Although Clark Gregg is known by millions of moviegoers and TV viewers as Phil Coulson, former agent and — as per the season finale of ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, current director of S.H.I.E.L.D. — there are several other sides of his career that aren’t necessarily as familiar, most notably that he occasionally works behind the camera as a screenwriter and director.
Gregg’s latest endeavor as a writer/director, “Trust Me,” in which he also serves as leading man, is already available via VOD and iTunes, but it kicks off a limited theatrical release today. In conjunction with the film hitting the big screen, Gregg spoke with Indiewire about the origins of “Trust Me,” his decision to star in the project, and the process of pulling together the cast, as well as his feelings on the season finale of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and his favorite aspects of the series.
Watching “Trust Me,” my first thought was, “It’s like the dark side of ‘Life with Mikey’!”
That’s funny! When I started to make this, Michael (J. Fox) is a friend of mine, and he was saying, “Oh, yeah, you gotta watch ‘Life with Mikey’!” I watched it, and I was, like, “That’s…a really funny movie. Mine couldn’t be more different.” [Laughs.]
So what was the origin of “Trust Me”? Did you have a general fascination with child stars, or was it just an idea that struck you out of the blue?
After my first film, I was writing this bigger piece — it was almost like a Nashville-esque multi-character, multi-storyline kind of thing, and something I’d always wanted to try — but I realized it was going to be four hours long and it would be really hard to get made…and I wanted to make another movie! So I pulled this one story out of there. All of the other stories seemed to be about adults who were kind of locked into feeling like children, and children who were acting like adults, but this one story felt different than the others…and it just happened to be the one that was about an actor. A child actor.
I liked the idea of a kind of mash-up: kind of a film noir, with an almost tragic structure, but with a comedic tone, and a kind of desperate, struggling former child actor himself who was the stand-in for the down and out detective, which is a trope of that genre. And as I started to get into it, I realized that it…well, parts of it felt funny to me, but as a comedy of desperation. I’d grown up very aware from a very young age that these kids that I would see in Disney movies or on TV would next show up, like, in the police blotter or on a scary talk show, and that it was part of that world. It made the kind of more tragic emotional dimensions and mistakes seem like they needed to have some darkness, and I was interested in trying to explore both, so…that’s where “Trust Me” comes from.
Just as a sidebar, I feel like a piece of my childhood died the day I found out how Alfalfa of “The Little Rascals” died.
How did Alfalfa die?
He was shot and killed after an argument with an acquaintance over money.
Are you kidding me? I didn’t know that! Oh, for God’s sakes… It’s like that, though! I took the one that blew me away when I was young — Anissa Jones, who was Buffy (on ‘Family Affair’) — and I kind of made this movie that Howard nearly got with her (in mind). But, you know, there are so many stories like that. And, you know, there’s plenty of others, too. I mean, I’ve worked with Natalie Portman, who couldn’t be cooler or more together. But it felt to me like this kind of crystallization, that there’s just something about the mania to make it, to become a star, that seemed the most obsessive and crazy in that particular part of it, because it’s a little bit on the periphery, on the outskirts of true Hollywood, and the people working there are struggling to make it. The ludicrous nature of trying to find a nine-year-old who’s going to take you to the big time just seemed kind of worth making a movie about.
When you were doing press for “Choke,” you had said that you never had any interest in taking the role of Victor Mancini for yourself. Did you ever contemplate letting someone else play Howard?
Yeah, what I swore after “Choke” was that I would never make a movie in 25 days again and that I wouldn’t act in it, because it was so hard the three days I played Lord High Charlie. And then I wrote this piece, and by the end of it I found that I just had this connection to it and a vision for it, and it felt like an unusual vision. And I woke up every night for, like, six weeks at four in the morning before we started shooting it, thinking of different actors or directors I could call and turn over one of those jobs. And I also turned 50, and I thought, “I don’t know, I feel like Howard Holloway sometimes.” [Laughs.] Less so now than ever, but I have felt like this guy. And I felt like I might never have that shot again, and nobody had ever give me a part like this, so…if not now, when?
And my partner, Mary Vernieu, this amazing producer, she really held me to it. She was, like, “I think this gives you a unique version, to tell the story from the inside out.” And she constantly does this with me. She’s my partner now — we have a company now to try and make other stuff together — and she’s so smart that, within two days of doing this psychotic level of work in terms of how demanding it was, I realized that the chaos of trying to direct yourself in a movie you wrote…and in 20 days, this time! [Laughs.] It made me just as vulnerable and frightened as Howard Holloway felt.
