Clark Gregg on Taking ‘Agents of SHIELD’ to the 1980s and Saying Farewell to Phil Coulson

Adam B. Vary

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For Clark Gregg, Agent Phil Coulson has been the character who just won’t die — literally. The beloved SHIELD agent was killed off in Marvel Studios’ “The Avengers,” only to be resurrected a year later on “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” on ABC. Then Coulson died again at the end of Season 5, only to return once more in Season 7 — which premieres May 27 — as a Life Model Decoy (Marvel-speak for advanced robot).

Now “Agents of SHIELD” is entering its final season — which was shot entirely in the summer of 2019, making the series one of the rare broadcast scripted shows able to air a full season this summer. It also means that Gregg, once again, will have one ultimate, final, we-really-mean-it-this-time chance to say farewell to Coulson for good. Or will he?

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How did you feel about this season going to go all the way back to 1931, well before SHIELD even existed?

We’ve gone into the future a lot in the show, but at the end of Season 6 we suddenly see the Empire State building under construction. [I thought,] “OK, this is gonna mean some cool costumes and perhaps cool weapons” — and it’s turned out to be so much more. Really, I think they thought the show was kind of maybe done at the end of Season 5. The finale episode was called “The End” and Coulson was going off to live out his few remaining days in Tahiti. And then when they found out there was going to be these two 13-episode seasons, I think they really are pulled out all the stops and decided to have just as much fun as possible.

In season 6, you played Sarge, an antagonist who wasn’t Coulson but somehow had his body. Did you enjoy taking a break from that role to play somebody new?

It was really thrilling. I never think of a person as the bad guy, but he definitely had an understanding of what was happening that left him a lot of room to not worry too much about the moral complexity of issues that Coulson obsesses over. So it got things really simple and clean and dark, and it was really fun.

Did you miss playing Coulson?

Um. Did I miss…? Not really. Not during that particular three, four months. But it threw me a little bit at first because the reality of who Sarge was and why he looked that way was very complex and not really revealed to me — or I think even figured out all the way — until we were well along the way. I didn’t have a lot to kind of hang my hat on and figure out how to ground myself. So it really took everything I had just to figure out how to make that storyline work with that tired old face.

What did you think of the decision to bring Coulson back as an LMD?

I was a little thrown at first. I internalize everything Coulson cares about whether I want to or not. He was really adamant that he didn’t want that. And even though I love [the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” character] Data, I didn’t want Phil Coulson to be Data, you know, the cyber being following them around doing fast math. Their idea around it was very different. He’s wrestling with some of the stuff that classic AI characters have dealt with in the past: What am I? What am I now, in his case. And he’s also not really the kind of typical LMD. There’s other, much more advanced stuff going on. I think someday when there is extremely advanced AI, it’ll be harder to really tell the difference between organic intelligence and that form of artificial intelligence. [Pause] I went full nerd on you, didn’t I?!

Since Coulson died in “The Avengers,” the assumption that almost everyone seemed to make when ABC announced “Agents of SHIELD” was that he was going to be a Life Model Decoy. So actually doing it in the final season feels like a fun wink.

I thought so, too. You know, no one ever knew the show would go a 130-some episodes. It was never going to be like, this week Tony Stark is here! Then there was the division between Marvel TV and Marvel Cinematic on a corporate level. So the showrunners, Jed and Mo and Jeff Bell, had to really scour parts of the Marvel universe that weren’t tied up with the incredibly elaborate plans of the cinematic [universe]. They ended up using all kinds of things: inhumans, time travel, Ghost Rider, all these things that nobody is using, and many times to great effect. So it doesn’t surprise me that at some point, like, “Well, it’s what everyone thought all along, and now he finally is one.”

The first episode jumps back to 1931. You wear a fedora quite well, but should we expect to stay in that era the run of the season?

I think since we revealed there is the crossover with the wonderful “Agent Carter” show with the wonderful and classy Enver Gjokaj as Agent Sousa, I think we can say that, man, we get into some cool ’50s stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t also end up in the ’80s, and that might not even be all of the time periods. We might explore the comic book tropes of those times, some of the cinematic tropes of those times, you know what I mean? You can’t go to the ’50s without feeling a little noir here and there. Everybody really pulled out all the stops and really made the most out of each of these time periods. There are some episodes that are tremendously fun, and others that are really scary and dark, and always with this mystery of these Chronicoms trying to undo parts of history.

You directed two episodes in the past — did you direct an episode this season?

I didn’t do this season. There were a lot of people who really put in their time and were really ready to direct an episode. I’m not gonna say who; I’m not allowed. But there were people who were angling for that. So I was really happy to see some of the people who had wanted that shot and really worked hard to get it and had shadowed on a lot of episodes were given shots. It will be very exciting when you see some of the people who directed some of these episodes.

