1:00 pm EST, February 18, 2016

‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’: Clark Gregg talks crushing choices and Coulson’s conflict

As the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. mid-season premiere approaches, Clark Gregg looks back on Coulson’s choices in the epic finale with Hypable.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 3×11 is finally within the foreseeable future (March 8, baby!), bringing fans back to the conflict-ridden adventures of Director Coulson and his team. The mid-season finale left Coulson in a particular state of unease, having made the choice to kill Ward on Maveth. Clark Gregg delves into this pivotal choice, and hints at what might be coming next in the all-encompassing aftermath.

When you read the script for “Maveth,” what was your reaction to Couslon’s decision to kill Ward?

I guess it’s the way the show has evolved, I was surprised. But once Rosalind had been kind of slaughtered in front of Coulson, I was a little bit in the Coulson mindset of, “I want this guy dead.” But I didn’t think it would happen quite that fast, and I didn’t think there would be that amazing twist that would allow us to keep an even more evil version around.

What was Coulson going through in that scene? How did you choose to play all those conflicting emotions?

You know, it’s one of the joys of doing something like this this long, and playing this guy this long, and being on this journey. There were some thoughts I had about it, and the rest of it was just being there on the desert planet, having just a week earlier had a bloody Constance Zimmer dying in my arms. But as I thought about it — I mean, it just isn’t so much thought. It’s just the world the of it all, because of the immersion level we have with it, it just starts to live in you a little bit. The complexity of what the writers had done in terms of who Coulson is… Who Coulson has always been. [He’s] a guy who, to me, is distinguished by a belief that you cannot fight soulless evil with soulless evil. No matter how much it might seem tempting, in the end, you will have lost the thing that makes you different from the evil.

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Ward has always pushed those buttons, and Brett Dalton’s amazing, complex portrayal of this guy as someone who came from some level of an abusive background and had been trained up in Hydra by this false father-figure, really made it challenging. There are parts of Ward that Coulson feels some compassion for, and he feels responsible in that he put this guy on his team! And everyone else that he picked, even though it seemed really strange at the time, from Skye/Daisy to Fitz and Simmons, you really see that he had a hell of a good picker, for the most part. But I think he feels responsible for Ward in some ways, to the point where he even partnered up with him at the end of last season.

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So on the one hand, he is driven by this bloodlust to take out this person who’s killed Rosalind. That’s also tempered by a desire to not give in to something that he’s fought giving into in other dark moments in his life. Because let’s face it, he could have walked onto the Helicarrier and just shot Loki without saying a word. And he’d have had a hell of a lot less painful recovery! But what they came up with is that he feels responsible for all these lives that have been lost since he brought Ward onto the team, since he made that deal with Ward, and let Ward get away. After that is when Bobbi Morse was tortured and had her knee demolished, and barely survived.

So at a certain point, I think he crosses over into a place that he’s never been to before. And I think the reprecussions of that, and how that’s changed him, will be playing out for quite some time.

[Laughs] Is that the longest answer anyone’s ever given?

I think it’s appropriately long for the subject! Do you think Coulson will pull back from this behavior? Has he gone dark now?

It gets down to, everything you do changes you in little ways. And the bigger things you do change you in bigger ways. It’s funny, this season — there have been times, last season especially and the end of the first season, when Nick Fury shows up and makes him the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., a S.H.I.E.L.D. that doesn’t exist, where it’s a great honor and Coulson himself is having another one of his fantastic fanboy moments. “I can’t believe they’re calling me Director, I think that makes me the second person to ever be called that, or the third.”

And yet, I don’t know. From the moment he makes Mack the acting Director and goes to take care of business, there’s something… I feel like Coulson’s true heart is in being a field agent. And if it’s necessary for him to be Director, he’ll be Director. I don’t know, they’ve written something so complex to end mid-season with that I just don’t think it’s going to sit easily with him, what he has done — especially when he finds out what that action has created.

If you were an agent, would your rather work under Coulson or Mack?