You worked with several people on this film that you’ve worked with in the past, including Allison Janney (“The West Wing”) and Sam Rockwell (“Choke”), but how did you find the father/daughter team of Paul Sparks and Saxon Sharbino? Did someone recommend them to you, or did you just find them during the audition process?
No, Mary…she’s now producing more, but she’s one of the great casting directors in the business. She does all of David O. Russell’s movies — “American Hustle” and all the others — and Darren Aronofsky’s movies. And one of the things we kind of realized… We toyed with ideas of well-known people for both of those, but on the one hand, it was okay if people on the Hollywood circle were familiar faces, but Ray and his daughter would work best if they were faces that you didn’t immediately recognize.
I’d seen Paul Sparks and thought he was great on “Boardwalk Empire,” but he plays this completely different guy. And Mary had seen him do other stuff, and she brought a tape in of him doing this and that, and I was just completely taken with her. And the same was true with Saxon. We had seen a bunch of polished young actresses, but we just needed someone who had this weird, raw brilliance, and Mary found her, she’d just gotten into town from Dallas — I think she was still living in Dallas a lot of the time — and she came in and read four or five lines, and then it was all about trying to clear her from any other jobs she had in order to get her.
In the film, Saxon Sharbino’s character is up for a part in a movie ostensibly starring Sir Ben Kingsley. Was there ever any talk of trying to get Sir Ben into the film for a cameo, or was he always just going to be in the periphery?
It never even occurred to me! [Laughs.] I dunno, I liked the idea of keeping the movie within the movie as this… It was like the promised land, this nirvana, that was always out of reach, and, you know, with Howard, it’s, like, “Oh, you just missed him! Sir Ben just left!” If he had even gotten to say “hello” to Ben Kingsley, it would’ve been closer to the sun of success than I ever wanted Howard to get.
When the movie starts, should we perceive that Howard knows himself to be a bottom feeder, or is he having his “come to Jesus” moment during the course of the film?
That’s a really good question. In fact, I actually think that’s a really deep question, because…having felt like a loser myself, I think both these things can live in you simultaneously very loudly: one is this belief that you’re destined for something for great, and the other is this really loud voice that’s saying, “No, you’re not, you’re destined for exactly this lack of status that you have.” [Laughs, then groans.] Now I’m sad. Now I’m a wreck. You just took me back there.
Oops. Well, let’s go to happier topics, then, and focus on the fact that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” got picked up for a second season.
That’s definitely a happier topic. [Laughs.] I’m pretty happy about that myself!
You, me, and my wife, too.
Oh, that’s great! Can I just tell you what one of my favorite thing about working for Marvel is? My wife, who couldn’t be less of a nerd in many ways, it’s, like, “Do you think that we’ll see Hawkeye? Do you think we’ll see any of the Avengers? When do you think you’re going to be able to explain this to the Avengers? Is Thanos going to show up?” [Laughs.] It’s, like, everyone’s kind of becoming these nerds for this cinematic universe. They’re all kind of aware of canon. It’s amazing.
Next: How Gregg first met “S.H.I.E.L.D” co-star Titus Welliver, the joys of working with Samuel L. Jackson and how he ended up writing a Robert Zemekis movie.
So a few months ago, Titus Welliver told me about how you and he were roommates and attended NYU together…
I saw your Tweet! You’ll get no good stories from me! [Laughs.]
Aw, c’mon, man!
All right, all right! [Laughs.] Okay, so Titus was really fun. He’s always been a larger-than-life character. I remember being shocked to learn that he was my age, because he just seemed so much more experienced when I met him in college. He seemed to have some… I don’t know, some mysterious paramilitary background! And he was an almost professional darts player, and he would go to this bar called the Kettle of Fish, which was famous because (Jack) Kerouac and all his crew used to hang out there. Titus could be seen there on a first-name basis with all of these crusty bartenders, dominating the dart board and never paying for a drink. We all wanted to be Titus.
I feel like your next script is sitting right in front of you.
