By Simon Miraudo
September 7, 2012
Clark Gregg is one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood; a reliable and welcome presence in more than 65 film and TV shows (such as The West Wing, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Spartan, and 500 Days of Summer), not to mention a prolific screenwriter and budding director (he penned What Lies Beneath for Robert Zemeckis,and helmed the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke). But in 2008, after going in for a part comprised of just “three or four lines,” he found himself cast as S.H.I.E.L.D Agent Phil Coulson in Iron Man, and is now one of the most beloved elements of the Marvel cinematic universe. With subsequent appearances in Thor, Iron Man 2, Captain America, and, most significantly, The Avengers, he has become one of the most integral components of the Marvel operation.
We spoke to Clark Gregg about the Cult of Coulson, and having Marvel President Kevin Feige [spoiler alert] break the bad news about his character’s fate, as well as the experience of starting out with David Mamet and William H. Macy, and his next project, a neo-noir set in the “sordid world of child stars.” Hit the 'Play' button below to hear the interview.
Hit the 'Play' button above to hear the interview.
SM: When you were first cast in Iron Man, how was the character of Agent Coulson pitched to you? Did you have any idea he would become fairly prominent in the series, or were you just going in for what you thought was a small part in a big movie?
CG: I’ve talked to Favreau and the Marvel guys since, and my memory of it was three or four lines, and we showed up once or twice. They wanted a three-picture deal and I thought that was ludicrous. At the same time, I loved Iron Man as a kid, and I thought the cast was incredible and I knew Favreau a little bit, so I kind of grumpily said, “Yes.” Because I was just sure I was going to get cut out. And then the thing happened that never happens, where something about it kind of clicked and they started adding more scenes and pretty soon I was talking about the Strategic Homeland Intervention and Enforcement Logistics Division. You know, I saw an early cut of the movie and I thought, “God, this became a pretty good role." They just keep saying, “Oh, we want you to be in Iron Man 2.” Then I was doing Iron Man 2. They said, “Tell them you gotta go; you’re going to New Mexico.” I did a few takes of that, and I said, “What’s in New Mexico?” They said, “Oh, you are! You’re going to find Thor. That’s Thor.” “[Laughs] Come on, really?!” When Joss told me I was a big part of The Avengers, it just seemed crazy to me. Just one of the funnest, and almost hilarious things that’s ever happened to me.
SM: Absolutely. And you’ve now played him in five movies at least, a couple of short films, and you’ve voiced him in Ultimate Spider-Man. You’re one of the rare actors in the series to have been a part of the different cogs of the Marvel machine. What was it like moving from set to set and working under all the different directors?
CG: It was really fun, for the most part. I would certainly have anxiety, going, you know, “How do I bring the same character to this world and respect that this is a different world, of Thor, than it was with Tony Stark and Pepper? A different director, from Jon Favreau to Kenneth Branagh." But, I really felt like Marvel did a great job of hiring people who got what was good about it and figured out how to make it their own. Coulson was really the same, as part of that. Everybody kind of unfolded a different layer to the guy and it was such a fun thing for me to go, “Oh, I can do that? I didn’t know that. That’s cool.”
SM: Well, you’ve worked with a number of great ensemble filmmakers in the past like Paul Thomas Anderson, and Nicole Holofcener, and particularly David Mamet. The Avengers ultimately is an ensemble flick too, just with superheroes. Was there a struggle at first to treat it in a similar manner when you are standing in front of green screens and you’re interacting with characters in these outlandish costumes and eye-patches?
CG: You know, I think that probably was true for Robert [Downey Jr.] and Jeremy [Renner] and Chris [Hemsworth] and the guys who really end up in the final showdown with those pesky aliens. But for me, so much of my stuff was actually on the Helicarrier, and actually on these incredible sets. Good writing is good writing, and I had good stuff to say and funny stuff to do. I had very little green screen to deal with.
SM: Because of the good stuff you get to say and do, there’s something of a Cult of Coulson that has emerged over the past few years. You even got your very own poster for The Avengers. Hulk and Hawkeye had to share their own poster, but you got one where you are front and center. Was that in your contract for the final movie?
