Clark Gregg, now an 11-year veteran of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, vaguely remembers the first guidance he received from Iron Man director Jon Favreau on how to play SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson, who showed up after Tony Stark’s daring escape from the Ten Rings and never left.
“I remember Jon just saying, ‘This guy knows a lot more than he’s letting on,’” Gregg tells Polygon. “‘And he doesn’t take any shit.’”
Coulson, who returns to the MCU movies de-aged and prequel-ready in this week’s Captain Marvel, wasn’t an Easter egg plucked from Marvel lore that gave Iron Man a bit of fan-service flair. He could have been a stock government agent left in the dust of a fusion-powered super suit. Instead, Marvel’s crack team of screenwriters and comic gurus, led by Favreau and Kevin Feige, turned an easily anonymous member of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division into a lynchpin of a grander vision, and a proxy for the regular Joes in the theater. The latter is why, Gregg believes, Coulson persists.
“He is the audience,” Gregg says. “I think that’s why there’s a connection. He starts out as an idealistic person who really believes in what SHIELD is fighting for. And I don’t think he, or anybody, understands how much they’re going to be needed until the movies start to expand.”
After a few encounters with Robert Downey Jr.’s quippy armored hero, Gregg says, “It popped. Acting with him is as fun as it gets. And I just thought, Oh boy, I wish I would get to do more of that.” Coulson returned for Iron Man 2 to put Stark in his place (“If you attempt to leave or play any games, I will taze you and watch SuperNanny while you drool into the carpet”) and expand the MCU in a way that jolted viewers with the promise of a true, shared universe.
“During one of those [Iron Man 2] scenes they said, ‘Oh Tony, you’ve got to tell him he’s going to New Mexico.’ Finally, after I did a couple of takes, because I was obedient and happy to be there, I was like, ‘One question: What’s in New Mexico?’ And they said, ‘Oh, Thor! You’re going to be the one to find his hammer. Are you free?’ And I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to get free!’”
As much as Gregg was a part of the core Phase 1 Avengers cast, he was as much of an audience member as anyone seeing the movies. That is, he had no idea where the story was going any step of the way — even after “dying” in The Avengers.
“Like everyone else, he was on this journey seeing just what [the Avengers] are up against. Then he’s taken out by that scheming bastard, Loki. I thought that was it and I thought it was a wonderful sacrifice and a great exit.”
Just a few days after The Avengers’ May 4, 2012, release, fans of Coulson sprouted up in support of their fallen idol. Even a glimpse of eventual villain Thanos in a post-credit scene couldn’t overshadow the “#CoulsonLives” campaign, which speculated in true comic fashion that the fallen hero could — and should — return. That theory-slinging brings Gregg full circle: at the time, a sect of fans were convinced that Coulson would turn out to be a member of the legendary, shape-shifting Marvel race, the Skrulls. This month, he stars in a movie alongside the green people.
“There were a lot of camps among the Coulson Lives people,” he recalls. “One was that he was a Skrull. One was that he was really a [Life-Model Decoy] and the real Coulson was going to come back. People really wanted him to be Vision, but that was before they knew that Paul Bettany was possibly available.”
For Gregg, the possible avenues for returning the to mega-franchise were a form of humbling praise. Then it actually happened.
“I got a call from Joss and he said, ‘We think you might not be so dead.’ So the whole first season of the Agents of SHIELD is going to be this mystery of a guy who thought he had a close call and was actually, he had his memory clean because of the horrifying alien technology they used to bring him back. ... Now here I am, six and a half years and 130-some episodes of SHIELD.”
Staying in the dark as to what’s next for Coulson may be the greatest pleasure for Gregg. He says his greatest shock wasn’t even coming back to life for Agents of SHIELD.
“We didn’t know that at the beginning, in the early, finding-our-footing stages of season 1, that what we were doing was stalling until Captain America was going to reveal that this was Hydra among us. I didn’t see Bill Paxton, my pal, turning evil on me.”
“They’ve done a masterful job of tearing the show apart and reinventing it every year,” he adds. “And when we got to season 4 and the show became three separate pods, one with Ghost Rider, one in a Matrix-like Framework, and then one would tell LMDs I thought, wow, these guys are doing something cool. It’s been really a joy to watch the show rise and grow into something.”
Captain Marvel asks Gregg to pull off a feat that few actors have encountered: playing a younger version of himself while carrying the weight of everything that’s happened in the Marvel universe in his head. Gregg says a major part of switching those gears was working with Captain Marvel directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose work includes Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind.
“This Phil Coulson is a far more jaded person, and [playing him in Captain Marvel] is about stripping away all those memories and going back to a very different time. Which is hard to get to! But I’m a huge fan of [Anna and Ryan]. They have an enthusiastic, positive spirit that I feel is not dissimilar to who Phil Colson is when we meet him in this movie.” With a laugh, he adds, “He’s basically modeled on Anna.”
Spoilers for Agents of SHIELD season 5: The final episode saw Agent Coulson fade into the great beyond yet again. Producers insist he’s actually dead, knowing full well that members of the #CoulsonLives fandom would believe otherwise. Still, there’s a twist: A trailer for Agents of SHIELD season 6 shows a Coulson doppelganger running amok in the world.
“We had conversations about the demise of Phil Coulson at the end of season 5 and whether or not I should still be part of the show, what would it be like if there was a version [with me in it].” The MCU is getting the latter version. Gregg is back for more. Don’t ask him what’s in store — not only is he mostly in the dark when it comes to the machinations of the MCU’s grandmasters, but he’s also a skilled spoiler-keeper. He’s been doing this for 11 years, after all.
Case in point: Agent Coulson makes his triumphant return to the big screen in Captain Marvel, but could he return for Avengers: Infinity War, the trilogy-capper of a saga he was around to kickstart?
“Sure, his memory has been wiped clean. He’s a florist. He’s doing a lot of funerals because half the world is gone now ... I probably shouldn’t have told you that.”