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No Cape? No Problem

From stage actor to screenwriter to geek god, Clark Gregg soars without superpowers

by Renée Alfuso / CAS ’06

Clark Gregg isn’t a superhero. He doesn’t even play one on TV. And yet, the veteran actor has become the poster boy for Marvel, thanks to his turn as Agent Phil Coulson, the unassuming government suit who never loses his wit or stoicism, whether he’s assembling egocentric Avengers or staring down a giant alien automaton with nothing more than a megaphone.
Clark Gregg’s most popular character, marvel’s Agent Coulson, made the jump from the big screen to comic books (below).

“There was something about that role—an average guy who had an ability to speak truth to superpower—that the fans connected with.”

Looking back it’s hard to believe that it all started with a few quips in Iron Man (2008). Audiences instantly connected with Gregg’s character—so much so that he has earned the rare distinction of being drawn into the comic books after debuting on film. Six years and four feature films later, Gregg (TSOA ’86) is again starring as Coulson on the hit ABC show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which garnered more than 1 million Facebook fans before the first episode even aired last September. Yet long before this popularity, Gregg toiled in background scenes and behind the camera—evolving from actor to hyphen-requiring actor-writer-director.

Those last two endeavors are also reaping the dividends of Gregg’s newfound success. He recently wrote, directed, and starred in Trust Me, his second independent film (after 2008’s Choke based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel). Featuring Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, Allison Janney, and Amanda Peet, the dramedy premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. “That’s a whole other level of rewarding,” he says.

Gregg cut his teeth as a founding member, and later artistic director, of the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company, which formed in 1983 out of an NYU summer workshop taught by Macy and playwright David Mamet. He spent his first decade out of school with Atlantic “doing theater for next to nothing” before moving to Los Angeles, where he took bit parts in films and on TV.

His first writing job was no small gig: penning the screenplay for What Lies Beneath (2000), the supernatural thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. After a string of mostly one-off appearances, Gregg landed multi-episode runs on Sports Night (2000), The West Wing (2001), The Shield (2004), and The New Adventures of Old Christine (2006–10). “The best stuff that happened for me [has been] since I turned 40,” he says.

His biggest break came when director (and neighbor) Jon Favreau offered Gregg the small, nameless role of “Agent” in the star-studded Iron Man film. He had some trepidation based on experience. “I thought, I really want to do this, but I just know it’s gonna get cut out or [cut down to] just one line, and then I’ll feel embarrassed,” he remembers with a laugh. Fortunately his wife, actress Jennifer Grey, encouraged him to accept the part because of his lifelong love of comic books.

Gregg’s on-screen chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. resulted in Favreau adding scenes for “Agent,” and soon Coulson was born. The character evolved in the film’s sequel and even further in Thor (2011), when it became clear that amidst all the demigods and monsters, viewers identified with Coulson’s mortal underdog. “There was something about that role in a world with superheroes—an average guy in a suit who had an ability and a willingness to be sarcastic and speak truth to superpower—that made him someone the fans connected with,” he surmises.

So when it came time to assemble Earth’s mightiest heroes for the blockbuster The Avengers (2012), it was Coulson who brought the bickering team together. In Joss Whedon’s script, his tragic demise by supervillain stabbing gave them something to avenge. “I really loved that it grounded the movie in something real and human. And then it came to the day to shoot it and I was a mess,” he says. “I kept making jokes to the camera that I was waiting for some rewrite pages from the governor.”

the actor shared his excitement over the Coulson action figure by tweeting: “And now this aging fanboy can die happy.”

Moviegoers were even more distraught over Coulson’s fate. Refusing to accept his death, viewers flocked to Twitter and started a protest using #CoulsonLives—which they also printed on T-shirts, carved in the sand, and painted on bridges around the world. Marvel took notice and created Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. “[The fans] are responsible for bringing Coulson back to life,” Gregg says.

The mystery surrounding Coulson’s resurrection was the driving force of the show’s first season, which debuted as TV’s highest-rated new drama in years. Now it’s Gregg who’s doing the heavy lifting, spending long days on set as No. 1 on the call sheet. “If I had lost track of the blissed-out 11-year-old who read these comics and loved this world, I wouldn’t be having this much fun,” he says. “I get to fly amazing vehicles and do battle with tremendous alien creatures…it’s a really good way to be fiftysomething.”