Cover Story: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
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As the story goes, Gregg’s place was gradually cemented at Marvel after consistently overdelivering with whatever he was given—first on Iron Man, Thor and so on. What Gregg brought to the big screen wasn’t some over-the-top enigma meant to go toe-to-toe with super personalities. Instead, he gracefully filled the role of the Everyman Existing in a Superworld, one who could mirror humanity in this larger-than-life setting. For what it’s worth, he wears a set of tinted aviators pretty well, too.
“It just never happens that way,” Gregg says. “You start out with something like that, you get cut. But then they said ‘Hey, we want you back in Iron Man 2. Later, I had to excuse myself and go to New Mexico [for a Marvel project], and when people would ask what was in New Mexico, I said ‘Sorry, it’s classified.’”
As I’d soon discover from calls with Gregg and Marvel’s Head of Television, Jeph Loeb, this “classified” talk is common language for those embedded in the universe. Both laugh as they remind me I don’t “have clearance” to discuss several Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. details, and Loeb even goes further—“That’s a Level Seven question,” he says, and the answer will be declassified when the public is ready for it. But in the case of why Marvel wanted Gregg in New Mexico after Iron Man, he wasn’t even totally sure at first. After a little prodding, he discovered his role was expanding throughout this budding universe.
“I asked, ‘What’s in New Mexico? I feel like I should know this.’ [A rep at Marvel] said, ‘Has nobody called you yet? You know, you have a big part in Thor.” He pauses, flexing those comedic timing muscles even as he’s giving a phone interview, even as his GPS butts in to direct him to the S.H.I.E.L.D shoot. Softly, he adds, “so that’s how I found out they wanted me in Thor.”
Without Marvel’s foresight to lock-in the cast with this multi-picture deal, no matter the role, Gregg might have never sat down to interrogate an Asgardian semi-god in Thor, or threatened Tony Stark with a taser and round of Supernanny in Iron Man 2 or expose his inner fan-boy with that heartbreaking set of Captain America trading cards in The Avengers. It’s also possible we wouldn’t have seen him take on his own life in modern Marvel comics—a rare feat for a character who was non-existent in the print universe before.
“They made him…kind of younger, a little more buff than me,” Gregg laughs when describing his character’s comic re-imagination. “I like when they split the difference. I like when it looks like a buff version of me with a little more hair, because if it just looks like me,” Gregg trails off before giving a self-deprecating—but not fully serious “oh brother.” This is one of People’s sexiest men of the year, after all.
But if you set all that distracting sex appeal aside, Gregg’s involvement in the Marvel universe was ultimately one of many threads tying the whole set of films together in time for The Avengers. His character—who was written and directed between three separate teams, now a fourth with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—became what Gregg lovingly refers to as a “chain letter” in the Marvel world by the time The Avengers hit the big screen.
While Coulson started off as Tony Stark’s snappy counter, a minor character with no roots in Marvel’s comics, the company’s following certainly didn’t place him in that light by 2012. “The fans really embraced him, and that shocked me,” Gregg says. “I’ve never played a character the fans connected with so much.” Coulson’s storyline would end at the hands of Loki, the Asgardian chump-God whose sucker-stab would unite the Avengers to, well, avenge his death and win the Battle of New York. Five years ain’t a bad run in the Marvel universe, but for Gregg and fans alike, it was hard to see the beloved character go.
“I made jokes like, ‘Is there a rewrite going to be coming from the governor at any point?” Gregg said at this year’s Television Critics Association press tour. “‘Do you want to shoot one where he grazes me a little bit?’ And there was a few kind of, like, pathetic, like, ‘Oh, sad. No.’ And it was really clear that I was dead.”
“That was something [Marvel President of Production Kevin Feige] told me before I took the gig: ‘You gotta kill Coulson,’” Avengers director Joss Whedon said at the TCA. “I understood why, so I said ‘okay, but you’re taking the rap.’ I got a lot of heat for that stuff.”
But as any good comic fan will tell you, death only lasts as long as it takes to dream up a decent idea. With Loeb and Marvel setting their eyes on a live-action television debut, and with Whedon’s already-famous imagination, one that broke into the television world with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, it wasn’t long before Coulson’s revival became more necessary than just a simple, fan-pleasing move.
“You look at The Avengers and you’ve got these giant movie stars playing giant roles,” Loeb says. “Then here’s Clark Gregg: quiet, unassuming and a little bit of wry humor. I’d probably say he steals the picture. …When Joss and I first sat down to talk about the show, the one thing we agreed on was that we needed Clark. We need Coulson to be the center of it. It’s that everyman quality. It’s a Henry Fonda kind of quality.
“We always like to remind him he is one of the sexiest men alive, according to People, but he’s also someone who could be your dad, your older brother or someone who just talks to you in a way that is respectful and wants you to be the best person you can be. It’s just a great thing.”