Agent Phil Coulson owes his life to Twitter. The beloved Marvel character, played by Clark Gregg, was killed off in the first blockbuster Avengers film. Outraged fans took to social media, hoping to bring him back to life with the hashtag #CoulsonLives.
It worked. ABC announced Coulson’s small-screen revival on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, seven months after the character’s big-screen demise.
Gregg discussed the impact social media has had on his career and the broader ways technology is changing the entertainment industry with GeekWire contributor Daniel W. Rasmus.
“The social media outcry at the demise of Agent Coulson after the first Avengers movie seemed to contribute to the wind behind the idea of bringing him back to life,” he said.
Gregg began his acting career on the stage in New York City, starring in the original Broadway production of Aaron Sorkin’s “A Few Good Men,” and a number of other shows. In addition to playing Coulson in several Marvel films, Gregg was featured in 500 Days of Summer, Choke, and In Good Company. His screenwriting credits include What Lies Beneath and Choke, and he has directed several indie films as well.
Continue reading for Gregg’s thoughts on technology and how it is transforming acting, fandom, and his everyday life.
(Transcript has been edited for clarity).
Daniel Rasmus: What’s your personal favorite gadget?
Clark Gregg: I’d have to say I bought a Tesla because I could not be oil dependent any longer and I’ve had it for a couple of years. The fact that it upgrades itself and you can add new features sometimes and it has a lot of voice-activated navigation, it’s probably my top favorite gadget. There’s an app I use to learn lines that also saves my butt all the time. Those are my two, and I use them in sync with each other.
DR: Well, you’re very good because my next question was what app do you use most often. What’s that app called?
Gregg: It’s called Rehearsal 2. It’s a fairly specialized market in that it helps actors to learn lines.
DR: Do you own a robot at your home?
Gregg: Do I own a robot? (laughs) I’m trying to think in the loosest possible terms if anything’s a robot. No, there’s a thing that cleans up the swimming pool. It sometimes feels like it might become sentient, but I don’t think so.
DR: Have you played with home automation technology, automating your lights and security systems and all that fun stuff?
Gregg: My wife [Jennifer Grey] and I are both very active — she in dance and me in athletics — for our advanced age. So we have a Jacuzzi that we use all the time to keep ourselves from falling apart. And that thing is on an app on our phone so that, when we’re sore at the gym, we can turn it on remotely. So it’s there to help us when we get home. What other home automation stuff do we have?
We’re about to do a little bit of an upgrade of some of the security stuff, just you know, the electric gate to get in the house. I’m excited because it seems like there’s some cool stuff so that you can talk to people who are at your house even when you’re not there. Hopefully, they’re people you know.
DR: On a note more related to your day job, is technology changing how you personally consume entertainment?
Gregg: Completely. It’s completely revolutionized and is in the process of revolutionizing television, in that many, many feature films — unless they’re of the size and scope of Civil War — are available immediately upon release to be seen on one’s television. And one’s television is larger all the time and the theater screens in the multiplex, many of those are smaller all the time. So the difference between home and theatre is getting smaller and the concept of a broadcast channel versus a streaming channel, like Netflix or Amazon, those boundaries also seem to be disappearing. So on that consumption level, that has really changed.
DR: How about in terms of tablet interaction, the second screen experience? Do you actually do that yourself? I’m assuming you do since we were tweeting during the show last night.
Gregg: Yeah. It annoys my daughter to no end, but it’s something that Marvel and ABC encourage us to do, and I must say that sometimes I don’t feel like it a hundred percent, but once I’m doing it, it’s really fun to watch the fascinating and often hilarious comments from our audience. Really, you know, we make it in a giant hangar of a vacuum and to see jokes or moments land with people is really satisfying.
DR: How about technology and your experience as an actor, what do you see? Which technologies are changing the way shows are made? I’m assuming that your show, in particular, is significantly different than a sit-com, and I know you have a background in that as well.
Gregg: I don’t think anything in the Marvel universe would have been able to be done…to work on a television show, never mind one that produces 22 hours a year, until some of the digital effects and the way of rendering those effects and mixing with practical sets and actors with digital backgrounds and worlds…I think not only do they make our show possible but for my money the quality and scope of the show evolved seasonally, just based on how fast that technology is evolving.
DR: Yeah, because otherwise you’d look like Lost in Space.
Gregg:: (laughs) Yes. Yes, exactly. We’d have that robot running around and not the beautiful Zephyr One.
DR: Are you looking at anything that’s changing production? Are there things that are saving time or saving costs that you’re seeing, as well as the capability side?
Gregg: Well, everything changed in the film business when we went from film to a data card. And it made shooting more economical at a higher quality. And while there’s a lot I love and miss about film, the fact that we’re able to shoot with two cameras running in a way that easily interfaces with the green screen or CGI, as I mentioned…that’s really been a game changer.
DR: I thought it was interesting in Coulson’s office that the big display is a practical effect though, projected. That is a nice touch so you guys don’t have to react to green screen. Having the VFX team actually build software for you to look at was a cool throw back, but also a nice thing, I would think, for you as an actor.
