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Clark Gregg Interview: How and Why He’s Able to Return in Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

Marvel Agents of SHIELD Joss Whedon The Avengers
ABC

Although the peak of his supporting-player participation came to a head in ‘The Avengers,’ Clark Gregg has always provided the heart and soul of many movies that otherwise lacked them. And in ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ he’s the voice of outrage, the protector of a young woman’s virtue, even as a swirling ensemble of characters conspires to impugn it. Oddly, the two films share more in common than their writer-director, Joss Whedon – namely, that both utilize Gregg’s performance as a catalyst for the story to find its footing and pay off with the emotional strength that’s suggested in the text.

We sat down with Gregg at the recent Los Angeles press day for Much Ado About Nothing, where the gifted character actor talked about how he made the transition from working on one of the biggest films of all time, to one decidedly much smaller. In addition to describing the process of breaking down the language of Shakespeare’s iconic play to its most visceral elements, he offered insights into his expanding collaboration with Whedon, and revealed a few details about how his character Agent Coulson will not only be revived, but further explored in the upcoming television series ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

When I first got out of ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ I joked that this was the origin point for “White People Problems.” How tough is it to find a way into anachronistic material like this when you’re trying to perform it in a contemporary way?

I remember doing it – it was one of the first plays I ever did. I remember playing Benedict and not the father, Leonato. And I remember thinking, what a great rom-com – it’s the original rom-com. It’s the template. But I couldn’t remember too much; I knew what Leonato’s dilemma was, and yet I have an 11-year-old daughter, she’s not dating or anything yet, but you can project yourself into the dilemma this guy has. And it’s suddenly tremendously visceral, and only on the surface is there anything hugely anachronistic about Shakespeare – and it’s just the language. The writing is gut-wrenching, human stuff, or very kind of uproarious human comedy, and we wouldn’t be doing him if there was anything about that part of it that was anachronistic. It’s as good as writing gets, and the scenes are as good as you get to act. That’s why people still do it.

Having tackled Shakespeare in the past multiple times, do you have to spend a lot of time breaking down the text in order to generate that visceral feeling?

There’s certainly something in the language that makes magical stuff happen inside of you. And it’s not that it’s lofty language, it’s that the language is so powerful and visceral. You’re expressing yourself is so much richer, more complex terms and that starts to work on you. But in my experience, you cannot bank on that. You never know when that’s going to work for you and when it’s not, so you better have done your homework when that’s not clicking for you.

This was shot after ‘Avengers,’ right?

Yes. After we finished shooting, before he started editing – in that two weeks.

Given how shaggily this came together, what work did you have time to do, or know you needed to do, in order to pull this off?

I had no time to do anything, really, except learn the lines and rudimentarily figure out what I was going to do in the scenes. And because I was hired quite late, I already had another job and that pushed two weeks and miraculously that made me available. But I was really worried about that – I like to be really prepared and I didn’t feel like I was going to be able to be. And in this case, the homework I was able to do, and just learning the lines well enough to get through the scenes left me in a very unique position, especially with Shakespeare, of really discovering what was going on in those scenes while the camera was rolling. Which I think works for Leonato because I think he’s a little bit trying to catch up.

Do have difficulty adjusting between projects? There was only a few-weeks span between what seems like the biggest production and then the smallest.

No, I mean, I hear the amazing Daniel Day-Lewis talk about it and that guy amazes me. But to me, so much of that is done by the text and the wardrobe and the actors around you and the set around you. I’m suddenly in a very different world with very different problems, and I can see it being odd going from one day to the next, but by the time I learned those lines, it did a lot of the work of transporting me into a new place and a new world.

You’ve worked with so many screenwriters and directors who use a very specific kind of language. Do you feel like knowing Shakespeare helps you acclimate to their language, or that their language makes working on something like this easier?

