“Marvel’s The Avengers” Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg)
This post originally ran in April 2013.
Clark Gregg is best known for playing Agent Phil Coulson across an array of screens in the Marvel Universe, but that’s far from his only role, in front of or behind the camera. In addition to acting, Gregg is also a writer and director, and his latest project, Trust Me, finds him doing all three. Gregg plays Howard, a struggling agent for child actors who thinks he’s found a true talent just as she’s about to land the part in a Twilight-esque trilogy, but as he gets caught up with trying to get her the best deal, his world unravels.
“It starts out funny, and it gets more complex, and people aren’t who they seem to be,” Gregg said. “It took an extra six to eight months to get this financed because I didn’t want to push it back toward a traditional showbiz comedy. I wanted it to be neo-noir.” With the pressure on, Gregg used the chaos of the production to fuel his character to give one of his best performances in years — and given his career history, that’s saying a lot. Gregg was actually game enough to go over that history with Vulture and tell us some of the showbiz stories behind his more memorable roles.
In the season-three episode “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Miranda needs a date to Charlotte’s wedding, so she tries speed dating. She strikes out repeatedly until she identifies herself as a stewardess — and Clark Gregg identifies himself as an emergency-room doctor. Of course, the jig is up once she cut herself and he becomes queasy at the sight of blood and admits he’s the assistant manager of a shoe store. “Perhaps more than anything else I’ve done, except for The Avengers, people come up to me for this,” Gregg said. “I really thought this would have been something where I popped in as a guest star and that would be the last I’d ever hear of it, but women and gay men always go, ‘You were the speed-dating pathological liar!’” Gregg was “thrilled” to be on the show, mostly because he was “finally objectified” onscreen. “It doesn’t happen that often if you’re the character actor.”
Gregg’s recurring spot starting in season two as Agent Mike Casper, the FBI liaison, has been the fount of fan theories and urban legends. “Certainly, there are a lot of people on Twitter who feel like Agent Mike Casper was really a nom de guerre of Agent Phil Coulson,” Gregg acknowledged. “They feel that he got his training as a young FBI agent working for President Bartlett and went undercover as Agent Coulson.” Hey, stranger things have happened! Working on the fast-paced production, Gregg was cognizant that he couldn’t really call in sick — “They can’t afford to miss a day just because you have the flu.” But around his fifth episode, Gregg’s then-pregnant wife Jennifer Grey went into labor, so “I did the one thing I never do, which was I called and said, ‘I’m sorry. I just can’t be there tomorrow.’ It’s such a taboo, that making that phone call. I was all jittery.” The West Wing folks “couldn’t have been sweeter” about the situation, but he still felt a little pressure to get back to work pronto, especially when the assistant director asked him, “How far apart are the contractions?”
Gregg played Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s ex-husband on the sitcom, “and I was a little starstruck, because I was such a huge Seinfeld fan.” That didn’t stop him from pranking her on set, though. “There was one scene where Hamish Linklater and Julia slept inside my apartment waiting for me to come home, and of course, I had already come before they got there,” he recalled. “So I was supposed to walk out and wake them and they would be looking up my bathrobe.” So to freak out his cast mates (or “get me into one of those sexual harassment seminars”), Gregg asked the props director to find “the world’s most enormous, flaccid, artificial male genitalia,” which dangled almost to the edge of his long robe. “I meant to get a scream out of Julia,” Gregg said, “but of course, the person who really took the brunt of it and nearly had a heart attack was Hamish. He scampered and did an amazing crabwalk backward out of the frame on his back.” Dreyfus remained unflappable. “She mostly wanted to know why Hamish was going into cardiac arrest.”
Photo: MICHAEL ANSELL/?2008 Warner Bros. Television. All Rights Reserved.
Gregg’s directorial debut, an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Choke starring Sam Rockwell, was shot at, among other places, a supposedly haunted insane asylum in Cedar Brook, New Jersey. (It’s been featured on Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters). “Even the tough cops who patrolled the area and trained their drug-sniffing dogs there had areas they wouldn’t go in,” Gregg said, “and they were happy to clarify that there were a couple of buildings that we should steer clear of.” One building allegedly had a “very sexy nurse from the turn-of-the-century,” and the other had a “really terrifying black energy that scared everybody senseless.”
While showcasing Choke at Sundance, Fox Searchlight asked Gregg if he wanted to play Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s boss at the greeting card company. “I had done a succession of mean bosses in Hoot, in In Good Company, and I was really done with bosses for a while,” Gregg said. “But this guy was so sweet! I just loved that he was such a romantic instead.” Gregg had previously met Zooey Deschanel because she had auditioned to play the daughter in his movie What Lies Beneath, so he reminded her of that when they met again on Summer: “”I know I’m not supposed to say this,’ I told her, ‘but I was involved in that one, so I got to see your audition, and you were magnificent.’” To us, he noted that his wife, Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey, was the “the original gangsta of manic pixie dream girls.”
