'Clark Gregg just kicked my dog!"
Chloe Bennet is on the phone, hurling accusations at her nearby castmate. (Gregg plays Agent Coulson to her Skye on ABC's sci-fi/spy series Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
Don't call PETA just yet. The contact was inadvertent. Bennet, 21, has just pulled up to one of the show's myriad location shoots and as soon as she opened the door of her Prius, her toy poodle puppy bounded out of the car and into harm's way.
Loudly insulting a costar may not seem like the ideal way to begin the working day, but for Bennet, this is a preemptive strike.
Usually, she's the one getting grief on arrival. "People make fun of me because I'm not the best driver and I always get lost on the way to the set," she explains. Indeed, during the course of her commute, she has several fiery disputes with the dispassionate suggestions made by her GPS, which she has dubbed Betsy.
As for her aggressive entrance - well, if anyone knows how to get off a good opening shot before being ganged up on, it's Bennet. She grew up in Chicago as an only girl with six brothers.
"Two African American, one Mexican American, and the rest half-Chinese," she says of the siblings in her blended family. "It was the United Nations Meets Animal House."
The actress was born Chloe Wang to a Chinese investment banker father and an American doctor. But her ethnicity is not readily discernible.
"Most Asians know I'm Asian," she says. "Americans can't always tell."
Including obviously the contingent of critics who objected that for a show adapted from the polychromatic world of comic books, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a notably homogeneous cast.
"It's funny to see people say it's not an ethnically diverse cast," Bennet says. "This is the first show where two of the regulars are Asians of Chinese extraction."
Ming-Na Wen (ER), who plays the lethal and laconic Agent May on the series, was born on Macau and raised in Hong Kong.
"I get to practice my Mandarin with her," says Bennet. "It's a lot of fun. We'll talk in a nasty tone and pretend we're saying bad things about the other actors when really we're paying them compliments."
As the wisecracking Skye, Bennet arguably got the plummier role. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was created by Joss Whedon (along with his brother Jed and Maurissa Tancharoen), a writer often hailed for his feisty female characters.
"He writes in a very particular kind of cadence," Jeph Loeb, the head of Marvel Television, says of Whedon. "It's a strong, empowered woman with a self-deprecating style and flashes of wit and cleverness. To find that in a young actress is a challenge."
You want fearless, Chloe is your gal.
At 15, she left high school and moved to Shanghai to become a teen pop sensation-in-training. (A management company thought an American-born singer might be just the gimmick to break the stranglehold that Korean girl groups had on Asian pop.)
"It was pretty difficult," Bennet says. "I didn't know anyone there and didn't speak the language. For the first few months, every day was the same: six hours of dance and four hours of Mandarin. But I had to grow up fast. I like to call it my high school job."
The career started promisingly. "My first performance was in front of 30,000 people and it was broadcast to 100 million," she recalls.
But after a couple of years in Shanghai and Beijing, Chloe increasingly came to feel that her heart just wasn't in it.
"It felt like I was taking on a character and acting like a pop star instead of being a pop star," she says.
Back in the States, she gravitated to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, eventually adopting her father's first name, Bennet, as her professional name.
"People didn't know if I was Asian or not. I wanted to be racially ambiguous," she says. "It must have worked. The first audition I went to was for Nashville." She got noticed for a short but impressive run as Gunnar's rebound lover, Hailey.
Then after six auditions in five months, she won the coveted role of Skye. Part of her glee at landing the part was the expectation that she finally was doing something that would impress her pack of brothers.
"I remember the commercials [for S.H.I.E.L.D.] first started to air during the NBA playoffs and a bunch of my guy friends called and said, 'We just saw your commercial.'
"I immediately called up my brothers and said, 'Did you see it? Did you see it?' ", she says, her voice downshifting from excited to bored and exasperated in order to imitate her brothers' reaction. "They said, 'Yeah. Chloe, the game is on.' "
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
8 p.m. Tuesday, 6ABC