Clark Gregg interview: Marvel, S.H.I.E.L.D., Civil War

With Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 3 now airing in the UK, we spoke to Clark Gregg (AKA Agent Phil Coulson) about his Marvel adventures…

Warning: contains spoilers for The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. seasons 1 and 2.

Please note: this interview took place in June 2015 and has been under embargo until now.

As far as significant cornerstones of the Marvel Cinematic Universe go, Clark Gregg is one of the biggest. As unlikely as it may have seemed back in 2008, when he first appeared in Iron Man, Gregg’s portrayal of Agent Coulson became an integral glue helping to hold the overall interconnecting story together.

As an avatar for fans, Gregg really grew with the role, building up to his incredibly likeable turn in The Avengers, where his glee at meeting Captain America for the first (non-frozen) time was adored by many similar-feeling fans, who could only have dreamed of an Avengers movie on this scale a few years prior.

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Since the tragic events of The Avengers, Clark Gregg’s Coulson (whose first name turns out to be Phil, not Agent) has found a new lease of life on Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel Studios’ flagship television project that opened doors for the likes of Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and all the other TV/Netflix projects Marvel are cooking up.

Although the show got off to a shaky start (especially when you look at the first early reviews on some websites), Gregg and his new team of agents gradually grew to meet the demands of network telly, resulting in a barnstorming run that followed directly on from the cataclysmic events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The show hasn’t really let up in pace since then, despite a few wobbly episodes, and recently got renewed for a third season. A third season that could well see Coulson and co joined by a team of super-powered individuals, to revitalise the show once more.

We sat down with a very dapper Clark Gregg in a swanky London hotel to talk about all of the above, and the chances of Coulson ever returning to the big screen. Here’s the interview…

To start at the start – when you signed up for Iron Man, did you have any idea you’d still be talking about Phil Coulson all these years later?

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No… especially in the incarnation when they hired me – his name was literally only ‘Agent,’ and he only had about three lines. And yet they wanted a three picture deal, which I thought was just ludicrous. Because his name was only Agent! I knew they were doing that for everybody, because they had plans, and so we finally made that deal. And then, it was very clear that that was all it was going to be.

But there was something. There was something about what happened in that scene, and I think by the time I showed up there was a little bit… Maybe Jon Favreau did me a solid… And they kind of beefed up that scene.

I think by the time I showed up, he had a name. And yet there was really nothing. Then I remember [Jon] pulling me aside and going ‘are you free? Are you free right now? I think they’re adding some more stuff,’ and I was like [very quickly] ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! I’m gonna get free!’

And every step of the way, as it became this character, people were like ‘you can’t have this guy! He’s not in the comics! There’s plenty of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that could be from the comics!’ And then other people kind-of yelled back at them like ‘no, we like this guy! He’s kind of… us!’

And just, piece by piece, they kept adding stuff for him to do, and movies, and it all kinda culminated in this, you know, magnificent exit at the hands of that Asgardian mischief-making bastard, and I thought that was it! I was well and truly pleased, and kind of went back to making little indie films, and the stuff I normally do, and then, um, got a call from Joss [Whedon] saying ‘we think you might not be so dead.’

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How much later was that? How long had you mourned for Phil?

Well, I’d known about his death for a year, and the movie had been filmed in… The movie came out in… I wanna say, May? The movie came out in April or May, and it was kinda middle of the summer when I got the call. I was actually just days into preproduction for this independent film that I’d written and was going to direct.

And then by, I guess… When was it? I guess it was late fall when we shot the pilot…

What was that like, then, resurrecting him? What was going through your head?

It was quite terrifying! In a way, just because I didn’t wanna minimise anything that had happened in The Avengers, but characters coming back from the dead is quite a common occurrence in the comic books.

And so, it didn’t throw me that much, and what Joss had pitched to me as the idea was ‘you don’t come back without a cost. And the reason he’s brought back, the way he’s brought back, is a secret to him, and it’s excruciating, it involves terrible trauma, and pain, and something that was done against his will.’

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And that was very much a mystery for all of season one, and carried over in the repercussions into season 2. And I think, in an on-going way… because I don’t think he will ever be the same. I don’t think he really thinks that he really belongs here, in a way. And, I just don’t think he’s the same man since coming back.

And, you know, we were also the very first ones through the door, so to speak, in terms of trying to bring some version of the Marvel story to television, and network television at that, not twelve episodes but twenty-two! And, it took us a few moments to really find our stride, to do the kind of episodic genre television that we all wanted to do.

It’s been really thrilling to have this tremendous team of writers, and an ever-expanding and evolving cast, of really terrific actors. I don’t think we came out of the gate fully formed. But the way that it’s evolved over season two we’re very thrilled by.

Was it hard for you, when some of that reaction to the early season one episodes came out? You must have wanted to tell everyone where it was going, how it was all going to change…

I mean… it was. In a way, it didn’t surprise me, because I knew what we were trying to do was really difficult. And it was not gonna be an easy transition. And Joss was very quickly going to be very involved with The Avengers 2, and there was such an incredible spotlight on what we were doing.

And it was also a brand new marriage between ABC and Marvel, and it wasn’t really clear a first whether it was going to lean more towards being an ABC show or a Marvel show. So there was a lot to sort out, and I was disappointed. I was disappointed that, certainly, there was a couple of journalists who really went after us hard, early.

