Long before he was known by most as Agent Phil Coulson from the Marvel Studios movies and the ABC series "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," Clark Gregg was an in-demand character actor who made his feature debut back in 2008 with an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's difficult novel Choke
, starring Sam Rockwell.
Now, Gregg is back, both behind and in front of the camera for his second feature Trust Me
, in which he plays Howard Holloway, a former child actor who has graduated to being the agent and manager for young actors. When Howard discovers a bright teenage talent in Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), he tries to help her navigate the Hollywood studio system, while trying to keep her away from his main competition (again played by Sam Rockwell) and her father.
ComingSoon.net met up with Gregg a few weeks back in New York to discuss his second foray into directing as well as catch up with how things have been going for him as "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" came closer to its season finale.
ComingSoon.net: A lot has happened since I last seen you. You've written and directed another movie and you have a new TV show.
It's true. I was dead. I came back to life. Who can say that, really? Me and that other guy.
CS: Usually when you die in a movie, they don't make a whole TV show around you.
I know. Well, no one was more surprised than me.
CS: I think when spoke back in Albuquerque before "The Avengers." You were already looking at another movie to write and direct. I think you were looking at adapting a book at that point, but was this something you had on the backburner?
I was adapting something as a writer for hire. When I have time, I'll still write something for a director or a studio, which is kinda what I was doing for a while before Marvel took me out of my once a year independent film acting gig and turned me into an actor who sometimes writes. But this was an original thing. After I did "Choke," I knew I wanted to make an original, and I had a couple of ideas that were kind of one giant, epic 10-hour movie that I knew would never get made, and one of the stories that was in there was this story, "Trust Me." So I kind of pulled this out and adapted it probably four years ago and put it together, started going to casts. I had Sam Rockwell and pals. I put together this ensemble cast, and then I think I had almost put it together, and then Joss pulled me aside and said, "You've got a big part in ‘The Avengers.'" So I was probably working on it by that time.
CS: I spoke to John Turturro and Jon Favreau in the past couple of weeks, and they both have movies they wrote, directed and starred in. First of all, when you direct a movie, that's a lot of commitment, but even moreso when you write a movie for yourself to star in. What was it about Howard Holloway that made you want to write a script around him?
That's a really good question. In my first film "Choke," I played a small part, and those days felt five times more exhausting than any other day. I never really felt like that's what I want to do, "I want to write films for myself." I never felt that way. I started writing this piece, and I've always wanted to be in the kind of film noir. At a certain point, this kind of strange comedy about a loser agent for child actors, who everyone dumps for his cooler nemesis, started to become a film noir comedy. I had gone to my partner now, Mary Vernieu, this brilliant casting director, who does all of David O. Russell and Darren Aronofsky's movies, to produce this time, because she gave the best notes and is really a producer, whether she knows it or not. She jumped in and did that. At some point, when this character became this kind of aging loser with a bit of a heart, she turned to me and said, "Look, I don't want to insult you, but this part has become really (something) you have to play." I really fought it for a while. It seemed like an unachievable task, and I just felt like I'd be in over my head all the time, desperately trying to catch up, and then it occurred to me that that's exactly how this character, Howard Holloway, feels all day long.
CS: Some of the actors who are starring in the movies they're directing actually found it easier because when you're in a scene with another actor, you can direct their performance with your own. Is that something you found as well?
Oh, that's really interesting. I'm sure that's true. There is a way that it's easier in that you generally have a pretty good rapport with your leading actor to a certain extent--it's you. You surround yourself with actors who you feel comfortable with and who you think might challenge you. There is something just in the doing of the scene, where, yes, your vision of the piece gets communicating. You're right in the center of the story at all times, so you feel if it starts to nudge outside of the parameters that you think will work. It's more kind of immediately and viscerally than you might if you were kind of standing at the monitor 40 feet away.
CS: But do you feel like you have to run back and forth to the monitor at all times, or do you feel like once you have the shot setup, you can just kind of be in the scene?
I thought I would, and I didn't. I didn't. I really trusted my partner, Mary, who was there a lot. I hired this amazing cinematographer, Terry Stacey, who really from the first meeting, he just knew what I was after. It's a challenging movie, tonally. It's funny and it's sad and it's weird, and he got that and loved it. We watched "The Limey," "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"--there's a very small subgenre of weird noir comedies. He just knew what I was after. The first couple of days, I suddenly started watching stuff, and then I saw that he had so taken the concept that we had and run with it with his look and the framing that I kind of relaxed. I kind of have done it long enough that I can feel when I'm getting dialed in.
CS: The movie really turns noir at the end, so did you have that idea in mind from the beginning that it was going to get more into that territory as it goes along?
