Exclusive Interview: Clark Gregg Gives Me Level 7 Clearance

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By now, you all know Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson from all the Marvel movies and the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Before he landed the role in Iron Man, Gregg was a writer/director himself of the movie Choke starring Sam Rockwell. Now his second movie as writer/director, Trust Me, is available on VOD and in theaters May 30 so we got a chance to interview him.

Trust Me also stars Gregg as Howard, an agent of child actors who meets a young girl, Lydia (Saxon Sharbino) who he believes can star in the next big young adult franchise, to be directed by Ang Lee. The film chronicles Howard’s struggles and discovery that Lydia needs more real world protection than Hollywood representation. Rockwell costars as a corporate agent trying to steal Lydia away.

Of course I asked Gregg a lot about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the new Netflix series by Marvel, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron and even more about Marvel as it relates to Trust Me. Gregg was happy to oblige and even humor my request for Level 7 clearance.

You directed Trust Me before Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. started. Are you still going to have time to direct movies while S.H.I.E.L.D. is on?

Not during the season. Boy, the workload of agent Coulson in a land filled with Hydra agents is pretty intense, so I’m going to have to try to dedicate this hiatus to coming up with a story that I can make next hiatus.So it will take two hiatuses to get you to direct again?I think so, yeah.When you conceived of Trust Me, what were your thoughts on swearing at children?I have a daughter and it’s a movie about thrusting kids into this kind of adult context can be really dangerous to them. I didn’t want to be the thing I was talking against, so a big part of this was sitting down and talking to Saxon [Sharbino] who plays Lydia, and Griffin [Gluck] who plays the first character who fires my character, just to make sure that they were able to have a conversation and talk about this. Were there parts of this that were unsettling to them? And make them feel safe. I found, as I found with my daughter, that they’re remarkably savvy and if you just are open and gentle, there’s a way around it. There’s really no excuse for the swearing we did at that school, and the principal came out and asked us to please stop with that horrible language.

You gave Sam Rockwell the lead in Choke. Did you write Trust Me for yourself to be the lead?

I think you can only have one true creative pope. There’s only one thing you can make your first priority, otherwise it’s not your first priority. The priority was story, so the designing of characters always comes from what’s going to serve this story. At a certain point, it was really clear to me that Howard Holloway had to be, when he said, “This is my last shot,” you’ve got to really believe that. And I feel like you believe that about someone my age in a way that you don’t quite as much believe it about someone who’s 10 years younger than me. So I knew that Sam wasn’t right for it. Then I spent a lot of time thinking about other actors who could do it but I had formed this connection to this character and his desperation. There was just something I really connected to about him that I thought really was just about being on the outs and struggling and feeling like you were never going to get a break because, like a lot of actors who get most of their work later in life, I felt like that for a long time. Later, after I made the movie, I watched it only as recently as last weekend. We finished it over a year ago. I realized that this thing that had come out of me, I’ve gone through all these iterations of what I thought it was about, the part of my life that had made it so personal to me was the idea that it’s about transformation. It’s about people trying to become something else by becoming successful and then discovering that that doesn’t really do it. It’s something else, a choice they make that might actually change them. I realized that this had quietly, and just in terms of my own process, had really been a love letter to having a daughter. There was something transformative about putting someone else first and their needs first that had been the genesis of this. Then I understood why I hadn’t been able to give it to anyone else. It was a personal thing to me.

Did working in the Marvel franchise inform the fake Ang Lee franchise Lydia is auditioning for in Trust Me?

No, I don’t think it developed out of that. I needed to cook up a franchise and then have that franchise that this girl was being considered for a lead in be something that contained a metaphor that would be hugely powerful and symbolic to Howard. I suddenly stumbled on these creatures who were not quite vampires but who represented another facet of this transformation that I’m talking about. Once that was part of the story and once it was clear that Howard was seeing this brought to life in his own imagination, then I had to go to my friends at Marvel, to the amazing Victoria Alonso who’s head of all the VFX for Marvel and especially Marvel Cinematic. She was kind enough to put me in touch with these people at Luma who are just master craftsmen and had done a lot of the work for Thor. I had to go there to beg for someone that they had put on mental disability or fired and was living in a garage somewhere to help me try to get these amazing creatures done on my tiny budget. They offered to do it themselves and treated me like I was Marvel and gave me the best of everything they had and saved the movie.

