In THE AVENGERS, most of the title characters – Robert Downey, Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers/Captain America and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk – have superpowers, while Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye have extraordinary fighting skills. S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury has Samuel Jackson’s awesome glower to keep the Avengers in line, but anyone watching THE AVENGERS or most of its predecessors – the two IRON MAN films and THOR – knows that the glue holding everything together is loyal, tenacious and calm Agent Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg.
Gregg, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, has a strong career in stage, film and TV (he had recurring roles on THE WEST WING and THE SHIELD and was a series regular on THE NEW ADVENTURES OF OLD CHRISTINE). He also directed and adapted the screenplay for the film CHOKE, based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel, and also scripted 2000’s WHAT LIES BENEATH, which has some supernatural elements, but until Gregg did the first IRON MAN movie in 2008, he hadn’t delved much into the superhero genre.
Obviously, this is changing – he’s now the voice of Agent Coulson/Principal Coulson on the animated ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN TV series and has been announced as part of the cast for Marvel’s planned NICK FURY movie alongside Jackson. Also, clearly having had a good experience working with AVENGERS writer/director Joss Whedon, Gregg plays Leonato in Whedon’s film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, currently in post-production.
Ensconced in a room at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where Disney and Marvel have put Gregg for the afternoon to talk to the press, the actor talks about playing the quietest but not the least heroic of THE AVENGERS characters.
ASSIGNMENT X: You’ve had a very wide-ranging acting career. Granted, David Mamet can get somewhat surreal and the film CHOKE is a little surreal, but most of your work has been less superhero-y than this. So were you surprised to wind up so closely associated with the Marvel superhero genre?
GREGG: Sure. I didn’t expect to end up in this world, I’d never done one of these movies. I got a call to do a couple of scenes in IRON MAN, and I knew [IRON MAN director] Jon Favreau and I liked him and I thought the cast was amazing, so I signed up and – it never happens. I couldn’t believe when they just started adding more and more scenes and made this guy a more important character in the movie and then more movies and then finally having Joss Whedon pull me aside at Comic-Con and say, “Listen, I want to introduce you as part of the cast of THE AVENGERS, because you have a really substantial role. You’re one of the leads.” I always think someone’s pranking me, because it’s so lucky. I grew up liking the comics and liking this world a lot, so I just feel lucky.
AX: Now, you are in the IRON MAN films and THOR, but you’re not in the CAPTAIN AMERICA tag scene, even though Agent Coulson says he was watching over Steve Rogers while he slept, at least during the last part of Cap’s forty-year snooze.
GREGG: I was not in that tag scene. I like to imagine that I was off doing something really important.
AX: Well, since they didn’t know precisely when he was waking up, you couldn’t have known to be there …
AX: How much of a presence is Agent Coulson in the comics?
GREGG: There was a little bit of a hue and cry at first from the hardcore comic fans, because Agent Coulson doesn’t appear in the comics prior to IRON MAN 1 and in fact, they’ve just integrated him into the comics recently and now he’s become kind of a part of the Marvel universe, but he’s one of the few – I’m told sometimes only – characters who started in the movies and is now in the comics.
AX: Does he look like you in the comics?
GREGG: I wish I looked like that. It’s definitely based on me, but they are very kind to me in the comics [laughs].
AX: Do you feel Coulson has a different relationship with each of the Avengers? He obviously has a very friendly relationship with Tony Stark’s love Pepper, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, but how would you say he feels about Tony?
GREGG: Well, I think of the Avengers as a dysfunctional family. That’s pretty much what Joss was going for and that really felt in keeping with the groundwork that’s been set up, that S.H.I.E.L.D. has a great respect for these people, but at the same time, no illusions about some of the damage that they have and some of the issues that come along with having one of these superpowers. I feel like Coulson, like a really good basketball coach, knows it’s one thing that’s going to get somebody to play their best game, and it’s something very else that’s going to get Tony Stark to play his best game. And I think that he admires Tony Stark a lot more than he would ever tell Tony Stark.
AX: What are his feelings about Director Fury?
GREGG: They seem very “classic boss,” although again, I feel like director Fury is someone who Agent Coulson idolized before he met him, kind of the way he idolized Steve Rogers. What I think is cool in THE AVENGERS is that Coulson is kind of revealed to be a fanboy and someone who chose this line of work because really, for all his sarcasm and his lack of tolerance for the diva behavior of the superheroes, he’s clearly somebody who really buys into the dream.
AX: You’ve worked with Jon Favreau on the IRON MAN films, Kenneth Branagh on THOR and now Joss Whedon on AVENGERS. Is there any kind of a difference in tone? I’m guessing there were logistical differences in the films, although I don’t know how much those would affect the actors.
GREGG: It’s funny – it’s the job that Marvel took on [as the producing entity], which is to do an origin movie for each of these characters that really respected the world of that character and then, at the same time, in a way that makes sense in the cinematic world, that has to feel different than the comic book world. The Marvel cinematic universe is different than the Marvel comics universe and within that, each of these directors had to find a way to connect what they were doing to the other movie that came before it, and nobody had a harder task than Joss Whedon, to bring tissue from all of those different movies into one movie and make it work as its own thing and still make those characters feel like they’d stepped out of their other movies, including Agent Coulson. And I think from the minute any of us read the script, we thought, “Oh, wow, I don’t know how he did it, but I think he did it.”
