Clark Gregg, the veteran character actor who portrayed the agent, admits that the support behind Coulson was one of the most moving things that ever happened to him. Right now, Gregg is in press mode for "Trust Me," his second feature film outing behind the camera (he also wrote the screenplay). The movie follows Howard Holiday (Gregg), a down-on-his-luck agent for child actors who's looking to crawl his way back to the top of Hollywood's totem poll. Needless, to say, this is a far cry from superhero lore.
While promoting "Trust Me" at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, an energized Gregg spoke to us about his new film, the pressures of being a child actor, and his return as Agent Coulson.
Congratulations on the film. Thanks. I actually just finished it last week.
I assume that wasn't the plan, to finish it a week before its world premiere? No. I had been traveling, doing some press for some other stuff, and there wasn't really an opportunity.
I feel like there isn't a lot of stuff out there that talks about the pressure child actors face today. Was that one of the reasons you decided to write this? Well, I was doing a couple jobs with young actors, and there was a couple of people who represented them where I thought, "Wow, that's amazing how much catering they have to do to a child." I realized once I got into it a little bit, there really hadn't been much done in this world. So I wrote what I thought was going to be a funny comedy, but when I read it back, there was more stuff going on.
What other stuff? You can't really read up on this [topic] and see how many young people lose their way and end up having these tragic experiences. It's young people with too much authority and power. When I first read [the script] back, it tapped into more ambiguous feelings that I had about this kind of obsession with stardom as a transformative mineral in our society. We've gotten more celebrity obsessive. I read somewhere years ago that the number of people going to film school had eclipsed the number of people going to law school. That felt like what I had gone into. And if you [act] long enough, you end up feeling like Howard Holiday at some point, kind of getting your ass kicked and feeling like you're never going to get a shot.
Having been in the business awhile, I assume you've seen that a lot: actors not getting their shot. Oh yeah. I know a lot of brilliant actors who never got a shot, and they may not ever get a shot. It's kind of heartbreaking. I was one of them I thought, and then I started working as a screenwriter. I don't know, maybe I started not caring as much about acting and suddenly people started hiring me more and they put me in these Marvel movies. I've now had a really fantastic ride and I don't feel like Howard Holiday. But I certainly spent my years feeling very much like that.
How do you handle it when you're going through that? I mean, I find it emotionally difficult to put my heart and soul into preparing for an audition, and then having them go "Yeah, they weren't into you." The code they use is, "It's not going to go any further," which means you sucked or something. At least that's how I translate it. I find that hard to metabolize at my age. It's a nerve-wracking experience. It's a rough thing to put a kid through. My daughter wants to act and I gave her a tiny cameo in the movie. But I am very protective, it's hard for me to let her.
So you worry about your daughter going into acting? Yeah. I don't know if she has that kind of thick skin.
Is there a way to fix that? To give these child actors more support than what they've been getting? I think, like a lot of things, it's their parents' jobs to have some limits. One of the things that I found in this story that felt true to me is, in some cases, people start to get so invested in what's going on with their kid or for the money or celebrity that's coming along with it, that it starts to subvert what I consider -- especially as a father -- one of your most primal powerful human urges, which is to protect your child. And you see it over and over again, tearing these relationships aside, or there's something that often goes wrong in it, and I was lucky that I didn't have that as a kid.
At what point did you realize Agent Coulson had started to gain a cult following among the Marvel fan base? My wife [actress Jennifer Grey] was doing "Dancing with the Stars" and I formed a Twitter account for her. I was helping her set it up so she could get votes because she wanted to win, which she did -- not because of the Twitter account, she danced her ass off. [During that] we put in a few searches and found out that there were all these people who were obsessed with Agent Coulson, because he was them. They already knew, before Joss [Whedon] had even revealed it, that he was a nerd and that he was their avatar in this world -- that he was a fanboy, and he had no superpowers. And that was so moving to me, to connect with people. I had loved comics, I was into sci-fi, I had been to the Cons. So it had become this gift. When they killed me of in "The Avengers," I didn't care. I had such a great ride, and I loved what they did with him. But when they did this whole "Coulson Lives" movement, it was one of the most moving things that has ever happened to me.
It seemed to be worldwide, too. Yeah, I was in Paris this summer shooting, and all of a sudden I heard these whispers and turned and there were all these French 12-year-old boys going "Coulson, Coulson." The global reach of that is mind-bending. It blows me away.
Was there ever a point where you thought this character was absolutely, 100 percent done for good? Or was there something in the back of your mind that said, Well, maybe he will come back. The Marvel guys were sweet -- they're nerds, so they are also part of Coulson's army -- and they said, "C'mon, maybe he's not that dead." You know, I got this call -- much sooner than I imagined it would come, if it ever came -- and they said, "We want you to come to New York Comic Con. We have some news." And when I saw this video where Joss and [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige came out, and Kevin was wearing a "Coulson Lives" t-shirt, It was really moving to me, because I felt the fans had brought Coulson back to life. Two days ago, I was shooting my last couple pick-up scenes in a show called "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."
So that's the official title? I believe it is.
How was it stepping back into Coulson's shoes? You know, it was definitely familiar. It was moving to put the suit back on.