Get ready to bid farewell to another Marvel property when the seventh and final season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiers next week. Over the course of six seasons, the team has battled Hydra, hostile Inhumans, and alien species, and traveled through time—sometimes aligning with the broader MCU, sometimes sticking to its own separate storylines. It’s been an equally eventful journey for actor Clark Gregg, who plays team leader Agent Phil Coulson.
(Spoilers for The Avengers and prior six seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. below.)
First introduced in 2008’s Iron Man, Coulson quickly became a fan favorite, appearing in Iron Man 2 (2010) and Thor (2011), before Director Joss Whedon broke our hearts by unexpectedly killing off the character in The Avengers (2012). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. brought Coulson back from the dead to lead an elite squad of agents to take on the terrorist group Hydra, eventually incorporating the superhuman race called Inhumans into the storyline.
Many expected Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to end after S5, especially since Coulson died (again) in the finale, spending his last days alone on a romantic tropical beach in Tahiti with Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen). Instead, ABC renewed it for a shortened sixth season of 13 episodes, adding a surprise renewal for a seventh and final season before S6 had been released. Gregg returned in S6 as “Sarge,” a hardened, bounty-hunter who turned out to be a non-corporeal being who confused his own memories with those of Coulson when he took on the latter’s form.
S6 found our heroes battling the “Shrike,” planet-invading parasites that enter human hosts and cause them to explode into crystalline structures. There were also some aliens called Chronicoms seeking Fitz and Simmons’ help in solving the problem of time travel so they could save their home planet, Chronyca-2—until there was an internal coup and their focus changed to taking over Earth as their Chronyca-3.
The S.H.I.E.L.D. team ultimately defeated the Shrike invasion (and Sarge), but May was mortally wounded. So our heroes placed May in a stasis pod, and an upgraded, time-traveling version of their ship, the Zephyr One, zapped them several decades into the past, where they are trapped going into S7. Meanwhile, Simmons built a Life Model Decoy (LMD) of Coulson, replete with knowledge about the entire history of S.H.I.E.L.D., to help them navigate through history and hopefully save the future from the Chronicoms.
That’s were we stand going into this final season. Ars sat down with Gregg to learn more about his experience playing this beloved character over so many years and incarnations.
Ars Technica: Did you have any idea when you got the role of Agent Coulson that this character was going to blossom into what he’s now become?
Clark Gregg: Not at all. I think it was just one of those happy accidents for an actor where, as they were putting together this giant story that they were telling across all these movies, they realized that there was something about having this very normal person in the midst of all these superpowered people. They gave him a little bit of a snarky attitude, not taking it all too seriously, which was really hiding how much of a secret fan boy he was. It gave the audience a connection through an onscreen point of view. And it just kept being the gift that kept on giving.
Agent Coulson in the MCU
Ars: It was so devastating for fans when Loki killed Coulson in The Avengers. Were you expecting to get a call back for a TV series after that?
Gregg: It was such a fantastic bunch of scenes and a great exit for the guy. It was very emotional, because I’d already been playing Coulson for six years or so by that time. The writers were giving Coulson a lot of great character moments. And I thought, “Because they’re killing him. You want people to care when he gets iced.” They made a lot of jokes. I mean, how dead can you be? It’s Marvel. I asked, “Don’t you want to do one take where it looks like I’m just wounded a little?” They said, “No, we don’t need to do that.” So it was really clear I was dead.
The fan-driven #CoulsonLives movement really made an impact. I don’t think anybody was thinking about doing anything to undermine the import of what had happened in The Avengers. Then Joss called [about a possible series] and said, “He [Coulson] thinks he had a close call and all of season one is him having to delve into the mystery of why he doesn’t feel right, unveiling the truly fiendish dark magic, performed against his will, to bring him back that has not left him himself.” I thought, “Wow, that’s a mythology I can get behind.” And next thing you know, Phil Coulson is running a new team in a new arena on a new medium and trying to figure out a way to bring some of that Marvel magic to network TV. It was a hell of a seven-year ride.
Ars: Coulson has obviously changed as a character from those early days. There’s an innocence, a purity to him that slowly gets chipped away over the course of six seasons of Agents of Shield. What do you see as the central element to his narrative arc?
