The breakout star of The Avengers didn’t have gamma-radiated super powers or a shield made of Vibranium; rather, he had a collection of Captain America trading cards. Agent Coulson, played by Clark Gregg, was slowly introduced through short scenes and end-of-credits tags in the Marvel films leading up to the superhero team-up and took on such a life and fandom of his own that he’s now starring on ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Most recently, Gregg starred in Joss Whedon’s post-Avengers pick-me-up, the terrific Much Ado About Nothing, in which he plays Leonato, father of Hero and thrower of debauched house parties. Filmed on a shoe-string budget in twelve days, Gregg is one of the standouts in the stacked cast of Whedonverse alumni, milking his role for everything it has to offer. Recently, at a press day for the film, I was able to sit down with Gregg for a wide-ranging conversation covering everything from his Marvel movie exploits to Much Ado to his upcoming appearance in The To-Do List to his directorial effort Trust Me and more.
Nerdist: First of all, I really enjoyed you in Much Ado About Nothing, really enjoyed you.
Clark Gregg: Thank you!
N: We’ve been so used to seeing you as Agent Coulson as of late that it was nice to see you playing someone else. It’s like flexing your thespian muscles a little bit to take on this role.
CG: Thank you.
N: What was your experience with Shakespeare prior? Had you done much Shakespeare performance?
CG: It was something I did a bunch right when I was starting out. I was an athlete, and I had an injury, and I walked in and got cast in a production of this play in college, and I loved it enough that it kind of changed my life, not immediately. I did a couple of other Shakespeare workshops, different plays. I had a theater company in New York, we would do them every once in a while, but it was mostly American plays. I loved, I loved Shakespeare, but I didn’t get to do it very much.
I guess I hadn’t thought about this. I had a terrific Shakespearean director coach for me when Patsy Rodenburg came to the States, came to L.A., and in the middle of some job, I found a way to take her workshop, just to speak the words, just to try to act some of that stuff in front of someone who was versed in it and see if she would encourage me at all. She was mildly encouraging, so when Joss called with this role, I was desperate to do it. I would have been less desperate if I had realized how big a role it was, and that I was starting the next day!
CG: It was one of the great experiences for me. It was so – what you said about ‘flexing muscles’ – it’s almost – I think of it like music. Certain things, they have their challenge, and nothing is to be taken for granted, but some of them very much have a melody line, and that’s pretty much it. This is deep, rich chords that are not easily reached, but when you do reach them, they kind of vibrate from head to toe.
N: There’s such a lyricism, especially in Much Ado, to the words, it’s a challenge — especially when you’re trying to keep the original language in a modern adaptation. A lot of people might approach it with some hesitation, but I thought you guys were very successful in making it seem natural and grounded. It jars you for a moment, but then you immediately drop in — your brain taps into that wavelength and you’re able to go.
CG: Yeah, I think that’s the experience. It’s a little bit — I won’t say it’s a different language – it’s a different idiom. I love Shakespeare, and I go see it a lot, I go see it in contemporary dress – you know, those types of adaptations, you don’t really adapt Shakespeare — and I’m used to that. Most of the actors I know that like Shakespeare and like theater, we’re very used to that. I have the same experience. When I go to New York, I go to Shakespeare in the Park, and it takes 5 or 10 minutes, where it seems a little odd, and then you’re kind of lost in the flow at that point, everybody [is].
N: This is kind of a weird angle to take on this, but I feel like you said, Shakespeare is its own particular idiom, and to a certain extent, I feel like you almost have that in the Marvel universe, with all the talk about tesseracts and Norse gods. Did you find that having to adapt to a particular lexicon helped you get into the right mindset for this?
CG: To an extent, yes. There’s a lot of stuff that you do where what’s at stake is, you know, are we going to catch this murderer, or are we going to help these two people fall in love? In both the Marvel universe and Shakespeare, it’s very much high stakes. I think you certainly feel Joss’s love of Shakespeare, and in The Avengers, with these two brothers at each other’s throats, you certainly felt it in Thor, and, you know, kingdoms — who’s going to rule — all that is a common thread. Certainly my character in those movies, Agent Coulson, has some stuff to say, especially in some of the other movies, that is not easy to say. I’d rather say the kind of carefully constructed poetry of Shakespeare, even the prose version that is Much Ado, over some of the technical jargon that I’ve had to say, either in the Marvel movies or on West Wing.
