Q&A: The Avengers' Clark Gregg on the Rise of Coulson

He's been called the emotional heart of The Avengers, and Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson took a [...]

He's been called the emotional heart of The Avengers, and Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson took a long time to get there. Beginning in Iron Man, Coulson has appeared in a number of Marvel superhero movies, his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe growing to a critical mass in this film, where he got to hang out with his childhood hero Captain America and brag about his near-mint collection of vintage Cap trading cards. Actor Clark Gregg joined us for a discussion of the film, and about Coulson's unexpected and circuitous path to The Avengers. We'll try to excerpt some audio from this interview to run on a special Avengers edition of the Panel Discussions podcast on Thursday--Gregg was a delight to talk to, as his enthusiasm for the project just poured through the phone and, at times, he sounded like a kid in a candy store. Please keep spoilers out of the comment thread as much as possible. Agent Coulson hates spoilers. I'll do my best not to spoil anything, so you don't have to hunt me down. Good! Yeah, I don't take kindly. You were able to craft Coulson more or less out of whole cloth; you didn't have the baggage of having a character with decades of history. Was that a weird experience when you were dealing with all these other great actors who were a bit more constrained by the contents of the page than you were? Yeah, definitely at first, becuase he was the only character who wasn't in the comics, really, and he was more of just a guy who came through with some papers. I was talking to Kevin Feige about that the other night; that's how I remember it. I said, "He wasn't 'Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first draft I read,' and he said, 'No, he wasn't at all.'" To Marvel's great credit--and certainly I'm very grateful for it--they have all of these ideas but they don't know how they're going to get there and the look and they see what seems to be working and what tools they can use. And they decided after a day or so that this is the guy. The terrific writers on Iron Man said, "Could this be the guy from S.H.I.E.L.D.?" and pretty soon they started adding more scenes and when it got to the end of it, and it was just Gwyneth and Robert and me in a room and I'm telling him what to say at the press conference, I thought, "this really became something more than I thought!"

As I was looking at your IMDb page, I saw that you've worked with some incredible people on some fantastic projects over the years, but this is really a breakout role for you and it's interesting that they were able to give you that even though that's not what was on the page.

You know, it's funny. You do it long enough.... Certainly, I've had my moments, definitely in some indie films where I've got to really stretch out and do some stuff. But I grew up reading Marvel Comics and loving this stuff, and when I saw they were putting together that kind of cast for Iron Man, as a geek I was just like, "Oh, this is going to be incredible."And so when Favreau called up and said, "It's just a little bit--it isn't much but we'd be lucky to have you, I was like, "Yeah! Absolutely!" And so to have it turn into this is kind of a teenage fantasy of mine. And as an actor, the other part of me, you're right, I've definitely been lucky to be a part of some really cool films--some cool projects with some amazing writers and directors--and at a certain point you kind of go, "I guess this is going to be my role. I'm going to be coming in, doing this sometimes expositional bit, sometimes I'll be able to stretch out a bit, sometimes they'll give me a little something funny, but mostly that's going to go to the main characters." And to see the way they kept coming up to me and saying, "Listen, we want to use you in Thor," and Joss Whedon coming up to me at Comic-Con and saying, "I really want to use Agent Coulson as a major piece in what's bringing The Avengers together, I thought, "Oh, man, this is amazing." To have been doing this for a number of years and kind of accepted one kind of lot and then to really--in this movie of all movies--be given a chance to really play... ...I really enjoyed watching Jeremy Lin come off the bench in New York, and it felt very much like that--like I'm getting a chance to play? You can't help but have those kind of--maybe demented--fantasies, like "Oh, man, just give me a shot! Give me a shot, I think I can sink this." And to get a chance to do that, and to be able to--because even though they had told me they wanted to do that, when I saw the cast that was going to be in The Avengers, I just thought there was going to be no way. I'm going to be, you know, scooping up pieces of Loki or handing Captain America a really cool machine gun, and then I'll be gone. And when I saw that they really made him a full-out part of the ensemble, and for me the direction Joss chose to take Agent Coulson was better than anything I could have imagined. It's funny because it came to a head in such a natural way in The Avengers that I wondered when i saw it whether your character had been designed like that all along. It almost seems more impressive the way you describe it because it feels like the odds of it all falling together that way are so slim. Oh, please! If you do what I do you know most of the time there's a role there and by the time they get done editing the movie, you have to turn to your friends at the premiere and go, "I swear I had like four other scenes that just really weren't that plot-driving." It doesn't happen this way.  So on the one hand I feel really like you stick at something love doing long enough, even still sometimes you don't get a break like this. I feel really lucky and like I was in the right place at the right time. Also, I'm impressed by Marvel and by Kenneth [Branagh] and Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon for kind of taking what was there and making more out of it. To whatever extent anything I've brought to Agent Coulson was part of that is something I'm going to be proud of for the rest of my life."