Gregg: Yeah. Most of the time we’re really looking at that. (laughs)
DR: Sometimes it comes in after?
Gregg: Sometimes it’s very green, what we’re looking at.
DR: How about technology with you and fans? How has that reshaped the experience of being an actor?
Gregg: Oh yeah, there’s such an immediate component. Probably nobody’s a bigger appreciator of that, because the social media outcry at the demise of Agent Coulson after the first Avengers movie seemed to contribute to the…to the wind behind the idea of bringing him back to life. Also, there’s something about having a show that works for a specific fan base that’s interested and vocal and dedicated that really makes what the kids are calling “an interactive experience.” And it has allowed us to really grow and add to the group of people we feel like we’re working for, as they spread the word for us.
DR: I find it interesting every week, as I’m getting ready to write my column, we are forbidden at PopMatters from writing plot summaries, so I always have to come up with some philosophical social context to write about. But I’m fascinated at how quickly people do get the plot summaries up, and readers contribute reactions and the comments quickly as well. It’s very different than when we used to get – what was it – Starlog magazine?
Gregg: I remember Starlog.
DR: Your poster of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in the fold, right?
Gregg: It seemed like an awful lot of the covers of that magazine were about Space:1999.
DR: Space:1999. Oh yeah, yeah.
Gregg: The English show.
DR: Yes, oh, I know.
Gregg: That’s the ones I remember.
DR: So you already commented on that social media. Is it something that you would’ve gravitated to naturally? You said it’s kind of part of the job. I’m assuming fan interaction is part of your job description. But if it wasn’t, and you weren’t on a show, would it be something that you would do anyway?
Gregg: I don’t know. I feel like it was designed for a generation after my own, and I probably wouldn’t have explored it if it wasn’t for my wife having a competitive nature and wanting to win Dancing with the Stars. (laughs) Somebody said to us, “You know, if you want to win, you’re probably going to have to look at the Twitter.” And that’s how I got on there, as her, and somebody said, “Oh hey, is your husband Agent Coulson?” And I thought, “Oh my god, somebody recognized me.”
But it’s an interesting forum. There’s a bunch of people – Rob Delaney – there’s a bunch of people who I think write very trenchant and hilarious stuff in that abbreviated number of characters. There’s a lot of very funny writing and satirical writing that I choose to digest in that form. And there’s also a lot of news and headlines and specifically geeky stuff that I get to see on there, you know? You get to move through it very quickly and say, “Oh wait, wait…Oh my god, what’s the new Star Wars thing with Felicity Jones? Rogue One. Oh, a new Rogue One image. Okay, I’m going right to that,” you know? (laughs).
DR: Yeah, I’m actually quite excited about that movie. It looks good. So here are a couple of sideline questions: Did you learn anything interesting from judging BattleBots?
Gregg: Yes. What’s very clear to me is that they need the equivalent of a BattleBot death-dealing Zamboni, because one of the bots — which existed in the sub-genre of spinner — he got killed but it didn’t know that. It was a functioning brain-dead spinner, and no one could go in there. We had to sit there for almost an hour waiting for the batteries to die down because it was far too dangerous to send anybody in there to deal with the spinner that was just spinning on forever. I said, “Guys, you gotta get a big frightening Terminator bot to go in there and clean it all up if you need to.”
DR: Is that the one that took out the drone, so you couldn’t even drop anything on it?
Gregg: This one got taken out in the match of the Florida drones. It didn’t win. That first spinner, that first one that had a spinning appendage that crushed everything that came near it. This was a spinner in the second match that I was watching. In fact, I actually waited out the hour, even though I had to be somewhere because I so badly wanted to see how the drone situation was going to play out.
DR: Yeah, it was weird. I was sitting there, designing solutions as things were failing.
Gregg: Yeah, exactly.
DR: Did you personally have any revelations or thoughts about modern medicine when Phil Coulson was brought back to life?
Gregg: Well, no because he was brought back to life using a mysterious combination of alien plasma and technology. It was hard to even get all the clear answers about what kind of robot was working on him. But I thought it was interesting, in terms of…what really drew me to the idea of the resurrection was the idea that this guy was suffering kind of the ultimate case of PTSD, and yet I don’t know how that interfaces with technology.
DR: Well, the writers certainly put a technology spin on the character’s grappling with what was inside of him, right?
Gregg: Yeah. Oh yeah. It was the memory machine. I guess that’s how he sold it.
DR: Is there a nerd icon that you haven’t met yet that you’d like to?
Gregg: A nerd icon? I met George Lucas once. I was lucky enough to work a little bit with Steven Spielberg. A true nerd icon. I saw that I was mentioned in a tweet recently about characters who’d lost a hand. And it mentioned me and Mark Hamill in the same tweet. And he had favourited it, and my name was in there too. I was like, “Wow, dude, that’s Mark Hamill, come on.” (laughs) I’d like to meet him someday.