N: One thing that I really enjoyed about the film is (that) you guys shot it in 12 days, so you had a really compacted shooting schedule, but I think that it gave it the sort of crackling energy — it gave you the sense that you were watching a play. It had that theatrical, live theater sensibility to it.
CG: Yeah, it seemed a crazy thing to do, especially for Joss, because I had seen what he had just gone through with doing The Avengers, but the energy of people kind of discovering these scenes, to a certain extent for the first time, very much comes across, and it’s — I’ve said this before, I feel like at a certain point, you realize, “Oh! This was brilliant of him to do it this way, because that’s what goes on in this play.” It’s kind of a holiday in the country with these soldiers that gets way out of hand. And this a little bit felt like it could go that way, and at the same time, this joy going on; it wasn’t just another Shakespeare piece. A lot of these people don’t get to do that. Nathan had never done it; I’d rarely done it. You see this kind of discovery going on, and it really serves the piece.
N: Shooting a film in 12 days seems crazy. Did that present any challenges, or did that not give you guys time to psych yourselves out?
CG: It creates a ton of challenges for the director, which Joss really knew what he wanted to do, and he gave himself specific limitations; everything is in this house, my house. In a way, that eliminates a lot of the decisions that might make the 12 days really difficult. At the same time, for the actors, there is a real gift to that, because you aren’t spending so much time doing coverage that you’re exhausted by the time you move on to the next scene. You’re shooting, sometimes four scenes in a day, so you’re spending a lot of your time acting, which is much more enlivening than sitting around.
N: Yeah, you don’t get to the moment where you’ve over-rehearsed something to the point that it sounds like cardboard.
N: So, Shakespeare can get pretty raunchy. As I understand, you’re in one of the other lusty comedies this summer, The To Do List. I was wondering if you could tell me anything about that?
CG: That’s funny — The To Do List does follow William Shakespeare’s tradition of tremendous bawdiness. I would say that in The To Do List, it’s not buried in rhyming couplets or Elizabethan language.
N: I would be impressed!
CG: The To Do List we did, I want to say 13, 14 months ago, which was a bit. It was a terrific, funny script — a kind of sexual coming-of-age story, very humorously told, starring Aubrey Plaza, who I was a huge fan of, written by Bill Hader’s wife, who also directed it, Maggie Carey. It’s a really unusual take on it, in that it’s about a girl — very often, it’s about a young guy — who has been so obsessed with being the good-girl valedictorian, that this overachiever has failed to overachieve when it comes to knocking anything off of her sexual to-do list. It’s also set in the ’90s, which is hilarious with the music. It’s an amazing cast, and I got to act with my friend Connie Britton, who I think is so wonderful, and Bill Hader and Andy Samberg, and a lot of great actors.
N: That’s awesome! I would imagine with something like that, you guys would have a lot of room for improvisation.
CG: A little bit. Yeah, there’s more improv than, say, in Shakespeare. There’s also a really funny script, so Maggie certainly comes from the world, and Bill Hader’s in the movie too, where she’s written really funny stuff, and she’s also really engineering opportunities for people to kind of see what they come up with. There are a couple of really funny lines that just happened.
N: And of course, I have to ask a little bit about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. We’ve all been super excited about this.
CG: Please do!
N: 22 episodes — is that correct?
CG: Boy, I’m new to this particular part of the TV business. If it’s anything like the past I’ve had in a sitcom, I think technically you’re picked up for 13, and then they decide a certain portion of the way through if they’re going to pick it up for the back 9 and make it a full 22, but we start shooting, either 13 or 22, in mid-July.
N: Obviously, the question on everyone’s mind that they want to know is will they answer how Agent Coulson comes back to life? A lot of people are quite frustrated.
CG: Yeah, it’s the question of the day. It’s a question that is not walked away from in the pilot, but if I said that it was resolved in the pilot, I would be being less than truthful.
