It’s funny to think that a guy who’s effectively been dead - or technically, absent - for seven of the eleven years since the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could be its backbone, but that’s exactly what Agent Phil Coulson is. In Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shrewdly used Coulson’s death at the hands of Loki to rally his fledgling team of super-beings and save Earth from certain destruction, but it was actor Clark Gregg’s energy and personality in the role that not only made the loss palpable, but made him as vital a member of that film’s ensemble as any of the marquee heroes at whose behest he served.
In Captain Marvel, Gregg returns to a character that he credits Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and director Jon Favreau for helping develop into the iconic figure he’s become in Marvel’s cinematic mythology, even if Coulson’s most impressive power is concealing a fanboy’s enthusiasm for superheroes beneath a dry, businesslike demeanor. Returning to the big screen after an extended stint on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the television show that his character anchors, Gregg gets to explore Coulson’s early days - in the 1990s - at the top-secret government organization, when super-powered beings were still largely a figment of the imagination. Gregg recently sat down with Birth.Movies.Death. for a fun, introspective chat about the past, present and future of Agent Coulson, filtered through his experiences in Captain Marvel, building off of Gregg’s own ‘90s work as an actor, his collaboration with fellow “super-recruiter” Samuel L. Jackson, and the character’s ongoing role in the cumulative, ever-expanding mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In the ‘90s, Samuel Jackson played a character in The Long Kiss Goodnight who drives around a woman struggling with her memories and powers she doesn't quite realize how to use. Did you think about any roles from earlier in your career where you were like, this isn’t an altogether different from that character I played at that time?
To me, there's always been a little bit of a crossover between agent Mike Casper on The West Wing, who also sometimes would geek out about being near or in the Oval Office. But what felt fun about it was this is a guy whose skin I share, and this is time traveling into a part of his spirit that is still so open and hopeful.
What have you have learned playing Agent Coulson over the last ten years that you could apply to playing this much younger version of him?
It was so much more having to forget - trying to kind of peel away all the memories and the trauma and disenchantment and stuff that he's been through and going back to a time when he's bright eyed and enthusiastic. I don't think he ever really lost that, but he's got this guy Nick Fury that he's clearly identified as “I want to be like this guy - whatever he's doing, I want to do that.” And yet, what I love about the movie is that it feels to me like everybody from Carol to Nick Fury is on a path. And I think this is the moment when they're really figuring out what they are going to do. They're making the choices necessary to make this their origin story, and I think Phil Coulson is one of them. By the end of this he's realized, whatever was driving me to this, that was correct. This is where I belong, and this is what I want to dedicate myself to.
In this movie, it really is much clearer that Fury is more of a pragmatist who just can’t deny the reality of what he experiences. Whereas I feel like Coulson is a little more of a dreamer.
That’s well put. I would agree with you.
Obviously Coulson has to have a certain capability to be able to do his job, but how challenging was it to tap into that youthful idealism - to be the guy who collected baseball cards that had superheroes faces on them?
What you said, I've never heard it put that way, but that's a really core thing of the dynamic between Fury and Coulson. I would have to guess that's what Fury loves about Coulson; there’s an inextinguishable flame of idealism, optimism, and love of this idea. And based on the years I've watched Sam's amazing performance as Nick Fury, I think he’s keeping that flame alive, but it's shrouded by a lot of disillusionment and awareness. I think in this movie we start to understand where it began.
Is there anything from the performance you have given in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or from the earlier movies that you had to actively forget to sort of retain that enthusiasm?
I think it was more that there was a feeling during the first Iron Man where I was led to believe that Phil Coulson in the early scenes, just trying to cop a meeting with Tony Stark, that there was a layer beneath his eager, sometimes a little goofy bureaucrat for this mysterious agency that was a form of hiding in plain sight. And that the guy you see at the end who goes, “just follow the cue cards - I've done this before. I know things you can only dream about.” That's more who he really was. So the template was those early scenes of this guy who’s chasing down Pepper Potts, and yet, he's a little old for this. Even when we see him here, he's very fresh. He's very new to S.H.I.E.L.D.
How tough was it to reverse engineer a certain amount of the knowledge that this character has? Did you have to ask the filmmakers or Marvel why he or Fury wouldn’t have called Captain Marvel to help out with some of the other problems that the Earth has encountered in the last few years?
It's a good question, but I think we see ways that dealing with this first potential Avenger really sets up the way they deal with Stark, who's very different than her and requires a lot more wariness. Before her, they're aware of Steve Rogers, and that's the template they were working from, and then she shows up and it's very, very different. So I think there's a reason they're carrying that. I love that part of it, that they've been walking around with this secret all of this time. And I spent some time thinking about, like, what did they do during the following 17, 18 years? Who did they interview? What were the horrible superhero Bumble dates that they went on with people who were convinced they had powers? That's the short I want to see.
What is something that you learned from this portrait of the character in the 1990s that you either have or can theoretically bring to Coulson going forward?
It's one of those things they'd done on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. They did an episode where it was an early mission when he first meets Melinda May, his kind of lifelong nemesis-slash-lover wannabe. And you kind of have to reappraise things in the present based on what you just learned about the past. And it just becomes a different piece of knowledge that he's been walking around knowing about this. But I've always felt that he knows these guys are carrying secrets that would just shorten your lifespan - and they just carry them.
Is there an era of your own life that you would like to go back and revisit in the way that you get to vicariously through this character?
I feel like all of them could probably stand a redo. On the other hand, I'm wary of going back and messing anything up because I feel really lucky where I ended up, and I'm a believer in the sci-fi trope of, if I accidentally stepped on one butterfly, I'd come back and the outfit would be different and I wouldn't have my amazing wife and daughter.
How much has this journey with the MCU been a constant surprise to you? When you first took that role in Iron Man, did you ever say, I know this is in its nascent stage, but this is something I could be with for a long time?
I would have been carted off to set in a straightjacket if I thought that based on the early drafts of Iron Man, when I don't even think I had a name. No, I don't know what happened. I can't take much credit for it. It really feels like there was a great synergy of me and a role and a need for a kind of a representative of SH.I.E.L.D., a need that the audience sensed maybe even before anyone else. A need for someone whose only real superpower was a determination and a love of the concept - of the ideal. And then the gutsy, improvisitory nature of Kevin [Feige] and Jon Favreau, honestly, that they would take something that was working in Iron Man and run with it, so that by the end of the movie, I'm like, “did Pepper Pots just say ‘thank you Agent Coulson?’ Because I think she just did.” And I would follow that by saying, “this isn't my first rodeo.” And then eleven years later, I would get to [pretend], “oh, this is my first rodeo,” in Captain Marvel.