Clark Gregg’s character S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson was first introduced to audiences in the original IRON MAN film. Coulson has subsequently helped superheroes and director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in IRON MAN 2, THOR and in the
Gregg, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, has been a steadily working professional film and television actor since his 1995 appearance in the TV series C.P.W. He had an arc on THE WEST WING, was a series regular on THE NEW ADVENTURES OF OLD CHRISTINE and played one of the leads in Joss Whedon’s modern-day film version of William Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.
Gregg is seated in the interior shared living space of the jet used as home base by Coulson and his team. During this set visit, arranged by ABC and Marvel for the Television Critics Association, the actor is laid-back and pleasant as he talks about coming back to the character he loves.
ASSIGNMENT X: Did you know when Coulson died in THE AVENGERS that he wasn’t going to stay dead?
CLARK GREGG: Honestly, no. I don’t think they knew that. I’ll tell you how I think it happened. To tell you the truth, people have asked me this before – there was some joking from the Marvel guys, because they’re trying to make it easier for you to die, because they knew I loved playing the guy, they saw how much fun I would have at Comic-Con, they knew that I had a lot of comics of my own and that I’d grown up a Marvel fan, so on the one hand, they were telling me, “Here’s some of the greatest stuff anyone’s ever written for you in AVENGERS,” but it’s also, I got this call, “The good news is, you’ve got a great part. The bad news is, what happens to you is what brings the Avengers together,” and I thought [sad voice], “Ohh …” But they said, “It’s a comic book world and, as you know, how dead are you really? It’s not the same as dying, say, in BREAKING BAD.” And I felt that was just them kind of trying to put a sugar coating on the tough reality. And I made a lot of jokes on the day we were shooting, saying, “Are we going to do an alternate version where he says he’s just wounded?” and they said, “No.” [laughs] And it was online, it was on Twitter, someone said, “I heard that Agent Coulson’s funeral is in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER.” And I got really sad, because I was kind of hoping I would get some kind of call, even though I knew it was a long shot, and I thought, “Wow, this is real, I’m really dead,” and I sent a text to [Marvel Studios president of production] Kevin Feige, who always responds so quickly, and he didn’t get back to me, and I thought, “Oh, wow, he got rid of my number.” And then about two weeks later, it turned out he was holding out because this other thing was in the works, so he and Joss got in touch with me a couple weeks later and said, “Actually, here’s our idea, we want to do this.” But even at that point, they just were going to do a pilot. And so we did a pilot, and I thought, “Gosh, if the pilot doesn’t get picked up, do I go back to being dead again? I don’t know.”
AX: Can you say if you as Coulson are in AVENGERS 2?
GREGG: [smiles] I can’t say. I’m not allowed to say anything – I can neither confirm nor deny. But I am very busy here.
AX: We see flashbacks to Coulson having brain surgery where the top of his skull is off. Did you have to have prosthetic gunk on your head for that scene?
GREGG: I had stuff on my head. It was a combination of actual prosthetic stuff and visual effects, so part of it was real and part of it was put in afterwards. I’m not allowed to use my actual brain or to expose it, because if they were to take the top of my head off, there might not be one [laughs].
AX: Or at least you might have problems remembering your lines later.
AX: Did they tell you at the outset that was going to be the explanation of Coulson’s resurrection?
GREGG: No, I didn’t know. I only knew that there was a much darker truth than the one I was initially led to believe in the pilot, and there were little pieces that came along, and then a couple weeks before we shot that episode, I got that script, maybe a week and a half, and I was handed it by [executive producer/co-show runner] Jeff Bell, and he said, “Take a look. I’m very curious to hear what you think.”
AX: In that scene, does Coulson want to die just because he’s in so much pain, or there something metaphysical going on that we may find out more about later?
GREGG: As a fan of Marvel stuff all my life, I’ve got to say, I thought a lot of big questions were raised by what I saw there. As far as I can tell, it was a combination of kind of existential psychological torment and pain as well as unendurable physical pain, and I will know more when I get that script.
AX: So we haven’t heard the last of Coulson’s resurrection as a topic?
GREGG: Oh, that is far from solved. There are a bunch of huge questions opened up by that.
AX: Do you have a sense of ownership of this set, the interior of the jet? When you come onto this set in the morning, do you kind of go, “Mine”?
GREGG: To a certain extent, I suppose I do. I find there’s something to having played this character for this long, and now to have spent – I guess we shot the pilot a year ago. So to have spent a year working on this set and with these people, it does start to feel like ours and to a certain extent, because Coulson is a little bit the Papa Bear of this group, I do feel like it’s my ship.
AX: How has it been taking Coulson from somebody who’s following orders and facilitating things for other people to somebody who’s in charge and still keeping him the same person?
