Clark Gregg: "Marvel has a way of respecting their audience, not just the nerds"

The "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" star on following up "The Avengers" on TV, and the staying power of superheroes

Published September 21, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

 Clark Gregg in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."     (ABC/Justin Lubin)
Clark Gregg in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (ABC/Justin Lubin)

Plenty of TV shows have spun off from movies -- "M*A*S*H," "Alice," "Friday Night Lights," "Clueless."

But perhaps none of them have come with quite so much anticipation as "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," a serial drama set within the superheroic world of "The Avengers" that debuts on ABC September 24.

Unlike other such spinoffs, "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s" source material is very much a part of the contemporary culture -- Marvel's "Avengers" franchise continues to spawn hit movies, with "Iron Man 3" drawing crowds this summer and a "Thor" sequel due in November. One of its creators, Joss Whedon, is hard at work on the sequel to "The Avengers"; the show's being run day-to-day by Jed Whedon (Joss's brother) and Maurissa Tancharoen (Jed's wife).

Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and the rest of the Marvel superhero crew don't show up, at least in the pilot of the show; it's centered around Agent Coulson, the government liaison to the Avengers whose seeming death in the film catalyzed the superheroes' fight to save earth. He's back, and played by Clark Gregg, the television and film vet (of "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and the upcoming film "Labor Day," as well as four Marvel movies).

Gregg admitted some initial trepidation about resurrecting a character who'd seemed to have died a hero's death onscreen. After all, Coulson's death was hardly a tossed-off moment -- it was the emotional high point of the movie. And though hourlong action or sci-fi serials have had trouble sustaining themselves of late (from "Heroes" to "Terra Nova," the list isn't short), Gregg was confident that the show would be swell, though he admitted "I should really get scared about that, but I just can’t."

His castmate, Ming-Na Wen, made the case for "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s" likely success yet clearer: "Thank God we have a healthy budget, which is really key -- ABC is doing an amazing job in realizing, if you're going to provide a show with the expectations of a Marvel movie, they have to offer us the chance to put it onscreen."

And Gregg provides a vital tie to the movies -- movies whose stars, like Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Hemsworth, and Scarlett Johansson, are contractually tied to enough projects to make weekly appearances on a TV show unfeasible. Gregg is just about the only person from the Marvel universe who could make a TV show work, though Wen made clear the Marvel DNA will be evident throughout: "People now know there are superheroes out there, there are aliens out there. That is part of [the show's] universe, as much as the Internet and iPhones are just part of our daily lives."

Marvel has been the dominant force in big-budget cinema since the summer of 2008. That year, the grim, grave "The Dark Knight" outgrossed the fun, sunny "Iron Man" -- but "Iron Man's" tone was the one that went on to be the house style of successful superhero movies. ("Man of Steel," this year, aimed for the portentous tone of the Batman franchise, but seemed to miss that target slightly, underperforming "Iron Man 3" at the box office.) Now, with a family-friendly series, Marvel moves one degree further from the comic-book trade -- and, they can only hope, towards conquering one more medium. Gregg, on whose shoulders the bet rests, spoke to Salon.

I think a lot of people are dubious about the fact that your character in "The Avengers" had died, and now you're back. Are you worried that people won’t be able to go along for the ride with that?

When you say go along for the ride, you mean like they won’t buy it?


I was a little bit concerned about it, honestly. Even though, this was my very first call with Joss Whedon, when he called about doing this, was—I thought that his sacrifice in "The Avengers" was so important. It made "The Avengers" work for me, as a fan of the comics and those movies, because it grounded it. You know, unless somebody you care about can be hurt, it’s not really a war. And, you know it’s hard to talk about, because I can’t really talk about, you know, the story that’s going to unfold about what I’m still doing here.

And I don’t even know it all, part of the fabric of the story is…the pilot is very clear that Phil Coulson believes he had a very close call, and that’s just turned out be…there turns out to be a lot more to the story than that, and it’s a lot darker and a lot more complex, and you don’t just come back from what he went through the same. And to me, that’s got weight and that’s the kind of comic book stuff I was always into, the stuff that had enough metaphorical or allegorical significance or weight.

To me, that was what hooked me. You know, I know Joss now. I know what really works for him, and know that when the stuff is just kind of like, fluffy and without darkness and kind of just like “bang, boom, pow,” it has no meaning for him, and it has no meaning for me either. So the movie starts to kind of talk about the rough form of its idea of what I was doing back there. It’s sort of to connect themes of what it’s like to come back from trauma, and how that lives in you, whether you really understand what you went through or not. And that journey, to me, you know, in a time when we have so many people coming home from war, or recovering from personal trauma in their lives—all of a sudden it felt grounded and it meant something to me. So, then to have it also have all the fun stuff, and the great sense of humor that Joss brought to "The Avengers" -- once I knew those things, that was the package, I was no longer concerned about "The Avengers," because I thought if anything, this was going to enhance what happened in "The Avengers," if I can say that.

"The Avengers" is based upon the Marvel comic b0ok canon, and the television show is based upon "The Avengers." How many degrees removed is too many -- or is the universe expansive enough to handle endless additions? 

Because I got involved at "Iron Man," and I’ve kind of watched the way they’ve unfolded the movie universe, and for someone who actually likes comics, I believe that’s the way they did it because on the one hand it’s really faithful, super faithful, to the comic book fans, but clear they’re trying to basically film a comic book. They’re making them into movies and fully adapting them for that medium. And they found a way, they did it so shrewdly, by starting with Tony Stark, whose technology is just a few steps away from what we already have. And once they kind of landed that, then they moved to the much more ambitious world of Asgard [in "Thor"]. And I thought, oh my god, I know how they pulled off the guy in the iron suit, or the billionaire philanthropist, but how the hell are they going to pull off the long-haired guy with the hammer from Norse mythology. But step by step they kind of stood out, and were true to each specific character and comic book’s own world. Once they built the fabric of the story, it sort of felt like chapters of this epic novel, and now, to me, the idea that they’re going to expand into the television weekly serial part of the genre makes perfect sense, because that’s what "S.H.I.E.L.D." feels like.

