The multi-talented artist explains the satire behind his latest project, an indie feature on child actors, entitled Trust Me.
Actor-writer-director Clark Gregg
Tavis: Clark Gregg is probably best known to movie audiences as part of the “Iron Man” series as well as “Marvel’s The Avengers” and now on television, of course, in “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” on ABC.
But he’s also the writer and director of a new movie just out called “Trust Me” which takes a satirical look at some of the less savory aspects of Hollywood, particularly when it comes to child actors. Let’s take a look.
Tavis: First of all, I was saying to you when you sat down that all of your friends came through for you. That’s just one scene, but everybody in Hollywood is in this movie [laugh].
Clark Gregg: That’s funny. The spectacular Molly Shannon who went to NYU with me, Bill Macy and Felicity Huffman, two of my oldest friends. Also Bill was our teacher at NYU and later they married.
Amanda Peet, who I met doing a guest spot on something years ago in New York, Allison Janney, I did a bunch of “West Wings” with and we hit it off. Niecy Nash was someone I didn’t know, but she showed up and we just got along.
Tavis: That’s nice when you make those phone calls and they actually come through for you.
Tavis: It helps on a project like this.
Gregg: It’s the only way it’s gonna happen.
Tavis: Yeah. Why this project? You could have tackled another subject. Why this one?
Gregg: It’s really true. I wish I had a really good answer for this. I’m afraid I don’t. I was writing a bigger piece after my first film about children who kind of were acting like grownups and grownups who were acting like children in Los Angeles. But it was about eight stories and it was gonna be an epic that probably would never have moved out of my computer.
There was one of them in particular that felt different. It felt like a kind of unusual mash-up between kind of a show biz comedy of desperation and a film noir. And I realized as I was writing it that we live with this story, with this mythology, not from this kind of particular kind of loser’s point of view played by me, but the kids I grew up watching on TV, on Disney shows and in the movies.
You’d see them and then you’d see them again a few years later and maybe they were in trouble, you know, in prison and where were they, some of them, not all of them. But it’s a part of that and it has something to do with the stakes, the way that people get very obsessed with, you know, this overnight stardom.
Built into that idea is there’s some people who are gonna get that, a very, very small group of people, and then there’s a whole lot of people who never will. So in that way, it felt like a very American idea, this kind of part of the American dream that feels like a myth to me.
Tavis: How much of this, then, the writing, that is, was observational? Something you saw versus stuff that you created?
Gregg: That’s a very perceptive comment. Of all the things I’ve ever written, this one kind of just – I didn’t have to do much research. There was some specific research about the world of child actors ’cause I hadn’t really done that, but I’d had some child actors on jobs with me and watched their agents.
I knew a little bit, so this is a language I know and am familiar with. I’d been in negotiations that are a little different and it just kind of came pouring out as this kind of strange noir allegory.
Tavis: Is there a message here? Is there a takeaway here or is it just pure entertainment?
Gregg: I don’t…
Tavis: I mean, these things…
Gregg: No, it’s a completely legitimate question. I don’t mean for it to have a message. I find that when I try to make my own thing like this, it takes on a life of its own. It becomes something that surprises me. I thought I was making this edgy comedy. As soon as I started to kind of craft it, it became that something had a lot of feelings in it.
It became a very emotional journey and it seemed to have a lot of – I don’t know. It has a kind of darkness. There’s some sadness in it about the way these childhoods get lost. That said, it’s also kind of trying to kind of not take itself too seriously all the time.
Tavis: Tell me about the character, this agent that you play.
Gregg: The poor guy. You can see that [laugh]. The poor guy. You know, as I said, he’s the guy who kind of got close for a minute. He had a close brush. He was a child actor himself. He really almost hit it and didn’t. And kind of he says later, he’s been hovering around this, haunting this place like a ghost trying to get back there.
And he thinks he’s gonna find, you know, the perfect 10-year-old. He’s gonna take him to the big time. That seems crazy and funny to me. You know, I think he lies more than 25 times in the first five minutes of the movie. He’ll do anything to get there.
