Fans of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were treated with good news at the end of last season when the show was renewed for an additional two, 13-episode seasons. The outlook for the program wasn’t always good as the fifth season was written as its last. At this year’s WonderCon, SHIELD held a panel to screen the season six premiere and have an audience Q & A. Afterwards the cast and crew held roundtable interviews to reflect on the show and to tease what’s to come. In attendance were executive producers, Jeph Loeb, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jeff Bell and acting talent, Clark Gregg, Elizabeth Henstridge, Iain De Caestecker, Henry Simmons, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, and Jeff Ward. Comicon.com was fortunate enough to participate.
The talent was paired up and spent time speaking with each table. The first grouping we spoke with were Whedon and Tancharoen.
Question: It seems as though the show is an underdog because we didn’t always know there would be a season 6 or 7. Do you feel anymore pressure on these newer seasons than you have in the past?
Jed Whedon: Our approach is always the same which is just trying tell stories we want to see. There’s a lot we can’t control. We just try to make the things we can control as good as we can and it’s our belief, that if the show is good, people will respond and how many people really respond isn’t up to us. We don’t get hung up on the ratings just because it doesn’t really help us to. We do try to please the fans but chasing a pick up won’t help us make good story so we go into every season saying, “Hey we were lucky to get this”.
Question: Does knowing you have season 6 and 7 allow you to write a single story or incorporate a cliffhanger that will pay off in season 7?
JW: It does give us the freedom at the end six to just have a big question mark. We felt at the end of five, that we had to leave it in a satisfying way in case that was it.
Maurissa Tancharoen: We did approach the end of five as “This is it” moment and then we got the extra bonus. Two more seasons. Shorter seasons.
Question: Does it free up creativity knowing you have to only write 13 episodes rather than the usual 22 to 23?
MT: Yes. When we would approach 22, you have seen how we break it up, into pods anyway. Sort of like two mini seasons.
JW: We’re not naming the pods like we have in the past but there’s break ups and there are little ways we mentally break up the season so we can understand our story arcs and things like that. It is different. It is a relief because 22 is a marathon. We got to the end of 13 at season 6 and were like ok.
Question: Is there pressure to tie in the new season with the MCU?
JW: The main pressure it puts on us is it’s a bit of a puzzle. We’re not tying in the way we did in season 1 which was about that sort of launching the show. It’s more about story themes and not covering ground that they’re going to cover. One of the things that happens in the films is they will be shooting something that’s not going to come out for two years and we’re writing something that’s going to air in a month and a half. We’ll pitch them a story and they’ll say, “Neya, we’re doing that in 2021”. So, part of our puzzle is to tee up and play into and out of their movies.
MT: While also staying within our own mythology.
Question: But Infinity War was so big it’s impossible to ignore.
JW: I would answer that it’s impossible to ignore but also sort of impossible to incorporate. Some of these problems might be solved in the next Avengers movie. So not knowing how they’re going to handle some of that and the fans not knowing any of that stuff, we felt like we couldn’t touch it because of the second movie that was going to come out, whether they’re going to tell a whole new part of the story. The fact that our airdate is after works out. We have always planned that way that we were going to wait until that movie comes out and then our story can continue without us having to address it.
Question: The end of season 5 was devastating. I heard there will be a lighter tone these next two seasons.
MT: I think we’ve always tried to balance it but I think by necessity where our character’s arcs are landing by season 5, we had to stay in the bittersweet.
JW: That is also a symptom of the amount of time we’ve spent. I don’t think the show has necessarily gotten darker, as much as our relationships with the characters have deepened. We’ve done tragic stuff every year but now it just gets worse. I know shooting the end of 5 was super emotional for everyone on set. To us, we like that stuff because that’s life. Life has that bittersweet end, it does, but this year there’s definitely stuff that falls on the other end of the spectrum.
The next pair we interviewed were Cordova-Buckley and Loeb.
Question: Natalia, what does it mean to you to be playing role with such high visibility as a Mexican American?
Natalia Cordova-Buckley: It’s meant everything. I was born in Mexico and then came to the United States and did high school and college here. Met my husband here. The United States has given me a lot. I consider myself American now. I have the papers but it’s starting to become a part of me because this country has given me so much. My dream. The people I love. We’re neighbors, right? America and Mexico. There’s always been a very strong relationship between us. I would hope that my character is a representation of the healing that we need to do as neighbors and friends for us to kind of get away from what we’re living today and get to a better place. And have that be a representation of Yo-Yo. She works in American law enforcement industry but she is still very close to her people and that merging of friendships shows reflection of the two worlds that are also completely merged whether we like it or not, completely united.
Question: Where are Mack and Yo-Yo right now?
NCB: As we saw, it wasn’t her change of heart. It was someone else’s change of heart. What can we talk about? I can’t say much of what’s going to happen there but as I was saying at another table, what I loved about that choice from our EP’s and writers is that I was used to building Yo-Yo with a partnership that she is really in love with and really giving her all. She is now in unknown waters for her. Having her ex be the boss and trying a new relationship with an agent under him. It’s just very interesting. An interesting challenge for me as an actor to find Yo-Yo in different situations. And as agent. She was always a little hesitant to be contracted by SHIELD and now you see her with her badge. She’s an agent now.