I'm always interested in things that aren't exactly what you think they are. It's funny, because to me, the idea under the movie was the idea that there's this obsession with the transformative power of stardom or celebrity, which will make people subvert even their most basic human values to achieve. Transformation is what the whole thing's about, it's what Howard's desperate for. Everyone wants to in one moment have their life be turned into something magical. It really doesn't quite work that way, so the movie itself does a little bit of that as well. To me, when you watch the film, the transition and the way the darkness is there from the very opening frame, which opens at the end of the movie, and then it kinda catches back up with itself. The movie itself undergoes a kind of transformation, which I think that's like life. Things are kind of funny, and then suddenly they're not, you know? The reason me and Turturro and Favreau, I think make independent films is outside of the studio system is where you get to kinda take chances and try to do new things, which is theoretically the goal of art and certainly of independent art, and that's what I wanted to try.
CS: As far as yourself, do you feel you've achieved stardom or do you also feel like a year from now, you'll be back to being the actor who's always looking for roles?
I think every actor I talk to… I go to a children's birthday party, where they have actors dressed up as clowns. I always feel like, "Man, I make two bad choices and that's me." You think like. Maybe you get to a point where you're recognizable enough that you're safe from that, but I don't know. I feel grateful, but never feel safe. You could never phone it in.
CS: Obviously, you've had experience with agents and managers your entire career, but what about child agents and that aspect of the business, did you have any kind of experience with that or did you have o do some research into that?
I didn't do a ton of research. I'd seen some characters who represented child actors that were around on stuff I was working on, none who was really this guy. There was something that seemed kind of particularly crazy and heartbreaking about the idea that these people were looking around for the prodigiously talented 10 year old who was going to take them to the big time, and that usually meant having to deal with the unreasonable expectations of a mom. Then, I found out that some of them were manager moms, called "momagers," running around with lattes trying to keep the mom happy, trying to keep the 10-year-old from having too many sweets before the audition and going through the roof. There's something about that that got me interested. Then I started researching and I realized I'd grown up with this idea that so many of these kids, Anissa Jones, who we talk about, who was Buffy in "Buffy and Jody" when I was a kid. A lot of them, the rest of their life, many of them seem to be kind of heartbroken by the fact that they feel like they peaked at nine. Then to have the main character have that background, too, you know, it just seemed like such a rich setting for a story.
CS: Heartbreaking is right. I mean, you feel like there are a lot of kids who want to go to Hollywood and become stars but the business is tough for anyone, let alone kids. This year I've seen a lot of really great new child actors in movies like in Favreau's "Chef."
That kid's terrific in John's movie.
CS: How do you get past that and get to the point where you can keep acting as you get older?
It's not a phenomena. I've worked with them. I worked with one, this girl. She's from a really kind of loving, healthy family, and seems to have her goals aligned correctly. But you meet a kid who's 12 that can act like that, sometimes they can carry it through--Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman. She just turned 13 when we did this. She looks a lot older now, and she's gotta be 14 now. You act with them sometimes and it's so effortless as they just still have one foot in the pretend world that we have to fight it as adults to kind of stay in. Yet, you know, my daughter's 12 and she wants to act. Her mom's a wonderful actress, and yet, she does her first little cameo, a kind of non-speaking cameo early in this movie as a client who has no interest in talking to Howard Holloway anymore. But, we're just so wary, I don't think we'll ever do anything professionally until she was in her late 50s.
CS: This movie's almost a cautionary tale in some ways in that sense.
Yeah, and it's not meant to be representative. I don't think this is the experience. This is an experience that takes place in this, and it certainly made some of the more well known actresses we went to, it made their parents very wary. I'm sure they're living very different versions and they didn't want people to think that this is it, but this is not an uncommon, though not a representative version, of that story. And to me, there's definitely a scathing critique of a certain part of Hollywood in it, but I don't see Hollywood as being any different than any other part of a society where making it is the be-all end-all.
CS: I enjoyed the fact that Howard is actually a likable guy. When I learned of the general premise of the movie, I assumed, "Oh, Howard's going to be this complete jerk." He actually has good intentions, especially compared to Sam Rockwell's character, which is weird because everyone's going to Sam Rockwell as an agent, and he seems to be pretty sleazy, at least on the surface. Can you talk about making Howard more likeable?
It's funny, I know. It was certainly something that when we tried to raise the funds to make the movie, people were like, "You know, this guy, he lies more often than he breathes. He's a mess. He'll do anything to get a client. He'll do anything to keep a client. Why does anyone want to go on this guy's journey?" I just feel like he loves what he does and he loves acting and I think we all have felt like this guy at some point or another. "Just give me one shot."
CS: He still tries to do the right thing, even though he's so driven to make it big.
He tries so hard not to do the right thing, but I mean, that was really kind of the fundamental concept of the movie was to put this guy, who's been struggling his whole life to find that kid, and we'll take him to the big time, then let him find that kid and have her get him, like nobody else does, care about him, and then put him in a position where in order to take care of her, he potentially has to give up the thing he wants the most, give him basically the ultimate moral conundrum.