AX: Would you say Coulson has had an evolution over all the films he’s appeared in?
GREGG: The directors knew the other films. [On THOR, which came after the IRON MAN films], Kenneth Branagh and I would say, “Something feels wrong here. This doesn’t feel like Coulson” in one of the scenes. And then we realized, “Oh, he’s sprinting. He’s sprinting. I don’t think he sprints like that. It doesn’t feel right. Coulson walks. He walks briskly – maintain calm.” And it’s funny, because some of the Internet fans of Coulson, one of their things is that classic British poster, it may be from THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN, where they say, “Keep calm. It’s your duty to keep calm.” And they’ve done a bunch of these posters and they say, “Keep calm and call Coulson.” It’s something that they absolutely picked up about this guy, is that he’s seen things that you can’t imagine, and he believes in the philosophy of trying to stay calm.
AX: What was your most memorable moment in making THE AVENGERS?
GREGG: I’m going to say it was the day I got the script, just because I felt like this was not an achievable task, as someone who writes sometimes and loves movies and watches a lot of them, I just didn’t think it was really feasible to have this many characters and have them all get to kind of move forward and to have a story of them kind of coming together really work. And if it did work with that many amazing superheroes and movie stars, I felt it unlikely that Agent Coulson would do anything but bring some super-coffee to somebody. So when I read it and kind of saw that it was my fanboy wet dream of an AVENGERS script and that Coulson was a big part of it, that was a great day for me. I just kind of drove around the streets with the script in the other seat, just kind of giggling.
AX: There are scenes in AVENGERS where all of the characters are intent on their own thing and not listening to each other. Did Joss Whedon give you any particular kind of direction for those, or did he just feel like you would know what to do?
GREGG: You know, most of the time – and I was lucky, I’ve really done this guy a lot – I felt like Joss wrote the guy that I knew and just revealed some more about him that was close to stuff I had suspected and if he wanted something different, he was very clear about it, and it always felt like just more information about Coulson.
AX: Did those of you in the cast who’d been playing your characters through other films any kind of different feeling about AVENGERS than the actors who were playing the roles for the first time, like Mark Ruffalo and Cobie Smulders, who plays Maria Hill?
GREGG: You know, what was cool was that the movies [Marvel and the returning actors] made had some of these actors already being to a certain extent fans of the franchise. Mark and others seemed happy to be there, and to those of us who’d been doing some of the other movies, it felt like, “This is great – fresh blood, and really, really talented fresh blood. It’s going to just challenge us.”
AX: A lot of your scenes in AVENGERS take place aboard the flying heli-carrier. Did you and the other actors walk differently at all because you’re supposed to be in something that’s flying versus solid ground?
GREGG: You know, as long as it’s flying smoothly, my research indicates that being on the heli-carrier feels a lot like being on solid ground. Once there’s tumult on the heli-carrier, definitely there’s some STAR TREK-ian leaning.
AX: Agent Coulson is one of the relatively few AVENGERS characters in civilian clothing. Did you ever wish you could have a more elaborate costume when you were in the scenes with some of the actors who were in their superhero garb?
GREGG: Well, I’m not going to lie, I think that Agent Coulson could rock some of Agent Romanoff’s catsuits. No, that’s being silly. There are certain times of the morning when yes, I do wish I had some of the Asgardian armor to walk around in and, God knows, the Antlers of Doom that Loki [Tom Hiddleston] has. But you know, thirteen, fourteen hours into the day, I’m quite pleased to be in my cool, pressed Dolce and Gabbana suit.
AX: You have a very sizable weapon prop that looks extremely heavy. How was that to work with? Had you always wanted to play with something like that, or did you go, “What on Earth is this thing?”
GREGG: [laughs] I don’t know any guy who doesn’t want to play with a crazy alien-infused weapon that contained pieces of the Destroyer like that. They couldn’t really get it away from me between scenes.
AX: You have a huge scene as Coulson in AVENGERS. Were you expecting that at all?
GREGG: No. I was told that Agent Coulson was going to play a big role bringing the Avengers together. Nothing really prepared me for how big a role that would be and what that was going to be like, and when I read the scenes, I just thought, “This is one of the greatest things that’s happened to me as an actor, to get to play this stuff.”
AX: And you’ve been through the Comic-Con rock star experience. How was that?
GREGG: You know, I told somebody else, it’s something I feel like everybody ought to get for one or two days, because it’s just so spectacular to walk around San Diego or New York for one day and just have to be surrounded by security and people asking you to sign body parts and it’s the Mick Jagger thing. And at the same time, it’s really healthy to then have it end as you drive out of either San Diego or New York and be back with your family, where you’re told in no uncertain terms what a loser you are [laughs].
AX: Had you previously thought that fame would look like that or feel like that?
GREGG: I thought it probably looked like that, I just didn’t think it would ever happen to me. And it’s been amazing to me how this movie has kind of connected me as an actor and that character to a huge, huge number of people who I think just find a way into these very spectacular movies through him.
AX: A perhaps-spoilery question – the IMDB has you listed as being in the upcoming NICK FURY film. If you’re in that, might you be in any more films with other AVENGERS characters?
GREGG: I don’t think anything’s ruled out. You never know these things. It’s Marvel – I wouldn’t be surprised.
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