Clark Gregg may be the real breakout star from Marvel Studios. Originally a bit player in Iron Man, his character of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson has become a linchpin of sorts throughout the contiguous Marvel superhero movies, staring down the mighty Thor and now appearing in the Marvel One-Shots – The Consultant and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer – a series of short films appearing on the upcoming DVD/Blu-Ray editions of Thor (out September 13th) and Captain: America: The First Avenger. Gregg sat down with us to discuss the evolution of his character, whether he’ll survive Joss Whedon’s adaptation of The Avengers, and his upcoming neo-noir Trust Me, which will mark Gregg’s first time in the director’s chair after his well-received 2008 Chuck Palahniuk adaptation Choke.
CraveOnline: When you took the part [of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson], did anyone know he was going to be an important character in the franchise?
Clark Gregg: Oh no, he wasn’t going to be. […] He literally [was], you know, a guy who kind of comes in and brings the paperwork and kind of vanishes. That’s really all he did. He showed up and he gave somebody a briefcase or something like that. It was really nothing. But, you know, [it was] an amazing cast and I love [Jon] Favreau, and they were like, “Would you do this?” And I was like, “Oh, they’re just going to cut me out, but what the hell? I’ve got to show up and at least do this scene with Robert Downey because I love him so much.” And it’s kind of representative of how smart Marvel’s been, in that there was something that happened, and worked. There was a kind of banter between Coulson and Stark that writers kind of came up with, and Robert and I kind of came up with, and they responded to it quickly. And suddenly it was a part of the script, and they were like, “Oh, are you free for the next two months? We started adding more stuff to this. It serves a real purpose, beyond just being some of the comic relief in the movie. It serving a real purpose in terms of setting up S.H.I.E.L.D., which we have big plans for.” And I went, “Yeah! I’ll get free! Whatever I’m doing can be cancelled, okay?”
And then they called and said, “Listen, Coulson’s back in Iron Man 2,” and I was like, “Shut… the front door! I’m doing another one of these?!” And then when I was doing those scenes [in Iron Man 2], and I kept saying I was going to New Mexico in the draft they gave me when I got there, I said, “What’s in New Mexico?” And they said, “Oh, you are! You’re going to be in Thor!” And I was like, “Oh my God! Really?! When? When?!” And then when we were doing the panel for Thor at Comic Con, [and] right before we went on stage, Joss Whedon comes over and introduces himself, and says, “I wrote you a really big part in The Avengers, um… Can I introduce you as part of the cast of The Avengers, with Robert Downey, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo? Everyone’s here.” And I was like, “Yeah, I think that would be okay.” (Laughs) – So it’s just been a kind of like a weird, Make-A-Wish Foundation thing, where it seems so ludicrous every time it happens. I keep waiting for someone to show up and tell me that I have two weeks to live.
CraveOnline: It’s interesting to me how your character changed a bit in Thor. In Iron Man you’re kind of… You can’t get Tony Stark’s respect, but in Thor you’re this sort of G-Man, throwing your weight around.
Clark Gregg: I think it’s one of the many sides of Agent Coulson. He [does] what it requires to manage the situation that is whack-job rich guy Tony Stark, who needs to be out-quipped once in a while and threatened with a tazing. It’s just different than what he has to deal with, with the hammer, which turns out to be this kind of demented Norse God. That’s a different situation that Agent Coulson has to manage. You don’t want to go report your failures to Nick Fury. It doesn’t seem like a fun day.
CraveOnline: Do we get to see another side to your character in The Avengers? Do you get to take down a Skrull armada single-handed or something?
Clark Gregg: That’s it! I’m taking down the Skrull armada single-handed!
CraveOnline: Oh, that’s awesome.
Clark Gregg: I’m just kidding. “Skrull armada single-handed…” No, they’re Kree!
No, I’m just kidding.
Yes, there’s definitely new stuff. Much different, new stuff for Agent Coulson to do in this one. You know, it’s kind of “all hands on deck” in terms of combating the threat that has shown up. And Joss… Joss is a master at taking what we know about each one of these characters, the superheroes and Agent Coulson, and building on what’s already there.
CraveOnline: Joss Whedon is also a master of killing off beloved characters. I’m actually a little worried about you.
