Chloe Bennet, star of ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ on her pop past, supercharged career and staying real.
For Chloe Bennet, star of the ABC drama “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” life has resembled the plot of a comic book: A pretty girl-next-door on the West Side of Chicago lives a normal, by-the-book life, until one day she gets bitten by a radioactive whatchamacallit, develops superpowers and falls into a fast-paced life fighting crime. Except instead of being bitten, Bennet was signed by a talent agency and instead of turning into a superhero, she became a teenage pop star. In China.
“Oh, my casual stint as a pop star when I was a teenager? Everyone has those, right?” laughs Bennet, 21. “You know when you have awkward yearbook photos? That’s this for me.”
Like the origin stories of Bruce Banner and Peter Parker, Bennet’s rise to fame was a one-in-a-million tale. She grew up near the United Center, the only girl among six brothers (two are African-American, one is Mexican and the other three are half-Chinese, like Bennet). As a 15-year-old student at Near North Montessori, she was discovered by Nettwerk Music Group, which wanted to create a Chinese pop artist. After making a presentation to her parents — she even put on a blazer and stressed that she would get to learn Mandarin — Bennet was on her way to Shanghai and Beijing.
Within months, she released the single “Uh-Oh” and began to put on shows. “The first time I performed, it was in front of 30,000 people. I had never performed, ever, except plays at Montessori,” Bennet says. “[My parents] showed up directly from the airport, and my mom — and this is a mother who gets anxiety when she walks into my little brother’s volleyball games — was like, ‘This isn’t … You’re not going to be … This isn’t your stage, is it?!’ I was like, ‘Whose else would it be, Mom?’ She panicked a lot.”
It’s not like a normal teenager to walk away from life as a successful pop princess, but like any comic book hero, Bennet felt it was necessary to make tough calls. “China was fun, but I never felt like me. I felt like I was acting this character,” Bennet says. “I gave up everything and within a few months, I was a struggling actor in LA.”
Her stint as an out-of-work actor lasted less than her two years belting out tunes across the Pacific. Before long, she landed a role as Hailey on “Nashville,” and less than a year after that, she scored a starring role on the much-hyped ABC show “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” “It’s kind of a big couple years,” Bennet admits. “Now I can be a superhero. I think I might be a bit of a lunatic, but either way, it’s working out and I’m having a lot of fun.”
On “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” now halfway through its first season, Bennet plays Skye, an orphan computer hacker recruited by the top-secret government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (the same agency featured in “Thor,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” and “Hulk”). The show centers on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s elite team as they hunt down a mysterious villain (“The Clairvoyant”) and try to save the world.
One of the most buzzed-about series of the fall season, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” took some flack early on for its slow pace, but Bennet assures fans that the days of plot setup are over — it’s time for the action. In the vein of hits like “Lost,” the actress reveals that everything in the story — no matter how seemingly random — has been that way for a reason, and that “no detail should go unnoticed.” “Marvel is always so fantastic at telling stories,” she explains. “But in the movies, you only have 2 ½ hours or so. We have 22 hours, so it’s a lot of setup to make it really intricate and get all the fine details that [Joss] Whedon does so well. Everything is going to come together, and it’s going to blow everyone’s minds.”
The action gets particularly intense for her character, whose storyline is one of the most mysterious on the show: She’s had an allegiance to an anarchist hacking group, doesn’t know who her parents are and was recently exposed as an Object of Unknown Origin, which means there’s speculation on which universe she comes from. “Basically, we don’t know what I am. We don’t know who my parents are, we don’t know what my parents are. And there’s even more that we could not know about,” Bennet says. “I get the scripts and I’m like, ‘What?!’ literally out loud. I’m sure my neighbors think I’m weird.”
Unraveling a nefarious network of villains on TV doesn’t leave Bennet much downtime — she jokes that she only has chocolate chips in her cupboard because her production schedule is so busy — but she comes back to Chicago every chance she gets, and credits her current trajectory to her local upbringing. “LA is where I live, but I’m still such a Chicago person, with strong bonds to family and just very normal,” she says. “I attribute most of my success to [Near North Montessori]. It was such a nurturing place to be creative.” Bennet even remembers her very first role: “I was ‘air.’ I played air and I wore bubble wrap. I don’t want to say it was Oscar-worthy … but it was definitely worth a Golden Globe or SAG Award.”
The transition from “air” to bona fide TV star hasn’t been easy — what comic book hero’s path ever is? — but Bennet wouldn’t have it any other way. “Growing up with brothers, it wasn’t really Barbie dolls and Disney princesses. It was more like comics and sports. So getting to be on the Marvel show is like most girls’ dream of being a princess. I would dream of doing exactly what I’m doing right now and that’s very exciting,” she says. The fact that the show is a hit is just the cherry on top for Bennet, who makes sure not to let her success change her down-to-earth personality. “The second I ever think I’m cool, I trip on something or get gum stuck in my hair. That’s the Chicago in me.”
Photographer: Andrew Stiles
Stylist: Laura Spinella
Makeup: Kelsey Deenihan at The Wall Group
Hair: Clariss Rubenstein at The Wall Group
Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios