Bring on The Bad Guys: Talking to Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup of Marvel’s Iron Fist

The actors who played the breakout characters of Marvel’s Iron Fist talk about the show’s crazy casting process and the best part about being bad.

by Jonty Cruz

With about a month since Marvel’s Iron Fist dropped on Netflix, the show has garnered mixed reviews—while also being the most binged drama premiere Netflix has ever had. Clearly, there was still some good to come out of the show despite the criticism all over the net.

Perhaps the best part of the show came from the series’ two main villains: Ward and Joy Meachum. The shady siblings and heads of Rand Enterprises played a huge part of the show and carried most of Iron Fist’s heavier scenes. We sat with the Wards themselves, actors Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup to learn more about how they got the roles and the three best words they ever heard.

 

Could you tell us your ownsecret originsand a little about the characters you play?

 

Tom Pelphrey (TP): Hi, my name is Tom Pelphrey. I play Ward Meachum. I grew up in New Jersey in the United States. I now live in Brooklyn, New York. I play Ward, who with his sister Joy, is running Rand Enterprises, a multimillion dollar corporation. And we grew up as friends of Danny Rand/Iron Fist [played by Finn Jones], and it’s been a long time. So when the show starts, we find Ward and Joy loving their lives, only to be interrupted by Danny’s reappearance. And the question is, can they be his friend, can they welcome him? Or is his being there going to upset their lives?

 

Jessica Stroup (JS): I play Joy Meachum. I grew up in South Carolina in the United States. I now live mainly in Los Angeles, but also in New York, where we shoot Iron Fist. Joy is a fascinating character to me because she goes through such an arc this year. There’s a lot she doesn’t know when we start the season, and then as we progress, she’s sort of privy to this beast that is the Iron Fist. The Meachums have run this huge corporation from a very young age. Their father died when Joy’s character was about 13. She also lost her best friend [in Danny Rand] when she was a child. So [Joy and Ward] had taken on the responsibility to run this business, this huge corporation, and all of a sudden, Danny Rand comes back claiming to be who he says he is and you get to find us figuring that out.

 

Knowing how Marvel is so secretive about their films and shows, how was the casting process like?

TP: Marvel’s very secretive, and at the time I got an audition for [this] project, [it] was called something strange. And the character, I believe, was called Walter. So I get this email, and it’s just two pages, and it’s just one scene with this guy having dinner with his dad. But the scene was really well-written, so I put it on tape, sent [it in], and I forgot about it. I really didn’t even know what it was for or who was going to be watching it, but these are the things you do sometimes when you’re an actor. About a month and a half later, I got a call saying they wanted to test me for this project.

 

I was very flattered, but I still had no idea what the project was that they were talking about. I didn’t know what it was. So I’m going to the Marvel lot in Los Angeles, and they brought me down this long hallway in some backroom, and I just surrender my cellphone, and they gave me the first two scripts written by showrunner Scott Buck. And actually Jeph Loeb, the president of Marvel TV was there, and he sat down and talked to me about the show, talked to me about what he saw happening for the character. It was all very exciting. Scott’s scripts were fantastic, and you know, if there was really one thing that sold me on wanting to play the character Ward was, even from the very beginning, just seeing how Scott was writing him and that even from the first two episodes, that there were scenes that were allowed to breathe. That there was character development, and that these people weren’t going to be afraid to take their time. So you know, it all became very exciting. I went to my screen test. I auditioned with Jessica. We got to do our screen test together [actually].

JS: I sort of set my goals for Netflix. It was pilot season for us actors in Los Angeles. I was just pushing away–I wanted to work for Netflix programs, wanted to see what the platform was like. So I got the audition. [At that time it was a] totally different character. I didn’t know who it was. My character in that audition was like hungover, she’d been out the night before, maybe still drunk. Someone comes in and pisses her off, and she basically just tells them what to do with themselves and to leave and to shut the door on the way out. It was kind of a thing. It was actually a really fun scene, but slightly different from how Joy turned out.

