Brett Dalton has constantly asked to redefine himself since signing on with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. First he inhabited the straight-laced superspy Grant Ward. Then, Ward revealed his true colors, and he became a powerful right hand man to John Garrett. After Garrett’s death, Dalton was again tasked with reimagining Grant Ward, this time as a kind of Hannibal Lecter to Skye’s Clarice. Then again, once those bonds were finally broken, Ward himself became the villainous mastermind with a new vision for Hydra.
Then, with the sound of crushing bone, Dalton was asked to do it again. Grant Ward had the life crushed out of him at the hands of Phil Coulson, leaving Ward’s body to become home to the powerful Inhuman called Hive.
So how does an actor go about making the transition from fallen hero to otherworldly demigod? We caught up with Dalton and asked, and he revealed some surprising inspiration for his character.
We are about 6 episodes into seeing your transformation from Grant Ward and into Hive. How are you feeling about that character now that you've had some time to grow into him and really engross yourself in him?
BD: Well, I think it's been a really fun experience just in general being on the show because you never know what the writers are going to throw at you, and me in particular, but obviously I lived with Ward, with the character, for 2 and a half years. With Hive, here you have to start at ground zero again. The first 2 episodes he was stuck in a den watching TV and eating meat. That didn't even really count. He was transitioning, really, into the character who makes those bad ass entrances with the flowing cape.
Even then, the first 2 episodes of this new character, we were finding it together, as well. There were some, I don't know about growing pains, but certainly it was like learning a whole new character. That is not something you slip that easily into after a character you've been playing for 2 and a half years. Now I feel like I've got the hang of it, certainly. It's a lot of fun. Once you feel like you know what you're doing, then you don't have to think about it as much. It gets into the unconscious competence area. That's when it really becomes fun. In a way, it's like a microcosm for acting. You start off not knowing what you don't know and then all of a sudden you're good at it, if you put in enough work. That's where we're at now. We're flying now. Training wheels are off.
You mentioned the cape and one of the things I've noticed is that Hive has a more dramatic sense of fashion than Ward did. What was your reaction when you saw the look for Hive? Did you have any input into it?
BD: I thought it was great. I think that Ann [Foley] has done an incredible job. She's our costume designer. She's done an incredible job with this thing. I thought it was iconic and timeless from the moment I saw it. There were a couple costume fittings along the way.We all have some sense of input.
Certainly the costume I thought it was great. I thought it was, as I said, iconic and timeless from the moment I saw it. That was only enhanced by the fact that the studio had wind on the bottom half of that coat. It just looks like the most dramatic entrance you could possibly ask for.
Ward was a no frills kind of guy who got his stuff and wore it until it had holes in it, and fashion wasn't on the forefront of his mind, whereas Hive, I think, likes to make an entrance and, yes, does have a bit of a theatrical side to him, but I think it's fitting for that character who's been around forever. He doesn't really have to do much, he's colorful without having to do much. He doesn't have to speak up, he doesn't have to yell across the room. He can whisper. I don't know. It's a lot of fun to wear that coat. I'll tell you, just putting on that coat makes you feel different.
We've learned that Hive maintains the memories of his past hosts. I think fans are looking forward to the moment when Hive comes face to face with Coulson. What should fans expect from that moment? Can we expect to see some of Ward bleed through Hive's demeanor when the moment comes?
BD: Well, I think fans are anxious to see Ward come through in a whole bunch of manifestations. I would imagine they'd like to see some sort of reunion with Skye, as well - I'm sorry, Quake - with the whole SkyeWard thing, but also Ward has relationships with everybody on the team. I think that's what makes this such a crazy opportunity, because you're not sure when Ward is there and when he's not. Ward has all these relationships with everybody, really. I think it would be interesting to see him with Fitz. I think it would be interesting to see him with Coulson, with Simmons, and even with May. There was that whole section in Season 1 when they were a thing. The whole season finale fight was with May, as well.
The good thing is any and all of these relationships are so juicy. Any one of those avenues are great to go down. I think that fans are not going to be disappointed when they see some of these manifestations in the future and these relationships pop up on screen because Ward is still in there, and so is Will, and so is other hosts that this personhas inhabited throughout the centuries. It's a goldmine, really.
In “Paradise Lost” we got to see a little bit of Hive's true form, though we only saw it from behind him. Is there any possibility of seeing you more fully transformed into Hive's true form?
BD: It won't be the last you see of Hive's true self, yeah. That being said, every episode I'm not going to be like popping out and drinking coffee with the tentacles. Although that really would be cool because the tentacles could hold the coffee cup and I would still have both my hands. That would be pretty cool. I'm going to talk to the writers about maybe putting a scene in there. You know, sometimes you need a scene like that. Don't you? You're watching a show and you're like ... just a scene where nobody does anything, just drink coffee. Maybe that's a good thing, you know? Action, action, action, and then Hive drinks coffee using his tentacle ... head.
That sounds like a solid episode to me.
BD: I'm glad we had this little pow wow. I think we're getting some good stuff here. Yeah, when you do see it, it will be as we've talked about, a very dramatic and theatrical fashion as Hive is wont to do, but yes, I'm glad that you enjoyed that piece. You'll see it again soon.
Playing a Hive consciousness, alien creature is a unique job. Were there places you went, or people you tried to look to, to help model your performance on? Or possibly certain character archetypes to help you feel that out?
BD: It was something that popped up. Always with the powerful people, the ones who are scarier, are the ones who don't make a lot of noise because they don't have to. Like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, she never, in that whole movie, spoke above really, a conversational level, and even she was below that, but she commanded the space because of that. She didn't pound on her chest and make sure everybody knew that she's powerful, she just was. At least I wanted to embody that spirit of somebody who didn't need to show or demonstrate her power. There was no desperation about it. It was just assumed and it was given. It's a really cool thing, too.
The writing helps out with that, as well because all of the characters are always deferring and there's a lot of comments in there about, "That guy creeps me out and he scares me." I knew I was on to something when Powers [Boothe] was telling me that he was creeped out. I was like, "Well, if I'm creeping out Powers, I guess I'm doing something right." He's just a weird creepy guy, and he's strange, and he's not even human. Even these customs that are just normal to humans, he had to learn. He had to learn all of these little things. Every once in a while there's things that are these little social human cues that are essentially absent, and when there are it is unnerving a little bit. When somebody's staring at you and you're speaking to them, and you can't read them, that's scary.
What I really tried to do with the performances is ... what was important was not what I was putting in, but actually the taking out. We had to get to a place that was almost neutral and was absent of anything unnecessary. It was all about efficiency and economy of movement. I think we got to a really cool place.
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.