Clark Gregg: Yeah, I’ve read this! I’ve read this. I’m flattered that people care, but I wish they would stop saying this because they’re going to put it in somebody’s mind! I’m talking to them about doing Iron Man 3 right now, and somebody’s going “Maybe Agent Coulson should die,” and I’m like, “Hey, hey, hey! This is the best job I’ve ever had! Stop talking about killing Agent Coulson off.”
CraveOnline: (Laughs) – Fair enough.
Clark Gregg: No, no, no. I talked to Joss Whedon early on. I said “Hey, why is everyone saying this?” And he said, “Yeah, I’ve done that before. Don’t worry. You’re safe.”
CraveOnline: I’m really glad to hear that. Let’s talk about the Marvel One-Shots you just did. I just saw The Consultant [which appears on the Thor DVD/Blu-Ray release], and obviously besides just entertainment value I see The Consultant is starting to plug up some continuity holes a little bit, explaining why General Ross isn’t going to be in The Avengers [despite a scene at the end of The Incredible Hulk that could have implied otherwise]. Was that always the intention or was that a by-product of the cute story you guys wanted to tell?
Clark Gregg: Well, you know, I think they wanted to… It’s an idea they were playing with, the idea of doing these shorts. They’ve got people over there, all the time, trying to… “What else can we do, that you just don’t see done very often?” And this is one of the things that they wanted to try, and I don’t really know how much of it was originally about filling in some of that kind of gaps in the storyline, or the timeline of these movies. But certainly once they went into script form it really, clearly, became a big part of why they wanted to do it.
CraveOnline: What kind of funny things happen on the way to Thor’s hammer?
Clark Gregg: Oh… That’s right, there’s the other one! I think there’s a little bit of excitement that goes on, and I think maybe it requires Coulson to show yet another side of his persona, which is that he’s a little bit of a badass.
CraveOnline: You’ve played FBI agents and similar types of people before, like in The West Wing or even, although you weren’t in it much, The Spanish Prisoner. I was wondering, do you pull from the same place on all those characters, or do you start from scratch each time?
Clark Gregg: You know, I like to think not. Agent Coulson feels to me very different from the guy, Mike Casper, that I played on West Wing, or… (Laughs) – I guess you’re right, I have played a couple of them… Or the Secret Service guy I played in Spartan, which felt more like a kind of ex-military guy who was really at the point where he had to kill somebody…
CraveOnline: I loved Spartan. I saw that you’re also playing Agent Coulson on the Ultimate Spider-Man television series?
Clark Gregg: Yeah, it’s true. It’s an animated show that they’re working on now that’s really going to be kind of groundbreaking. There’s some really cool scripts with Agent Coulson. It’s about some younger superheroes who are kind of undercover at a high school in New York City, and “Principal Coulson” is their minder. He’s undercover also as the principal, and it’s just funny.
CraveOnline: Like you don’t have enough to worry about…
Clark Gregg: I know.
CraveOnline: I just have one more question, and it’s big to me because I loved Choke and I’m wondering when you’re going to direct again.
Clark Gregg: Oh, thank you! I have a movie that I’ve written, that I’m putting together right now. It’s supposed to start shooting sometime in October, so really soon. Just have a few kind of small pieces to put together, and hopefully… It’s going to be a really short shoot. Independent, probably a month, a little bit more, and hopefully it will be ready to show people by January.
CraveOnline: That’s fantastic. Can you tell us what kind of movie it is, or are you keeping it under your hat right now?
Clark Gregg: For me, it’s a kind of neo-noir about an agent for child actors. And it’s called Trust Me.
CraveOnline: That sounds really cool.
Clark Gregg: Thanks! I’m happy with the script. I hope it turns out well.
CraveOnline: Well, I’ve liked both of your scripts – well, that were produced – so far. I don’t know if you have others that you’ve done. But obviously Choke was great, and I thought What Lies Beneath was a nice little taut thriller.
Clark Gregg: Thank you! Thank you. Those were both really kind of amazing experiences. I feel like my writing’s been improving because I’ve got to hang around on sets with people like Joss Whedon and Ken Branagh and Jon Favreau, so I’m hoping that [Trust Me] will turn out better than even those.