While many know Clark Gregg for his work as the most beloved tertiary character in a multi-billion-dollar mega-movie-franchise, not everyone may be aware that the actor who played Agent Coulson in the Marvel films also has a knack for writing and directing. Having made his debut behind the camera with 2008’s Choke, an adaptation of the sex-fueled Chuck Palahniuk novel, Gregg premiered his latest feature, Trust Me, at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday. In it, he plays Howard, a lowly Hollywood agent who specializes in representing child stars. A number of recognizable names like Amanda Peet, Felicity Huffman, Allison Janney, and Sam Rockwell round out the cast. We spoke with Gregg about taking a seat behind the camera, as well as how he feels about returning to TV as Agent Coulson in Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did it feel to premiere your film at the festival?
CLARK GREGG: I’m right at the center of it, it’s my vision, I play a leading role in it—so of course I was nervous. I think the premiere started at 9:30 and by about 4:30 I had to lie down and do some deep breathing. I wasn’t sure my legs were going to take me to the actual event. But to sit there and listen to the audience having the audible reaction of following the story and getting the jokes and being moved at the sad parts, it fills me with gratitude that I got to do this.
What made you want to set your film in the world of Hollywood agents, particularly ones that deal with child stars?
I worked with some child actors and had been pretty fascinated by their lives and the people who represented them, and catered to their whims and were clearly looking for the right prodigy to take them to the big time. There’s something about that that’s just crazy. I grew up in this country and watching kids like that on TV from The Brady Bunch to Family Affair with Anissa Jones, who tragically died. It’s a real phenomenon: people become child actors, we all know it, and some of them escape and have really wonderful lives and great second acts, and many, many more of them don’t. So it felt like a real core sample of what’s wrong with the idea of stardom and celebrity to me. And I also thought it was just absurd enough that from the point-of-view of the agent, it might make a really fun, edgy comedy. Of course, when I finished writing it I realized it was much more than any of those things to me, that it also had in it the love for acting and the love for movies that this main character is driven by. There have been agents in my life that have been tremendously loyal, caring people who really helped me to accomplish the things that, much later than anyone has a right to expect to, I accomplished because they didn’t give up on me, so I don’t just see it in black and white and the cliches don’t hold true, although sometimes they do.
Was it easier for you to get Trust Me off the ground than your first film?
It’s always easier to get your second film together. People can look at something you made and see what your vision is. It also helped that I had been in a bunch of Marvel movies and when I wanted to play the lead it wasn’t a kind of deal-breaker. People were open to the idea provided I surrounded myself with some of the friends I surrounded myself with.
The cast is pretty impressive. How did you assemble them?
I went first to Sam Rockwell who had done my first film Choke and who I had done a play with in New York, and I wanted him to play the agent that everyone leaves me for. He doesn’t need to do a role like that but he signed on. He knows I want to work with him on every film I do and he was kind enough to do it. And I went to Felicity Huffman and Bill Macy who are people I’ve been working with for 25 years through the Atlantic Theater Company in New York and who are pals of mine. Molly Shannon and I went to NYU together, and I had always wanted to work with Amanda Peet and we had done a couple of reads together.They jumped in knowing that it would mean really long hours and absolutely no money.
Did you talk to anyone about directing and starring simultaneously?
I talked to Ben Affleck briefly. I talked to Mark Ruffalo about it. He had just done it while we were working on The Avengers.
You’ve experienced a recent spurt of popularity thanks to your role as Agent Coulson in the Marvel films. How does it feel to return as him in Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. after dying so dramatically in The Avengers?
I thought I was done, I thought I was finished with Agent Coulson. I’m not method to the point where it takes me a month to let go of a character I’ve played, but there was something about playing that guy and his combination of dry sarcastic wit and deadpan stuff that I really loved, and the fact that he connected to the fans the way he did because he was kind of the nerd’s avatar and Joss picked up on that and really made him the guy on the Helicarrier that secretly had some Captain America cards in his locker, that all worked for me. That was me, so when it came to the scenes where I had to get stabbed and done in, I found myself really emotional and sad that I had to do my business of saying goodbye to the guy. And then getting this call that Joss has an idea of how he can still be around after The Avengers and it’s compelling and intriguing and has darkness in it, and then to read another script written by Joss—who for my money wrote the best superhero movie I had ever read in The Avengers. We’ll hear soon if it gets picked up. I’ll be very excited if they do.