Interview: Clark Gregg


26th April 2012

Here's my final Avengers cast interview and it's fair to say that I've saved the big guns 'til last: Agent Coulson. It turns out that Clark Gregg who plays him is a massive comic-book geek who is happy to talk forever on the subject. It made for a great talk, but it was a bastard to transcribe. So please try to enjoy this twice as much to make it all worthwhile.

: What goes through your mind when you're faced with screaming fans?

Clark Gregg: 'Who do they think I am? They must think Kevin Spacey's here'. I don't know – it's so new to me and I've been such a journeyman actor for so many years, I don't know how this Marvel thing happened. There were two parts of New York where I did a lot of plays and in those blocks people would say 'Hey Clark!' when I went to work and now, to walk into the Westfield mall and hear people say...well, not only do they say 'Coulson', they say 'Clark' and I always think somebody must be standing behind me holding up a card that says my name. It's surreal.

For me, honestly, it's not something I ever saw coming; Agent Coulson was a couple of lines in Iron Man and to the great credit of the Marvel people, they had an agenda that involved S.H.I.E.L.D. and there was something about the snarky rapport between myself and Robert Downey Jr - or Agent Coulson and Tony Stark - that they seized on. And Jon Favreau pulled me aside and said 'I hope you're free because they like this scene a lot'. And suddenly there were more scenes, and then I was in Iron Man 2! And they came in with some lines and they said 'Oh, this time tell him you've got to go. Tell him you're going to New Mexico' and I did that three or four times and I said 'Y'know, I don't feel like I'm imbuing this with truth – why the hell am I going to New Mexico?' and they said 'Oh god, didn't anyone talk to you? You have a much bigger part in Thor. You're the one who's in charge in Thor!' and that's kind of how it's been.

And before the panel for Thor at Comic-Con, the king of Comic-Con, Joss Whedon, hilariously introduces himself to me - which was NOT necessary because I'm a geek fanboy who grew up on comics and loved Buffy - and said 'Oh I'm so sorry, I was going to call you. Agent Coulson has a really big part in The Avengers - can I introduce you as part of the cast?'. At this point, I thought this was one of those Make A Wish Foundations, that I had a terminal illness and no one had told me yet and they just want to send me out 'in a happy way'. So then I thought 'Ok, I've been doing this a while and I know not to get my expectations up too high, the script is going to come and it's gonna be like "Oh, there's the scene where Agent Coulson comes in and he brings Tony Stark a latte and gives the Hulk a protein bar and he goes"'. And instead it came and it was…deep. And funny. And it had something that I've always loved in the comics which is the moments where the humans who aren't invulnerable have to step up and turn the tables and inspire the superheroes.

And one of the things that Agent Coulson has had, deliciously for me, is some of the funniest lines, y'know? They usually don't give those to the supporting characters. And to see that come through again with Joss, and to have Joss take what everyone else had done with Coulson and then notice something else; that, for all his sardonic disdain for the diva behaviour of the superheroes, of course he's a fanboy. Of course that's his cover and how he got into this – because he was inspired by the comics. So the whole trope about how he grew up loving Steve Rogers/Captain America and now here he is on the Quinjet [S.H.I.E.L.D.'s airborne transport] with him, and for the first time we see this ultra-composed spy unable to do anything but act like a teenage girl in the presence of John Lennon in 1967, felt perfect to me.

: The Variety review pointed that out. They said that your character speaks for the fans watching the film. Did you feel that more and more as your character evolved?

CG: Y'know I did. It's been a funny relationship because at the first there was a human cry like 'Agent Coulson? Is introducing S.H.I.E.L.D.? There is no Coulson in the comic-book universe! FOUL! FOUL on the play, he must be eradicated'. And I felt 'Oh no – I was kinda getting into this and these guys are gonna get me killed off' because Marvel is very responsive to its fans. But then there was a kind of counter-movement – that I'm just ordinary enough for them to feel like they had an avatar – and then they kind of demanded more of Coulson. And they got what they wanted and I went from going around Comic-Con buying up all my old comics the first year to needing a phalanx of security detail and seeing all these people dressed up as me the next couple of years. I still think at any moment I might have a terrible disease, just because I couldn't have designed this for myself. It's insane.

: Were you disappointed that you didn't get a role in Captain America?

CG: I knew that it was taking place in the 40s and I certainly mentioned 'Hey, wouldn't it be amazing if Agent Coulson's dad was there and he was also kind of a badass?' but they were already into production and I was pretty busy doing Thor at the same time. There is that scene in the present and I think that within the continuity of the Marvel universe Agent Coulson was handling something awfully scary like one of the short films that day but…no, I'm upset about it.

: You get to have a big heroic scene in this movie. As a comic-book fan, what was it like seeing yourself on the big screen having that moment?

CG: You know, in one sense I felt very moved… to have some of the more human characters standing shoulder to shoulder with people who are less vulnerable to me felt very moving. And to have Agent Coulson at a certain point, when all of the superheroes are doing a little too much bickering, pick up the biggest weapon they have because someone's got to do it and go talk to this, y'know, antlered mischief maker who's very deadly, I found so inspiring.

: What's Joss like on set as a director?

