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Actor Jeff Ward Opens Up About His Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Experience - Exclusive Interview

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s seventh and final season contains Deke Shaw's single best moment. While trapped in the '80s, the rogue time-traveler starts his own band, the Deke Squad, and becomes famous by performing songs he pilfered from the future and passed off as his own. The highlight? A full performance of Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)" with Deke on lead vocals.

It's one of the most memorable things the show has ever done, but as far as Deke is concerned, it's par for the course. Ever since actor Jeff Ward joined Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. during season five, he's been stealing scenes left and right. Deke could've been phenomenally annoying. With Ward at the helm, however, he's charming, hilarious, and tragic in equal measure, and has become one of the highlights of the latter half of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s run.

That's even more remarkable given that, as Ward discusses during our exclusive interview, he wasn't supposed to be on the show for more than a single episode. During our chat, Ward reveals how he ended up becoming an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. regular, what he's learned from the show, and his favorite time travel movie — although if you're reading Looper, you may already have a pretty good idea what it is.

What Jeff Ward's early days on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were like

Originally, you weren't supposed to be Deke. You were initially cast as a different character, right?

That is true. I was cast as Virgil, who is in a grand total of two scenes in the first episode of season five. I originally had auditioned for Deke. Ironically, the character that I originally auditioned for was named Deke, but then they switched names and stuff. It was all super confusing, but I ended up auditioning for this part, for what would become Fitz and Jemma's grandson, even though I didn't know that for 10 episodes. I auditioned for that, didn't get it. They gave me a different part, which was Virgil. He's the guy that, when Coulson wakes up, is trying to explain what happened to them in the Lighthouse, and then he gets claws put through his face and dies. That was who I was cast as.

I showed up to the table read and I did the table read as that character. I didn't know that it was the premiere of the season, because they're all very secretive about it. There were people from Marvel and ABC and all these extra people, and I immediately got terrified because I was like, "Oh no. Now I'm going to get fired." So I was like, "I got to do a good job." I did it, and he literally had two scenes, he had maybe 20 lines. Everybody was really nice about it when I read it. They laughed and were very nice.

I walked out of the table read and back to my car, and by the time I got to my car I had a voicemail from Maurissa Tancharoen, the showrunner, and she said, "Will you come back and read for that part again?" I did, and I found out that night, at 11:30 at night, that I was going to be playing Deke. It was really wild. As an actor, you always dream about stuff like that happening, but it never actually does. It was so crazy. I was supposed to be there for one day, and I ended up there for a little over three years.

Was the plan always for Deke to come back for season 6?

Not always, no. My first 10 episodes, I didn't know what I was doing. When I first started, I didn't know if I was doing more than three, and then I was doing more and more and more. I just told this story, but basically, at the end of 10 there's an explosion and I thought that Deke died. One of the assistant directors walked me into his office and showed me a wall of headshots, and there were X's on a bunch of the headshots. It was Edward James Olmos, Bill Paxton, all these great, amazing actors. He goes, "Don't worry. Look at all the great people that've been killed off this show." I was like, "Oh my God, I guess I'm dying. I didn't know. That's crazy."

Then they called me later that day and they said, "No, we'd like to have you for the rest of the season, and as a regular if we get picked up for season six." It was so unexpected. I was just grateful for whatever was going to happen, and it turned into something a lot bigger than it was supposed to. I'm just so lucky for that.

You came in fairly late into the show's run. Was it difficult to come in as the new guy? It seems like a pretty close-knit group.

Well, I got very lucky because the story gave me an alley-oop. I came into the show in a storyline where, at the beginning of the season, none of them knew where they were, what they were, or why they were. I knew all of those things, so I was very, very lucky that I was the source of information. I was in the place that was familiar to me, so they all relied on me, on Deke, on the character, for information and for guidance.

As far as Deke was concerned, this was his show. You know what I mean? He was like, "This is where I live. I don't know who you are, but welcome to my world." I drew on that as an actor, and I was able to kind of force myself to feel very comfortable because I was like, "None of these people know what they're doing and I do." That was very advantageous to me as an actor.

Also, everybody could not have been kinder and more welcoming from the very first minute I got there. Truly, when I was cast as Virgil, everyone was so unbelievably nice to me. Then, getting there as Deke, really, Clark, Chloe, Maurissa, Jed, Elizabeth — Iain wasn't there yet — but everyone was instantly so welcoming. They wanted me to have fun and do my thing and bring something to it, so we immediately just clicked. Actually, there weren't any growing pains, which is weird.

Jeff Ward's favorite time travel movie, and what he's so proud of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Looking back, what would you say the biggest lesson you've learned as an actor is from your time on S.H.I.E.L.D?

I feel like S.H.I.E.L.D taught me so much about the logistics of acting. I went to NYU. I've studied acting pretty seriously since I was pretty young. As an actor, I've trained quite a bit and I've read a lot, and I know a lot of the theory of acting. I know my Stanislavski and my Stella Adler and Meisner. I know all of the theory of acting, but...

I had done some stuff by the time that I got to S.H.I.E.L.D, but S.H.I.E.L.D tackles such an enormous scale at such a breakneck speed. It's like the Marvel movies. The scale is obviously extraordinary, but they have years, literally years, if not many, many months, to film those movies and those sequences. We are doing things before lunch. We have hours to do what they do in weeks.

I learned so, so much unbelievably priceless practical information about what it takes to shoot something on that scale. Really, there's no time to hold your hand, "Here's what it is that's expected of you." You have to figure it out, and you have to know what you're doing. I always was like that with my prep work and my lines, my homework as an actor, but really, the on-the-day logistics of shooting so many scenes in a day. We covered so much ground so quickly, and it's something I'm really proud of about the show.

It was like bootcamp that lasted three years. We were just thrown into the fire so many times, but everybody from the actors to the unbelievable crew — of course the writers, and of course the actors. Every gaffer, every grip, every electrician, the directors of photography, the directors. The PAs were fantastic. Every single person just made it click so much. I learned so much of what it takes to really be part of that team, and in a way that humbles me, and in a way that I'm excited to take that information and keep going.

Thank you so much, Jeff, for your time.

I just have to tell you, I've said a couple of times in other interviews that I love time travel. I've always wanted to ask you guys, because one of my favorites is Looper, is that where you guys got you name? Were you inspired by that at all? What is the "Looper" in your website?

I have to be honest, I'm not sure.

You know that movie, right?

The Rian Johnson movie? Yeah, it's great.

It's one of my favorite uses of time travel. That scene, it haunts me in my dreams forever, the Paul Dano scene, when he's crawling towards his younger self and his body parts are continually removed. That is one of the most brilliant uses of time travel I've ever seen.

It's always been a favorite time travel story of mine, and I've been talking about time travel so much with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I've cited Looper several times because it was something that I thought about a lot while we were filming, all my favorite time travel stuff, we've been constantly talking about, and that one always came up, so I was excited to talk to you.