Did you have to get Ang Lee’s permission to mention him? And Jan-Michael Vincent for that matter?

No, I don’t think so. They’re in the public sphere. You can have a fictional character talking about them. I don’t believe there’s any rights issues involved. I have a feeling I’ll find out next year.

I assume you haven’t heard from Ang or Jan-Michael yet?

No. They all have much bigger fish to fry than my tiny little indie movie.

Is there really a dark side of Hollywood that Trust Me explores?

There is a dark side of Hollywood that’s well documented. It’s been going on since some of the horrible scandals that happened in the 30s and 40s. It’s a dream factory. I’m not the one who coined that but it’s a place where people are peddling dreams and selling dreams and trying to get their dreams realized. That usually leads to a fantasy world and a world where people are kind of living out something that isn’t specifically real. The reason this appealed to me was that sometimes I had seen children in positions that felt like the epitome of what was wrong with it. These kids were pursuing a transformational experience that wouldn’t sustain them for the rest of their lives and that would cause fractures in their families. Most of what I saw was nothing like this, but when I started to dig in and research this movie, it’s clear that there’s a long history of people, adults and children buying into that, getting too much fame that they couldn’t handle. It’s especially toxic for children and having that be something that puts them in a position of vulnerability. Honestly, I feel like there’s a different version of this in any kind of business but it’s particularly present when the stakes are as high as overnight fame, stardom, celebrity.

I really appreciate the way you dealt with it, but now I have a joke question. After the end credits, why didn’t Nick Fury come recruit Howard to be in The Avengers?

You know, you kind of feel like at that point, the last time we see Howard he certainly does feel like a candidate for The Avengers or perhaps X-Men. It’s funny, every time I show up in anything, people are kind of wondering when I’m actually going to recruit someone for the Avengers initiative. I guess I’m stuck with that and I’m happy to have that.

On S.H.I.E.L.D. are you happy with the way T.A.H.I.T.I. played out?

I don’t think it’s fully played out, but what it turned out to be and all the different layers, I was really excited about that. This mysterious blue gentleman who seems to have brought me back to life, I love the whole idea that the biggest mystery for Coulson in Season One is to find out who’s been lying to him and why about how he was really brought back to life, and that the version he was told is completely untrue. The crisis of faith he has with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Director Fury who only in the very last episode of this season do we find out why he’s been deceived in a way that restores a lot of his faith in what he’s been doing.

Has Coulson grown as protective of his S.H.I.E.L.D. team as he was of The Avengers?

I think perhaps in a deeper way. I think he’s experienced a kind of vulnerability himself that makes people more protective of those who have vulnerability. As a guy who sacrificed the idea of a family to do this job, to protect other people, I think the relationship that he has with Skye and sometimes Simmons and Fitz is as much a family kind of relationship as he has or perhaps will ever have.

Is there any chance Coulson could cross over to some of the Marvel Netflix series?

I’d be really disappointed if I don’t get to show up in New York for Daredevil, or Iron Fist was a huge favorite of mind in comic books as a kid. I’ve had more than my share so I shouldn’t be greedy but it would be a huge geekout moment for me if I got to meet Daniel Rand.

How about The Avengers: Age of Ultron? Is Joss Whedon going to hook you up?

I don’t think so. I think I would have heard about it by now, but I must say as a qualifier, the only way I ever hear about stuff like that is I get a weird phone message with not the right number of numbers on it and somebody says, “We need to talk to you.”

Do you feel you’ve become the face of Marvel in some ways? There are bigger characters but you’re the one people associate across the board.

That’s a benevolent reading of it. I’d be honored to do that. I love so much what Marvel has done but I think I’m lucky to not have to carry that burden by myself. I think Sam Jackson has done some beautiful heavy lifting in that regard and been generous and gracious enough to come over and take part in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and really deliver a magnificent performance in the finale especially I thought. I also fee like you can’t underestimate how much the franchise was built by Robert Downey and Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett [Johansson] and now Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo. I really feel like they’re the ones that really built this, and maybe we’re the face but the contributions of Joss and Jon Favreau and Kevin Feige and Jeremy Latcham are pretty extreme.

Can you give me level 7 clearance?

You have Level 7.