It’s not just any studio that makes you sign a three-picture deal after securing a part with eight measly scripted lines. But as the seamless fusion of so many mega-blockbusters confirmed in The Avengers, not every studio thinks like Marvel nowadays. And just like its most famous fictional organization—the super-secretive S.H.I.E.L.D., a team of specialists dedicated to protecting ordinary folks from the extraordinary—the studio’s veiled methods are normally kept out of the public eye for its own best interest. For example, look at how Marvel kept actor, writer and director Clark Gregg around.
“They’re just making everyone do one, I don’t know,” Iron Man director Jon Favreau told his friend—the rightfully curious Gregg—about the weighty contract before production started in 2006. It was after Gregg’s not-so-formal tryout with Favreau, his neighbor at the time, that it was clear he had all the wit, charisma and charm to define this new supporting character, Agent Phil Coulson—a dry, ever-suited smartass. With his clean-cut, buddy-next-door look, it was a part that wouldn’t be much of a stretch, especially after his appearance as Agent Michael Casper in The West Wing.
“I showed up, and it’s hard for me to remember,” Gregg says, describing the first time he stepped into Coulson’s impossibly reflective oxfords. “There was banter between him and Tony Stark, and there was improv, something about it popped. There was sarcasm both ways. Jon said, ‘They like what you’re doing, they like your character.’ Pretty soon I was trying to learn a line about S.H.I.E.L.D., [the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division] and Robert [Downey, Jr.] was making fun of the name. And I said, ‘I know. We’re working on it.’ There’s something about it that just felt like a glove. It felt like a snarky, good glove that fit really well.”
“I can never say that I was shy, but I did a lot more drawing in my notebook than I did studying, which is probably how I ended up being an actor,” jokes the now 51-year-old Gregg, a self-declared geek who coped with childhood moves to North Carolina and Illinois with a stack of comics he “carried around everywhere.” Among his favorites in the pile were storylines featuring Luke Cage, a.k.a. Power Man, a Marvel character who first emerged in the early ’70s.
Gregg’s fascination with these stories would set a natural transition into the film and TV industry starting in the late ’80s, when his resume started with several stage manager spots. From there, he maneuvered his way in front of the camera with appearances on The George Carlin Show, Touched by an Angel, Sports Night and Sex and the City. A quick scroll through his IMDB page alone shows he’s a seasoned vet, appearing in over 71 films or shows and even writing and directing a few of his own, most notably his rather good adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Choke in 2008.
So when he was offered a long-term contract for a part that only appeared to call for a few scenes, Gregg still took the no-brainer opportunity that any well-read comic fan (or industry lifer) longs for—he signed on for Marvel’s multi-picture deal. “I think that was probably the smartest decision I ever made,” Gregg laughs over the phone, driving on his way to a full day of work on the fruits of his labors, ABC’s newest series, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
In fact, without the studio’s long-winded commitments, we might have never seen the relatively small character—possibly the only suit who could naturally out-lip Iron Man himself—turn from a fringe supporting actor in 2008 to a key piece of the Avengers puzzle in 2012. Not bad for a guy who’s “still working” on the name of his task force.
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.”
For some, a Marvel TV debut without its hugest characters—Iron Man, Thor, hell, Hawkeye even—seemed understandably puzzling. But with The Avengers’ critical response, not to mention the $1.5 billion it raked in worldwide, a S.H.I.E.L.D.-based TV show wasn’t as odd as it sounded. Sure, Marvel could have followed in its counterpart’s footsteps after DC Comics launched live-action shows that feature the Green Arrow and Superman. But there was no interest for Marvel if the story wasn’t there and the concept couldn’t sustain itself in the medium.
“[We needed] to find the right property initially to go on ABC because that is, as we refer to it, our mothership,” Loeb says. “Whenever you do anything at Marvel, the most important thing is story. And we needed to find the right person. We got very lucky in that after the tremendous success of The Avengers. Joss Whedon, who really comes from television, could have really done anything he wanted as his next thing. And this just struck a chord.”
The team quickly evolved to include Whedon, along with his brother Jed and his wife, Maurissa Tancharoen, as executive producers. Inspired by Item 47—a Marvel short that stars Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Bradford, who encounter S.H.I.E.L.D. agents after finding a mysterious weapon—the Marvel team set out to explore this theme of relatable people dealing with situations we can’t imagine. A S.H.I.E.L.D. show would allow audiences to immerse themselves in the other side of the post-Avengers universe. These characters would rely on their wits and brains to protect everyday citizens—not jetpacks, hammers, mythical shields, explosive tempers, gymnastics skills or dead-on arrow shots.