You alluded to the divide between Marvel Television and Marvel Studios. By the last few seasons of “Agents of SHIELD,” the show stopped trying to figure out ways to tie into the movies. Like, no one on the show turned to ash after Thanos’s snap. Did you miss that connection at all? Or was that more of like a relief that you didn’t have to worry about it?

I guess I did and I didn’t. When you look back at Season 1, and you look at the way it crossed over with Hydra and took the handcuffs off our poor writers when everyone was like “What is this show?” — and Sam [Jackson] and Cobie Smulders came to play — I thought that was really thrilling. I missed that part of it, but I also felt like “Agents of SHIELD” really continued to evolve. And once they got to Season 4, and there were three separate pods [of episodes] — Ghost Rider, LMDs, and the Framework — I thought this is what happens when these gutsy writers aren’t tied too closely to all that. They get to really just tear it apart and start it over with a new corner of the Marvel Universe every season, sometimes two or three times in a season.

The Marvel TV era is ending with “Agents of SHIELD” just as Marvel Studios is producing new shows for Disney Plus on a huge scale. Not to put too fine a point on this, but do you look at those shows and wonder what might have been?

Um. [Laughs] I don’t know specifically what kind of resources those [shows] are getting. I will say, as someone who loves storytelling and television, it’s been exciting to watch — from “Watchmen” to “Game of Thrones” — what’s being done cinematically on what used to be called TV. So in fairness, the world really changed around us. I was always proud of us for being the first ones through the door in terms of the Marvel stuff, trying to bring that to a weekly television format. I feel like ABC did a great job of trying to adapt to us as we tried to adapt to them. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say boy, that would really be interesting to start the experiment over, doing 10 episodes or 12 episodes the way Tom Hiddleston told me he was doing [on “Loki”] with that kind of budget and that Marvel Cinematic production team. Although, it’s hard for me to even think about that, just because I’m so proud of what our crew and visual effects people and cast did within the constraints of our budgets and resources.

You’ve had a lot of time, and in an unusual way, to contemplate what the series is meant for you between wrapping Season 7 last year and waiting for it to premiere. What have been some of your best memories from making the show?

I thought Coulson was dead, and I thought I was done with that character, but the whole pitch from Joss Whedon was: Turns out, there’s a big secret there. You’re not dead, you’re on TV, and there’s a huge mystery Season 1 about why you’re not dead. And now you’re with a new team of some young and inexperienced people who will become a family to you. Because you will go through some bumpy times and some triumphs and your only ability to survive and transcend it will be in how you end up working together and committing to each other. To find myself as Coulson as no longer a kind of tertiary, in the shadows operative, but a leader — all of that was a tremendous gift. And to be able to do it as a local production with crews at home, me getting to see my daughter after school each day, not shooting in another state, but in Culver City — it was spectacular. I have deep, deep gratitude. It will a sad day when I watched the last episode of this on air.

You’ve been playing Phil Coulson for 12 years since the first “Iron Man,” in movies and on television. It’s such a rare experience for an actor at any level to do that. What is this meant for you to play this guy for so long?

I still sometimes have a hard time believing that this happened. You know, you stand around craft service when you have a small part for a week or two on “Iron Man,” and you think, “Boy, what if they started adding scenes for this guy? Wouldn’t that be amazing? They really should, if they were smart.” But that never happens. To have that happen, and then be in other movies, and then, “Oh you have a big arc in ‘The Avengers.'” What?! And then to think that I had this amazing run that kept me here [in Los Angeles] and gave me a bunch of people I love. I feel incredibly fortunate. Also, to have connected with fans around the world. It’s not a character that usually connects with people. I think Coulson really landed for people and became this thing because they needed a normal person like them, vulnerable like them, in the middle of that world. It’s really moving to me.

Based on what’s going on in the world right now, to have been a character actor, you know, to have had a chance to make a living, keep my family fed with consistent work, sometimes long enough seasons that I could put away a little bit of money — all that’s up for grabs right now. It’s gonna be a different time. I want to figure out how my friends who are actors, who have families to support, how they’re going to make a living, both just in pre-COVID world of 13 episodes here and there, and with COVID, how we’re going to make production work. It’s hard not to feel especially grateful given that this [show] happened before all that.

Do you think you’ll ever play Coulson again?

This seems like a real good time to announce that … I really don’t know. [Laughs] Sorry. That was a little bit of quarantine sadism. I don’t know anything! It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario where I’d say, “No, I’m too busy to put on whatever the latest version of the suit is and go play Phil Coulson.” I’m always thrilled when I see them changing timelines and exposing a multiverse in the cinematic [universe]. Because I think, “Well, I’ve seen scenarios where I could be around!” So I really learned with this character to never say never, but I’m also really grateful for the ride that we had.

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