"I don't usually apologize for killing people," Joss Whedon says. But in The Avengers, when Whedon had horned villain Loki stab S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, a good-hearted geek, fans were bereft. Good-hearted geeks themselves, they marshaled online support groups around the hashtag #CoulsonLives.
As for the actor who played Coulson, Clark Gregg — a character actor who has logged 25 years in the business — frankly, he has the face of someone doomed to die. Eager, empathetic and eighth-billed in The Avengers, Gregg was at once emotionally integral and narratively extraneous. In short: the ideal sacrificial lamb.
So when Whedon gave Gregg a pivotal role in his next film, Much Ado About Nothing, the director was aware that fans would interpret it at as an apology. "I'm sure they will," Whedon says. "I see him as the guy I wanted to play Leonato."
The actor himself has his suspicions. "I'm sure he knew that I was suddenly unemployed and available," Gregg jokes. "It was kind of a guilt thing, like, 'I gotta make sure this guy gets one more job.' "
In Much Ado, Gregg plays Leonato, a titan of Malibu (it's a Sicilian city in the original), who struggles to marry off his daughter, Hero. It's his first Shakespearean role and, Whedon smirks, "Once he got past the fact that they kept referring to him as 'old,' he was super into it."
Glowers Gregg, "They kept going, 'This kind old man,' and I was, like, 'Hey! I'll kick your ass, all of you!' "
Gregg usually specializes in playing cops, FBI agents and doctors. He's such a do-gooder that, even in Chuck Palahniuk's sex-addiction comedy Choke, he played a puritan. "The various police who arrested me in my teens, they must be cackling because I never would have passed even the most minimal background check to get into a police academy," Gregg laughs.
The son of a Duke University professor and Episcopal minister, he declines to detail his criminal misadventures, hinting only this: "My youth spanned the Animal House era through the birth of punk rock. That's where I was."
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Gregg is equally tight-lipped about Agent Coulson's resurrection in this fall's ABC series The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Clearly, he's not dead. The question is how — and will fans, even his good-hearted geek fans, feel betrayed?
Gregg is fully aware of the perils. "When they called, I said, 'We can't base the show on a cheat,'" he recalls. "Joss walked me through what he was thinking, and I thought, 'Wow. Wow. OK. That works for me.'"
But Coulson might not be the man fans remember. "If something that traumatic happens to you, it must have a cost," Gregg says. Perhaps the PTSD-scarred agent will wake up screaming of wormholes and tesseracts. And perhaps, if Gregg is lucky, Whedon will fold him back into the gang for Avengers 2.
Admits Whedon in what almost passes for an apology, "While I enjoyed killing him, he has now been in the last three things I've done. So clearly, I like him." —Amy Nicholson