If it wasn’t already apparent that despite having literally cheated death, Phil Coulson still represents the spirit of the Everyman within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, his vulnerability came through loud and clear in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s” Season Two finale when he lost a portion of his arm to the Terrigen crystals.
Heading into Season Three, Coulson is not only rebuilding the reunified but still ideologically-splintered super spy agency, he’s rebuilding himself as well. Clark Gregg spoke with CBR and a small group of reporters at ABC’s party for the Television Critics Association about his character’s physical adjustments as we meet up with him “some months” after his injury. The actor also explains why he believes it’s a good thing to maintain a separate identity from Marvel’s Netflix series, how his own theories about Skye/Daisy’s identity weren’t quite on the mark, and his excitement at the prospect of working with and against the growing Inhuman population of the MCU.
How’s Coulson faring without his hand so far?
Clark Gregg: The thing about the Marvel Universe is, even if you don’t have a hand, you can rest assured, you’re going to get one… I do know that he starts off with a kind of prosthetic, and I have a feeling it’s not the last prosthetic you’ll see.
Was it a specific Marvel Phase Three allusion to “Empire Strikes Back,” like we’ve seen in the films, or was it a story coincidence that he got his hand cut off?
I don’t know. I mean, I’m such a “Star Wars” fan, that at first, I thought they just did that for me because I wanted to be like Luke Skywalker, but I don’t know. No one’s told me. I think it’s something that they very specifically came up with for our show. I mean, once you’ve killed somebody off, what else can you do to him? Well, that’s something. That’s a real loss.
How did that experience, losing a limb, change him going into Season Three?
That’s a really good question. I wish I could make up a really good answer, but we just finished shooting the first episode. What’s clear is that he views it as a really kind of serious reminder of the stakes and the threat that’s in play with these Terrigen crystals. And to me, this beautiful metaphor that’s contained within some of us is the potential to evolve differently. And if that makes some people think that the people who evolve that way should be exterminated, and other people that think that they’re very special, and that they might be able to help us become better.
How different is Coulson now, or is he essentially same man?
I think everything that happens to you, changes you. And everything you lose stays with you. It’s funny. It’s a big part of who I understand this guy to be, is he’s been through a lot at this point. I always knew he’d seen a lot. And then, by the end of “The Avengers” and the beginning of our show, he lost a lot. It’s one of the things they play with on our show.
To do this show, you don’t get to have a lot of things, and you risk losing friends and limbs. And that gives you really rich, deep stuff to play. People say, “What’s it like to work on a comic book show?” And, I guess, if it really felt like a comic book show all the time, it might not be thrilling. But there gets to be stakes and things that happen that you just don’t get on a normal show.
How much later do we rejoin him?
I don’t have a number, but it feels like, definitely, some months.
So there is a time jump.
Yes. I feel like you’re going to get me in trouble.
When you thought Coulson couldn’t suffer any more, he gets another challenge.
Yeah, I wasn’t happy about losing the hand. But I also think it’s kind of what the writers have said that they love, one of the things they really love about Coulson. He doesn’t have powers. He’s not the greatest ninja in the world. He’s not 25 anymore. But he’s really dedicated, and he keeps getting up. And he’s playing in some very dangerous waters, and he loses things sometimes, even his life. But he’s really hard to get rid of. He’s a friend you want to have, I think.
Do you ever look back on the first time you played the character and think about your journey in the world of Marvel, the extent of which you probably never imagined?
No. I mean, the first day of shooting with Robert [Downey, Jr.] and Gwyneth [Paltrow], and getting to say those lines and be this mysterious guy kind of masquerading as a pesky bureaucrat? Even that would have been enough, if it was just that one day on that great movie. But the ride that it’s been, and the going into Season Three, to kind of watch the show evolve into something that we’re all, every day, more and more proud to be a part of, it’s really been a fantastic experience to me.
I was lucky to be working with a new actor on a show today, Constance Zimmer, who I’m a huge fan of, and just to have that kind of meaty stuff to do with a really heavyweight actress like that, who’s as formidable as Coulson is, as far as I can tell already, it’s really a thrill. I love the way they write women. I love that that’s an envelope that they keep pushing. It seems to be at a certain point that all the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe, and certainly on our show, are going to be women. And that works for me.
