The actor-writer-director discusses the development of his character in the much-buzzed-about feature The Avengers and relates his career to that of the NBA’s Jeremy Lin.
Actor-writer-director Clark Gregg
Tavis: Clark Gregg is a talented actor, writer and director whose many films include “What Lies Beneath,” “Choke,” and “Thor,” and of course both “Ironman” blockbusters.
He’s back as secret agent Phil Coulson for the latest installment of the Marvel franchise “The Avengers.” The film opens in theaters everywhere on May 4th and includes an all-star cast. So here now, a scene from “The Avengers.”
Tavis: Good to have you on the program.
Clark Gregg: Thank you, good to be here.
Tavis: What do you think it is about this Marvel series? I was just looking the other day – almost 50 years since we were introduced to these characters, and Hollywood and everybody else obviously still loves this stuff.
Gregg: I know, it just keeps going. They seem to have changed over the years. Certainly you see some of the early Superman, Batman, it’s all very kind of black-and-white, and I think one of the things Marvel did, especially with some of these characters when I was reading them in the ’70s is re-examine the concept of heroism and having the people who are kind of carrying this responsibility and exercising this kind of authority, whether assumed or not, have a lot of issues themselves.
I think they built a kind of interesting template in terms of having really top-notch actors. When I got a call to be in “Ironman,” I already, as fan of the comics as a kid, thought really? They got Robert Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges to do this? He’s going to wear the suit? I couldn’t sign on fast enough.
Tavis: To your point about heroism a moment ago, I was going to ask about this so I’m glad you went there. I wonder how you would compare and contrast how these characters took hold vis-à-vis the heroism 50 years ago, and what we look for, long for, or for that matter, lack in heroes today. Does that make sense?
Gregg: Yeah, that’s a great question. There’s nothing about, as someone who’s studied a little bit, there’s nothing about the conflicts of World War I and World War II that anyone could feel nostalgia for.
But everything seems to have gotten so much more complicated in terms of what’s evil and who should be fought against and who should take the mantle to do that.
Certainly when you watch this movie it’s hard not to think about the United States in terms of being deemed by others sometimes and by ourselves as kind of the heroes who protect the world, and at the same time very much kind of resented for that.
That’s presuming that you know how other people want to be protected and the ramifications of that. At the same time, the other thing I thought when I watched it finally all put together the other night is oh, it’s Apollo, it’s the Greeks, it’s the stuff we’ve been into for 3,000, 4,000 years.
This person represents us, because there’s a lot of hubris on the helicarrier in “The Avengers.” There’s some big egos. (Laughter) That’s one of the things Agent Coulson has to deal with from time to time.
Tavis: How does it feel as an actor to be in one of these as a small role, character’s playing a small part, and a few films later you’re a major character. So part of it obviously is the way they write these things, but obviously, if they didn’t think that they had the right actor playing the agent, then they wouldn’t be expanding the role. That’s got to make you feel good, though.
Gregg: It does. I’m so – it’s so much more often the case with a character actor, and certainly a character actor of a certain age that you do this. You go, “Well, they might expand this.” And not only do they not expand it – (laughter)
Tavis: They shrink it.
Gregg: – you go to the premiere and you’re like no, I was – I wouldn’t have brought you all with me. I swear I was in this more in the script. (Laughter) So this never happens. I feel – as someone who kind of loved these comics as a kid and who really loved – I just loved these movies, I love the way they put together these amazing casts.
It’s not like I think there were certain periods of time where you go do a superhero movie and you’re going down to a really cheap studio and trying not to look at anyone’s costumes too much.
This is not that scenario. It’s actors I admire and superheroes I grew up loving. So to find myself actually walking onto the deck of the helicarrier and doing a scene first with, like, Bruce Banner – there’s Captain America, oh, my God – is hard enough, but then to have it also be seven or eight of my favorite actors, I feel very fortunate. To whatever extent anything I brought to it has contributed to that? Well, nice.
Tavis: I’m going to keep following you in, because you keep leading me down this wonderful path of conversation.
Gregg: Go with me.
Tavis: I’ll go with you. (Laughter) I’ll hold your hand.
Gregg: I’m scared; I don’t know where we’re going. I never do.
Tavis: I will go with you, yeah, yeah. I will go with you. I’ve gotten myself in trouble many times on this program doing that.
Gregg: I’ve seen it.
Tavis: Yeah, but I’m going to follow you anyway. You said something a moment ago that I’ve heard expressed by women on this program over the years. I don’t know – maybe I have; I don’t recall – heard that kind of sentiment expressed from a man, honestly and more accurately, a white man.
Which is that at this age it doesn’t tend to happen this way. Again, I’ve heard women suggest they get to a certain age in this business and it’s harder and harder to find high-quality roles, roles that are expanded as opposed to being shrunk. But it just hit me, because I’ve never heard somebody express that. So tell me what you meant by that.