Jeph Loeb: I think what this cast has done and what SHIELD is about in many ways is about diversity. Is about people of different cultures who work together and love each other and have each other’s backs and don’t need to comment on the differences between themselves in terms of whether it’s gender or race or religion. Any of those things, even though they are very present in the show and are not shied away from, it does give Marvel the chance to basically show its audience that this can happen and it will work if you just see each other as people or in this case as agents and not so much as you’re a different culture than mine is. Let’s all try being one culture.
Question: Did we see some LGBTQ representation in that season 6 premiere?
NCB: You heard correct. It’s coming. What he [Jeph] said. I always saw SHIELD if I were to put it in the real world, as the best representation of humanity. It’s people from all over the world, different races, different languages, different cultures, different genders, coming together and the superpower, yeah, some of them have superpowers, but the superpower for all of them, is their love for humanity. They’re constantly sacrificing themselves to save us and save the world and it is a great representation of what we could all be if we all just came together and just cared about each other as a whole and not focus on our differences.
Question: Do you feel any validation for the show with the series reaching the season 6 and 7 milestones?
JL: The feeling of validation comes for me comes with every script and every episode. It’s how I feel about Marvel television in general. I always want the audience to be able to love what it is we do, but if it doesn’t start at Marvel where we’re not watching the show and we’re not enjoying it and we’re not feeling like this is exactly what we had in mind, then we’re not doing our job. This show in particular, it’s our first show, I feel all kinds of mega validated. It’s been great. We’re at about 120 episodes.
They were followed by Ward and De Caestecker.
Question: How did you take the news of being upgraded to series regular?
Jeff Ward: I was very excited.
Iain De Caestecker: Tell them the real story. He shit himself.
JW: I didn’t know we were going to get real. When didn’t I do it? I’m still shitting myself. It was good. As soon as I cleaned that shit up, I was like wow, I’ve got to get to work. And they all said I smelled like shit. It was really awesome. I love being part of this show and I love the character so much so I was really excited to hang out with Deke more. Especially now that he is aware of being a Fitzsimmons.
Question: I missed you in the season 6 premiere.
JW: You’ll catch up with Deke in a little bit. He’s not around yet. You’ll get to see him soon.
Question: Fitz has been on quite a journey since the first season. He’s been put through the ringer and has evolved so much. How is it for you to play him this whole time?
IDC: That’s more than you can ask for. Most of that work is done by Mo, and Jed and Jeff and the rest of the writing team. And always looking for more ways to further evolve characters and put them into different situations. I’ve been really lucky in that sense. It’s been really rewarding to do. It has changed a lot. It’s weird. There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t watched. I find it difficult to watch when I’m actually doing it so hopefully at some point I can go back and see it. Now I just go where I’m told. Deserves a monkey. Actually, got one for Christmas his sister adopted one.
JW: There is some of the most interesting and eclectic and incredible Fitz and Simmons work I have ever seen is in this season.
Question: What can you tell us about the next FitzSimmons reunion?
IDC: I can’t tell you there is one. Can I? There is that thing with different timelines and changing the course of time. I can’t say.
JW: You would hope but wouldn’t it be so sad if it was.
Question: Is it hard for Deke to get comfortable because he already knows what everyone loses or will lose?
JW: That’s a really cool question. It’s something Jed and I have talked a lot since season five. It feels like having coming from where he’s come from. First of all, just the sheer existence of anything other than this kind of apocalyptic, very dark and dismal future. The fact all this other stuff exists would throw anyone into a loop. He continues to have kind of junk drawer of different touchstones of what he thinks people are and I think it’s always being challenged. You’ll see how that affects him.
Unfortunately for our next round, Simmons could not join us but at least that gave us more time with the man that’s been in the MCU since the beginning, Clark Gregg.
Question: There was such a big and beautiful scale to the season 6 premiere. How did your experience in the MCU affect your directing for the episode?
Clark Gregg: You know I’ve gotten to watch the way the technology and everything about the Marvel Universe, TV and film, has evolved so much, so fast over these ten years. Most of it has been as an actor. I directed an episode in season 5 that had some fun VFX and fight stuff but this was a full on hardcore, Sci-Fi, Marvel episode, our season premiere. That was a real thrill and I feel like I benefitted from all the stuff I’ve been watching and benefitted from our amazing crew and DP’s and visual effects czar, Mark KolpacK and you saw how amazing it looks. The fact that they’re able to do that for a TV show that was shot in nine days is just remarkable.
Question: It seems as though there’s a bigger budget this season. In 5, you were all contained in one area and now you actually get to go outside.
CG: They didn’t, it’s just our producer, Gary Brown, they really find a way to stretch every dollar. We shot that episode, I think nine months ago and it was finished three to four days ago. They had the time.
Question: For fans, we have to wait over a year to get new episodes but for you, you went right back to work for season 6. Did it feel like business as usual or was it different?