Gregg: People who make that sacrifice to put the safety of others first, they don’t get to have a normal kind of family. I would say that of all the various threads Coulson goes through. There’s some really deep points about his disenchantment with secrecy after having had this secret kept from him about his own fate. And being in command of this team and the family that it becomes—his relationship with Melinda May, with Daisy Johnson/Quake, as Skye would become, with Simmons and Fitz and all the rest of them—he becomes driven by that. How do you have a family when you have to put these people in danger? The changes that come over him, a lot are driven by the chaos of the world around him. But [the arc] is really about becoming a family man to a certain extent.
Ars: So many people expected the series to end after S5. Instead you got to stretch yourself a little bit as an actor to play Sarge. You still had to channel Coulson to some extent, but in a new, fresh way.
Gregg: It’s hard to talk about this journey without talking about the ways that our experiences as artists bled back and forth, with a very porous membrane between the experience of Coulson and company, and the cast. At the end of every mission, and every season, we never knew if we’d see other again, not knowing if we’d be picked up [for another season] or if that was that. It was a weird time to be on a network, because their metrics weren’t really working. We knew that our show did really well with people recording it and watching later, but not by the metrics the networks still really wanted, which was watching it live with commercials.
At the end of S5, it was no different. The [final] episode was called “The End,” and the writers had made the choice that this time, the Coulson we knew was going to die. We thought the show was ending, so we all said our goodbyes. It was one of the most emotional days ever on the set. Then we got a call: “Actually we’re going to do two more 13-episode seasons.” It was a little jarring.
They had ideas about who Sarge was going to be, but they were figuring it out on the fly. There were a lot of questions that they couldn’t answer for me about who this guy is, and why he was wearing this skin. He sounds like me. He looks like me. But how different is he? What does he know? Who does he think he is? That was really the conundrum. It was very uncomfortable to not really know much about the new character. And yet it was very liberating to be free from Coulson’s desire to find the moral way to do very dark things. Sarge had an agenda and was willing to do whatever it took in any given moment. That was really fun.
All in the family
Ars: As we head into S7, Coulson is back again—this time as a Life Model Decoy (LMD). He’s essentially had his consciousness uploaded into an artificial being. So there have to be some questions of identity going forward.
Gregg: We’ve dealt with this idea of sentient artificial beings [on the show]. The setup for this version of Coulson is that he is an LMD in name only. He’s a much more advanced version using Chronicom technology that is beyond anything we’ve seen so far. So when we meet him, he’s very much wrestling with, “Wait a minute, I gave very specific instructions that this was not to happen. I’m not sure I want to be here in this form. And what am I, by the way?” At the same time, the team is once again in a situation where how humanity exists within these timelines is under assault, so duty puts them in an unfortunate position.
Ars: As an actor you play a role and you infuse so much of yourself into it. How have you changed, and what have you learned, from playing Coulson all these years?
Gregg: That’s a really good question. In the first season, Coulson was running a team of misfits who didn’t feel quite like they belonged anywhere and it was chaotic and seemed to be going poorly. It wasn’t until two-thirds of the way through the season that they discovered, “Oh, it’s Hydra, I see.” And things really started to click into gear. It was so parallel to what we were going through [as a cast]. It was bumpy and strange trying to be on a network Iron Man. I would have days where I felt so upset, so frustrated and betrayed by the cast or crew, and then I’d realize, “Oh, this isn’t them. This is what’s happening in the episode.” And they would realize, “Oh yeah, he’s not upset right now at me. This is because he’s being torn apart in this machine right now.” That was really amazing—how much it just starts to live in you after awhile.
I would say that there are ways that being a father to my wonderful daughter, Stella, who’s now 18 and getting ready to strike out on her own—that felt very influenced in both directions by my relationship with Chloe [Bennett, who plays Daisy/Quake] and Elizabeth [Henstridge, who plays Jemma Simmons]. They were very new to this at the beginning, and they were very much teaching me things by the end. Like Coulson, there were people I got very close to in that [AoS] family. There’s just no substitute. We have something together because of what we went through that I don’t have with anybody else.
Ars: This is the series finale. Given that this is the Marvel Universe, where death isn’t necessarily permanent, do you foresee Coulson showing up somewhere else in the future?
Gregg: The only way they’ve brought him back so far has been in flashbacks in Captain Marvel. I don’t know what the future holds. But I’ve learned at this point to say, “Never say never.”
The final season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins at 10 PM/9 Central on Wednesday, May 27, on ABC.