Did you insist that in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. you got to have a cool car?
No, that was just a spectacular bonus. I didn't know I would be kicking so much ass, or playing with so many nifty toys, or having the occasional love interest, so... they've basically just spent a ton of money giving me the mid-life crisis I neglected to have in real-life.
Did you name the car?
I didn't name Lola. I mean, Coulson named the car, but I'm still trying to maintain some slight barrier between myself and the character. Is it working, by the way?
How did you come to terms with Coulson's resurrection?
The thing is, I love a great death scene - no good actor doesn't. Sorry, any actor, I should say. My one real conversation with Joss was, 'I loved what you did in the Avengers, but how are we bringing him back? I don't want to do anything to undermine what we did there...'
So when he gave me the outline of what the whole story might be about, and he told me that Coulson has a version of the truth that he's believing, one that gradually starts to unravel and get darker and more complex in ways that you could only imagine might come from the mind of Joss... that's all I really needed to sign up.
As for the spectacular plane, the incredible technical toys, the elite young team of crazy sexy super agents... all that was just a bonus. The icing on the proverbial S.H.I.E.L.D. cake. They actually had cupcakes at one event. No really, they were stunning.
Are you often spotted in the street? And did it go off the charts once The Avengers hit?
|Everyday I show up to work and there are 40 trucks for all the special effects rigs and I just howl with laughter. It really is a maniacal chuckle.|
It has been gradual. Certainly when I went to Comic-Con for Thor, even at that point, there was a groundswell. There was just something about this guy - the way that he didn't have superpowers, and yet seemed comfortable making fun of people who did - that many fellow nerds and fanboys really responded to.
The Avengers took it to a whole new level though. I was wondering whether people would be sad when I died, or whether they'd be, 'Oh great, that boring bureaucrat has gone.' So when there was the whole 'Coulson Lives' movement, I was actually blown away by it. It was really touching to me. And even so, I don't think I realised how much of a connection he'd made, so to get to be back to do this mammoth TV show, a huge budget, special effects thing, designed around the post-Avengers world, featuring a maybe-not-dead Agent Coulson? It's unbelievable. Everyday I show up to work and there are 40 trucks for all the special effects rigs and I just howl with laughter. It really is a maniacal chuckle.
How much were you involved in the decision to 'kill' Coulson?
Not that much. When I was told about it properly, it was just this hilarious phone call.
Actually, going back to the beginning of this - and I had never met Joss at this point in the story, but I loved his oeuvre if I can use that word without exploding from pretentiousness - he first came up to me somewhere backstage at Hall H, before we went out with Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston for the Thor panel at Comic-Con, and there he was, Joss Whedon, standing next to me.
He goes, 'I'm really sorry, I've been meaning to call you. I've written quite a nice bit for Agent Coulson in The Avengers, and as I'm about to introduce the cast of The Avengers...' - and suddenly as I turn, Robert Downey is there, Ruffalo's walking in - 'I'd like to introduce you as part of it.'
I should tell you, I almost didn't appear in the Avengers because I very nearly died on the spot. So I said, 'This is amazing! Yes!' It was one of the great days of my life.
Then I got this call from Marvel a couple of months later, and they say, 'We're going to send you this script, and you really do have a major role in The Avengers.' I say, 'This is incredible!' I'm giddy, I can't speak, and they say, 'What happens to you is what brings The Avengers together...' 'Wait, what?'
So that's when I started to realise what was happening. I got the script, and I still didn't really know Joss, but still, I called him and told him how much I loved what he'd written. I think killing Coulson off was something the Marvel guys talked about with him early on and it hadn't necessarily come from Joss, killing Coulson off. It was this idea that there had to be a cost to all this.
But you were the glue...
I'm not going to lie to you, there were a number of takes - I think you can see them on the gag reel - where I just sat there, looking mournfully at the camera lens as they're about to shank me, saying, 'But I'm the glue! You can't kill the glue, man!'
|Clark Gregg with Chris Hemsworth in Thor|
How does it feel to go from being 'That Guy' to being 'The Guy'?
So true. There's this website I think about people who are 'That Guy'. 'Who's That Guy?' It's all about people like me who pop up in various stuff, and either people like what they do or don't, but it's always like, 'That guy in the suit, who's that guy?' So I think I was on that website seven or eight years ago, but some of the stuff I've done, certainly Phil Coulson, has changed that.
It speaks to the intimidation factor of Coulson that the nerds on the street that I see, very often their reaction is that their eyes get really wide, but then they look down, because they don't want to get Agent Coulson angry. They just don't want me to stick any of my big green rage monsters on them, I guess.
Which of your previous 'That Guy' roles would you most like your newer Marvel fans to find and check out?
