One of the most talked about (and gif’d about) moments of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. occurred early this season, when Ming-Na Wen’s Agent May ended up in a fight with her own doppelganger (a.k.a. a brainwashed Hydra agent). The scene was a beautifully choreographed dance of stunt work that, like most sequences on the show, looked effortless—but in reality, took a village to pull off. “There was one solid 16 hour day, but there were also two half day and quarter days,” explained stunt performer Samantha Jo of the resulting two minute sequence. “So it really spanned over 3 full days.”
As former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury taught us, nobody does it alone. EW spoke with members of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s creative team (Jo, fight choreographer Matt Mullins, and stunt coordinator Tanner Gill) as well as the real Agent May to get the scoop on everything that went into pulling this scene together.
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TANNER GILL: As with all of our stunt sequences, the May vs. May fight was planned over weeks, and each move was carefully crafted. It started with the great creative ideas of our writers and producers. Long discussions of the concept were involved. Matt Mullins, our fight choreographer, and I began to build the movements. When that basic blueprint was in place, it was further refined, changed and adapted by our Action Unit Director Garry Brown. Many things were considered: The basic environment of the fight had to be constructed to be “stunt friendly.” The space was tailored. Each corner was rounded; surfaces were measured for height and size, then padded.
MATT MULLINS: The main fight starts in a hallway, and then we move into a penthouse. Okay, we have a hallway and a penthouse—what can we do with that? Are we going to crash into some walls? Are we going to go into a kitchen? We see what we would get in terms of props, we take into consideration what the actors can do, move-wise—in our case, Ming-Na is exceptionally talented, so we can do a lot of different martial arts movement with her. And then we look at our stunt performers as well and say, “How can we make this the most interesting fight possible?” From there, we end up shooting the fight in a certain amount of time. It takes as much time as it takes [to] get it edited and add special effects. I believe it was only about 2 weeks from when we actually shot it to when it was on the air.
SAMANTHA JO: And visual effects, too, because in some of those shots you see both faces with Ming-Na. Face replacement usually takes awhile, and I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to squeeze it in on time.
MULLINS: The shooting time period for an episode is only eight days. So we joke around that we do half a Marvel movie every eight days, because it is that type of pace. Fortunately for us, Sam and Ming were able to get together on their own time. They got a chance to really focus on this fight on weekends, in between scenes, whenever there was a free moment.
MING-NA WEN: When I first read the scene, I was really excited because one of the things on my bucket list was always to play an evil twin. And then I kind of looked at it some more and said, “Wow, this is an intense fight scene.” I kind of sweated it out a bit because in that particular episode, I also had to learn how to ballroom dance with Clark Gregg, and do it all in heels, in a really fancy dress. And lingerie! When they said I was fighting in lingerie, that kind of got me doing more sit ups. So this is the actor’s brain preparing when they read the script [laughs].
JO: Usually you only have to learn one side, so you can just drill that into your head and have that muscle memory and be good to go. But for this fight, for both Ming and myself, we had to learn both sides of the fight. And we knew on the day we were filming that we’d have to be changing our wardrobe back and forth. So we’d be going to one side of the fight, to the other side of the fight, back to the other side, and we just wanted to make sure we were safe about it. Because if we spaced out and started doing the other side again, we didn’t want anyone to get hurt. So that’s why we trained together. We were doing two sessions twice a week, anywhere from two to five hours at Ming’s house just trying to get as physically ready and as mentally ready as possible. But thankfully, we’d already done so many episodes together by that point that we were super comfortable, and we know each other’s body movements.
WEN: Sam and I have worked together for a year and a half, and it’s really a joy because she also trains me. We really learned to mimic each other’s moves. So in this particular fight scene, it is almost like having my twin with me.
GILL: Ming and the stunt performers were in very light clothing and could wear no protection, personal padding.
