Hypable spoke with Clark Gregg of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. about the method, madness, and magic of his new film, Trust Me.
Though probably best known for his unforgettable turn as Agent Phil Coulson on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – and a few of those fancy Marvel movies – Clark Gregg is a man of many talents. Though no one doubts his acting prowess, his most recent project, Trust Me, also displays other skills in Gregg’s arsenal.
In Trust Me, which Gregg wrote and directed, the actor stars as Howard Holloway, a washed-up agent for child actors. Holloway finds himself on the brink of spectacular success when his path crosses with Lydia (Saxon Sharbino) a young actress of both unusual talent, and unusually dark secrets.
Clark Gregg recently spoke with Hypable about the genesis and creation of Trust Me, and what the film says about Hollywood, and Gregg’s own future in the city of stars.
Heroes and villains are interchangeable at times in Trust Me. Can you talk about the moral ambiguity in the film?
*Laughs* Have you ever spent any time in Hollywood?
It wasn’t my intent to make an insider’s look at Hollywood and the business of child actors. I’d been around some of them – there’s definitely an insider viewpoint on the way that particular business works, and yet I was really focused on this idea of any business. It’s most kind of phosphorescently exemplified in Hollywood, I think, in that the stakes are so high and it moves so fast.
This idea that you can become an overnight success, that you can suddenly make the deal of a lifetime and you’ll move into some kind of rarified elite that we see on reality shows, flying in private jets and having this experience that in reality, one in a thousand people ever get close to.
That’s kind of what was interesting about it to me. I certainly spent some time kind of feeling like one of those outsiders, and now sometimes seeing the way people look at me – or actual movie stars – you know, with this kind of projected glory on us, that I necessarily feel is warranted.
How did you approach the elements of magical realism in Trust Me?
The movie is about transformation. It’s about the myth – the transformational myth of superstardom or success, and everyone’s chasing that with a kind of manic desperation in the movie. It starts out kind of fun, and then the stakes get higher and things get a little darker – which is something I’ve seen, and everyone who works in this business has seen.
And when that starts to happen for the main character, Howard Holloway, whom I play, I felt that a certain point that his close proximity to achieving his dream – and also the terror that he felt at having it slip through his fingers – made his grip on reality become a little less firm.
And so the movie-within-a-movie that this girl is up for the lead of, which also contains transformation metaphor, becomes very resonant for him. He starts to kind of, at various moments, see himself in his new life, and sometimes see that… reflected in the movie-within-the-movie.
Because you know what, I was making my own movie! And I wanted to take every chance necessary to try to tell the story in a way that makes it the movie I want to see. I don’t feel like I necessarily see the kind of movies that I love, that I saw in a lot of directors from the ’70s out there now.
Trust Me does feel a lot like a short story played out on film.
Oh, that’s a great compliment. Thank you!
Had you thought about the story like that?
It’s funny you say that. I had an idea, because [Trust Me] had kind of a pulpy, noir feel to it in its structure, I actually thought, boy, it would be really cool to do a graphic novel… because some people are doing that, you know? And I thought it might help me have people understand the vision.
Because when I was trying to share my vision of the piece, a lot of investors looked at me like I’d lost my marbles. And I thought if they could kind of see what I was imagining in the graphic novel format, it would help them to understand.
It’s funny, I do think of the film noirs that I love, whether they’re the neo-noirs or the original, I always feel like I can feel Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. You know, of all the cinematic forms, they have a kind of literary connection. So I can definitely, definitely see that… because those novels were as much responsible for building the world of noir. Like one of my favorite film noirs is The Big Sleep, and the writers on it are Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and William Faulkner!
What were the most challenging and the most rewarding elements of making the film?
The most challenging part was trying to direct myself and act while I was also directing. It wasn’t something that I necessarily aspired to, but there was something about the finished script, and this character, that kind of connected with me on a deep level.
Whether it was that kind of outsider status that he had that I’ve spent so much of my life in, or just the specific tone – the kind of mashup that I was describing, the kind of tragicomic feeling – that even though I kept waking up, thinking of different directors or actors to give one of those jobs to, I felt like I had to be in the middle of it. And within a day, I thought, “This is the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.”
And then I started to see what was happening. When I would check on the monitor, I realized that I looked as frightened and as vulnerable, and in over my head as Howard Holloway should.
And that was probably the rewarding part, was realizing that for whatever I had sacrificed in not giving away one of those jobs to somebody else, I had gotten something back in return. [It] was kind of a terrified momentum – like jumping out of an airplane with no clothes on, which [worked perfectly] for the character.
Is there anything you learned that you’ll take forward for future projects you may write, and/or direct?
I hope it doesn’t become banal, but there was a lot of people who wanted me to fit this movie into a box that was more comfortable for them – financiers, different artists who were considering working on it.
And again and again, I chose not to, especially in the spirit [of the fact that] it felt ludicrous to me to do something for no money and pour your heart into it, and at the same time sell it out and try to make it fit into a commercial model where it was safe.
And it is very, very moving to me that so much of the response thus far to the film has been people really responding to exactly the things that… most scared off potential investors, that some of the shift in the way the movie works have been most resonant for people, the things that I was scared to keep.
So, go with what scares you!
It may not work, but it’s certainly going to lead you to growth.