Well, thanks to Twitter, I get to watch my friends (as I call them) checking out all my older stuff, whenever I crop up on their cable or their Netflix queue. As well as The West Wing, I've also done a lot of indie film work over the years, such as The Adventures Of Sebastian Cole, or my own film, Choke... there have been a lot of indie films. And it's really nice to see the fans look some of that stuff up and discover it.
I wasn't always acting though. I had worked in this New York theatre company for my first eight or nine years out of college, acting and directing there, and I'd begun to write a little bit. So when I moved out to Los Angeles to get some film and television work, and couldn't get any... I became a little isolated, a little terrified, and it's a good place to get writing, because you're so bored. So I wrote a few screenplays, and people notice those.
I think it was Aaron Sorkin putting me on West Wing because I had done A Few Good Men on Broadway (and I'd known him from my theatre days) that really gave me the footing I needed. That and the sitcom I did, The New Adventures of Old Christine, which turned me into an actor who wrote in his spare time. I thought there would be more time in my trailer to write during Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. but I seem to be always flying in a harness and conquering supervillains instead. Ah well.
|With Chris Evans in The Avengers|
Did you get to keep the Captain America playing cards?
I know that they VANISHED but I cannot confirm where they might be.
It's hard to tell whether you're being honest there.
I can't tell what's the real world or not any more.
So was there no audition process at all for Agent Coulson back in the day?
There really wasn't one. They just called me and said, 'Here's this thing, and it's only five lines.' It was really small, and he wasn't even from S.H.I.E.L.D. at that point, and I was really on the fence about it. I had to sign up for three pictures, just because Marvel does this, and I thought I was just going to get cut out. But at the same time I was so excited about it because I loved Iron Man as a kid, and I thought the cast was amazing, so I eventually thought... I've got to do it. So what if they cut me out or it's just one line and I'm embarrassed? I can handle that.
|The worst thing was that I was so nervous on set - I was such a Robert Downey fan - I kept calling him 'Mr. Stark Sir'|
And instead the thing happened that never happens to 'That Guy': they started adding stuff, and pretty soon I was saying I was from the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement Logistics Division. And I knew what that was, by the way, and I kind of died. Then that started this hilarious trajectory I still can't believe I'm on.
The worst thing was that I was so nervous on set - I was such a Robert Downey fan - and because he was improvising a little bit, as is his way, I kept calling him 'Mr. Stark Sir' and he had to tell me 'It's Stark.' 'Of course it is! I know that!' (Sighs)
The Marvel One-Shot, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor's Hammer, was our first big reveal that your character could kick ass. Aside from Joss' involvement later, was this the origin of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as we know it?
I know that Bob Iger [the head of Disney] saw one of those shorts and said that it should be a show. That's why I'm here, really. It's very rare for the head of a studio to watch something like that and go, 'Ah, that! That should be a show.'
I was excited. I spent a lot of my spare time doing athletic stuff, I was a goalkeeper for many years, I do Brazilian ju-jitsu, I play a lot of basketball, and I was desperate to get out of the suit, or at least if I was going to be in the suit, to at least do something 'stunty' in it. So I really loved that short when I did that, and I'm really thrilled that I get to do more of it now.
How does it feel to see Agent Coulson as an action figure?
Every step of this thing, I'm amazed. Then there's this really greedy, psychotic part of me that goes, 'Look at that action figure that Robert just got... wouldn't it be amazing if I got an action figure one day?' And suddenly one arrives in the mail, and it's a little more muscular than I am, and it's better looking than me, and that's just fantastic. My daughter likes having it in her room. She's just becoming a teenager and I know it'll just be a year or two before she's lighting it on fire...
|Coulson with his Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.|
How much will Captain America: The Winter Soldier affect the Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
Ah. Hmm. I wouldn't tell you even if I knew the answer to that one, but the truth is that I do not know the answer. What I can tell you is that nothing that happens on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. will in any way disagree with what's happening in the films, and there will be some cross-pollination.
That said, we're not a platform for superheroes to show up, though that will happen sometimes. This is a show that focuses on what people connected with when they first connected with Phil Coulson, which is someone who has no powers trying to live in a world where all these powers have been unleashed.
Did you immediately know that 'Son Of Coul' would become a thing?
All credit has to go to Thor's writers - Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and everyone else - for that one. How brilliant. It never occurred to me... of course Thor would think he was The Son Of Coul! And I'm sure in a way he is. I just thought it was a spectacular line.
But it's kind of like what happened at the end of Iron Man, when all of a sudden I'd gone from three or four lines in total to Gwyneth saying, 'Thank you for everything you've done, Agent Coulson.' And I was like, 'Wow, that's a line you don't hear very often! You're welcome, Pepper and Tony.'
Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is on British TV screens every Friday, 8pm, with the pilot airing September 27.