Magical place or not, we’re somehow skeptical that Agent Coulson spent the time between “The Avengers” and “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” enjoying the recuperative powers of Tahiti.
That Agent Coulson was dead and now he’s not has been one of the core mysteries of ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and answers have been, thus far, fairly slow in coming for either viewers or for Coulson himself.
That’s expected to change in the drama’s January 7 episode, which picks up soon after the abduction that ended its 2013 finale.
Ahead of Tuesday’s episode, fittingly titled “The Magical Place,” I got on the phone with “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” star Clark Gregg to talk about what he knew about Coulson’s secret, when he knew it, how this TV Coulson has been different from Movie Coulson and how he feels about his show’s evolution through its first season.
Click through for the full Q&A…
HitFix: As we began the series, there were many things that Coulson didn’t know regarding what happened to him post-“Avengers.” From the start, did you want to know those things? Or did you only want to know what Coulson actually knew?
Clark Gregg: I wanted to know more. I wanted to know more, so I took Joss [Whedon] and the writers out to dinner before we even started, just because I realized that all I really knew is what was in the pilot, which is that there was a version that Coulson believed, which was that there was a real close call — “Whew!” — but that there was much more than that, that there was a much deeper and darker and more mysterious story to what he was doing still alive. And I just feel like you can kinda convince? Mask? Hide that kind of trauma from somebody through whatever memory-implantation tools may have been used? But on some level that person feels it, even if it’s just unconscious, even if it’s nightmare. So there was a little more that I wanted to know and even in that conversation I realized, “Wow. I don’t wanna know too much.” I like being in his shoes. I like kinda discovering it as we go and still having the questions, because my curiosity, my frustration, my desperation to kind of understand what this is helps me to do my job as an actor.
HitFix: How forthcoming were they at that dinner?
Clark Gregg: I made a lot of guesses. I’ve read a lot of comics. I love this world. I’ve been thrilled to be part of it because I’m into this stuff in my own life, so we did a little of that thing where, “I’m not gonna tell you, but I’m not gonna lie if you guess.” So there was lot of just kinda nodding like, “That sounds like it’s in the neighborhood.” Know what I mean? I think to a certain extent, they were doing the thing that I actually was glad they were doing, which is letting it evolve. They had fuzzy shapes that we were moving toward and they were gonna let this cast and the nature of the show and what we were able to accomplish really evolve it in those directions and those things would get sharper and crisper. So I knew enough. I knew enough to get me going, because very early on in the season, people were saying, “He’s different. Something’s wrong. What’s up with him?” Different people who’d known him before were saying that. And I had to figure out how to let him be different after what he’s been through, in ways that don’t even make sense to him, without knowing too much. So you kind put your finger on the trickiest part of my job, is knowing enough to really represent it truthfully, but to also keep the mystery.
HitFix: How did you quantify that difference? Obviously you’re playing a guy who still has some amount of the Coulson we knew before in him, but he’s not exactly that man. How do you quantify what the difference is between this Coulson and the Coulson you played many times before?
Clark Gregg: I would say that the Coulson in the films was also evolved quite gradually. Every time I’d get a new one of the film scripts, that writing team, that filmmaker had added a different component, with Joss kinda taking it and adding all of the most tying-up pieces that had been suggested before — His fanboy thing, his kinda man-crush on Cap. So I think that that’s the nature. Here’s this guy who has been a company man. One of my favorite Coulson scenes is the scene in “Thor” when he confronts this giant sci-fi robot-creature in the desert and he’s almost like, “Oh my God. What’ve we got now? It’s probably Stark’s.” You just kinda imagine the stuff this guy deals with on a daily basis and yet when you see those Cap scenes in “Avengers,” you go, “Oh, it’s because he loves all of this.” He’s jaded and he’s snarky and he deals with all these divas, but he loves the heroism and he grew up idolizing Captain America.
So then the guy we meet in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has been through something deeply traumatic where he lost his life, for some amount of time. He’s been told it’s quite brief, but there’s just a darkness and there’s a kind of trauma that he’s carrying around that doesn’t quite make sense to him and seems to manifest itself in strange ways. In some ways, he kinda finds himself not nearly as cold or ruthless as he would like to be, or as he has been. And at the same time, putting together this team, he feels driven by motives inside of himself that he can’t quite always make sense of and that feels very new to him. Like all good submerged traumas, this one doesn’t want to stay quietly in his unconscious and it starts to manifest in weird nightmares and twitchy catchphrases. Every time he says “Tahiti,” he keeps finding himself spitting out this robotic “magical place” thing and so for me and for Phil Coulson, it’s a big relief on one level to finally get to a place where somebody’s gonna help him figure out what really happened, but unfortunately for Coulson, the people who want that information from him are villains using terrifying and painful technology. So he’s stuck with this rather terrifying dilemma of how to use them and their methods to get the truth that’s being denied to him even by the people he trusts the most — Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. — without revealing anything to them that might help them.
HitFix: So answers are coming? Are viewers maybe going to learn some things before Coulson even does?
Clark Gregg: I think that’s been the case a little bit so far and I think everybody’s gonna be on the same page after tomorrow night.
HitFix: Early in their runs, shows are always works-in-progress. How would you compare the “S.H.I.E.L.D.” you’re shooting and making now to the pilot or to the first couple episodes?
Clark Gregg: It’s funny. In a way it so mirrors, Clark’s so mirrors Phil Coulson trying to put these pieces together and always learning a little bit more and not being sure how much he can trust S.H.I.E.L.D. The process of starting out a new series, Marvel’s first television show and, for my money in a lot of ways the first television show quite like this, with a new team, the on-set experience is very similar to the scripts. It’s a bunch of people who don’t know each other working very hard to gel. The fun part for me is, kinda like the audience members, I see a bunch of scripts that seem to have unrelated villains, unrelated dilemmas, but now it’s all turning out to be part of this really interesting Marvel quilt that is just now starting to really reveal itself, that it’s all connected, that it’s all part of a big vaster conspiracy, that Coulson’s near-death is a big core part of that and might be one of the things that these Centipede people want even more than, at the end of episode 1.10, even more than a stabled Centipede super-soldier in Mike Peterson, they want and somehow know about what happened to Coulson more than even his own people are telling him.
HitFix: For you as a fan of comics and a fan of this world, was that something you were getting anxious for? Waiting to see how the pieces were going to come together in this way?
Clark Gregg: I was, yeah! I’m torn because I also really like television that takes its time and really sets up stuff and gradually builds it and teases it out, so I was in support of that, but getting the most recent couple of scripts and seeing the ways that things that I didn’t even imagine were part of all this — Skye’s mysterious parentage, who these people are who he’s assembled, what his relationship with Melinda May is — to have all these things become part of this core story that’s starting to come into focus and to see the ways that that seems like it’s going to interact with the cinematic universe in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” is very exciting for me.
“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” returns to ABC at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, January 7.