Clark Gregg interview: on playing Agent Phil Coulson in The Avengers

Agent Phil Coulson is now a major part of the Marvel cinematic universe. Ahead of The Avengers’ release, we spoke to actor Clark Gregg about the role...

One way of looking at the recent run of Marvel Studios films, which reaches its apex with the release of The Avengers this week, is to read it as The Rise of Agent Phil Coulson. The suit from SHIELD, played with great poker-face by Clark Gregg, has slowly developed over the years, from cheeky cameos in the Iron Man and Thor movies, to a full-blown supporting role in The Avengers, where he not only steps up alongside the superheroes, but finally gets his fair share of screen time, too.

At the Avengers press junket last week, we had a chance to chat with Gregg about superheroes, the hard slog of being a working actor, and the slow-burning development of fan-favourite Agent Coulson.

What do you think is so fascinating about superheroes?

That’s a really good question. You’d think it would be done by now! There have been so many of them, for many years. I thought it was a specifically American, bizarre pop phenomenon, because we grew up with it… Superman, even Batman, from the 40s! And yet, there’s something about when I saw this film, it felt like all those ideas had been taken and, as I guess always happens, the culture calls out for what it needs, and there’s something about this that feels very self-aware, and the superheroes seemed much more flawed.

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Yet you notice their egos and their psychological complexities are very much like hubris. And then you go, well wait a minute, this has actually been around kind of always! And there’s always the idea of a hero, and a super antagonist, and those are the building blocks of story. And I don’t think that this movie would work if it didn’t connect somehow to something deeper, because then it’s just a bunch of people flying around and we wouldn’t care.

You’ve been around in the industry for years, and now you’re in this huge franchise. What was it like slogging away, early on? Were there a lot of rejections?

Yeah! I think some will be coming next week! It’s a never-ending thing. I’ve been there swinging away for years. Doing theatre for the first ten years. I’d never even stepped in front of a camera until I was probably 30. Everybody finds their own path. There’s a lot of times when I was frustrated, and I saw people I knew getting to move out and do different kinds of stuff. And at the time I felt jealous. But I’m so grateful – honestly, it sounds like a sentiment – I’m so grateful to be here now. When they made Agent Coulson SHIELD in the Iron Man movie, he was just a guy who showed up and gave Tony Stark some papers.

They found something to make this guy part of this world, and to add him to the movies. And then I thought he would be bringing the Hulk a latte, and then be gone from the Avengers. There’s a lot of big, superhero mouths to feed! And when they made him an integral part of the story… I can’t imagine it being quite this fun if I was 28 and a lot more dangerous. To have a daughter who can go with me to the movie… It’s good this way, I like it.

It was such a joy to see how much of a prominent character Agent Coulson became in this film. You’ve got great lines, you move the plot forward, and you stand up both alongside the heroes and against the villains. That’s such a surprise as a viewer. Was it as much of a surprise as an actor? Did a draft of the Avengers arrive, and you suddenly had this big part? Or had you suspected it?

Oh no, I would have bet every one of my very few pennies that I’ve earned acting all these years against it. But it’s one of the things that I think is amazing about what Marvel’s done. I was remembering it last night, because I couldn’t believe it when I saw the film, because even though it was in the script, I still didn’t believe it would really happen. At certain points, I felt like there were some invisible superstar bites happening on my lines. “Wait, where did that go? That was too funny, wasn’t it? Somebody more fancy has that line now!”

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But it all kept coming back, and I think it’s twofold. Marvel has a plan, and had a plan, but it’s very much evolved as they went. And as I said, they didn’t know, I think, that this character was going to be the face of SHIELD, and introducing SHIELD, they didn’t quite know how they were going to bring SHIELD in from the comics, and it’s something that they responded to step by step, and really evolved the way this developed.

And one of the reasons that I think that they made Agent Coulson a bigger and bigger part was partly because of, after all, he’s the fans. He’s the Everyman. He’s the avatar. And even though he’s very sarcastic and snide with Tony Stark, and he’s so blasé when he meets the Destroyer, Joss picked up on why he’s in the Marvel universe.

And the fans, while first being shocked that someone who wasn’t in the comics was suddenly in this movie, they embraced him, very publicly. He has a huge Twitter following, and a lot of people who claim to be Agent Coulson on Twitter, twittering the most hilarious things. And I feel like it’s another thing Marvel responded to. He’s like me. He’s a fanboy, we now know.

And even though he’s jaded, there’s something in the core myth of finding out how you can be heroic. To my surprise, doing this movie got me choked up. And what Joss wrote, and what’s there… I sometimes feel like I’m the guy from Comic-Con, who won some bizarre sort of secret sweepstakes, and they let me be in the movies!

Clark Gregg, thank you very much for your time!

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