And then he stumbles on this young girl who’s right off the bus and they have a connection that’s real and you kind of see the other side of him which is he just loves the whole thing.
He loves actors; he loves her more than he’s comfortable with, just not in any inappropriate way. He has no family and he quickly finds himself in a position where he can kind of have everything he’s ever dreamed of, or take care of her.
Tavis: Even when moviegoers across the country will go see this, even when they don’t necessarily connect to the lives of the “child actors” in the film, what works for moviegoers is to connect to the humanity of the character.
So the child acting thing, as you mentioned earlier, it’s a whole different kind of animal here in Los Angeles and in New York. But tell me the humanity that you want them to connect to in the characters.
Gregg: That’s funny you say that because people would say, oh, this is about, you know, kids in show business. But, oh, is it? You’re right. Of course, it is.
I’d kind of forgotten because, you know, like so many great stories, it’s not really about the specifics of that world. You kind of set these characters in that world. We all think we have a ringside seat at Hollywood.
You know, again, I feel like we kind of watch the foibles of one after another young celebrity kind of not having the right kind of boundaries. It feels like a really slow kind of car crash and, you know, maybe there’s some Sizzurp involved, I don’t know…
Tavis: [Laugh] Did you just say Sizzurp?
Gregg: I did [laugh].
Tavis: I love it. That might be the first time that Sizzurp was ever uttered on PBS.
Gregg: I was hoping it would be [laugh].
Tavis: I love it. I get the sense that you actually like this stuff enough now to go back to doing it. That is, the writing and the directing, to do this periodically alongside the acting.
Gregg: Oh, yeah, I do, absolutely. You know, you get to – I might have said it last time we were here, but, you know, you spend a certain time as an actor and you’re really kind of a session player on somebody else’s album. You know, you’re bringing your part and you’re trying to, you know, influence what it becomes. But, you know, it’s someone else’s vision.
I came from a theater company in New York started by Bill Macy and Felicity and David Mamet and myself and some others. And it was really part of the ethos of the thing was you do everything. You’re a storyteller.
And when I get to a moment where I get to kind of compose and, you know, it’s my vision, it exercises muscles. It’s a fulfilling experience in a way that being someone else’s session player isn’t. It’s not something I really ever, you know, dreamed of was to act and direct at the same time.
It’s not something that I recommend essentially, yet there was something about this character and the way that he kind of stands outside the fence like this that I had some years like that that I really connected to. I couldn’t give it to somebody else.
And I thought it might have been a mistake until I got about two days into this and realized that trying to do both of those things feels just as terrifying as this guy’s life on this day.
Tavis: Well, you pulled it off and the TV show is still doing remarkably well. You gotta be happy with that.
Gregg: Thank you. I’m really happy with that.
Tavis: It’s a great success.
Gregg: The last time I saw you, I couldn’t even tell you that I was gonna have a bad day with “The Avengers”.
Tavis: Yeah. You couldn’t tell me anything. I begged and you would give me nothing. But it all worked out.
Gregg: They would have killed me even sooner [laugh], if I had.
Tavis: It all worked out. Well, you’re always welcome here any time.
Gregg: Thank you so much. It’s a great pleasure.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you back. Very quickly, so for you, the answer may be that you’ve done it already. But when you do an independent project like this and you pour all of your heart and mind and soul into it, what’s the determining factor for whether or not it has been or is a success for you?
Gregg: That’s a beautiful question. There’s two levels of it. One is you do it ’cause you just need to tell the story. You need to tell the story and I feel like you need to tell the story because you want to connect.
You want to give to people what you’ve been given in some dark movie theaters or what have you where there’s just a kind of revelatory experience on the deepest level.
That’s a sacred thing you want to share and be part of. And if you can do that, it’s a success. I find if that’s what I focus on at the end of it, I come out of it feeling like I’ve got something different to bring to anything else that I do afterwards.
Tavis: The new project from Clark Gregg is called “Trust Me”. He has written and directed it and stars in it and got a wonderful cast of friends. Congrats in advance, Clark, and I look forward to seeing you again soon.
Gregg: Thank you so much.
Tavis: You’re welcome here any time. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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