It seems strange now to think that, back in 2008, when Iron Man first came out, Agent Coulson, was just a bit part – a small role, giving a hint of a wider universe.
Then Clark Gregg made the role his own, and became the heart and soul of Marvel’s cinematic universe, and a multi-eyed link between the films.In The Avengers his role is even more pivotal, and provides Coulson’s best moment yet.
We caught up with Gregg last week, and spoke to him about his experiences as part of the Marvel machine, working with directors he admires, and his own career behind the camera.
COULSON AND THE MARVEL UNIVERSE
On the high profile he now has, and the surreal experience of his growing role in the Marvel movies.
I’ve been such a journeyman actor for so many years, I don’t know how this Marvel thing happened. There were like two parts of New York where I did a lot of plays, those blocks people would maybe say, ‘Hey Clark!’ when I went to work. To walk into the Westfield mall and have them, not only saying ‘Coulson’, they say ‘Clark’, I always think that someone must be standing behind me holding up a card that says my name. It’s surreal.
For me honestly, in all sincerity, it’s not something I 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 SHEILD. There was something about the snarky rapport between myself and Robert Downey, 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 you could have knocked me over with a feather, and they came in with some lines, and they said, ‘This time tell him you’ve got to go – tell him that 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, ‘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 I was like, ‘You’re kidding? This character?’ and they said, ‘Yes’.
That’s kinda how it’s been. Before the panel of Thor at Comic-Con, the king of Comic-Con, Joss Whedon runs up and, hilariously, introduces himself to me, which was not necessary, because I’m a geek fanboy who grew up on comics and loved Buffy, and he said, ‘I’m so sorry, I forgot to call you. I was going to call you, Agent Coulson is a really big part of Avengers, can I introduce you as part of the cast?’ and at this point, I thought this was one of those Make-a-Wish foundations, and I had a terminal illness and no one had told me yet, and they were trying to send me out in a happy way. So then I thought, ‘OK, I’ve been doing this a while, I know not to get my expectations up too high. The script is going to come and it’s going to be, ‘oh there’s the scene where Agent *Coulson comes in and he brings Tony Stark a latte, and he gives the Hulk a protein bar, and he goes’’. Instead it came, and it was deep, and funny, and it had something that I have always loved in the comics, which is the moments where the humans that aren’t invulnerable have to step up, and sometimes turn the tables, and inspire the superheroes.
One of the things that Agent Coulson has had, deliciously, for me is some of the funniest lines. They usually don’t give those to the supporting characters, and to see those come through again with Joss, and to have Joss take what everybody else had done with Coulson, and notice something that I hadn’t even quite put my finger on – that through all his sardonic distain for all the behaviour of the superheroes, of course he’s a fanboy. Of course that’s his cover, and 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 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.
On his relationship with the fans, and Coulson’s role in the Marvel universe.
It’s been a funny relationship, because at first there was a little bit of a hue and cry like, ‘Agent Coulson is introducing SHEILD? There is no Coulson in the comic book universe. Foul! That’s a foul on the play, he must be eradicated’. And I thought, ‘oh no. I was kind of getting into this’, these guys are going to get me killed off, because Marvel are very responsive to their fans, but then there was a kind of counter movement that I’m just ordinary enough that they felt like they had an avatar, and then they demanded more Coulson, and they got what they wanted. I went from going around at Comic-Con buying up all my old comics the first year, to needing a phalanx of security detail, 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. I couldn’t have designed this for myself, it’s insane.
On not appearing in Captain America
I knew that it was taking place in the 40s. I mentioned, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if Agent Coulson’s dad was there, and he was also kind of a bad-ass?’, 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 in the continuity of the Marvel universe, Agent Coulson was handling something pretty scary like one of the short films that day, but no, I’m sad about it.
WHEDON, FAVREAU AND BRANAGH
Going from being a fan of Whedon to an actor in one of his films
Directors have to walk a fine line, and they have to be like, I’ll say in Europe, a great football coach. 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, some like me who have played this character in slightly different incarnations in three or four movies, and he’s, at the same time, gives you what you want is, ‘here’s what I’m looking for’, ‘here’s what this moment’s about’, and at the same time 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, ‘you know, I think I might come in like this,’ and he’ll say, ‘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 he hit the movie so hard out of the park that he did both.
