"I felt pretty dead" is how Clark Gregg remembers the last time he played Agent Phil Coulson, in the 2012 summer blockbuster "Marvel's The Avengers." Of course, feeling dead and being dead are two different things, especially in the Marvel universe.
As it turns out, Coulson wasn't quite dead yet. Gregg (as Coulson) will headline the new "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." television series this fall, which Gregg spoke about in detail -- well, at least as much detail as the always secretive Marvel would allow -- in our chat this past weekend.
But, first, Gregg is at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in support of "Trust Me," a movie that he wrote, directed and starred in. He plays Howard, a low-rent former child star who now specializes in representing child stars. Howard lucks out when he discovers Lydia (13-year-old newcomer Saxon Sharbino), who just may be the next big thing -- but who also may take Howard down a dark path he never envisioned.
I met Gregg in a very crowded Manhattan hotel lobby -- so crowded that Gregg suggested we take some chairs outside, because a Manhattan sidewalk was better suited for an interview than the "zoo" of that lobby. Along with the understandably shy but delightful Sharbino, we discussed "Trust Me," the return of Agent Coulson and how Gregg was almost in "The Untouchables."
"Trust Me" has a tonal shift I wasn't expecting.
I thought I was writing a goofy comedy about the business ...
Is that really how it works? Then it becomes something else at the end?
I mean, I don't feel like it changes at the end. I feel like there's a gradually evolving darker component. But, yeah, it came blazing out of me, and I realized when I read it back, "Oh, this is different." This is representative of my ambivalent feelings that I have about Hollywood and about kind of the distorted concept of stardom. Especially in this celebrity-obsessed moment.
Have you met agents like Howard?
I have. I mean, I've met people like this. When I read it back, one of the things I thought was, "God, this is now something I feel tremendously connected to, this character." I wasn't going to play him, but I thought, "No one is ever going to write anything like this for me." I also felt that anyone who is in Hollywood long enough, you go through some period of kind of feeling like that untouchable loser who can't get a break.
Is this hard to hear for you, Saxon? This sounds sad.
Sharbino: Oh, no! This happens. This stuff happens.
She hasn't experienced that. She just arrived from Los Angeles and is brilliant and blew us all away the minute she came in the door -- and so far has had a great ride. But you've probably had things you were up for and wanted [that] you didn't get?
Sharbino: I mean, yeah. This happens in this business.
I feel like people in other kinds of jobs try to get a job and get crushed. But there's a level of emotional investment that you have to do to even do a good audition. And then you see them, and sometimes, the minute you walk in, you can just tell that they're not interested. You have to do it anyway and put your heart out there. I don't feel like everybody knows exactly how brutal that is.
Are your life lessons from that in this movie?
I spent so many years on the other side of this. I've gone to so many great movies and had to sit there when the part I read for came on and think, "That guy really killed it, no wonder he got it" or "Bastard, I could have done that."
What's an example of this?
I had a couple of callbacks for a role in "The Untouchables." I was a student in Chicago doing theater and it felt close. And I wanted to be part of it so bad -- it was written by David Mamet, who was actually my acting teacher at the time, and it would have been a great surprise for him, you know? Then I didn't get it and I went and watched it, and it was a huge hit and it was a great movie. There was another movie that I won't say the name of that was an indie -- it was one of the first things that I ever auditioned for, for a young director. And they said, "It's really between you and one other guy ... it looks like you're going to get it."
Is this a well-known movie?
Very well-known movie.
What year did it come out?
I don't know ... it was one of those early movies that really put Sundance [Film Festival] on the map.
Was this in the '70s or was it the '80s?
No, '80s. [Laughs] Not '70s, man! I didn't start doing this until I was 20. But I didn't get it, but every now and then it would come on. And I remember sitting there with a girlfriend watching it, going, "I almost got that part." And she was like, "Sure you did, honey." Like, "It's so sad that you really think that." And then I was at some thing, many years later, and I bumped into the director and he goes, "Do you remember me?" And I was like, "I remember you. Do you remember me?" And he's like, "Oh, yeah, you almost got that part." I'm like, "So there's a girl I want you to call to tell her. Please call this girl. I'm broken up with her, but I want her to know that." But I knew I couldn't handle it. I couldn't handle it. At that age, I was such a mess.
Would it have derailed things?
Yeah. I probably would have succumbed to all the things that young actors succumb to. I wasn't balanced enough then. I'm barely balanced enough now. But, you know, when I'm 40-something and they give me a little role in "The Avengers," I take it. I don't expect it to turn into anything. And then when they start adding scenes ... I've taken a lot of small roles under the hope that maybe they'll see something cool and expand it. It just never happens.
I've seen "Iron Man 3," which was great. But I missed having Coulson around.
I was sad that they were going to suit up Tony Stark and Coulson was going to be too dead to be in it. So I had the other experience where I really appreciated it. And when they kept adding me to stuff and they put me in "The Avengers."
People love Agent Coulson.
The fans click with Coulson. He doesn't have any super powers. Joss [Whedon] totally seized on all of the things that they were into about that. He was a fan, he had his own Captain America cards. And he had no powers -- he was the avatar of my brother and sister nerds. So when they killed him off, they were devastated in a way that blew me away and moved me. They started the Coulson Lives movement -- they started posting stuff. And I think that's why they brought him back for this TV show.
Did you always have the feeling that Coulson would be back? Even when you filmed that scene in "The Avengers"?
I felt pretty dead. There was a lot of blood. Literally, I was doing takes -- I mean, I saw the stick Loki was going to stab me with. I'm looking at the camera, saying, "Looking for the rewrite pages! We're really going to go through with this? I'm the glue! Please, don't kill the glue!" Because some people had said he's the glue of the Marvel universe. But, nonetheless, I got shanked.
But now you're back.
I got shanked. And I was heartbroken. But I also felt that what Joss did with that role was so magnificent and one of the great death scenes that to hope to see him again felt greedy. I had such a great run. I would have preferred going out that way to kind of bringing out someone a Jamba Juice, telling them to fix their cape. And the Marvel guys always said, "Oh, well, it's a comic book world -- how dead can he be?"
But then I read something online -- something on the Twitter -- about Coulson's funeral scene is in "Thor 2." I texted Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel. I'm like, "Dude, dude, I don't think I did business with this ... that really threw me when I read that today. I was a little bit messed up." And I didn't get a response.
He can be an understandably vague guy.
The reason he didn't call is that, a week later, I got another call saying, "'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' -- we're putting together a small team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and you'll never guess who the commander is."
It would have been heartbreaking if he told you that it was the guy who beat you out for that indie film from the '80s.
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs] "He's the young you. He's like you, but better looking."
Saxon, what do you know him best from? The Marvel movies?
Sharbino: Yeah, I mean I saw "The Avengers." it struck me how much he's done. Like, we were sitting in a work session when I found out he was the writer.
Yeah, I changed some lines and she said, "Are you sure that's OK?" I said, "I'm pretty sure it's OK. I'll fire this writer. I'm not that impressed with him so far."
I saw a really early screening for "The To Do List" [an upcoming Gregg movie].
I haven't seen it!
You make quite an interesting face at one point.
I go to fool around with my wife, played by Connie Britton. We're trying to get things sparked up. So we go off in our van to the woods to a place everyone goes to make out. I end up with my face against the window, and there's my daughter [played by Aubrey Plaza] making out in the next car.
Sharbino: What is this movie called?
It's called "The To Do List."
It's kind of raunchy.
Yeah, it is. [To Sharbino] You're not allowed.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.