“Captain Marvel’s” Clark Gregg knows exactly which character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe he would shape-shift into if he had Skrull powers for a day.
“[Natasha] Romanoff. Boom,” said Gregg. “And Scarlett [Johansson]. I’ve always thought that there was something about what she did and does as that character that’s so deep and so sad. There’s just something about that world-weariness of a fighter that she’s got.
“She’s been my hero,” Gregg adds.
A staple of the MCU since the beginning, Gregg first appeared as Agent Phil Coulson in 2008’s “Iron Man.” The secret agent continued to pop up in films such as “Iron Man 2” (2010), “Thor” (2011) and “The Avengers” (2012) before he made the jump over to TV to lead the team on ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” getting killed and then resurrected along the way.
Thanks to some movie magic, Gregg plays a younger Coulson in the 1990s-set “Captain Marvel.” The movie serves as a sort of origin story for the rookie agent who is unaware of the role he will eventually play in assembling a team of mighty superheroes that save the world.
It’s a bit of a full circle moment since Coulson has faced his mortality yet again in the Season 5 finale of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“[‘Captain Marvel’] was a little bit like having an early moment of your life flash before your eyes in your final moments,” said Gregg of portraying the younger, more wide-eyed iteration of Coulson.
Gregg, who has been vocal about his support of gender equality, is especially happy that he is a part of the MCU’s first movie centered on a female superhero.
“I’m glad that little boys will grow up with a hero like Captain Marvel,” said Gregg. “I’m glad that my daughter will see her fighting through too to take control of her own strength in a world that maybe isn’t welcoming of it.”
It’s an impact he's already witnessed through the TV series. “Honestly, to be at a con with ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ and to see young girls walk up dressed as a superhero who’s Asian American on our show by the dozens, you realize what a big deal it is to see heroes who look like you,” he said.
“I was spoiled. I got to have that, as a white male, from an early age. A lot of people didn't get that.”
Gregg expanded on “Captain Marvel,” his time as Phil Coulson and what fans can expect from his new mysterious character in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” when the show returns this summer in an interview, edited for length and clarity, below.
You’ve played Coulson for years now both in films and on TV. What keeps you excited about coming back?
It’s never the same thing twice. This one had the challenge of “Oh, we’re gonna digitally de-age you but you’ve got to bring the spirit of a younger, more wide-eyed hopeful version of this guy that you’ve now been playing for nine or 10 years.”
Each filmmaker takes something that they’re responding to and it’s thrilling to see what they’re going to do with it and has kept it really fun. I can see a version of this where it would feel like prison but luckily there’s so many changes and new challenges to it that I still really enjoy it.
What’s the core element of Coulson that you hold on to between all these different filmmakers’ visions of who he is?
It changes from time to time. I think in this movie everyone is discovering who they really are supposed to be. There certainly was a moment in my life when I went, “Oh, OK, this is what I want to be. This is what I want to do. This is how I want to try to make an impact on other people.”
I feel like that’s what’s happening for Coulson and a lot of people in [“Captain Marvel”]. Whatever goes on here, he keeps this secret and he stays. And we’re seeing the beginning of a relationship [with Nick Fury] that he would keep until his dying moments in “The Avengers” and after his resurrection, according to the canon of the show.
I think there is a cellular connection too, probably based on what happens and what he becomes aware of in this movie, to the idea that there are things out there that threaten us and might protect us — that someone must be in touch with them no matter the cost on their personal life.
What do you think it was that drove Coulson in that moment in “Captain Marvel” to let Fury and Danvers go?
I think his hope is that they are working in a world where what they’re dealing with doesn’t fit into those neat little boxes and he projects that belief forward. There is a core trust.
In this movie you see that both Fury and Coulson have a really deep belief in their own gut instincts about people. You see Fury’s gut instincts about Coulson brought to life and vice versa. It’s such a key thing in terms of what Coulson’s role becomes later in the movies with each of these different characters that he’s trying to assemble. There has to be a kind of an emotional intelligence about them and you see that for the first time here.
Is it strange to go from the place you’ve reached in Coulson’s story arc on the television show to now basically resetting all of that?
It was very strange to start [“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”] Season 6, which we’ve completed shooting now, and to be in a similar skin, but with an entirely different person. I was very comfortable within [Coulson’s] skin. Coulson and [myself] had very, very porous boundaries.
There was something very moving about going through all of the grieving and saying goodbye to people and then coming back [to the show]. Doing more and being in very different relationships with people [as the new character].
[“Captain Marvel”] was a little bit like having an early moment of your life flash before your eyes in your final moments, in a way. To go back and try to inhabit this younger, wide-eyed skin.
What can you say about who you’re playing in the next season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”?
He’s a Skrull. Sorry, that’s evil. He’s not a Skrull ... as far as you know.
What I can say is going into Season 6 the team is grieving the loss of Phil Coulson. Agent May was there with him until the end. They had more time than they thought they would have yet she watched him leave.
Half of the team is out combing the galaxy to find the cryogenically frozen Leo Fitz. The other half, a team led by “Mack” MacKenzie, played by Henry Simmons, is trying to get S.H.I.E.L.D. up and running again under great pressure because there are a series of anomalies that look like ruptures through which these beings emerge.
One of them looks very familiar, but he’s not Phil Coulson. And it becomes very clear very quickly how different he is from Phil Coulson.