Clark Gregg on Agent Coulson and His Marvel-ous Success: “It was inconceivable”
I don’t think any actor could ever replicate the career path of Clark Gregg. After acting regularly in small roles since the 1988s (including a recurring role on The West Wing), Gregg played S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson in Iron Man. When the massive box office success of Iron Man launched what would become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe with films like Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Avengers, Coulson unintentionally became a fan favorite major supporting character in the films. The success has since lead to a spinoff television series, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which stars Gregg as Coulson.
Gregg spoke to The Los Angeles Times about the totally unpredictable path he and his character have taken into the Marvel universe.
Gregg admits that he never expected his character to become so popular and, furthermore, never expected to become so attached to the character and his ever-growing role in the Marvel universe. He explains, “It was inconceivable. Originally it was really a tiny little role in Iron Man. You just never think, Oh, they’re going to add more scenes. They never add more scenes. They take some scenes away usually because the scenes belong with the stars of the movie. They kept adding more stuff and there was something about it I really clicked with and enjoyed. From early on, they let him be a little snarky, even with the fabulous Tony Stark. He evolved, the character evolved. At first he was this bureaucrat who turned out to work for this super-secret organization and then he’s actually a quite powerful field agent who handles things when Thor comes to town. By the time The Avengers rolled around, he was the one who knew most of the superheroes so he was the one tasked with bringing them altogether. When I got the call explaining how he brought them altogether, I realized how much I had grown attached to the guy. I was a little heartbroken. Then I got another call [saying] you may be being reborn in a different medium.”
However, one advantage of the television series is that Coulson is the lead, so his character is fleshed out in ways that couldn’t be done in the Marvel films. He says, “Every director and writing team add more facets to Coulson. There’s an amazing Kurt Vonnegut story about a guy who’s only alive when he’s acting — Chris Walken and Susan Sarandon did a movie of it once for TV — and it’s called Who Am I This Time? I always think of that title. Every time it’s a different world, a different superhero in the movies. I always sit down and go, Who is this version of Phil Coulson? Certainly after dying in The Avengers, that’s a big discussion that has to be had. What’s clear is that he has an idea why he’s walking around, about the close call that he had, but he clearly has not been told the full truth. I think that’s such a compelling part of the show to me. I feel like the things that happen to us, no matter how much we block them out, a part of us knows, and that’s really interesting to play with. He’s had an experience that was near death, it might have been very near death — it may have even been death — I don’t know yet. Any one of those versions means he’s going to be different and have a different take on the world.”
Of course, the Marvel film (and now television universe) continues to grow, so is Gregg is privy to some information about the upcoming episodes and what role Coulson plays in them. However, he confesses that he enjoys not knowing everything, pointing out, “There’s things I need to know in order to play what I have to play now, just kind of baseline existential truths I need to understand. At the same time, I’m playing someone who doesn’t know some of these things. There’s a great thrill in knowing only roughly where this is going and what the truth is. I also like that I’m not the only one who’s still piecing together exactly what that truth is in terms of the creative team of the show, it feels like something we’re evolving together.”