Movie Talk

Clark Gregg talks joining – and not surviving – ‘The Avengers’

Movie Talk

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(Photo: Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures)

For two decades actor Clark Gregg had been working steadily in movies and TV with acclaimed directors like David Mamet, Bryan Singer, Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Spielberg. But it was his sharply understated turn as Phil Coulson, Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D., in 2008's "Iron Man" that finally thrust Gregg into the spotlight.

By reprising the role of Coulson in "Iron Man 2" and "Thor," Gregg became an integral part of the cinematic Marvel Universe. And when the different comic-book heroes needed to come together in "The Avengers," [SPOILER ALERT] it was Coulson's shocking death that made the team put aside their difference to fight as a unit.

With "Marvel's The Avengers" out now on DVD, Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray, I spoke to Clark Gregg about the thrill of joining the film's all-star cast, and the pain of knowing it was Coulson's last hurrah.  Gregg also discussed the possibility of returning to Marvel behind the camera and -- as the real-life husband of actress Jennifer Grey -- how Marvel fanatics compare to "Dirty Dancing" devotees.

Matt McDaniel: How did you learn you're going to be in "Avengers" and how did you learn you weren't going to make it out of "The Avengers"?

Clark Gregg: [Laughs] Well, when I was at Comic-Con about to go onstage for a panel for "Thor," this guy ran up to me who I recognized because I'm such a fan as ["Avengers" writer/director] Joss Whedon, and said, "Oh man, I'm sorry, we're supposed to call you.  I'm writing a very big role for Agent Coulson in 'The Avengers.'  Can I introduce you as part of the cast?"  And I looked over with Robert [Downey Jr.] and Scarlett [Johansson] and Sam [Jackson] and Mark Ruffalo -- the coolest cast I've ever seen -- and I almost just turned into sand and collapsed to the floor right there.

And then couple of months before we started shooting, I got a call from the guys at Marvel saying, "Listen, it's really special what you're going to do in 'Avengers.'" and I said, "That's exciting!"  They said, "Yes, it's really pivotal."  I was like, "That's great!"  And they said, "What happens to you is what brings the Avengers together."  And there was a long pause, and I said, "Oh, is this my last Marvel movie?"  And they said, "Well, it looks that way, but you'll go out with a bang."  And I really did go out with a bang, and I have no regrets about it.  I will admit that I did spend a lot of time in those last few days kind of waiting for a rewrite like a guy on death row.  Like, "You can't kill me.  I'm the glue. I'm the glue of the Marvel Universe!"

MM: As a Joss Whedon fan, you knew somebody had to get it though, right?

CG: I was hoping they would avenge some kind of faceless mortals who've been wiped out by some bomb blast or something. Not beloved Phil Coulson! [Laughs] I had ambivalent feelings, but what Joss came up with for Coulson was so fantastic that I really loved doing it.

[This Week on DVD: 'Marvel's The Avengers,' Bond 50, 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1′ and 'Damsels in Distress']

MM: He really is beloved, that character, and that was cemented even more after "Avengers."  So what is it about Coulson, you think, that connects with people?

CG: Different things for different people. His lack of superhero powers, it makes him more relatable in some ways to people who can't turn into a giant green rage monster.  Joss seized on everything that's kind of evolved along the way. The fact that he has Captain America cards and clearly grew up idolizing Captain America and is a geek.

Definitely at Comic-Con, you feel the love for Coulson because he feels like the geek who won the golden ticket and got to go to Willy Wonka's factory.  I think that was the main reason.  He's kind of the nerds' avatar. And as a nerd that really makes me happy.

MM: I know you're very engaged on Twitter with your fans and at Comic-Con as well.  So what's been the weirdest fan encounter you've had so far?

CG: I like weird, so nothing gets too weird for me.

MM: Or maybe just most flattering or most surprising?