Jon Favreau originally invited Gregg aboard the Marvel train for what was to be a “tiny role” in Iron Man. “It was just three lines, but I’m a comic-book geek, so I couldn’t say no,” he said. Favreau kept adding more scenes for Agent Coulson, who at first was meant to just debrief Tony Stark after escaping his kidnapping. “Pretty soon, I was a representative of S.H.I.E.L.D., and I was a substantial enough character for Pepper Potts to say, ‘Thank you, Agent Coulson.’ I was like, ‘Wow, this has turned into a good gig!’” If he only knew. Soon after his first appearance, Coulson became the link to connect the Marvel films leading up to The Avengers, which he discovered during the making of Iron Man 2. “They would say, ‘Oh, tell him you have to go to New Mexico,’ and I said, ‘What’s in New Mexico?’” Gregg recalled. “And they were like, ‘Did nobody tell you? You’re in Thor!’ I almost died on the spot.” Then while promoting that movie at Comic-Con, Joss Whedon pulled him aside. “He asked me, ‘Can I introduce you as a part of the panel for The Avengers?’” Gregg said. “I thought, Clearly, this is the work of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and I only have two weeks to live.”
Photo: Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios/ ? 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM & ? 2011 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
What goes up, however, must go down. “Of course, I was the most expendable member of the group, so it was just flattering to be there,” Gregg said. “I figured Coulson would just be there to bring someone a latte and keep on walking. But it was a big part, Joss said, and then he said, ‘What happens to you is what brings the Avengers together.’” Meaning, Coulson would have to die. “I was like, ‘Oh no! This is it for me! This is my last Marvel movie!” Gregg still loved doing it, because “it was a great gig, the way they made this guy a fanboy and a regular person, which really connected me to the fans.” During the shoot in Albuquerque, he made the most of every minute with the cast, promptly responding to “Avengers assemble!” texts from Chris Evans (which really meant “meet at a local bar for a dance-off”). “A dance-off makes it sound too competitive,” Gregg said. “It was more like Soul Train, where everyone had a moment to reveal their super powers on the dance floor. Chris Evans has his own. Scarlett, no one dances like a girl from New York. Tom [Hiddleston] has all kinds of moves. I tweeted, ‘Nobody Lambadas like Loki,’ and I’ll never live that down.”
Coulson, however, has been resurrected. Or perhaps he never really died, and Nick Fury just told everyone he did. However it’s going to play out on the TV show, Coulson lives — just like the “Coulson Lives” fan movement T-shirts people made post-Avengers. “There were people who refuse to accept his death,” Gregg said, “but when I got the call, ‘You may not be all the way dead,’ I still kind of couldn’t believe it.” Gregg can’t reveal much about how Agent Coulson can return to lead S.H.I.E.L.D. for at least the pilot, “without ensuring that I become very, very dead,” but he can tell us this: “I will say that it takes place after The Avengers, and when I asked this very question to Joss, how Coulson might still be around, his answer was so perfect and so complex and so delicately managed to not undermine everything that came before, that I was in by the time he finished that sentence.”
After shooting The Avengers, Gregg had dinner at Whedon’s house, and he told his director, “You’ve just made a gigantic movie. Please tell me you’re getting on a plane tomorrow to be unconscious on a beach somewhere.” Whedon, however, had other plans: Much Ado About Nothing, a black-and-white modern-day movie version of a Shakespearian play in short order. Gregg had a play to do back in New York and initially declined a part, but then his play was pushed back ten days — just enough time to join the cast. “The next thing I know, I’m quickly trying to learn a lot of lines,” he said. “I had two days to learn the whole role, so it was really by the seat of my pants.” Gregg hired a friend to run lines with him, so that he could crash-course the part of Leonato. “It was like jumping out a plane with a Shakespeare kit and it saving me before I hit the ground.”
For his second directorial effort, Gregg pulled in a lot of favors — one of which was only possible because of his work on The Avengers: He needed to pull off a stunning visual effect, “a visual effects component that I had never really dealt with,” he said. “And couldn’t really afford it on a budget like this.” Luma Pictures, which Gregg knew from the Marvel movies, took him under their wing when he was “desperate and late in my process, and they gave me the most high-quality visual effects that I could have gotten under any budget,” he said. “It was just one of the weird magical hookups that appeared whenever I got desperate. I’m still scratching my head about that one.”