Well, I need to be a little biased. I thought Mack did an unbelievable job, as did Henry Simmons, I’m just obsessed with how great he is. But I have to say, Coulson thus far, despite a lot of doubters and haters, he’s managed to make the right calls an awful lot, against a lot of odds. While still managing to cook up, oh, just a Helicarrier for Nick Fury in his spare time, to be quite useful in act three of Age of Ultron. I think, whether he gives it to himself or not — I doubt he does — I think he has reasons to feel proud of what he’s managed to accomplish with very limited resources in his tenure so far. But I think if Nick Fury showed up and wanted to slap the eyepatch back on and take over, and just put Phil back in the field, I don’t think he’d necessarily be heartbroken.

The main story of the of finale ends on a very pregnant look exchanged between Coulson and Fitz. How will that relationship go forward, with Fitz having witnessed Coulson’s actions?

I think it’s so interesting, because at that point Fitz has as much reason as anybody, having seen Simmons be beaten or tortured to get him to open the portal, and having nearly lost his ability to think at the end of season one… Fitz has more reason than anybody to put a bullet in Ward’s head. And yet what I read off that look is that there’s something about seeing Coulson decide to end him, especially when he’s helpless and could be left on the planet, that seems to really throw Fitz for a loop. And I think in a way, Fitz is mirroring — a part of Coulson feels that way, too.

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It’s funny, it gets into what I think the heart of the show is, which is, if you dedicate your life to the secret service of protecting others from the threats that they don’t know about, who do you become? And where do you fit who you are as a person into that? Because I think two people jumped out of that plane — and one of them was the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I think the more powerful force there was a man named Phil Coulson who had been pushed too far. So I think it’s really hard for me to say at this point who of those two characters inside of him were more responsible for what happened there.

I love that the writers wrote it as, not an impulsive moment, but as a choice. And the look that’s on his face, I think, speaks volumes about, again, what the show’s about. Can you really do that job unless you let yourself do what’s necessary? And you know, we’re on a pretend comic-book show that is the comic-book mythology of good-versus-evil that we’ve all been fascinated with for 80 years. And yet, more and more, there’s forces and humans and organizations in the world that echo what used to seem like almost Manichean black-and-white, good-and-evil. The desire for mass slaughter and destruction is around in the world right now, and people are having to ask those same questions — how far are we willing to go to fight those things? And at what point do we lose what we need to be who we are?

It’s a heavy subject!

I know! I know, I know. Well, it’s funny, I was raised by a really brilliant Episcopal minister and theologian, who came up in the Civil Rights movement — my dad. And I really was raised with compassion as being the number one virtue, and trying to understand the points of view of others. And then when I got married, my wife introduced me to this really amazing rabbi, Mordecai Finley, who I’ve listened to a lot. And he shares an awful lot with my dad… So it’s a dilemma that I wrestle with in life, in trying to understand how to be a moral person, and I love that that’s manifested on the show. That’s when comic-book stuff gets fun to me, is when it gets to be this alternate universe where you get to look at things that are almost too painful to look at, that are in our life right now.

Finally, I have to ask — do you have any ideas on how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may tie-in to Captain America: Civil War?

I won’t know what, if any, tie-in there is between the two until very, very close. It will probably be like season 1, where we’ll get a script and go to a screening, or we’ll go to a screening and then get a script and go, “Oh boy.” But I also think there was a lot of complexity and difficulty in season 1 for the writers, in terms of having to kind of really leave what our show was really doing a secret until Winter Soldier came out — and in some ways it was detrimental to the show. I gotta say, I love when things tie in, I think the best version of the Marvel universe is the one where it’s all connected. I really hope that I see Charlie Cox or Krysten Ritter show up in one of those movies, I just love all that — or certainly some of the Inhumans from our show.

But I also really like that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is introducing a facet of the Inhumans that we’ve never seen before, and — again, all this is kind of spoilery. But when I read in the script that they come onto a ridge on this hill and they see an eons-old statue of the Hydra logo, and that turns out to be a creature, that that whole thing was always based on a being, and not just a symbol, that’s when I think our writers are getting to break open versions of Marvel story that really belong on our show, and our show carries its own weight. And more and more, it’s fun to see people getting into the world of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and not waiting so much for the crossover potential.

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. mid-season premiere, “Bouncing Back,” airs Tuesday, March 8 at 9:00 p.m. on ABC.

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