CG: Y'know, directors have to walk a fine line and they have to be like a great football coach in that the same thing that might inspire Lionel Messi might really make Drogba angry. So he seems to know – like the great coaches do – what each person needs to show up with their best. In this case, he's stepping into some people who are playing the character for the first time and some, like me, who played this character in slightly different incarnations in three or four movies and at the same time as giving you what you want he says 'Here's what I'm looking for. Here's what I think this moment is about'. And then he says 'Hmm, that didn't feel like Coulson to me. Something that I'm doing is pushing that here. What do you think?' and I say 'Well, I think I might come in like this...' and he says 'THAT's Coulson'. So it's that balance of being alive to what's happening freshly now and what's come before that I think is the reason why he hit the movie so hard out of the park.

: How did he compare with Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh in their approach to the same character?

CG: Nobody gets to do this – it's such a fantastic thing. To have a character that I did twice with Jon and then suddenly thought 'Well this will be completely different in the world of Thor', y'know? It's a different world, it's Kenneth Branagh – this Shakespearian actor whom I adore – and yet I found that there was a tremendous commonality in that they're both actors, who love actors. They're both hysterically funny. You could get the most scathing direction from somebody and it's so funny you don't care. And they had really brilliant instincts about Coulson – and who Coulson was in that movie – that I knew I could take and make part of Coulson but would have to also let go of because once I read the script to the Avengers I thought 'Well this is different'.

Y'know, when the Destroyer shows up in Thor, there's Agent Coulson with the megaphone going 'Oh god, another one of these guys' and he seems a little blasé, but, from the opening moments of The Avengers, nobody's blasé. Whatever ironic, post-modern wise-cracking that Coulson wants to do, he's a little bit dampened by what's going on. And then of course the arrival – thanks to Joss – of this brilliant bit that makes perfect sense that of course Agent Coulson is a huge fanboy and that his irony is just another cover and he's grown up in love with Captain America and what he represents.

: You worked with Joss again straight after this film, didn't you?

CG: I did! He's insane. Either he loves ensembles so much or there was something about doing an uber epic of this size that made him feel like he had to immediately reconnect with his guerrilla roots. I had dinner with him – because we hit it off and I adore him – right before he started his week's vacation, before he had to start editing this biggest movie of all time. And I asked him what beach he was going to be lying on and he said 'No, I'm gonna make a little indie movie of Much Ado About Nothing during my nine days off here at my house'. I said 'Are you crazy? I'M exhausted!' and he said 'Well I hope you're not too exhausted because you're playing Leonato'. And two days later I was there and – this tells you a little bit about the concept of the film – walking into his kitchen with the cameras rolling, with an iPad or an iPhone saying 'I see from this message that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina'; And suddenly I was in Joss' indie film of Much Ado About Nothing.

: How can any subsequent sequels match up to the epic benchmark set by The Avengers now?

CG: It's a really good question because people who love the comics are used to seeing the original origins – or the single character books – leading up to the group books like The Avengers. Y'know, that's the rhythm. And they certainly have to find a way to create a different expectation because they've broadened what the comic-book fanboy universe is – now there are movie fanboys…and girls. Very many girls. If you go to Comic-Con now, it's sexually equal. I think it's quite a task.

The pressure on Joss was, this one had to top the others. I don't know if anyone was prepared quite how much it would, in terms of its explosive epic scope, do that. I have a feeling that what will come next won't try to do that. It will be taking some of these characters in very different directions and those of us who have followed these comics for years saw a lot of things in Avengers that suggested new directions, whether it's leading towards Avengers 2 or splitting in two directions.

: According to IMDB, your name is attached to a Nick Fury film that will be coming out at some point in the future. Is that definitely happening?

CG: I've learned not to guess on Marvel and all I know is that I look forward to seeing the future of the Marvel universe. And I have reasons to believe it's something I will reappear in, whether it's as an actor, writer or a director.

: Have you approached Kevin about writing or directing any new Marvel films then? Or will he find out when he sees these interviews?

CG: No, he knows. They're very kind. I was making Choke while I was doing Iron Man – they're very filmmaker friendly, as Joss has said. They bring people like him in and they really listen and there's very little to suggest in the little Sundance movies I make that I'm ready to step into a giant superhero epic, but they know that I've written some movies that have been made and they've been interested in conversing with me about what might be a way for me to work with them again.

: Do you mean for just one of the Marvel short films?

CG: (*gets REALLY coy*) UUUUuuuuuummmmm… I'm always so scared about talking about this stuff because I feel like I could evaporate at any moment. The shorts seem like a logical place to start but I have feeling that if I was to make a short I would want to make the fanciest… I would want to make the 'Avengers' short.

: So if you could direct any property in the Marvel universe, which would you pick?

CG: Maybe it's my background but I'm interested in S.H.I.E.L.D. I'm interested in Budapest. I'm interested in the things that Clint Barton is talking to [Black Widow] about – the past. There's a very dark, very violent kinda Hong Kong shoot 'em up-styled men-in-black-with-sci-fi-elements version of a kinda S.H.I.E.L.D. prequel that I would be very, very keen on working on.
So that's it. Basically expect an announcement from Marvel of a S.H.I.E.L.D. prequel, written and directed by Clark Gregg. Or something. Avengers Assemble is out today. What are you doing? Go see it now!

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