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And I thought, ‘you know what? Marvel’s got a track record of trying to do something unusual.’ For my money, it’s very faithful to what the fans want, and, you know, I hoped people would stick with us a little bit, and give us a chance to find our footing. And, luckily, they did.

Um, I guess I can’t regret any of it, because it’s been all the more satisfying – the critical and popular support that we’ve gotten, as it moved into season two. And its all the more fun now.

And what would you like to do now, what direction would you like to take with Coulson in season 3? You teased that maybe he’s not through his ‘dark’ stage…

I don’t know if he is, I honestly don’t know! We’re on hiatus and they’re writing, so… I don’t know if they even know yet!

The relationship with Quake – Skye, who we now know is Quake – that suggests things to me, just as a fan who knows nothing. Quake, and some of the Inhumans, and powered people – in our show, we’ve delineated between people who are gifted and people who have powers – and so, there’s Deathlok and there’s Quake, and there are a lot of people who start to form a pretty impressive unit.

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And, you know, I always look at what’s being filmed in the cinematic universe to kind of get a sense of where we might be going. And the fact that Civil War is coming… I have a feeling that… what’s been exciting, is that there seems to be a whole new…

You know, we started off making Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., and toward the end S.H.I.E.L.D. was destroyed. Season 2: suddenly we’d gone from being part of a faceless giant organisation, to a very small group of survivors trying to rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D.’s core principles before HYDRA was able to do terrible things to the world… And HYDRA’s certainly been taken down a notch, and the rogue elements of the Inhumans have been tackled, so it’s very interesting to see how the show will be reinvented again for season three.

How important do you think it is that the show refreshes like that every few months? So far we’ve had Pre-Winter Solider, Post-Winter Soldier, mid season 2 when the Inhumans show up, and now maybe going towards Secret Warriors…

That’s a really good question! I think it’s because they’ve managed to make that a function. Not just a function of the television, of being entertaining, but really a function of what’s happening. You know, we’re a specific part of a very large canvas. And so, the writers have to work, in a way, to not reveal anything that’s going on in the other parts of it, and find a way to make our particular thing standalone.

And, it’s funny because it feels organic to me, because it feels like what Coulson’s having to do, at this moment, as the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., is to constantly reinvent what they’re doing. To respond to the threats that are going on.

It also seems to be, appropriately, a clever way to do television in a world where people binge-watch, and there’s ten episodes of this, and eight episodes of this, and fourteen episodes of this – and we’re doing twenty-two! So, to kind of survive in that landscape, I think the writers have had to be very nimble and very adaptable.

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You could cut S.H.I.E.L.D. up into chunks couldn’t you, if you were a binger?

Well, we kinda did! We were lucky enough to have the magnificent Hayley Atwell and everyone at Agent Carter step in. Before that, they’d been trying to fit our very episodic model in season one into the American network television model. Which was, kind of, three or four weeks, then down a week or two for this or that sporting activity, and it didn’t work for our fans at all.

So, the way they did it last year was vastly superior. It was basically a straight shot of ten, I believe, and eight then of Agent Carter, and then our final twelve, mostly uninterrupted.

And I think that’s gonna be the model. There’s gonna be ten of Agent Carter, which is great, ‘cause I love that show… Is that show on here yet?

It is not…

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How can that show not be on here?!

It will be soon! Fox UK have bought it… It’ll be on in… July I think.

Oh good. Oh good. Um, that model seems to work. We have two seasons. Or ‘series,’ as I guess you call them. I think that model works better for what we’re trying to do.

Speaking of next season, or series, is there anyone you really want to come back? Would you want Amy Acker’s cellist to return?

For god’s sakes, yes! Let Phil Coulson go on a date, he’s all work and no play! And she’s magnificent, and I love her. I love her as an actress, and just as a person.

The conceit was always that there was business left undone between them. And, err, she’s done a very successful show – Person Of Interest – and she’s brilliant on it. So, I hope that doesn’t come between us.

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He does deserve something nice to happen, I think…

For god’s sake! Yeah, I mean, he’s missing a limb now… Just… please!

Oh yeah! Do you want to see him get an Iron Man gauntlet on that?

No, I wanna see a whole new something. And I just want something quickly, because even in the two or three days when I had to walk around in the sling I couldn’t open a folder, I could not load a firearm. He’s not gonna survive for long, unless they come up with something. 

Just finally: you mentioned the big Captain America: Civil War movie. Has there been any talk at all of bringing Coulson back to the film world? Just to tell Cap he’s still alive?

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I don’t know… I don’t know what talk there has been. It’s certainly something. I’ll tell you what – there’s a lot of talk about it from fans. The fans seem very concerned about when Coulson’s death will be revealed to some Avengers. And, I certainly understand that, to a certain extent I share it.

To be honest, Coulson has his hands very full. Dealing with what he’s dealing with. And I’m so thrilled to be getting to take this – as we said – small character whose name was Agent, and get to have this level of exploration of him.

I think, if I know Marvel, it’s not something that will be done abruptly – it’ll be something that’s really carefully thought out, and a long time coming. It will be, hopefully, satisfying enough that it will justify the wait.

As is a traditional Den Of Geek question, and just to round things up, do you have a favourite Jason Statham movie?

That’s funny. It’s not my favourite of his movies, but my daughter made me go see Spy, which is hilarious. And he’s really sending himself up, and that was brilliant. He was very funny.

Clark Gregg, thank you very much!

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Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 3 airs on Sundays at 9pm on E4.