CG: We finished five. While I was finishing five, I began shooting Captain Marvel. So, I shot Captain Marvel then and then we started shooting six that summer, last summer. And we finished six by Christmas because it was a 13-episode season. During that I was doing reshoots of Captain Marvel. Than after six or seven weeks off, we started season seven which is also 13 episodes. It’s different from our normal schedule which until than had been 22 episodes starting in July going into April. We love the 13 episodes of it all. It just feels much more like the streaming and cable series we’re all watching. It allows us to focus and tell the story in 13 episodes. It’s intense.
Question: You’ve been playing Agent Coulson for 11 years now. Can you reflect on your experience?
CG: You know I get this question every once in a while, especially when I was doing press for Captain Marvel. The fact that it had become 11 years. There are so many different iterations. Iron Man felt completely different thing from Thor. Then the group book of The Avengers and then dead. Then Joss calling and saying, “Maybe not.” I’m with a bunch of new people telling a new story about the unsung agents of SHIELD. And then HYDRA and suddenly then there is no SHIELD. Then to be on a show that I think magnificently, I’m not sure they get enough credit for it, Jed and Mo and Jeff Bell, they tear the thing down and start over. They cherry pick stuff that nobody is using from the comics. Like Ghost Rider, LMD’s, the framework, different stuff you’re about to see. I feel really lucky, honestly, because I get to do so much cool stuff. This season, they came to me toward the end of five and said, “We don’t think you’re going to weasel out of this. We think Coulson may really be finished at the end of season five but we have an idea for season six where you could play somebody new. Someone who isn’t necessarily so big hearted and heroic.
Question: All we know about your new character is his name is The Sarge. Is there a comic equivalent of him?
CG: I think it’s an aggregate of some comic book type of people. There’s not a specific person. The other part of this is sometimes the stuff that our writers start out using gets taken and they end up having to invent their own version of it. It’s kind of one of the things that makes our show even stronger how they take material and turn it into their own. This one they really ended up taking some things that will seem familiar to some comic book fans but really inventing their own new template for this year.
Question: There are rumors of Deathlok joining the MCU. Will we be seeing any of these characters appear in the movies too?
CG: I don’t know if you’ll see our characters because there is a corporate separation between those two things but they better work it out because now we have the mutants. If we don’t get to play with those guys I’m going to be bummed.
The final group to make their way to our table were Henstridge and Bell.
Question: Will there ever be a time with no drama between Fitz and Simmons?
Elizabeth Henstridge: Great conflict makes great TV and makes it fun for us to act.I think the same can be said for all the characters. All the characters have been through the biggest challenges and struggles and highs and lows and it’s lovely for us all to get to play those different emotions. I want Fitz and Simmons to end up together. At least there’s a little bit more hope in season 6. Season 5 was pretty dire for FitzSimmons in the end. Season 6, I’m a little more hopeful for their ability to reunite.
Question: It seems as though the characters have a new look for this season. Probably to indicate the change in time but also to show the whole space vibe.
EH: I feel like the whole show has a different look. The writers somehow manage to reinvent it every season and it makes it super fun for us to be in and hopefully fun to watch. It’s the same characters we’ve known for so long but somehow you guys put them in situations that end up being awesome and that you can tell hours of story around and it’s crazy. I get blown away every season.
Question: Are there any good Skimmons moments this season?
EH: You have no idea.
Question: Jeff, how does it feel to write for the first and longest running Marvel TV show of the post MCU era?
Jeff Bell: It’s fantastic. Yay! I’ve been on television now for 20 years and I’ve been on shows for a few years. To be on one to start and go seven seasons has never happened. I don’t expect I’ll do it again. There are some shows that go a long time and people are just horrible. I’m not going to name names. It is fun on this show. Actors like each other. Writers enjoy each other. It’s a pleasure to make this show together and we’re happy to do it this long.
Question: It’s been mentioned how you have to reinvent the show each season. What’s the process of going back to the source material to find the main aspect of each season taking into consideration how the MCU affects what you can do and has priority?
JB: That’s the tricky part because we will come up with something and then we’ll go “Can we have that character?” and they will say “sure, of course you can” or “no, what are you thinking, that’s ours”. We have a very diverse writer’s room but there’s about three folks that can do deep, deep, deep, Marvel dives. They will go there was this story here or in that Avengers run there was that. Early on, with Quake coming in from the beginning there was looking at Hickman and stories there and we were allowed to do that. It is a process that we have to negotiate that features Mr. Loeb and those folks get together. You can still take ideas but you might not be able to use the characters you’d like to have.
Question: What can you tell us about the FitzSimmons reunion?
EH: Well, they’re in different phases because he has been frozen and she has not been frozen so I think it might be a reunion that has a bit of confusion about it. She’s still wearing her wedding ring. Maybe she’ll get another one. Trade up. Let’s upgrade baby.
We would like to thank all the cast and crew for taking the time out to chat and express our gratitude to Marvel for inviting us to the roundtables. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will return on May 10 to ABC.