When I got the call about a month and a half later, it was a shock and a surprise. So I went in and, yeah, same thing, I got to meet the team there. I got to audition with Pelphrey, and I think the wildest thing about our careers and jobs is sometimes when you actually book something, it is literally the next day. Within 24 hours, you are wherever you need to be shooting. So from Los Angeles, I flew out to New York, Monday to Tuesday. And I was meeting everybody in New York and getting fittings. So yeah, that was a fast one. But you know, even once we got to New York, and then I was meeting Jeph Loeb, and the whole creative team, it kind of just slowly dawned on me what a huge project this would be, especially when Jeph Loeb called me and said “These are the best three words you’ll ever hear: Welcome to Marvel.”

 

What did you guys love most about playing your characters?
TP: One of the interesting things about Ward is how when the show starts, that the stasis with which he’s been living for the past 12 or 13 years, is that he knows his father is alive, and he has had to lie about that to Joy, the person that he loves the most. For 12 or 13 years. You know, so as the actor, you sort of daydream of things, and I think about–what is that like helping your sibling through the grieving process of losing a parent when you know it’s not true? What does that do to somebody? How much does that break their heart or twist their soul? How much does being able to maintain that lie–which he believes he’s maintaining because if he doesn’t, Joy will be killed? So the stakes are really high, but what does it cost to have to be able to comport yourself in such a manner that you can maintain a lie like that to the person who means the most to you?

 

It’s easy to see that Ward could be a bit of a prick, or maybe a bad guy, but from my point of view, it was always that he was dealing with kind of an impossible situation much better than I think I would have been able to deal with it. It gave me a lot of compassion for him, a lot of understanding that whatever else he may or may or not be, there was a real reserve of internal strength in Ward that hopefully we get to explore. So for me, it was always this fun math equation, where no matter what the scene was or what Ward was doing or saying, I would go home and try and track everything back to why he would do that in the best interest of Joy. Even if the lie is right to Joy’s face, or even if he’s being mean to Joy–why would he be mean to her? Does he want to scare her away from doing something that he thinks might hurt her? To me, it was always important, because I asked Scott in the beginning. I asked him, what’s going on with Ward, where does he stand on these things? And Scott wrote up this beautiful email with beautiful language for speaking to an actor. It was very emotional, very active, and really helped me to understand how Scott saw Ward, which gave me permission to really go there myself, and so that in every scene, no matter how crazy he was being or what big lies he was telling or how sinister he seemed, it was always able to come back to an equation wherein I, Tom, can figure out why Ward was doing what he was doing in the best interest of himself and his sister. From a good place, not from a bad place.

 

JS: Playing on the opposite side, which was my character–she was just in the dark. She doesn’t know what’s happening with these characters. It was interesting to not get too much from it–not knowing too much about what was going to happen. Not to put too much behind what she’s doing like–oh, she’s going to find out her father isn’t dead, I didn’t know that as we were shooting. But I’ll tell you about the stuff with the sibling, I have an older brother in real life, and he’s my biggest hero. I absolutely adore him although we live in opposite parts of the world; he’s quite far away from me. That scene where Tom and I got to film–it finally gets to a head out of the park, on the bench. It felt so honest and real to me. The writing I felt was so compassionate for them, and it felt so real. I was so grateful to have a partner like Tom, who allows you to find that scene and make it your own while supporting you. I love the Meachums, and I really hope there’s more to come if we have a season two

 

Any interesting or fun memories from shooting Iron Fist?

 

JS: I don’t know if people understand that when you’re shooting like an action show, these fight scenes, these huge massive scenes take days. I got to be in one fight scene, which was a hallway scene, and it took like four days, or maybe more to actually shoot that scene. The angles were from up above, from the sides, having nine guys in there who were all professionals, you know, throwing their knives and it was mind-blowing to me. I just wanted to be out of the way–you know, I didn’t want to mess anybody up! But the work and the passion that gets put into shows like these is–it’s huge.

 

TP: Yeah, one of my favorite movies of all time is The Matrix. So when I saw on the script what was going to happen, and then I arrived on set on the day and I got to work with Carrie-Anne Moss. Even when I was a young man, I had a very big crush on Trinity. So that was one of the most exciting moments for me. I kind of reverted to what internally felt like my 16-year-old self.

 

The full first season of Marvels Iron Fist is available for streaming on Netflix now.