At 15, when many teens her age were getting ready for prom, West Side native Chloe Bennet was in China performing her hit song, “Uh Oh,” to more than 30,000 people.
When most adolescents were graduating from high school, 17-year-old Bennet was a struggling artist in LA, taking acting classes and auditioning for every part she felt was right.
And when countless college students were deciding where to spend their junior year abroad, 20-year-old Bennet landed the coveted role of Skye on “Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” ABC's hottest new show of the fall season.
“It's crazy to think that she's had all this life experience at this young age,” said Bennet's co-star Brett Dalton, who plays stone-faced agent Grant Ward. “I never think to myself, ‘Oh, I am working with a 21-year-old.' I always think she is on the same level of maturity as the rest of us (Dalton is 31), and in some ways even more so.”
For Bennet, whose given name is Chloe Wang (Bennet is her father's first name), the S.H.I.E.L.D. part is her largest, most visible yet — potentially her breakout role. Before she beat out more than 400 actresses to solve supernatural crimes with S.H.I.E.L.D., she had a small part as assistant Hailey on “Nashville” and appeared on TeenNick's short-lived dance show, “The Nightlife.”
Speaking during a phone interview from Los Angeles while on a rare break from filming (such a rare break, she joked, that she wasn't sure if she was in the “normal universe” or the “Marvel universe”), Bennet sounded cheerful and mature.
“For basically two years, I took acting classes and found my own stride in LA,” she said. “Last year was really when things took off because I booked ‘Nashville' and then ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.' (Laughs.) It has been the fastest and craziest year ever.”
Marvel conceived of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” after the success of the billion-dollar blockbuster “The Avengers” and drafted Joss Whedon, the director of “The Avengers” and the mastermind behind cult TV shows such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” to co-create the series and direct the first episode. The show averages 10.8 million viewers on Tuesdays, according to ABC.
It centers on Agent Phil Coulson (played by Clark Gregg), who was mysteriously revived after being killed in “The Avengers.” He is charged with establishing an elite group of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to investigate otherworldly cases, and his team crisscrosses the globe in a tricked-out plane that doubles as its home and base of operations.
Bennet's garrulous Skye, a member of the hacktivist group Rising Tide, is kidnapped by Coulson's team when she turns up at a supernatural crime scene. After she helps the team solve the case, Coulson offers her a place on his plane, but, as subsequent episodes show, her loyalties are not always clear. In the fifth episode Skye revealed she's been tracking S.H.I.E.L.D. because the organization redacted a file that may contain information on the parents she never knew.
Bennet said she immediately connected with Skye's independent spirit, her feistiness and her tomboy nature, a personality trait she gained roughhousing with her six brothers.
Dr. Stephanie Wang, Bennet's mother and an internist at Rush University Medical Center, likes to say that Bennet was “born laughing.”
“She's always had this bigger-than-life personality,” Wang said. “From the time she was very little, she would organize the neighborhood kids and dress them up and put on shows.”
Bennet grew up near the United Center in a full house. Not only does she have three biological brothers, two foster brothers and one adopted brother, but the Wangs also often took in foreign exchange students or additional foster children.
“I kind of grew up in this frat house mixed with the United Nations,” Bennet said, “because two (of my brothers) are black and one is Mexican and Filipino, and then I am half-Chinese.”
“We used to wrestle and do that kind of stuff,” she added, “and I was just a tomboy. And I really got into the arts because I tried every sport and was just terrible, so I was like, the only thing for me to do is be creative.”
From first to eighth grade, Bennet attended Near North Montessori School, relishing any opportunity to perform. Anne Matern, one of Bennet's teachers, remembered her as a “natural performer.”
“She always had a great self-deprecating sense about herself,” Matern said. “She was comfortable in her own skin while being confident and relaxed, but also making other people feel accepted.”
After Montessori, Bennet attended St. Ignatius College Prep, joined the Second City youth ensemble and took voice lessons.