Obviously Coulson has appeared in the movie tie-in comics and the like, but was it cool as a longtime reader to see him pop up in the Marvel Universe proper for the first time recently? I had them both. I grew up watching the Spider-Man animated show so when they said, "Do you want to do Principal Coulson's voice in the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon?", I was like, "Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes. Yes I do! Don't audition anybody, I want to do that. And I thought that to whatever extent Coulson would appear in the comics would be in the tie-in comics. And I've been on the road but I've finally just had the chance to get a look at the remarkably younger, handsomer Coulson that's appearing in Battle Scars. That was a really big day for me, and that's the part of this thing that I think the is the reason that a lot of people are tuning into this that aren't necessarily comic book geeks or who don't go to Comic Con: To whatever extent this was the plan, Marvel has done these origin movies--which you know, if they didn't work there never would have been an Avengers. I think if even one of them had been a big bomb, I don't think they ever would have given them the money to make The Avengers. But they pulled it off and they got all these people invested in these characters and feeling kind of like new fanboys and fangirls, who are now going the other way and starting to buy some comics. That's what appeals to so many comic book fans about the Marvel Universe, is that they've been doing things that way for fifty years--but it's just now hitting cinemas. Yeah, it feels like The Avengers is the first time we've really seen, basically, four or five origin books and then the group book, you know? It's the comic world brought to movies and I don't think the technology was really there to pull it off--certainly I've never seen the Hulk look like this before--and you've got to really give some credit to Kevin and Jeremy Latcham and all of the people at Marvel, because this could have gone wrong so many ways, and they picked the right writers and the right directors. Just the fact of picking someone like Joss--who not only loved the comics all his life but also wasn't so reverent about them that he couldn't let them become a movie and that he couldn't keep the kind of tongue-in-cheek funny tone; it's as funny as any comic movie I've ever seen anywhere. Yeah, about that--you've had some good lines in your previous outings, but this time they really dove headlong into giving you a laugh line in just about every scene.  Again, it's that same phenomenon, where--you know, I feel like it was one of the first days, we were like, "Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement Logistics Division," and Tony's like, "That's a mouthful. You've got to work on that name," and I was like, "Yeah, we get that a lot," and I think that happened kind of on the day, and all of a sudden people felt like, wow, there's a laugh there. And I think it's one of those things where it started to define the role. Some people I think would have just laughed at that when they saw it in the first screening but Marvel started writing to that, and some of his stuff with Pepper became a bit like that and the way that he does the explosive became a bit of a thing, and it's been to me the most thrilling part of all of this. You know, people say to me, "Would you rather be a superhero?" And I don't know that I would, because Coulson in a way that's really been cool as a fan of this stuff--he is the fan. He's kind of a normal, ordinary guy. Certainly he's got a skillset that's not to be messed with but Joss took what I felt was always there and didn't really realize and made it part of the movie when he had him be a fanboy who grew up loving Captain America. And it's really been something where, to get some of the funny stuff and to have Coulson being the guy there rolling his eyes at all of these super-divas, or like the moment I saw the scene in Thor where he's walking up to the giant, fire-faced Destroyer with a megaphone saying "I'd like to see your papers," I just thought, "You know, they really get this guy."