CG: Right? Well, that was a little bit of a consolation prize [spoiler warning for The Avengers] for a guy who was on his last mission.
SM: Well, yes, spoiler alert for anyone who’s yet to see The Avengers. I don’t think that number is high at this point in time. Coulson doesn’t make it to the end. Tell me about Joss, or perhaps [Marvel President] Kevin Feige, breaking the news of his demise to you.
CG: They told me, “Look, you’ve got a big part in The Avengers.” I said, “That’s fantastic.” “We’re going to introduce you as part of the cast here at Comic-Con.” That’s when I found out, and I was shocked, because I figured with all these superheroes, Coulson would maybe walk through and hand somebody a cappuccino. When they said it was a pivotal role, I was excited. Then a couple months later I got a call from Kevin just saying, “Listen, it’s really exciting; you have really a lot to do. You’re the one who brings them all together.” I was like, “That’s cool. I’m really excited.” And he said, “Yep, what happens to you, brings them all together.”[Laughs] And I said, “Oh no. No!” Then, I thought, “Awww, I knew it was too good to be true.” I figured I’d get a script where, you know, Coulson’s kind of, I don’t know what, scrapping with Loki or somebody early on and just gets decapitated. Maybe it’s before the opening credits. So when I got the really rich, fantastic script from Joss that carried him through the film, and made him such an integral part of it, I kind of couldn’t get out of bed the whole day. I couldn’t believe it.
SM: At the very least he goes out swinging.
CG: Hell yeah, he goes out swinging. It’s a great scene, and I don’t regret a stitch of it.
SM: Well, there is plenty of fan speculation online. Coulson mentions he’s dating a cellist; that might be the Scarlett Witch; she might be able to raise him from the dead. I know there’s a lot of people out there who would like to see Coulson back.
CG: I’ve heard the theories. I’ve seen the vision sculptures. Certainly, my heart is warmed every day by the different examples of people saying ‘Coulson Lives’ around the globe. I love it all, you know? I don’t think any of its going to happen [laughs] but the fact that this character became an avatar for the nerds that I am one of has been one of the most moving things that I think has ever happened to me.
SM: Is there any chance that he’ll appear in that new S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series that’s getting off the ground?
CG: I would really love that. I loved Joss’ TV shows, and when I saw that he was creating one, I was really upset. But the rumours I hear is that it may take place after The Avengers, and not as a prequel, and I think that means the best I can hope for is that there will be a flashback, or they’ll do my funeral in the first episode.
SM: A nice juicy funeral would be nice. I actually really enjoyed your adaptation of Choke, which you wrote and directed a few years back. I only learned recently that you penned the screenplay for What Lies Beneath too; another film I enjoy. When you first got into the business, was the dream to be behind or in front of the camera?
CG: I came up doing theatre in New York with a lot of great people, and I studied with David Mamet and Bill Macy in college, and we kind of did everything. One play you would direct, the next one you would act in. I always wanted to write but I was too in awe of playwrights, and maybe when I first got up to Hollywood I really… it took me getting bored enough to get over my terror of writing. I started to work as a writer and make a living and it’s what kept me alive long enough for the acting work to start to flow in. It’s just something I really liked doing; a lot of acting is sitting around, and I don’t like to sit around. I’m always re-writing a job for the studio, and I’m actually two weeks into pre-production on the next little indie film that I’m going to write and direct and act in.
SM: Great, can you tell us a little bit about that?
CG: Yeah, it’s a dark indie noir comedy that’s shooting here in L.A. called Trust Me and it’s about the sordid world of child stars seen through the prism of a kind of L.A. neo-noir.
SM: Interesting. That sounds very appealing. And look, if Marvel doesn’t heed the peoples call, maybe you could write and direct your own Coulson adventure.
CG: Right? His name will be Couldon. Change it ever so slightly.
SM: Of the ‘Avenging Force,’ or something like that.
CG: That’s right.
The Avengers is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and 3-D Blu-ray.