Gregg: Well, yeah, I think that’s absolutely true of women, and it’s strange. I certainly – I guess as a white male who looks like he might be a federal agent of some kind, there will always be a certain amount of opportunities. (Laughter) There certainly have been.
Tavis: It’s the glasses.
Gregg: I get to work in a suit a lot. But I guess when I got the script for this movie and I was actually – the way this has always worked, because they’re so secretive, is I was doing a scene in “Ironman 2” and they added a new line where they said, “Just tell Tony Stark that you gotta go. You’re going to New Mexico.”
I dutifully said it a couple times, with great conviction, and then I finally was like, “What’s in New Mexico? Where am I going?” and they said, “Oh, God, no one talked to you? Yeah, you have a big part in ‘Thor.'”
And I thought, wow, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Then I was backstage at ComicCon and Joss Whedon pulled me aside and said, “I’m so sorry, I’ve been meaning to call you. Coulson has a really crucial, major role in “The Avengers.” As soon as I was sure that I wasn’t just being really meanly pranked, I started holding my breath a little bit.
But I still thought when the script came in, I’m a character actor. I’m not a movie star like the giant movie stars and brilliant actors who are in this. I’m going to walk through and I’m going to give the Hulk a Jamba Juice and then it’s going to be over. (Laughter)
When I read the script – I guess what I’m really trying to say is to a certain extent, I feel like if Jeremy Lynn was 48 or 43, I guess in the NBA, 33, I’ve been on the bench. I’ve certainly had some great roles and some great independent roles, but not in big movies like this, and I just keep swinging.
I keep taking my shots and hoping to get in the game, and somebody put me in the game after I had certainly kind of considered, well, I’ll still be doing these FBI guys. It’ll be fun.
Tavis: Well, you also figured out, though, in fairness to your great talent, your immense talent, you also figured out years ago that getting in the game is not just about waiting for somebody to call your number.
Gregg: That’s true.
Tavis: Writing, directing, you’ve done that as well, though, and done it well.
Gregg: Right, okay, well, we’re going to go down another road. It’s kind of about feeling – you can feel like you’re a song on somebody else’s mix tape, and I was lucky I started out in this amazing theater company in New York that was started by my class at NYU, a bunch of great people – Felicity Huffman, Mary (unintelligible), Pat (unintelligible) David Mamet and Bill Macy were our teachers, and we just got lucky, being in that moment.
Really, the ethos was don’t spend your first five years out of college trying to bring somebody some – they didn’t have Jamba Juice then – a Slurpee in some movie. (Laughter) Form a theater company and do everything, and that’s what we did, and it was life-changing for me, because you would build the set in the daytime and act on it at night, and there’s a certain degree of ownership.
Rather than go hire somebody else to direct, you take a shot. When I got out, and when I finally said okay, I think I want to try out this Los Angeles thing a little bit, there was a lot of sitting around, and I like golf, but I don’t like it that much.
So I tried to write, tried to make films, got lucky, worked as a screenwriter for a while, and got to make a film. I certainly found that there’s ways that your mind can get exercised in the kind of writing/directing process that I wouldn’t want to do without now, in the same way that I wouldn’t want to do without the visceral kind of playing in the game aspect of being an actor.
Tavis: Your fans know who your wife is, a fine actress herself, Jennifer Gray, and you and Ms. Gray have a 10-year-old now, I think.
Gregg: Yes, we do.
Tavis: So we started this conversation by recollecting how much you loved comic books as a child. You now have a 10-year-old. Are they at all impressed by any of this?
Gregg: Well, the short answer, Tavis, is no.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Gregg: I have a daughter. I have a daughter. The only time this ever got exciting to her was when Disney bought Marvel and she thought it might mean she would meet some of the people from her Disney shows that she likes. But I haven’t – she hasn’t expressed a great interest yet, although I think she just now started to see some of the stuff for “The Avengers,” and she saw Scarlett Johansson, who is as bad as anybody involved with “The Avengers,” and Cobie Smulders, who plays Agent Maria Hill.
It’s good, because you have a daughter and no matter how progressive your politics are at home, she’s still suddenly, at three or four years old, is saying, “I want to be a princess and I want to have a prince.” Well, that’s okay, but you need to be able to beat him in a fight. (Laughter) That’s why you should come see these movies.
Tavis: Well, your daughter notwithstanding, there are a bunch of us big kids who are waiting for “The Avengers” to hit, and I’m honored to have you on the program.
Gregg: Honored to be here.
Tavis: Thank you so much, Clark.
Gregg: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Be sure to download our new Tavis Smiley app right away at the Apple app store or iTunes, for that matter. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.