At the same time, Nettwerk Music Group, a management company in New York, put the word out that it was looking for an American singer of Chinese descent to break into the Chinese music business.
After spending a day in the studio with Bennet, Peter Coquillard, formerly of Nettwerk, knew she was the girl he had been looking for.
“My partner and I literally looked at each other and went, ‘That girl is a star,'” he said. “In terms of charisma, in terms of charm, in terms of having that indescribable star quality, she totally had that.”
But the 15-year-old had one big hurdle to get over before she boarded a plane to China: convincing her parents.
“I basically had to sit them down and be like, ‘Listen, if anything I will go over there for one year, and I will become fluent in Mandarin, and if nothing else works, I can come back being fluent in a language that billions of people speak,” she said. “I went to my dad, who is very business-minded, and said I would (learn to) speak Mandarin and that could help me.”
“There was no way of talking her out of this,” Stephanie Wang remembered. “I don't know what would have happened if we said no. She was absolutely determined.”
At the end of her sophomore year at St. Ignatius, Bennet left for China. She stayed with her paternal grandmother, had a live-in Mandarin teacher and took six hours of dance training daily. She traveled the world, recording 12 songs in Sweden with producers who also worked with Madonna and Britney Spears.
“Two months earlier, I was sitting in geometry class at St. Ignatius, and now I am recording in Sweden, just kind of going with it,” she said with a laugh.
“It takes a lot of confidence to be dropped into another country and become a celebrity without even knowing the language and learning it on the fly,” her “S.H.I.E.L.D.” co-star Dalton said. “That takes tenacity and survival skills. I couldn't have done it, and I think that everyone in the cast is thinking the same thing, like, ‘I don't know how she did that, but here she is, and “S.H.I.E.L.D.” is really lucky to have her.'”
After about a year and a half of pop stardom, Bennet decided to sign with powerhouse talent agency CAA. She moved back to America, leaving behind the celebrity life and becoming another actress in LA. It was a decision she struggled with, she said, but she never quite felt like herself in China.
“In Asia, I didn't feel like I was Chloe,” she said. “I felt like I was acting like someone in Asia. I was acting like Chloe Wang, a pop star, that was like a character for me, if anything.”
The producers of “Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” scoured the globe for the stars that would make up their cast, and the role of Skye was the last piece to fall into place, according to the show's co-creators, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon.
Bennet, who had originally tried out for the role of agent Jemma Simmons (now played by Elizabeth Henstridge), went in six times to audition for Skye. Jeph Loeb, the head of Marvel television, described Bennet's casting as being put through the “gantlet.”
She “had to have a level of complexity,” he said. “We had to have believability, and we had to have someone who could at the end of the day win our hearts and at the same time be funny.”
On the show, Skye acts as a surrogate for the audience. The new person on the plane, she is often asking, “What's that?,” and is the first to poke fun at S.H.I.E.L.D. practices or the ridiculousness of superhero culture. Skye's search for her parents, and for herself, is also a large part of the show's emotional core.
According to series co-creator Jed Whedon, Bennet has heart and humor in spades, but also brings naturalism to the role.
“When you put her on screen, you believe she is a person in the world,” he said. “You don't feel her acting.”
Her co-star Henstridge agreed, adding that Bennet makes dialogue colloquial, “as if she just thought of it in that moment.”
“She is a breath of fresh air,” Henstridge said, “Maybe she is just very Chicago. I have been to Chicago, and it is a great city, and I have friends from Indiana and around that side of America, and it seems that Chicago produces people that are very salt of the earth, real and have this grit to them.”
Bennet said she and her close castmates are “huge goofballs” on set, describing it like being a child just “playing pretend.”
“It feels so much like what I used to do in the alleys of Chicago with my friends,” Bennet said. “When I would get the neighborhood kids and be like, ‘Let's play this game where we are stuck on this thing and this happens.' It's funny how it's just on a different scale, but I still feel like the same girl from the (West) Side of Chicago, just in some new crazy situation.”
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
7 p.m., Tuesday, ABCCopyright © 2015, CT Now