Can you say anything about what kind of character Constance plays?
There are a lot of things about her that make her feel like a very similar character to Coulson in some ways. There’s a lot they have in common, and some very specific things that they do not.
What do you like about the way the show approaches the female characters?
Well, I like the fact that it doesn’t so much identify them in a way that plays into any cliches about what a woman character might be like. They’re professionals who have to kind of weigh the balance between heart and a job. Morality, and kind of a larger picture that makes them have to make very difficult choices. They’re scientists or soldiers, in addition to being people. And then, also, they’re women. â€¨
You’re a big comic book fan. How early did you figure out that Skye was Daisy Johnson?
I had some theories, and I saw it coming a little before hand, but not much. My theories all got shot down.
Given that “S.H.I.E.L.D.” started as a show about the non-superpowered end of the Marvel Universe, how excited are you to bring Inhumans so prominently into it?
Well, I think it’s the perfect place to start it out with. I think the reason we have a show is, much to Marvel’s surprise, a character like Phil Coulson, that they introduced in the first “Iron Man” movie, who is a person who was very normal. He had a lot of skills and a background that was a little bit surprising when it finally got revealed, but he’s a person whose character and his wits are the only thing unique about him. And that turned out to be something that made fans feel like he was their representative in a way that was very resonant.
I think that’s what’s so special about our show is that, still, the core of the show is humans. Even many of the Inhumans are far from immortal. They’re very killable. And to have the person who he comes to care about most in the world is someone who helps to engineer a transformation for, that’s a very unique position to be a person who’s organizing these new people, these Inhumans into an elite team to either protect or contain them as they arise.
Are there any characters you’d like to interact with more this season?
I never get enough Fitz. I never get enough Simmons. It’s one of the great things about having such a big cast of terrific actors is, really, it organizes so that right when you’ve gotten to work with somebody, or you’ve missed them for a couple of weeks, bam, you get a chance to spend a couple of days really exploring the relationship of this character or that character. I’ll be very happy if we get Simmons back. [EDITOR: It’s since been revealed that yes, Simmons is returning for Season Three.]
Is there anything from the MCU that’s going to show up early on in the season as one of those fun reminders that, as [Marvel Television head] Jeph Loeb likes to say, “it’s all connected?”
That, I don’t know. But it’s hard for me not to feel, without knowing anything — I’ll say that again, without knowing anything, it’s hard not to feel like we’re getting some hints of things that are similar to what goes on in “[Captain America:] Civil War,” where some people think that people with powers are a good thing and others don’t. And that’s going to really divide people like Phil Coulson and some of the Avengers and some of the people that Phil Coulson works with, at some point. I’m scared to see where this season is going to go, because I don’t see how it’s going to keep all the old alliances intact.
The show’s become skilled at taking a universe-impacting story point from the first summer Marvel movie each year and using it to great effect to twist the show plot. Are you expecting a big paradigm shift when “Civil War” comes out?
I think there’s always a big paradigm shift going into the new season in that, what we saw at the end of last season, Coulson and Daisy, very much a promoted Daisy, beginning to build Secret Warriors. That’s what I know. So far as the new show is about gathering all the pieces of last year, all the team members and starting to make that the focus on the new season, if it’s anything like the other two seasons, we’re going to see at least two paradigm shifts in the remaining 20 episodes.
Do you think we’ll see Coulson’s cellist, Audrey, any time soon?
I would love to. Amy Acker’s kind of killing it on “Person of Interest.” She’s so brilliant. I hope so.
Do you get the sense that Daredevil and Netflix has raised the bar for Marvel television?
I love “Daredevil.” It’s very specifically a cable show. Couldn’t have been happier with how that show is. I’m going to start watching it for a second time. I think Charlie Cox is amazing — all that cast. And on the other hand, what we do on our show, that’s a different part [of the Marvel Cinematic Universe]. If we tried to make our show like “Daredevil,” I think we’d fail. I look forward to seeing how both shows evolve within their own universe, and I pray for the day Agent Coulson gets to have a chat with Daredevil.