"S.H.I.E.L.D." has the kind of stuff that Coulson and his crew would deal with, feels much more appropriate for the smaller context of television, much more character driven. And yet, it had the chance to kind of push the envelope a little bit and bring in some superhero elements, and push the kind of action spectacle as to what can be done on TV. So it’s an exciting thing to be part of because it’s an experiment.

Action doesn’t always come across on TV because there are so many limitations. It comes out every week; you don’t have two years to work on the project. And I wonder if you could speak to the challenges of a TV serial coming out every week.

Yeah, it’s crazy. You know, after we did the pilot, I thought, it took longer than you normally do to make an episode—a little over three weeks. You know episodes take eight days. I thought, “how are they going to do this every week?” Then it starts out, well, the first episode, once we get picked up will be a bunch of people in a life raft.

If anything, the next one was to be twice as big in scope as the pilot, and radical in the stuff that they did. I was just like, “OK, I don’t know how the hell they’re going to do this.” But I think, again, we’re really benefitting from being a new kind of stream from this Marvel river, which is, they really got a system down. They have fantastic stunt guys, and a visual effects team that makes stuff that I think normally would have taken three or four months. They’re doing it so that every week, there’s green-screen stuff that we shoot and I cannot believe what we’re looking at. And it’s stuff that wouldn’t have been possible to do four years ago. So, I think to answer your question—suddenly, this work’s possible.

Marvel's films have all been really successful—phenomenally, across the board. And they just keep coming, they keep making more, there’s the TV show, there are plans for more films. At what point do you think people will get more interested in a different kind of action movie, a different action franchise?

I absolutely have been concerned about that, being in the middle, because how many superhero movies can people take? And then I think about it and I realize there’s been some version of a Batman or Spiderman or Superman franchise since I was a boy, since before I was a boy. There’s something about the superheroes and the idea behind their relationship with humans, whether it’s a metaphor for the better part of ourselves, or the more flawed part of ourselves. So it seems to really be our own pop-culture version of Greek mythology. And we don’t seem to get sick of it, as long as people continue to do new things with it, and keep it of the moment. There’s something that Marvel understands, and, for my money, has always understood in the comic books. And people certainly enjoy some of Chris Nolan's super-dark, like, "Dark Knight" stuff. I really dig ["Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2" director] Jon Favreau's and Joss’s’s funny.

It's tongue-in-cheek. They’ve just found a language to tell these stories that combines action and comedy and pathos in a way that really feels like it works. And I think people are going because it works. The storytelling, and the fact that it’s about superheroes is just kind of an extra bonus. I also feel like Marvel has a way of respecting their audience, not just the nerds. They kind of make many, many more of us feel like we’re nerds. For people who never really read the comics, they kind of do all the origin stories that lead up to "The Avengers" and all of a sudden, they realize that they were a nerd too.

I know that Joss is not running the comings and goings of the show day-to-day. He’s involved, but he’s not the showrunner, and never has been. How transferrable is his sensibility? How easily are the showrunners able to pick up on what made everything click so well in the film?

Honestly, that’s been the funnest part for me so far. Joss is driven, passionate, a maniac for this job. He keeps involved. His fingerprints are all over everything I see. And, Jed and Maurissa, while not being as famous as Joss, have their own distinct sensibility. For me, playing this character has always been kind of, call it a chain letter. Different people take him and do different things with him. And so far these people just have a canon of stuff. They come tell me, well, “Coulson would say this, and Coulson would do this.” And it’s hilarious to me, and they’re right, very often.

I have a history, and a relationship with the audience, with this character. And so, on the one hand, Joss set up the template, with Jed and Maurissa, that’s carried through and seems just to be growing. And then the new people, the new writers on our show, are just writing incredible scripts. My spiel was, well, once the author’s gone, what’s going to happen? He’s just a singular writer, but so far I’ve been so blown away by the scripts that are coming in which are either just so spectacular or so interesting on a character level, that I found them really moving.

As a veteran actor, how does it feel to be at the center of such an expansive universe?

Um, it’s awesome. I mean, you know, I’ve done plays where I was the lead. I’ve been in a couple of little movies where I was the lead, but you’re right. Usually, I come in a couple days a week and get to play with Robert Downey, or Chris Hemsworth, or Anthony Hopkins in these new movies, and how cool is it to be front and center, running the team? On the one hand, it’s kind of nervous-making. I kept kind of looking around for, you know, who was I supporting? And I realize it’s up to me. I have to do it. But again, I’ve been at it a while. And I enjoy it. I really relish taking on that role. I hope people have a connection with Phil Coulson and his journey, that they’re going to want to go on this ride.

Are you nervous at all about people going on the ride? I mean, we talked about the ride, but are you nervous about it being an out-of-the-box hit or…?

No, I mean I should be, because God knows people are like, you know,…. “This is depending on you, It’s your show!” I should really get scared about that, but I just can’t. The scripts are good. The people are talented. And there’s a really good feeling here of just… that we’re part of something that we really are enjoying. It gets to be funny and it gets to be scary. I guess I always have this barometer, which is “I would love this,” and I don’t watch TV. And so far, I’m going, “I think this would be fun as hell to watch.” You know, I’ll worry about it when it stops feeling like that to me. I think that’s all you can really do, is try and make a show that you would love to watch and then if people embrace it, that’s great, but it’s kind of out of your control.

By Daniel D'Addario

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