Well, the first stuff I did was Shakespeare, and I loved it. I loved that language. I like language. I like talking. I like writing. I like beautiful expression. If you have a career of it, it something has that kind of expression and sometimes what you’re doing is different in language. Like you said, I’ve been really lucky – I’ve worked with people like Aaron Sorkin a bunch, and David Mamet especially a lot, who really have a specific language and a love of language. I would say that ironically, the years of doing Mamet and Sorkin and—

Even Joss

‘The Avengers’ even probably prepared me for this, because there’s stuff you have to say that isn’t pretending to be super-naturalistic talking, but it’s someone expressing themselves in a somewhat poetic way. And I find Mamet to be very much like that – there’s a lot of sentences that are more real than real. And hyper-real and the only way they work is to fully commit to the way they’re not super-realistic. And I somehow felt prepared for handling the language of Much Ado, which is the prose play of Shakespeare’s – it’s the least inaccessible.

Talk about the atmosphere on set for this in comparison to ‘The Avengers.’ This seems like it would demand spontaneity where that would require a lot of planning.

It’s funny. The script Josh wrote was there. It was great. There were some changes they made, but no one was showing up on set going, “let’s rewrite the scene.” So that stuff was kind of locked. And a lot of the pre-vis and how they figured out what’s going to happen with the digital animation in post provides some constraints. That said, Joss fights very hard to say, “let’s see what happens.” And the same is very much true for ‘Much Ado.’ There’s not a lot of time to mess around, the words aren’t going to change, and those strictures are very freeing. It’s a lot about how are you going to do that. Also, the size of the productions could not have been more different. The number of crew members could not have been more different. The amount of money could not have been more different. But both were kind of ensembles – some of the people had worked together before, some hadn’t, but most people seemed like the felt like they were part of something kind of special and they were really thrilled to be there. That’s how ‘The Avengers’ felt to me too.

Your character in ‘The Avengers’ becomes the catalyst for them to come together.

That’s how they sold it to me.

At what point did you know that was going to be the case?

I’d met Joss at Comic-Con. I was there to do the panel for ‘Thor,’ and he came up to me and said, “hey, I’m going to introduce you as part of the cast. You have a big part.” I said, that’s amazing! I never thought Coulson would have a big part with all of these giant movie stars around. And then I got a call a couple of months later saying, “He wasn’t kidding. You’ve got a really great part in ‘The Avengers.’” I said, this is fantastic, thank you – I’m so excited. He said, “Yeah, it’s what happens to you that brings ‘The Avengers’ together.”

And I thought, “Aww – oh, no! Is this my last Marvel movie?” And they said, “Yes, but you’re going out with a bang.” So I knew, and I had some time to prepare myself. I loved what he wrote so much – “so that’s what it does” – that I didn’t care. I could retire after that. But then came the day to do that scene and I found myself really sad and moved. There was something about, I guess, the way Coulson was kind of not one of the superheroes, that’s like me. You know, I wasn’t a superstar or anything, I was kind of the guy for a lot of years bringing somebody a coffee, and yet, getting to be sarcastic. And every once in a while, somebody’s giving me more to do. And there just was enough of me in Phil Coulson and vice versa that I was really sad that day, and hoping for them to shoot one version where I was just, you know, wounded a little, and it didn’t happen. So I was really thrilled when they called me and said, “Listen – we want to do a TV show. We can’t explain how, but you’re going to be in it.”

Because it seems impossible to have anticipated how big the movie was, when did they decide to have you be a part of that show, and then did they just say people would accept that a character can be brought back no matter what at any given time?

When we finished ‘The Avengers’ it was very clear to me that he was dead. Kevin Feige had lobbied the guys at Hot Toys to make an action figure of Agent Coulson kind of as a farewell present, or that was my understanding of it. And I don’t think they would have done it, I think Joss had a really great idea, and I think the reason that Marvel is doing so well is they never depend on some tacit understanding that they can do anything. It’s got to make the fans go squee. And hopefully when people get involved with Agent Coulson’s reasons for being in ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ they will be as satisfied as this fanboy was.

Will it feel the same to make the transition to TV with that character? He doesn’t have an arc in the way that other superheroes did.

I didn’t feel like he had an arc, but in ‘The Avengers’ I felt like all of a sudden, one was there. We really saw that he had been the one who really shepherded these people – he was the one who knew them all. The only one he hadn’t met was the one he was most obsessed with, Captain America, and suddenly when they’re squabbling and he’s the one who has to go in there, all of a sudden he does have a journey. These movies have led him to this point, and I think there’s going to be what you call reverse-engineering a little bit in the pilot and then we’ll start to understand more about both who he is going forward and perhaps who he was before.

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