CS: Did you ever see a scenario where you and Sam switched roles, where you could've played his role and he could've played Howard? Would that have worked?
I don't know if Sam's a big enough loser. (chuckles) He's so cool. I woke up many nights thinking, "I'm going to call Sam in the morning. I'm going to call this director that I love. I've got to give up one of these two things." Again, I couldn't bring myself to turn the vision of what this was over to somebody else. I had just turned 50 and I thought I feel like there's something about being me right now and having been through what I've been through, which was years of really struggling and feeling like it would never happen, that I wouldn't get the kinda opportunities I wanted. I kinda looked into that for a while, you know, and I felt like there was something I had to bring to it that I had to share.
CS: How far were you in post-production when you found out you were going to be doing a TV show? I guess you must have been done since it was at Tribeca last year.
No, I knew we were going to shoot a pilot right before we started shooting. During preproduction, I got a call, like the last couple of days of preproduction, I got a call from Joss saying, "We think you might not be dead." I was like, "Wow." I gotta say, it felt nice. It felt like a nice vote of confidence going into what was about to be the scariest thing I'd ever done.
CS: How do you feel about the reaction to the show, because its gone through an interesting transition where a lot of people have seen the show and some people love it and others are only getting into it more now than they did earlier.
It's a really interesting thing, you're right. I'm in the middle of it. I feel a great kind of responsibility to satisfy the fans. The fans are who brought Coulson back to life. I think "Coulson lives" is why there's a show. I want so much for them to like what we're doing. I want it to be great. I feel really protective of my young costars and the 200 people that work on that show supporting their families. When people were frustrated with not having enough superheroes or wanting the pace to move faster, it was hard for me. When people started to click with the show more and the numbers started to build and people seemed to really get what we were going after, it's really been rewarding to me to see it build as the season went along.
CS: When I spoke with "Spider-Man" director Marc Webb, he said that you can't please everybody, because either they want to know everything in advance or want to know nothing and be surprised. Comic fandom is a strange crowd as I'm sure you've found over the years. Gregg:
Yeah, it's actually really interesting, because with social media and stuff, you really find out a lot more about what people are thinking than you ever used to. In some ways, that really can be hard. Sometimes it's really satisfying, but I guess the one thing as an artist that's kind of useful is you realize that this same moment that it's somebody's favorite thing ever, somebody else detests it. You kind of go, "Wow, the span of reactions. Everyone's bringing something different to the party." I watch it with my daughter, and if we like it, I'm really happiest now. That's my barometer.
CS: When you first see the shows on Tuesday night, is that the first time you're getting to watch them?
Yeah, I've almost never seen one before that because they're usually not ready.
CS: With two more episodes to the season, do you get the impression the season's going to end and then next year you'll start something new or there'll be a carryover between the seasons? What's the impression you get as far as where they're going to go?
Well, I knew there was some bad stuff going to happen in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," within S.H.I.E.L.D. I didn't know that we would potentially end up agents of nothing. That said, the level to which that's a game changer becomes very clear in the season finale. There are a couple things that happen in the season finale that blew my mind and really suggest the direction of what might be happening in Season Two.
CS: I was curious about that, because I wasn't sure if they had always planned to tie into "Winter Soldier," or if that came about naturally when they realized how much that movie would affect S.H.I.E.L.D.
Well, I think they knew that they had a whole bunch of new characters, and mostly within Marvel, you're looking at characters you've been reading in comics for 20 to 30 years. So we've got a whole bunch of brand new characters, Coulson, whom we know, and the rest are new. So you get to bring in great people like Sam Jackson and Maria Hill and Lady Sif, but you also get new agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. like Patton Oswalt and Bill Paxton as Agent Garrett. There's just, I didn't understand that the level of treachery would reach into my own team. I think it's really cool that it does.
CS: I hope that next season we'll be able to go back some of the single episode ones, too.
Did you like those?
CS: I actually liked those a lot.
Some of those, I really liked. I also really dig… you know, it's funny, we live in such, what's on TV runs so far from 12 episodes released in one moment on Amazon to 22 that they want you to watch live and not DVR. I mean, they'll take it, but it's just not how people watch TV anymore. I love shows like "Homeland," where I can't wait to see what happens next, but also, one of my favorite episodes this year was episode six, where some firefighters got a hold of a Chitauri helmet and there's this virus.
CS: That's one of the ones I liked a lot, too.
So one of my favorites was like that. That said, selfishly, there's something really fun about getting the scripts together in the room and having special red pages handed to us, where we find us there's Hydra with it. You're like, "All right, our life is like S.H.I.E.L.D.," just to see the actual faces of the other actors reacting to this.
You can read more on what Clark had to say about the finale for "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD"--which aired shortly after we did this interview--over on SuperHeroHype
is now playing On Demand will get a limited theatrical release on June 6.