Clark Gregg has been playing Agent Philip J. Coulson for a decade now: five years in various Avengers movies and Marvel One Shots and five years in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. But throughout season 6 on ABC, we’ve come to enjoy Gregg’s performance depicting a new, less scrupulous character named Sarge, whose role has evolved from that of an outright antagonist to an adversary with a common enemy. We spoke to Gregg recently about how he made the transition to his new character on the show.
DEN OF GEEK: So was it difficult to let go of Phil Coulson?
CLARK GREGG: We learned on Agents of SHIELD some time ago that everything’s on the table at all times as our nimble writers scour these characters and the greater Marvel universe for going on seven seasons worth of stories to tell. Yet I don’t think I was prepared to basically shed everything but the guy’s skin to play a very different, much darker character whose name is apparently Sarge.
Did you know about Coulson’s fatal course even when he first made his mysterious deal with Ghost Rider in season 4?
it wasn’t until I got there that day and started to get fitted for the gear that would set up the flaming skull transition that I said, ‘You know, it occurs to me there are implications to the mortality of anyone who plays Ghost Rider.’ And they were like, ‘Yes, there are.’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay, maybe we should talk about that!’ And they really didn’t, and I’m glad they didn’t.
But I was talking to Jeff Bell and Jed Whedon off behind some flats while they got ready to light the scene. They really didn’t give me much because there was this scene where Gabe Luna’s Robbie Reyes character is saying, ‘Do you understand the deal you just made? And more importantly, does your team?’ And I say, ‘Yes, I understand the deal I just made, and I’d appreciate it if you’d let me share this information when I choose.’ And it just felt heavy, and I thought, ‘God, okay, this is going to have longer reaching implications,’ and it wasn’t until the disease that was tearing through him, the waste and the necropathy, that they really said, ‘Yeah, this is your deal with Ghost Rider coming due.’ He basically burned through whatever was left of the revivifying Tahiti stuff.
And now Phil Coulson was really going to die. And I thought that was a bold choice! They don’t mess around; they take bold choices. It was a little startling after, at that point, ten years of playing the guy and having died already once and the grim stuff I went through in season 1 and realizing how I’d been brought back. And yet Phil Coulson’s always been a little uncomfortable with having felt like he was on somebody else’s library card being here. So it was an ambivalent feeling, and then they said, ‘We will have you back for season 6.’ And then they pitched this Sarge setup essentially in a very rough pencil-sketch form, that he would be somebody else from somewhere else who was as surprised as they were when they were recognizing him.
What’s been the most challenging part of playing this man in black from another dimension?
There’s years of gradual evolution of that season 5 iteration of Phil Coulson, through the various movies and then five seasons of Agents of SHIELD and all those adventures and that family that he evolves. That was a real gradual settling into that skin and character, and suddenly all those bets were off. It was about not knowing this new person. He has a completely different story, and I didn’t know it. And at a certain point it starts to become clear that he has real gaps in his memory and understanding of that character.
So that’s very hard to make sense of, and at the same time he has a lot of emotional entanglements. A moral compass — all of that was gone, and this guy was delightfully free of anything but rabid, fierce dedication to taking on these creatures that we’ve started to meet who seem to be paving the way for some kind of creator to come down. And he seems maniacally bent on destroying them and whoever the creator is.
Before I directed that first episode (because I’d never really done an episode of television with commercials; I’d directed a couple of features) I sat down with those two and also with Billy Gierhart who also directed a number of episodes of our show. They had really done the most compelling episodes for the most part, and I just kind of soaked them for their tips. But also Jed had directed a great episode, and he and Maurissa, the bosses, the showrunners were really generous in terms of giving me the time and the resources I needed. And our producer Garry Brown, I’ve gotten to watch him direct a lot of the action stuff and he was — they were all super supportive.
It’s really about trying to find a way to tell the story in the style of our show and find what’s different about that episode that you’re doing and really do it justice. I’d be remiss in not pointing out that when they gave me the shot to do the premiere episode of season 6, that was a huge episode with a lot of visual effects establishing a whole new chapter and to some extent a world for Agents of SHIELD that was more space sci-fi than we had dealt with. And Mark Kolpack, our visual effects genius, really came through on that.
Coulson and Sarge are both understated leaders. Would Coulson have any appreciation for the manner in which Sarge leads his team?
I don’t think so. I think standard issue Phil Coulson would find Sarge’s methods and that way that he is maybe using some of the same quiet notes but really ruling through fear to be antithetical to his leadership style. That would have been a great death match: Sarge versus Coulson. I have to say my money would be on Sarge!
I think by now we’ve started to see that Sarge thinks that this is just a mild, strange piece of information that people seem to recognize him, but as they seem to know to say things to trigger memories and to send weird vibrations through his being and expose how many gaps there are in his own understanding of who he is, he starts to, in a way that’s eerily reminiscent of Phil Coulson season 1, to be on a little bit of a mystery mission himself to find out why this is happening. And at a certain point that puts him in an uncomfortable alliance of sorts with SHIELD, and that’s I think when we start to roll into when season 6 gets really dangerous and interesting.
It seems like Sarge and SHIELD may have a common enemy at this point. Is there a lot Sarge could learn from an organization like SHIELD in terms of the ends not always justifying the means?
I feel like Sarge thinks that there’s a lot that SHIELD could learn from him especially when it comes to the truly monumental threat that’s presented by the shrike and the creatures that they take over, these kind of zombie warriors. There’s a couple of species of insects that are able to drop spores into their prey, that take over their brain stem and basically have these zombie mutant prey building a nest for the offspring of those wasps and then basically becoming their food. That’s the level of what these creatures are doing, and I think Sarge has a tough mission ahead of him to make the nature of this threat be understood by May and the rest of SHIELD.
How do you think Coulson would feel about Deke co-opting all of that SHIELD technology in “Code Yellow”?
[Deke] is a creature of his upbringing as, to a certain extent, we all are. He was raised like a pack rat with nothing in the future fighting for survival, and I think he has some trust issues. So I think Coulson would have a level of compassion for Deke the way that Mack does, but I don’t think he would put up with this grand scale SHIELD technology theft, especially in terms of presenting that technology to the world outside of classified settings.
What other character arcs besides your own are you particularly fond of that you feel fans will really respond to in season 6?
I think that everybody who cares about Fitz-Simmons and, like me, had a lot of problems with keeping all of the water out of my eyes when they got married really wants to see those two once again find their way back to each other. I think there’s a lot of fun coming in terms of Melinda May, who seems far from nostalgic about the appearance of this Coulson person. If anything it just triggers some murderous feelings, so I think the showdown between these two is going to get down and dirty before it gets nice at all. That’s going to be exciting!
And I think the reunion of this person who looks like Coulson but really isn’t with the SHIELD team to confront the most out-there, terrifying threat that I think we’ve ever seen — and that’s saying something at this point in season 6 — I think that’s going to really pay off like something we’ve never seen before.
Notably, Gregg referred to the flying beasts as “shrike” in this interview and teased that Sarge might be on the lookout for who created them in the first place. When Agents of SHIELD returns from its week off this Friday, perhaps he will persuade Melinda May to unite against this mutual danger. The next episode is entitled “The Other Thing,” and it airs on Friday, June 14, 2019 at 8/7c.