hour season finale TONIGHT…except, of course, that it means I will have to wait months for more Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Season 2 Finale – “S.O.S.,” Part One and Part Two”
ABOUT THE SEASON FINALE: S.H.I.E.L.D. puts everything on the line to survive a war that blurs the line between friend and foe. Coulson and his team will be forced to make shocking sacrifices that will leave their relationships and their world changed forever, on the two-hour season finale of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” TUESDAY, MAY 12 (9:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network.
Be sure to tune in tonight on ABC from 9-11pm ET! I’ve heard amazing insider news about the episode…and while I was on set, I got to see Chloe Bennet (“Skye/Daisy Johnson”) and Luke Mitchell (“Lincoln”) film a scene. I can’t wait to say, “Hey! I was on the other side of that wall when they filmed that!”
What are you looking forward to for Season 3? Is there a character that you hope to see more of or learn more about?
Be sure to read my interview with cast members Iain De Caestecker (“Leo Fitz”), Elizabeth Henstridge (“Jemma Simmons”), Brett Dalton (“Grant Ward”), Henry Simmons (“Alphonso ‘Mack’ Mackenzie”) and Adrianne Palicki (“Bobbi Morse”) and my set tour experience where I got to chat with Chloe Bennet (“Skye/Daisy Johnson”) and Luke Mitchell (“Lincoln”)….and then buckle up on the Quinjet.
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