Really! “Titus: The ’80s in New York.” I remember he bailed me out. A girl dumped me savagely and kicked me out of her apartment — which she probably was wise to do –and I had nowhere to go, and Titus took me into his loft and kind of just left me. He was one of the first people I knew who really studied film, and he had a VCR and tapes, and he kind of just sat me down in front of the whole Scorsese and Coppola collections.
You got quite an education at NYU beyond that. You’ve said before that you — to use your word –“stumbled” into a class taught by David Mamet and William H. Macy. That’s got to be the most fortuitous stumble ever.
It really was. [Laughs.] I mean, it really was. It’s, like, after all of the academic mishaps and dropping out of school and being a guard at the Guggenheim, and then finally conning somebody in the drama department into letting me into NYU, the fact that it led me to this amazing class with these two really generous pros who taught us a lot of things and really kind of advocated the idea to make your own work and not just wait around for somebody to hire you… And here I am 28 years later, still following their advice to the letter.
Over the course of those years, do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
I’d say that four-fifths of what’s on my IMDb page didn’t get the love I thought it deserved. [Laughs.] That’s a really, really good question! Huh. You know, I guess if I had to pick one, there was a little movie that I did very early on called “The Adventures of Sebastian Cole,” by this guy Tod Williams, who later made “The Door in the Floor.” It received a certain amount of attention, but not really the attention I thought it deserved. I thought it was a really special and unique coming-of-age story. And I played Hank Henrietta, the ex-Marine stepfather to Adrian Grenier’s character, Sebastian Cole, who decides in this small upstate town that he lives in that he’s really a woman. Aside from how unattractive a woman I sadly made, I think it’s a great watch.
I actually hadn’t realized until prepping for this interview that you’d written the screenplay for “What Lies Beneath.”
How did that come about? You were acting predominantly at the time. Were you trying to pursue screenwriting on the side as well?
In theory I was acting predominantly at the time. [Laughs.] But I had just moved to Los Angeles, and…the splash that’s made when another theater actor from New York comes to L.A. is really deafening. And I just didn’t get any work…or really any attention, for the most part. But like I said, I came from a group of people where you just kind of always try to make your own work, so I started writing, and I wrote a little movie that I was going to direct, and I nearly got it made, although it didn’t happen.
But an executive at Dreamworks — Nina Jacobson, who now produces the “Hunger Games” movies — she saw something in that lost and depressed theater actor’s writing. [Laughs.] And she hired me to write this ghost move that they had kind of had someone work on but that they wanted to start over on. So I wrote a script that they liked, and the amazing Bob Zemeckis came aboard, along with Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, and he kind of kept me there throughout, the generous Zemeckis, and turned it into maybe the greatest film school any young theater actor ever had in screenwriting.
To bring it back to “S.H.I.E.L.D.” to start wrapping up, how much adrenaline did you find pumping through your veins as a result of the series being forced to reinvent itself in the wake of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”?
I knew big trouble was afoot in “The Winter Soldier” and that that’s where we were headed, and it was hard to wait. But once that came about and, for my money, the incredibly sophisticated and artful way Marvel and our writers executed the reveal of the Hydra insurrection, it got really fun…and really exciting! I really couldn’t be more proud of the way Director Fury showed up to help out in the finale. I mean, he brought me back my gun! How sweet is that? [Laughs.]
It’s nice to see Samuel L. Jackson participating in the series. It always seemed to be a given that he’d turn up at some point, but he was utilized extremely well in the season finale.
Yeah, you know, it was a bit of a cameo the first time he showed up, but to have him show up in the finale the way he did and rescue FitzSimmons, and, after not being able to get him on the phone for, like, eight episodes, to have him show up there when things were looking very bleak with Deathlok and Paxton… [Laughs.] I just thought it was a pretty spectacular reveal…and a great day to act.
Would you be happy if they brought in more superheroic types in Season Two, or do you enjoy the spy action?
I love when they show up. I mean, to me, it’s one of the most exciting things as a fan of this stuff to see the stories go from movie to TV back to movie. And as Agent Coulson, to suddenly find myself as Director Coulson? As a nerd, I almost died on the spot. [Laughs.] But what I love about the show is that, at the core and the heart of it, it’s about the people who don’t have super powers, who can be killed…even if once in a while, with some radical alien technology and some blue stuff, they’re brought back. But, you know, in superhero movies, the superheroes are almost never at risk of getting killed, really. And this is about people who put their lives on the line to protect people. I like that this is the part of the world where people are vulnerable.