JO: We were a little nervous about being in the lingerie—that was probably the biggest mental hurdle. But it was funny because on the day, we preferred being in the lingerie! It got so hot, we wanted to be in as little clothes as possible.
MULLINS: That was really the first big fight of the new year, too, and they really kicked it off with a bang. That was the longest fight to date we did.
WEN: Our producers are like S.H.I.E.L.D. [laughs]. Marvel is S.H.I.E.L.D.. We don’t really get much information until about the week before. On the day of, you have the set and you have the cameras, and you have to deal with special effects, because on top of everything else we had to scan my face and go through this incredible process of taking a million pictures so they were able to meld it onto Sam’s face. It changes a lot from when we rehearse it to when we actually bring it on set. It was really challenging in making sure that we were clear on who was doing what and when, and then trying to incorporate all those other elements. It was quite an intense three days.
JO: I know many of the shots were trying to avoid any crotch shots [laughs]. There were probably about 20 or so wardrobe changes between the two of us in one day. There were a couple accidental boob punches.
GILL: Rehearsals were extensive. Ming is one of the most professional actresses I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Her dedication is always absolute. Clark was involved as well. Both are amazing athletes and always creatively involved in our stunt sequences. Their contributions were invaluable.
MULLINS: It was fun going online to see everyone’s reaction, seeing all the gifs people were making and the replay stuff—the double drop kick through the window and the jump off the table. Everyone’s like, “It’s okay, it’s just TV.” But we wanted to see it be good for anything, good for the Marvel universe. All the Marvel movies have set the bar so high that everyone involved constantly wants to surpass that expectation.
JO: I have to admit I was instantly on the Internet looking up reviews and gifs that people made. I just really wanted to see if they liked what we did, because we put so much effort into it. From the vision of Kevin Tancharoen, the director, to the execution from Garry, who was our second unit director and our action director, to Tanner, who made things as safe and smooth as possible, to Matt who choreographed punch for punch, to Ming and I performing it…it’s such a collaborative effort.
WEN: I think you feel just such a sense of accomplishment because that’s our job. Our job is to blow people’s minds or entertain them and make it a great experience if they’re watching our show. I remember they had showed the episode at the New York Comic Con. Clark Gregg was able to go, and he immediately texted me and was like, “Oh my God, the fans are going nuts over the May vs. May fight.” And it still gives me chills, because that’s what we want. All that hard work is for that moment.
MULLINS: To choreograph a fight is constantly trying to be open to doing things differently, and making things creative as possible. Any sequence that you ever do, it doesn’t matter if it’s two punches or 50 punches. The same amount of danger is always there. In order to make something look organic and real, the performers and stunt performers have got to punch each other as hard as they can. For everyone to do those movements and do that choreography and thread the needle like we do every single week, it’s exceptionally difficult. And no one really understands how difficult it is to make something look as organic as what Sam and Ming have been able to pull off.
JO: Also, trying to come up with things people haven’t seen before. There have been so many action movies and so many Marvel movies, you’re constantly wanting to set the bar higher and higher. And it feels like the moves that are even possible just get narrower and narrower cause they’ve been done before. I’ve never seen the move for the head smash before; Matt was really the first person to show that to me.
MULLINS: Both of us—myself and Sam—we worked with Kevin on Mortal Combat, so we knew the level that the director was wanting. So we both felt every piece had to be awesome, because he’s known for putting together amazing sequences that are both unique and hard hitting.
WEN: Since I’ve been getting more proficient at doing the stunt fighting, I’ve definitely noticed I get a lot less bruises.
JO: I always remember the fight days. I never remember the pain afterward [laughs]. Maybe that’s why I keep on doing it. But I definitely had more fun than any amount of pain I may or may not have suffered. It’s always worth it. That’s why I keep coming back.
GILL: I have been a stuntman for over 25 years and a coordinator for more than a decade. In that time it has been my greatest honor to be involved with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s more than a television production—it’s a band of brothers and sisters striving for the best.