SHIELD director Nick Fury may be pulling the super-heroic strings of Marvel’s cinematic universe, but it’s Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson who does the heavy lifting.
Gregg – a well-established actor, writer and director previously best known in the popular culture as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ ex-husband on “The New Adventures of Old Christine” (and actress Jennifer Grey’s husband in real life) – first took on the role of Coulson, a government agent and foil in the first “Iron Man” film, bringing a polite, but no-nonsense attitude into an original character that had not previously appeared in any Marvel Comics. Something clicked, and suddenly Coulson turned into a unique linchpin, helping establishing links between Tony Stark’s armored alter ego, the Norse god Thor and, very soon, "The Avengers."
In between, Gregg – a fan of the comic-book source material in his youth – has been bemused and delighted to see the Coulson character properly integrated into Marvel Comics continuity in a pair of digital comics, star in a pair of shot films made especially for the home video releases of “Thor” and “Captain America,” and now as an animated presence in the recently launched Disney XD series “Ultimate Spider-Man,” where Coulson poses as a high school principal to keep tabs on young wall-crawler Peter Parker. “Between the 'Ultimate Spidey' and this other little independent film that's coming out,” Gregg says, “it's going to be a busy, busy couple of months, I think.”
How different is Coulson in “Ultimate Spider-Man” from the guy we’ve seen in the Marvel films?
It's funny. It's similar to the movies. The animated world is different than any of the other movies, but each of the movies has been different than the other movies. Marvel still does the thing that they do so well. There's action and there are characters that you care about with problems that are real, and at the same time it's funny and it's tongue-in-cheek, and I've been really impressed with the writing. I thought that I was going to spend all the time going, 'Ooh! Ah!' and instead there's really funny stuff, the interaction between Peter Parker and Principal Coulson is fun and funny. I think it feels really correct for the animated universe of this.
When you got the role in the first 'Iron Man' were you signed for multiple films and properties?
My understanding is that if you do craft service for Marvel you have to sign a multi-picture deal, because I think they knew that they were going to try to do something like this epic, multi-picture, multi-chapter adventure and they didn't quite know exactly how they were going to do it. They created a really amazing model where they just assembled really, for my money, top-notch creative people like [Jon] Favreau and Robert Downey [Jr.] and Jeff Bridges and Kenneth Branagh and Anthony Hopkins and really evolved it. So I signed up for a couple of pictures, which I thought was laughable and annoying given the fact that in the script that I agreed to do I had, like, six lines. I was doing it because I love the comics so much and I loved that cast and Favreau and the six lines were all with Downey and I was a huge fan. When they started to kind of send more and more scenes, and when they revealed what the Strategic Homeland Intervention Forces and Logistics Division was I started going, 'This is turning into a cool gig.' As they've added the success of movies with the success of directors and more reveals about who Coulson is and what he does and how he feels about it all. I just giggle. It's just goofy.
Is this your first voice acting experience?
I started a theater company in New York with David Mamet and Bill Macy years ago, and one of the things that Mamet loved was radio plays. We did a bunch of them. I directed one for NPR years ago with he and Felicity Huffman. I've always loved them, but I've never done an animated show before and I always wanted to. I just never thought that it would be as cool as being Principal Coulson and getting to hang out with Aunt May who's kind of hot in 'Ultimate Spider-Man.'
Tell us about the experience of having this character woven into the fabric of these comic books that you grew up on – especially when it looks like you and sounds like you?
I wish I looked as good as some of the ones that I've seen in the comics. A lot of my friends are like, 'Oh, look at that. I can show them pictures where you've never looked that good.' It's incredible to me, yeah. I definitely was really into this stuff when I was a lot younger. I loved Marvel comics and I would draw them in class when I should've been trying to learn stuff. That's why I had to be an actor, because I spent all my time drawing Iron Fist and Warlock and trying to be like Jim Starlin. Then I let it go and did other stuff. To come back to it was amazing, and I grew up watching the 'Spider-Man' cartoon. I could sing the theme right now, and so when they called and asked, that they were going to have these super kids at a high school and they're going to be monitored by Principal Coulson, 'Are you comfortable with hearing someone else's voice when you're daughter is watching TV?' I said, 'You fiendish bastards – no. I'm not. I'm not at all.' I immediately signed up. I just keep saying yeah any time I bump into someone from Marvel. It seems like they're saying, 'Oh, oh, are you free for three months? Because we're doing another one and Coulson has a good part.'
Why do you think that Coulson has become such a popular character?
Frankly, it's bewildering to me. I don't know. I know that they give him fun stuff to do, and one of the things that happened in 'Iron Man' and really carried through is that he's a little bit of our eyes on the ground. He doesn't have superpowers. I would imagine that a large segment of the people watching the movie feel comfortable that they could beat him in a fight, although they would be wrong. And he's kind of a normal guy who really believes in this stuff. The fun part is that with each movie they reveal, like, 'Well, maybe he's not quite so normal.' I think that people respond to him having a sense of humor about it. When things get a little too out there or the superheroes are being too much of a diva, he doesn't mind piping up and threatening to taze them. I think it gives people a real link to this stuff. You don't have to have a trillion dollar iron suit or be a Norse God to really connect to the world.
Have they ever floated the idea to you at any point about him carrying his own movie down the line?
I've been floating that! It's like a dirigible made of iron. There're a lot of interesting plans for Agent Coulson. So far I don't say stuff. They keep coming to me with interesting stuff, stuff like this. Basically I just wait to hear what crazy thing they're going to come up with next.
Your "Avengers" director Joss Whedon has a great way of writing dialog. What sort of unique and fun passages did he write for you?
Are you asking for an 'Avenger's' spoiler? You realize we're in the Disney building. If I told you this in a café I'm reasonably sure that I would be evaporated by spy satellites, but in this building I would explode, but I think you kind of know the answer in that if you know Joss and if you know his work. From the minute that I got the script I thought, 'Wow – this, of course, makes perfect sense.' It's some of the funniest stuff in any of the movies for my money and at the same time everyone's voice feels exactly an extension of the voice of Tony Stark that you know and some new voices like Jeremy [Renner] in Hawkeye and the whole relationship between he and Black Widow. I think that's going to be very exciting.
Is your family into the Marvel Universe, as fans?
Well, they are now! No – it's funny to have a daughter. If I had a ten-year-old son I think I would be a pretty big guy around the house. But unless I end up in a scene with Taylor Swift in one of these movies it's just getting me no love at my house.