“There are teachers and nurses and people who volunteer. These are the kinds of things that make a hero,” Loeb says. “It’s when you give selflessly of yourself for the betterment of other people that you become an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s what we’re sort of hoping to tap into.”
But with a still-deceased Coulson, the “truth,” as Gregg puts it, was on the horizon for fans who had long-accepted their favorite agent’s fate. As hesitant as Gregg might have been to revive his character from what was a well-written, beautiful send-off, it just took a phone call from Joss to bring the agent back into the Marvel fold. From there, one of the most promising shows of the Fall 2013 season was born.
“I thought it was important that somebody did pay the price in The Avengers,” Gregg says. “I know Joss felt that way too, so he was quick to call and say ‘I’m not taking this lightly, but the truth is out there. It’s much more complex.’ Knowing about his work and his sensibility, and I knew this was something that was worth doing.”
And so far, from the looks of the pilot episode, Gregg’s instincts were right. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s pilot is playful, a dead-ringer of a show that echoes the producers’ lighthearted tone of The Avengers. The mark of its creators is plastered all over, most notably with Gregg’s grand re-entrance dramatized with all the pomp and grandeur we’ve come to expect. And they’re not taking it easy on the new cast members, either, breaking in new agent Grant Ward’s social skills with a well-placed poo-joke or forcing a rogue hacker Skye to step up and take on Coulson in one-liner-heavy conversations.
“One of the real joys of what we’ve been doing so far is that it’s a show about an older, seasoned guy pulling together a team of mostly younger, green, but really special people,” Gregg says about working with his new team, which includes Killing Lincoln’s Brett Dalton as Ward and Nashville’s Chloe Bennet as Skye. “He doesn’t know they’re special, but he just feels it. That’s what my day-job is like; we’re coming together as a team and every day I get a glimpse of what Joss was thinking when he cast characters.”
One of the show’s biggest nods to Joss’ TV past is an appearance from J. August Richards—best known as vampire hunter Charles Gunn on his series Angel—filling in as the first super-human talent on the show. “I can neither confirm nor deny whether he’s coming back [after the pilot], but I thought he was great, too,” Whedon said at the TCAs. “So do that math.” Richards’ character is named Michael Peterson, a hot-blooded super-entity who’s trying to balance fatherhood and saving lives, but Loeb is quick to point out to Easter Egg-sniffing fans that this isn’t the Marvel Universe’s pre-established character of the same name, a short-run pal in the Slapstick comics.
“Does he share some similarities to other characters that are in the Marvel universe? Sure, if you want to find those similarities,” Loeb says. “We love when our fans do that, but he’s an original character.”
Humor and fan nuggets aside, the pilot still engages with comic-action staples (exploding buildings, impossible rescues—you know the scenes), glimpses at the mystery behind Coulson’s return and visuals that push what’s possible in modern TV—effects that wouldn’t have been possible without Marvel’s well-seasoned crew even a few years ago, Gregg says. The pilot’s size didn’t come at a small price, with the episode’s cost reportedly hitting around $14 million.
“Really I thought after the pilot, the next episode would be bound to be us stuck in an elevator because they’d spent all of the money,” Gregg joked at the TCAs. “Instead, the second one, if anything, is bigger, more exciting.”
But along with dazzling visuals and an engaging story, what’s most important to ABC and Marvel is the whole package, and that includes keeping S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s weekly surprises away from its viewers. It’s the justification for why Gregg was mysteriously brought to Thor and the reason Marvel’s finest remain mum on certain questions we’re not authorized to hear. But to put it in simpler terms, making a show like this is just pretty damn fun, too.
“We’re having a blast making the show, and I think you can see it,” Loeb says. “It’s not often you get to say it’s unlike anything on television and needed in a really good and positive way.”
“I’m not so jaded that I can’t look around from my super-car or flying fortress and not just geek out a little bit,” Gregg says, echoing Loeb’s sentiment. “So I still giggle a lot. I play a character who plays at the sidelines, who is trying to save people without trying to get killed himself—maybe not successfully. To have the work you do connect with people, to have a connection with people, I get emotional. And because I’m sort of a nerd myself, doubly so.”
Paste writer Amy Amatangelo contributed all reporting from the TCA Press Tour to this story. Read the rest of our TV Issue at PASTE.COM.