It was 11 years ago this May when Tony Stark and Pepper Potts were approached in the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, Iron Man, by an unassuming yet cynical man-in-black type from a clandestine intelligence organization called S.H.I.E.L.D. That fellow, it turned out, was Agent Phil Coulson, and that first appearance started a long and winding road through the Marvel Universe on both the big and small screens for Coulson and the actor who plays him, Clark Gregg.
Coulson showed up in Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011) and The Avengers (2012), where his shocking death at the hands of Loki was the impetus used by his boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to forge Earth’s Mightiest Heroes into a working team. But as with so many characters in the world of comics, Coulson came back, this time as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself on the Marvel/ABC television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is now heading into its sixth and seventh seasons — the longest-running Marvel show currently still on the air.
But Coulson now also returns in Captain Marvel, which is set in the mid-1990s and features a much younger Coulson and his new (at the time) boss Fury as they navigate their first meeting with the powerful title character (Brie Larson) as well as alien races like the Kree and the Skrulls. The Coulson we find in Captain Marvel is not quite aware of the wider and more dangerous universe that awaits him, Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., but meeting the extraordinary Carol Danvers and being right in the middle of a vicious skirmish between two previously unknown alien species is a crash course for the young agent.
Den of Geek had the pleasure of speaking with the amiable Gregg recently at the press day for Captain Marvel, where we discussed Coulson’s enduring popularity, playing the character 20 years younger and what the future holds for Coulson and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Den of Geek: Was it a nice surprise to get called back up to the big show, so to speak?
Clark Gregg: Yes, it was really nice. They said, “Look, we’re doing a ’90s intro to Captain Marvel.” I love Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers. I just love the look of the character. So I was psyched about that. And they said it was a little bit of an origin story in their view of Coulson and Nick Fury, and here’s the cast. And it’s (directors) Ryan (Fleck) and Anna (Boden), who made Half Nelson, which I think is one of the great indie films. So it was a very short conversation. As long as they could get me free of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a little bit, I was good.
Was that an issue?
There were some overlaps. But our producer, Gary Brown, he’s a really good guy and a fanboy, so he really wanted to make it happen.
This is a younger Coulson. He’s not as cynical maybe. He’s a little more naive.
He’s a little wet behind the ears really.
How did you approach playing him, especially after doing it one way for 11 years?
It was fun and a little bit challenging. I had to forget a lot of things I know and peel away some layers of trauma that the other movies and six seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had laid onto old Phil. But luckily, I mean, there’s a kind of immaturity and enthusiasm that younger Phil seemed to have in the great script they wrote, that never feels too far away for me.
Was it odd in any way to see the process happen and to see yourself de-aged?
What was weird was just to be there as ourselves with some makeup and some hair and some dots, and think, “Well, the guy I’m looking at right now is going to look really different when I see this scene later.” And the same could be said for Sam. He’s going to see a very different version of me. I’ve only seen a little bit of it. I haven’t seen the whole film yet. It’s going to be a little bit strange, but kind of cool I think.
This may get a little into the weeds, but has anyone in charge ever spoken to you, or have you ever formulated in your head, whether anybody ever told Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner and those guys that Coulson was still alive?
I mean, on the one hand…the first thing I’ll say is what I love about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, there have been places where it was very connected, especially the first season when we had our HYDRA traitors there. But what (executive producers) Jed and Maurissa Whedon, and Jeff Bell, and Jeph Loeb have really done with our show is, we’ve taken what (the movies) are not using to a certain extent, the Inhumans, LMDs, Ghost Rider, and made our own thing. It’s very much our own world.
I feel like the same thing was really true of the Netflix shows, may they return in peace, in that there’s room for all these stories to be existing on parallel tracks. And certainly, lots of fans and lots of journalists have been like, “Do you think they know?” And I think probably somewhere in his head, Phil Coulson really doesn’t love keeping that secret from them in some way that might upset them, but I also think he’s grown up. As you can see in this movie, he’s been carrying really intense secrets for 20-some years, and it’s just part of doing business.
What has Coulson meant to you over the course of these 11 years, and what do you think you know about him now that you didn’t know about him when you shot those first scenes on Iron Man?
One of the things I’ve actually really enjoyed about it is, he belongs to a lot of people, and I’m one of them. Sometimes when there’s upsetting stuff happening for Phil Coulson, I get upset, and I have to be reminded, it’s not actually happening to you. The membrane’s a little thin. But Jon (Favreau) and those writers on Iron Man, they had their take. Don Payne and the writers on Thor, they had their take. And it became a chain letter that people passed around and added to.
If it ever bumps me or feels weird, I get to say something. But it hasn’t happened that much, because to me that’s a little bit like what I think it’s like to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, you don’t get to decide where they take you. You just have to make sure that you stay connected to your compass, to your core. And so, in that way, I’ve gotten to do so many fun things that I geeked out about. It’s why it was really moving to go back and go full circle, and be like, well, here’s the guy who just is finding out that all the things that drew him to S.H.I.E.L.D. and to people like Agent Fury, were correct, that this is exactly where he wants to be, and that he’s taking on a sacred collection of secrets that their world depends on.
When we first talked years ago, one of the things that came up about Coulson was that he was kind of the audience surrogate. He was not the guy with superpowers. He was the everyman, seeing all this stuff and these super-powered people and keeping it all secret. Do you still feel like he’s got some of that even though he’s done a lot more since then?
Yeah, it’s always been a thing that was very clear to me. There’s a way that people connect with him that’s a little bit different than the way they connect to the super powered people, or even the super skilled people, in that there’s a way that in the world of these mythic figures, his power is his determination and his heart. That’s a special relationship with the fans that I feel like if I take anything away out of the 10 or 11 years, that’s been an amazing thing to be part of.
We saw Phil walking off into the sunset at the end of season five of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but we’re seeing somebody who looks a lot like you in the teasers for season six.
Who is that guy?
My question exactly. Who is that guy? Is he a Skrull? I mean, we just meeting the MCU version of the Skrulls now in Captain Marvel.
It seems like now he could be Skrull, right? I don’t think he’ll be a Skrull.
What can you tell us about season six, which is done, and seven, which you’re just starting to shoot?
I can’t wait for people to see season six. We’re starting season seven, which I really don’t know much about, but season six, I’m excited for people to see. People who have been on the journey with me and with Phil Coulson are going to get something very, very different.
Is season seven the end?
That’s the word I’ve heard. The announcement I read was, two more seasons, six and seven.
Would you like to come back to the movie MCU after that, or would it be a good time for you to maybe do something different?
I feel so grateful for the journey that I’ve had that I’m hesitant to ask for anything. It feels like it would be greedy. The hours of footage that I’ve gotten to play this guy have been really remarkable. I had an incredible time getting to act with Sam again, and getting to act with Brie again. We had done something once before. But I’ll never say no when the Marvel Universe calls. I feel very grateful for what I’ve done.
Captain Marvel is out in theaters this Friday (March 8).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye