The seventh and final season of Agents of SHIELD is currently winding down, so ComicBook.com recently had a chat with the show's star, Clark Gregg (Phil Coulson). The actor talked about everything from Elizabeth Henstridge's directorial debut to an upcoming tribute to Bill Paxton. In addition to chatting about Agents of SHIELD, Gregg also told us the backstory of how he came to write What Lies Beneath, opened up about his directing style, and revealed what he has planned for the future. You can watch the full interview in the video above or read it below...
What Lies Beneath's History
ComicBook.com: Next week is the big 20th anniversary of the release of What Lies Beneath. Do you remember how it all came together, especially working with Robert Zemeckis? How do you feel about the movie 20 years later?
Clark Gregg: It makes me feel old. 20 years, wow... It all came together 'cause I did a lot of theater. And so, I was in New York for the first eight or nine years out of college and then I came out here and I didn't know anybody and really, nobody was that interested in meeting with me. So, I started writing, 'cause I needed to be busy. And I wrote a couple of indie scripts and one of them got the attention of a really amazing person who's become very successful, Nina Jacobson, who was a young executive at DreamWorks. And she said, "You know, we have this ghost idea. It's a couple of sentences and there were some rumors that Steven Spielberg had been in this idea, possibly."
I was about to drive cross country and they told me the sentences. I said, "Okay, let me... I'm about to have a lot of time to think." And sure enough, by Nebraska, I had a few ideas. And so, I met with Nina and she was an amazing partner. And eventually, they brought in Mark Johnson as a producer, who produced Breaking Bad and has an amazing career of his own, and I wrote a script. We talked about it for a while and they sent me off and I wrote a script, and the first draft turned out okay. And I guess DreamWorks had a deal with Rob Zamackis and weirdly, I guess, he walked into their offices a few days after I turned in this first draft and said, "You know, what I really wanna do is kind of a Hitchcock, Hitchcock-ian ghost thing." And they were like, "Okay, that's weird." One could describe this kind of beginnings of a script here in that way and the next thing you know, I was meeting with the legend at his place out near Santa Barbara at the time. He just was remarkable and had really amazing ideas, and wanted to work on it with me and keep me around.
[Zemeckis] kept me around all the way through and taught me a million things and pretty soon, Harrison, we really need someone to play this guy, this professor who may have a dark streak that no one will see that coming and who better to do that than the amazing Harrison Ford, who was, just couldn't have been more of a gentleman, and then Michelle Pfeiffer. It was, it was ridiculous. Every step of it, I just was like living in a tiny guest house in Venice, going, "Oh, for real?" And then, Bob did this amazing thing, which was he shot the first half of Cast Away, and then he shot all of What Lies Beneath with his same crew... In the meantime, I guess Tom Hanks lost a ton of weight and then they went back and shot the other half.
I have to admit, for no reason that makes any sense, I have never watched What Lies Beneath since the premiere. And actually, I think I'm gonna watch it for the anniversary. It's hard to go back and watch things you've already made. You can't fix anything you wrote.prevnext
Writing & Directing
CB: I don't know if you would agree with this word, but I think that the movies that you direct are very visceral. I'm curious if that's something you think about as a director or writer?
CG: Can you say a little more about that?
CB: Especially in Choke, there are moments where you just feel it. That the moment where [Anjelica Huston] is dying and the pudding's all over her face. In Trust Me, when you gain those wings.
CG: I mean, the pudding moment is something that I can't take credit for, 'cause it's this surreal moment in Chuck Palahniuk's amazing book of Choke, but I read that book. It's really out there. Really funny. Really interesting. And I think about important things and I was sent to adapt, as a writer, around the time of What Lies Beneath and I flipped for it. I was like, "No, no, no. I wanna make this film." And somehow managed to attach myself in that way, to get the rights. My friend, Bo Flynn, who has the Flynn Picture Company and makes a lot of movies with Dwayne Johnson... I said, "Look, I wanna make this. I want this to be the first film I make." And he bought the rights, like two days later... And produced it.
I guess it's funny, when people mirror stuff back, you have to think about it. There's a lot of very visceral stuff going on in Choke. At the same time, it's about people trying to think their way into understanding their feelings. It's about the process. I've never thought of this. It's a really interesting observation. Having feelings that are causing actions that you don't quite understand.
That's in What Lies Beneath.... I didn't really have a big connection to ghost-type things, but...MacBeth, really, the ghosts are a function of the person's conscience and Macbeth's conscience. I thought, "Well, this would be interesting if the ghost is an idea that this is a repressed memory, that there are things this woman has not let herself know. And I think that that goes on to a certain extent, with Sam Rockwell's character in Choke, where he's being driven by a lot of very physical and visceral impulses and yet they're kind of shielding him from emotional stuff that's underneath that and he has to come to realizations.
I guess Howard in Trust Me is realizing he has more of... a protective shell of cynicism and when he meets this young girl, this actress, who feels like a younger version of him and what he went through. I think it awakens a kind of paternal, caring side of himself that isn't cynical, that he has no idea about and that comes out for him in very powerful, physical ways.prevnext
Coulson's Evolution & Elizabeth Henstridge
CB: LMD Coulson is great because he feels fresh while taking it back to the classic route. Did you have discussions with Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon?
CG: I was very curious, slash, confused at the beginning of this season going, "So how does he feel inside? What does he feel like when he touches his fingers, does it feel like fingers?"
He feels exactly, it's such an advanced version of an LMD that... if anything throws him, it's how normal he feels. And at the same time, he discovers that he has a certain degree of invulnerability and strength. So in a way, he's had his kind of ultimate superhero dream come true, just in an A.I. form that he's always swore, he's really sick of being brought back to life at this point.
And that's an interesting setup for this season, where he feels more himself than he has in quite some time, but it's in a form he never wanted to be and yet, his people need him and he suddenly finds himself back with the family he cares about. So, it's very... it's a conundrum. There's an episode, not the one that's this week, but next week, I think, that really gets explored in some very interesting and beautiful ways and we have a surprise about who directed the next episode.
When you act and are directed, at some point, everyone goes, "I think I could direct." And it's a joke, right? And it's certainly something that I have done... But from the moment I saw Elizabeth hanging around the monitors on a day when she wasn't working, I went, "Oh, she's gonna be amazing." And I've never seen anybody so cheerfully be the first to get there and the last to leave when she's just trailing, shadowing a director and learning, and she did it both episodes I directed for several seasons and so when you see this episode and what she did, and in my money, in my money, in my view, it's right up there with our best.
CB: Going back a little bit to LMD Coulson, you have a lot of action sequences this season, which you've had in the past, but you've got a lot more this year. How is that as an actor? Is it more fun? More challenging?
CG: Well, these last two seasons are 13 episodes. So, it didn't feel like more because in the 22 episode seasons, you'd still end up with 10, 20 fights and get hurt. I loved doing them. I enjoyed them so much, to add a physical component to talking about things, or sneaking up on things. Really rounds out the job. It's really fun. We have Tanner Gill and our great stunt team. They really put together great fights and they have great stunt people. My double in a lot of this season, Vinny O'Brien, did an amazing job and took the really hard blows away from me. And I love doing that stuff.
CB: Coulson mentions that being trapped in the TV for a year-and-a-half, he did a lot of soul searching. Do you think it kind of parallels with what's happening in the world right now? Kind of being stuck in a screen? Have you thought about that in terms of how this season is relating a little bit to what's happening in the world?
CG: Yes. I mean, there's definitely some moments where putting our diverse cast back in different time periods and seeing the way that people react to Henry [Simmons] or Natalia [Cordova-Buckley], or Ming [Wen] or Chloe [Bennet] really ended up feeling very prescient to the time when people are reconsidering and trying to go deeper, in terms of understanding what it's like to be non-white in this culture and historically. But yeah, there is a way where we're moving through these different periods but we're not really there. We don't really belong there. We're kind of isolated with ourselves. So when Coulson ends up trapped in a screen for a year-and-a-half, I mean, I didn't think I was gonna be trapped in screens for, I hope it won't be a year-and-a-half. And it certainly feels like we're all, you know, the word Zoom just bums me out.prevnext
CB: Did you have a favorite time period to visit?