CG: All of it.  The fan art is insane.  There have been so many amazing, really great artists around the world [who have made] Coulson fan art in response to "The Avengers." And there's a "Coulson Lives" phenomenon where people paint "Coulson Lives" or put it on bumper stickers.  I get these photos posted with people: it's on the Danube in Vienna; it's in New York, Scotland, Brazil.  You can find "Coulson Lives" spray-painted all over the planet and that's fully moving to me.  To be a part of something and a character that connected with so many people really is not something I saw coming.  I'll never forget [it].

[Related: 'Thor' star's scary on-set injury]

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(Photo by Barry King/FilmMagic)

MM: Since you're uniquely positioned as an observer, you might be able to tell me which brand of fan is more rabid: the Marvel fans or the "Dirty Dancing" fans.

CG: Well, very different demographic, although I would love to see a convention that was Dirty Dancing fans who also love Marvel movies and go to Comic-Con.  In fact, I'm hoping maybe there will be some cosplay next year at Comic-Con where somebody comes as a Zombie Coulson with -- though we don't know that she's dead -- a Zombie "Baby" Houseman keeping him company in the afterlife.  I have to say nobody is more fervent than the Marvel fans.

MM: The new Blu-ray release features several bonus scenes that were edited out of the final movie. Was there a deleted scene you were in that you were sorry got cut?

CG: Yeah.  There was a scene where I came back to life, and it turned out I wasn't dead and I was kind of, "I'm alright!  I'm not dead yet!"  There was no such scene.  Luckily pretty much every scene that I shot was in the movie.

MM: Since the Marvel Universe does operate under its own rules, there has been a lot of fan speculation about Coulson possibly making a return. But if this was your last hurrah, are you okay with that?

CG: I had a great run.  I got to be in four of these amazing movies, and [play] this character that evolved and ran throughout, working with amazing actors. And then it got to pay off in, for my money, one of the great final conflicts in any movie.

Will I miss it?  Absolutely.  If I got a job in a DC [Comics] movie, that would feel weird.  I don't know what to say.  I can't feel anything but grateful for what this tiny role in "Iron Man" turned into.

[Related: 'Marvel's The Avengers' Blu-ray deleted scene reveals an entirely different opening]

MM: You're a screenwriter and director in your own right.  Has there ever been any thought of getting behind the camera for Marvel?

CG: Yeah, I talked to them about it.  There's been a lot of talk about it, but mostly it came from me pitching myself. But I really got along with Kevin Feige and the guys at Marvel; I really like them. And I wouldn't be surprised to see me involved there perhaps as a writer-director at some point.

MM: Now, you worked with some of the great writers who are working today, like David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, so what do great writers have in common?  Is there a thread you've noticed about all of them?

CG: It's funny you say that.  I think what's in common with them is they write stuff that feels really true, but it's kind of more pithy and funny than anything you come up with more than once in your life, and the person does it three or four times in a day.  You read it and you go, "I can't believe I get to be the one to say that."  I felt that way about "The Avengers" lines as I have in the times when I'm lucky enough to say Dave Mamet's stuff or Aaron Sorkin's or any of the terrific writers I've worked with.

MM: That was one thing that really struck me about "Avengers" was that everybody had their moment, not just action-wise but comedy-wise.  Everybody got a laugh.

CG: And also character-wise.  I think the fact is that Joss did something really gutsy, which was he took his time letting you get to know these people in their context together. And there's a little bit of action, certainly, but you get to know who these people are and what their relationships are and what they're afraid of and hurt by.  You really understand the challenges that they have to face in order to pull together, so that when they do you care.

MM: Now, you also worked with Joss on his Shakespeare adaptation "Much Ado About Nothing," which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.  How was that filming experience different than "Avengers"?

CG: It's a really good question.  It couldn't have been more different technically, in terms of a five-and-a-half-month shoot of a giant-budget superhero movie -- maybe the biggest of all time-- versus nine days in Joss's house with a bunch of his actor friends.  And yet, I had the same kind of joy to show up for both of them, and it was really about carving an ensemble.  In a way, the story of "The Avengers" is kind of the behind-the-scenes world of "Much Ado," in that we'd better pull this team together very quickly to pull this task off.

"Marvel's The Avengers" is in stores now.

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