How working with Whedon compares to working with Favreau and Branagh
Nobody gets to do this, it’s such a fantastic thing, to have a character I did twice with Jon, and then suddenly thought, this will be completely different in the world of Thor – it’s a different world, it’s Kenneth Branagh, this Shakespearean actor whom I adore, and yet I found that there was a tremendous commonality. They’re both actors, who love actors, they’re both hysterically funny – you can get the most scathing direction from somebody, if it’s hysterically funny, you don’t care – and he had really brilliant instincts about Coulson, and who Coulson was to that movie, that I knew I could take and make part of Coulson, but would also have to let go of, because once I read the script for the Avengers I thought, ‘well this is different’.
When the Destroyer shows up in Thor, Agent Coulson’s with the megaphone, like ‘another one of these guys, the giant flame-faced guy’, and he seems a little blasé, *but from the opening moments of the Avengers, nobody’s blasé, and whatever ironic, post-modern wisecracking Coulson wants to do, it’s a little bit dampened by what’s going on. Then of course, the arrival, thanks to Joss of this brilliant bit that made perfect sense, but never occurred to me that of course, Agent Coulson is a huge fanboy, and his irony is a cover. And that he’s grown up in love with Captain America and what he represents.
On Whedon’s low-fi , micro-budget version of Much Ado About Nothing
He’s insane. Either he loves ensembles so much, or there’s something about doing an über-epic of this size, that made him feel that he had to immediately reconnect to 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 the biggest movie of all time, and I asked him what beach he was going to be lying on, and he said, ‘no, I’m going to make a little indie movie of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ during my nine days off, here at my house’. And I said, ‘are you crazy? I’m exhausted’. And he said, ‘I hope you’re not too exhausted, because you’re playing Leonato. Two days later I was there, and it tells you a little bit about the concept of the film, walking into his kitchen with camera rolling with an iPad or an iPhone, saying ‘I see from this message that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina’. Suddenly I was in Joss’ indie film of Much Ado About Nothing.
GREGG’S OWN DIRECTING CAREER
Has working on these films inspired you to start writing and directing again yourself?
I had a great time making the film that I made, Choke, and I wanted to make another one immediately after, and I still had a couple of years left on the sitcom I was doing in the states, and then whenever I was finished, Marvel kept calling, and to my good fortune I’ve been doing these movies for four or five years. Hopefully I have a break now, of indeterminate length. Hopefully the new one that I’m about to finish casting will happen soon.
What is it?
It’s a dark, neo-noir about a talent agent for child actors who’s a bit of a loser.
It seems that you’d like to be a part of this universe as a writer/director. Is Kevin Feige aware of this, or will he find out when he hears back from these interviews?
He knows. They’ve been very kind. I was making Choke while I was doing Iron Man. They’re very filmmaker friendly, as Joss said. They didn’t pull off this magical act that I think they pulled off by bringing people in and bossing them around. It was a brand new studio, they bring people like Joss in, and they really listen. There’s very little to suggest in the little Sundace movies that I make that I’m ready to step in to a giant superhero epic, but they know that I’ve written some movies that have been made, and they’ve been interesting in conversing with me about what might be a way for me to work with them again.
Have they offered you any short films to direct?
I’m always so scared about talking about this stuff, because I feel that I could evaporate at any moment. The short seems like a logical place to start, but I have a feeling that if I were to make a short, I’d want to do the fanciest – I’d be wanting to do The Avengers short.
If you could direct any property in the Marvel Universe, which would it be?
I’m interested in, maybe it’s my background, I’m interested in SHEILD. I’m interested in Budapest. I’m interested in the things, when Barton [Hawkeye] is talking to her about the past, there’s a very dark, very violent, Hong Kong shoot ‘em-up-styled, men in black with sci-fi elements version of a SHEILD prequel that I would be very keen on working on.