CG: What was nice about it is as soon as you kinda were like, "Okay, that's enough with the '30s," boom, you're in the '50s. I really love how the E.P.s and the directors really chose to have as much fun as they did, in terms of in the '30s, they're playing with style and those conventions and weapons. But then, as soon as they hit the '50s, to do the noir episode, and to have the '70s music and credits and then to have this wild '80s episode, that they really adapted the cinematic style of that. But it's fun. It's an irreverent, fun season.
CB: Was there anyone that didn't come back that you wish you could've gotten to play with one more time?
CG: I'm never sad when B.J. Britt shows up. He always makes me laugh a lot. I mean, we've had a couple of people that I really loved working with who are no longer with us, Bill Paxton. I really wished to have more time with him. I don't know. It'd be really amazing if there was some way to feel like we had the spirit of Bill Paxton with us. Maybe that'll happen this season.
CB: Now that all is said and done, do you have a favorite episode?
CG: There's so many great ones. There's so many ones I really love. I really love so much of how I feel about them, it just has to do with what I was feeling when we were doing them and there's that one early, maybe it's 11 in season one, where this hacker, that he's found and made a SHIELD agent almost against her will, that she's the one who shows up and saves him. And the team suddenly is a team and they've come and rescued him. I really loved that one. I loved the one with all the LMDs that Jed directed. That was amazing.
CB: Oh, "Self Control." That's my favorite episode.
CG: But I mean, Maveth, the one a large number of hours. Elizabeth on the planet. That's one of my favorites. And I also, I think possibly, this one that we're gonna see [this] week. Elizabeth's episode is right up there, too.prevnext
CB: You've obviously been an important staple in the MCU since the beginning, but you could not have known in 2008 how important Coulson was going to become. Do you remember kind of an "ah-ha" moment, like, "Oh boy, this is it. Coulson's my life for a while."
CG: No, it was so gradual. It was so a series of moments, from being kind of pulled aside on Iron Man one and being told that they were adding more scenes and kind of making it clear that this guy was really a little bit more intimidating and in possession of more secrets than he's masquerading as at the beginning. And then, being added to Iron Man 2, I thought, "Well, that's cool. That's cool, he has another scene."
I've told this story... Being told to mention that I'm leaving Tony Stark, supervising him, and I will not be the one who tases him and watch his Supernanny, because I'm going to New Mexico. And saying, "Why am I saying that? What's in New Mexico?" In fact, it was Louis D'Esposito saying, "Oh, you, you're going to New Mexico. You find Thor's hammer."
CB: A lot of us are sad that Tony died before ever really knowing Coulson wasn't dead. I know that you've said before that you're not sure what the future holds for Coulson, but if you could reunite with any of them, even from just a Clark perspective, who of the original Avengers would you want to act with again?
CG: Well, I mean, you know, the crush on Cap never dies. But I always, I mean, I felt that same sadness, just because really, the whole thing started, and I think the reason Coulson became what Coulson was really, was about Robert [Downey Jr.] and those scenes together and the repartee. He makes you that much better and brings out so much more than you might normally see in a scene. The way that he took those scenes and that character on, brought me to life, in a way, so that I didn't get to have that.
I was like, "Come on, you haven't done a one-shot." Why couldn't there be a really cool one-shot where they're on a mission, we're on a mission... "Oops!" You know?prevnext
Philinda, Fandom, and the Future
CB: Are there any Philinda breadcrumbs you can drop?
CG: I mean, so far, they're playing with this amazing thing that I love with May, which is that she's gone from being, at least on the outside, a bit of an ice queen, to this super porous empath and yet she seems to feel everything but anything for Phil Coulson. That was a little hard after everything we went through. I'd love to tell you that I remember exactly what happens.