N: Yeah, you’ve got to dangle it along a little bit.
CG: I’m playing Agent Coulson again, and so there are things that other people know that I don’t know yet, and I don’t want to know.
N: Exactly. You want to keep it fresh for yourself. Is it a different experience working with Joss, directing film versus television?
CG: Well, it’s funny. I’ve only worked with him, for the most part, since The Avengers, maybe one or two other things, and one of the experiences with Much Ado which was a film that we shot in 12 days, and that was a pace that was kind of similar to television. We actually had more time than that to do the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot. Again, it’s funny — it’s a different story. The Avengers was probably more Shakespearean; this felt very much like a different — I’ve been in a bunch of different chapters in the Marvel universe. Iron Man felt completely different from Thor. Favreau in many ways felt very different from Kenneth Branagh; also, they’re both actors and both hilarious people. This chapter that is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is less superhuman. It certainly focuses on the people that Agent Coulson represents, the vulnerable, extremely talented agents who are there to deal with the world after The Avengers, where a lot of secrets have been revealed, and a lot of people want them.
N: Is this taking more of a sort of procedural angle, almost?
CG: It didn’t feel too procedural. Procedural, to me, implies an investigation and a dryness. There’s just too damn many incredible special effects for me to think of it as a procedural. It’s like a kind of a superhero action dramedy.
N: Yes! That sounds wonderful.
CG: I’ll go with it.
N: Changing gears a little bit, I want to talk to you about some of your directing work. I understand that you had your second directorial effort, Trust Me, debut at Tribeca.
CG: I did.
N: So tell me a little bit about that. What got you interested in directing? Was that something you were looking to focus on more going forward?
CG: It’s not something that I want to bail on acting for. It’s something I’ve always done. I started out doing theater in New York, working in a theater company where everybody did everything. It’s more authorship. I would say I’m more interested in being a film maker, as well as being an actor. When you’re out being in other people’s pieces, at least in my case, because I love to write, a hunger develops to tell your own stories. I had a story that came to me that I was really passionate about, and the amount of work that it took over three years to get that film made, and I acted in it, and I put a bunch of my friends in it, and it turned out really special, and I’m really proud of it. It’s an unusual film, and we’re talking to some different distributors right now, and I hope to share it with people before too much time passes.
N: I’m someone who didn’t get to make it to Tribeca, and I was really hoping that it would be picked up for wider release soon.
CG: I think so. We’ve got a good shot.
N: Awesome! I’ve got to know, when you’re directing yourself, how is that experience? I have to imagine that it presents its own unique challenge. When you see something that needs fixing mid-scene, do you just shout it out? Do you have a co-director?
CG: No, I didn’t. In a way, it’s a compromise you make. I chose, in this case, a story that I had a surprising personal connection to. I felt like I had a vision of it, and how I wanted it to be, and it’s very unusual. It has a shifting, moving tone — it’s dark, and then it’s funny, and then it’s dark — and I wanted to be sitting in the nucleus of it. There’s a certain kind of trust that the other actors exhibit in letting me direct them while we’re working. I certainly had people there who I could ask very specific questions about if I had accomplished what I was going for as an actor in the scene, but I think it’s some of the better work that I’ve done, because in a way, I don’t know, you’re paying a certain amount of trust to yourself, and I guess I’ve done this long enough that I felt like I knew when I was really off the rails. And I also had an opportunity to edit out all of the terrible stuff!
N: (laughs) Yeah, that certainly helps! That’s nice; not a lot of people have the self-discipline that that takes.
CG: Yeah, it was very taxing. I’m not sure I’ll ever try it again after this one!
N: Just one more question for you: what would be inside your ideal burrito?
CG: Oh, dude! You know, I never would have said this, because I love the classic chicken or carnitas burrito, but recently, somewhere I had a shrimp burrito that was so off the hook, that it’s kind of become my new game changer. It needs to have the right kind of baja sauce.
N: Yeah, you need the seasoning, and it needs to be well grilled. I agree, that’s a solid choice.
CG: And some veggies, yeah.
What’s your favorite Clark Gregg project? Let us know in the comments below!