GREGG: It’s been kind of an amazing journey. I’ve got to say, it’s less different than the films than people might think in one way, because each film, there was a different writer/director team coming aboard it, kind of adding new layers to Coulson, and I just get new layers every week here. And that part of it’s really fun, to go from kind of a subordinate role to someone running the team. Certainly in the world of AGENTS OF SHIELD, Coulson has to deal with people above him still, but on a weekly basis, he’s a commander of this small team.
AX: Do you have to call on something in yourself as an actor to be in charge of other people?
GREGG: My daughter would say that that’s not difficult for me and that it just gives me a chance to be bossy at work as well as at home [laughs]. But I certainly have done some directing and I’ve been the captain of a couple of sports teams in college.
AX: What did you play?
GREGG: I played soccer in college and I still play a bit of basketball. There’s something about it that I enjoy; it’s an interesting dramatic challenge, because you’re responsible for people and it’s your job, in the way that we did on the sports team, to get them functioning at their best and to kind of show them the way.
AX: Can you talk about Bill Paxton joining the team for four episodes?
GREGG: I’m a huge Bill Paxton fan. But it’s very similar – all of a sudden, I got a script, I guess on a Tuesday, and there’s this amazing character, this SHIELD agent who Coulson’s known for years – they’re rivals, but they really get along and they have a lot of history and I quickly said, “This is fantastic, who’s playing this?” And they said, “We’ll tell you tomorrow,” because they were still working out the details, and then the next day, I got a text saying, “We got Bill Paxton” and I was thrilled. I think it’s an amazing boost for the show, and so far, it’s been some of my favorite episodes we’ve done so far.
AX: You play Leonato in Joss Whedon’s film of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Are you one of the people who thought that this was just going to be Joss Whedon filming it with his cell phone, or did you know going in that this was a movie?
GREGG: I was less likely to think it was Joss on his cell phone just because I had just come from him directing the largest film I’d ever seen or heard of, so I thought, even if it was Joss on a small scale, he’d have a pretty damn nice camera. But you don’t shoot a Shakespeare movie in ten days with your friends unless you’re really planning to show that only at a party of those friends. And then when I saw the caliber of the work that was going on and the way that he had really envisioned this, I realized something that I’ve realized a number of different times – Joss has just got a very special vision, and whether he’s dreaming something up on a very small scale or a very large one, he’s not doing it haphazardly. He had a real vision for the piece, so in a way, I could have prepared myself for how well it was received, the amazing journey we had inToronto and South by Southwest and all the festivals, but I was not prepared for what it became.
AX: Jillian Morgese, who plays Leonato’s daughter Hero, was also in AVENGERS playing a waitress. Did you two cross paths at all during AVENGERS?
GREGG: No, I wasn’t there when they did her scenes and even some of the scenes that didn’t make it into the film. I had a rehearsal with her the day before we shot [on MUCH ADO], and that’s when I got to know her. And I liked her instantly – she still is a friend of mine, she babysits my daughter sometimes, she’s kind of a second daughter. She’s away from her family, who are from the East Coast, and that relationship really landed. Every time I see her, I kind of feel like, there’s another one of my kids.
AX: After having been a working actor for so long, how does it feel to be such an integral part of the Marvel screen universe and the star of a huge genre TV show?
GREGG: It’s wonderful. As everybody knows, it was a small part in IRON MAN 1, and they started adding the guy, and I just thought, “This is fun. I get to be a supporting in all these films, with really great actors that I admire,” and then all of a sudden, they’d written this amazing thing in THE AVENGERS, Joss had written this amazing thing, and really kind of put him out as a key member of the ensemble, and yet I also read the script and realized this would be the end of Phil Coulson. And I was still thrilled, because it was such a great journey and a great way to go out. So then, to find out I was going to be doing this every week and have my own team and now to have gotten the first ten, twelve episodes under our belt and see the ways that it’s now moving forward and expanding into the Marvel universe and becoming this bigger thing with people like Bill Paxton and some other surprising stars coming – Lady Sif [Jaimie Alexander] from THOR and some other people that we’re not allowed to talk about. I guess as Bryan Cranston has said, it’s hard not to feel very, very lucky indeed.
AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about AGENTS OF SHIELD?
GREGG: I think the most exciting thing for me as a fan of the show and a fan of this world is, we spent our first ten episodes kind of setting up the world and the crew and doing some standalone episodes. I’m very excited for people to see what’s coming up now, because now I think the things that I’ve always been most excited about, the fact that it’s all connected, that it leads to a bigger ongoing conspiracy and one that integrates more closely with the Marvel universe – some of the scripts that I’ve read lately had me up all night excited, so I’m very excited for people to see that stuff that’s coming.