But it's already been 16 months or something. I think people will be very surprised that an LMD can actually father a child.
CB: [Laughs] You just blew up the fandom. You took it too far! Oh, gosh.
One other thing about the fandom that I know is a bummer is that there can't be a final con appearance because of everything that's going on. Can you see yourself or the whole cast reuniting sometime in the future for something like that, if we ever get back to normal?
CG: I mean, it's important to say, 'cause it doesn't feel like we will get back to normal, 'cause also, what's normal?
I'm actually looking forward to the new version of what life is like, 'cause I think some changes will be obviously necessary in terms of the way people can get healthcare, of the way that people can get financial support when they suddenly can't work and it's not their fault. There's things being exposed right now and that's important. And some of the other injustices, racial injustices that have always been sitting there in their home, watching and going, "I don't know why it took us so long." It has to stop.
So, I think that there are things, but other things really will go back to normal. Like, this won't be a virus that remains as dangerous as it is forever. In fact, if we would take it a little more seriously, we might be in much better shape right now. That said, just say people start wearing masks because it's the right thing to do, then it'll pass and we will be back at a con and I suspect once we can do that and get back to San Diego or wherever it might be, New York, we'll do the things that we didn't get to do. My daughter didn't get to have a prom. That prom, she won't be able to do, but there will be a way that she and her friends who didn't really get that graduation, I suspect people are gonna go, "You know, let's fix that now. Now that it's safe, let's do that." It may be different, it may be late, but it's something. And I suspect we'll do a version of that with SHIELD.
I really hope we do, because one of the things we really were planning on doing and have wanted to do was to really finish out the ride with the people that brought us, and that was really the Agents of SHIELD fandom who are all part of a broader Marvel fandom, but the way that they kind of embraced the show and went on its wild turns, people call it the show that's like the engine, the Little Engine that Could. That people can believe in it, or they had issues here and there and then... I'm really proud of our crew and our directors and our writers who just let those things roll off them and just kept kind of tearing the thing apart and putting it back together. They only gave us nine pieces of a Rubik's Cube and they kept making these incredible Marvel statues out of them that nobody saw coming, using whatever pieces they were given. And in a time when Marvel was changing and in flux, and not a lot of complaining, just "Okay, well, look what we made out of this one. I'm pretty sure it can time travel."
So we wanna celebrate the fans. You know, people say that a lot, but I don't think there's many characters who owe their existence to the fans as much as mine does. And I don't think there's many shows that really have kind of managed to re-evolve and grow and eventually thrive simply from the supportive energy of what's it called? They say it's a small, but-
CB: A small but active fan base.
CG: Small but active fan base. And it turned out it wasn't that small, and it was very, very active. And there's really clever, like, it's a bunch of ninjas. You can't just be one of the agents of SHIELD. You gotta know something. You gotta kind of be aware of what you're seeing. So, I'm proud to be part of that particular fandom and to have been carried by them. I really hope we get a chance to say- I guess I'm saying it right now. I'm so grateful. We are all. Talk about it all the time. We are so grateful to the people we see every year in New York, in San Diego and all over the world and it's been such an amazing ride and it's really fun to go on these last couple of episodes with everybody.
CB: Do you have any future projects you wanna talk about? I know I'm really excited about Moxie, which Amy Poehler directed.
CG: I have a film that I did with a terrific woman filmmaker, Shana Feste, called Run Sweetheart Run that is a Blumhouse picture. That is kind of, I would say that it's Get Out influenced, but it has much more to do with the Me Too, and that kind of aura setting... And I think that's coming out very soon on Amazon.0comments
I loved Moxie... I just show up and not only be directed by Amy Poehler but to get to play her boyfriend, was really fun way to come out of SHIELD. I'm trying to think of what else. I think that's pretty much what I had finished when the gates came down.
I've chosen to use this time to develop a couple of projects that I have been working on for a while, in terms of hopefully creating a show of my own, perhaps in the genre that we both love.prev