Tony Stark who? Agent Phil Coulson won over our hearts in Iron Man, in no small part because Clark Gregg brought a special spark to the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Coulson ended up being the glue of the entire MCU until he perished at the end of the first Avengers film.
That was not the end, of course, because Coulson was resurrected and soon became the spin-off point for the ABC series Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that refused to quit, got better with every season, and is finally in its own endgame right now. Coulson has been through the wringer (to put it mildly), and he now exists as a Life Model Decoy (LMD) within some advanced Chronicom technology. It's complicated.
SYFY WIRE caught up with Clark Gregg to talk about Coulson's legacy, the final season of S.H.I.E.L.D., and whether there is any hope for the "Philinda" fans.
Coulson lives, Coulson dies, Coulson lives again... at this point, should the tagline be "Coulson never dies"?
It's possible that he will die. It's possible that he will die many, many times on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He's officially dead and he's back as a sentient robot, essentially. You can't predict what'll happen with this guy.
The series spun out of The Avengers through your character, and now it's grown each season into its own thing... How has that transition been for you?
It was an adventure to come back every season and end the season without knowing for sure if you were going to come back and then be really attached to the people you were in the trenches with trying to take the show, make it our own... trying to find a way to make it work on ABC in a time when Game of Thrones and Netflix shows were becoming the flagship of what people wanted to watch.
I'm so proud of what the writers and the production team did in terms of keeping our heads down and looking at what we were allowed to use and making the most out of it and letting us continually toss out everything, even if it was working, and start over.
Coulson dies (again) at the end of Season 5. Was there ever a chance that you wouldn't be back in front of the camera when Seasons 6 and 7 were picked up?
I didn't know how immediately he would come back in Season 6. I had heard the idea of how he would be back. When we were doing the press tour for Season 5, I knew that was a real ending of sorts, that Coulson who had been brought back after The Avengers for the show was gonna die to a certain extent.
I didn't want to be like, “Oh, don't worry, I'll be back as another guy in Season 6.” I just didn't want that so to a certain extent they kept it from me, but also I participated.
Speaking of Sarge (from Season 6), he was dramatically different from Coulson. Was that a complete reset for you, playing a completely new character, or was there any Coulson in the DNA of your playing him?
We built in pretty early that he would say things that were Coulson things. And he was just somebody on a mission, only he understood that justified doing tremendously vicious, pragmatic things, and they were very un-Coulson like.
He seemed to have gaps in his understanding of himself and his memories, and so when people started recognizing him he had an identity crisis of his own.
Especially with the "Philinda" of it all playing into that. Was the Philinda pairing planned, was it something that you and Ming-Na Wen pushed for in real life, or was it your natural chemistry that led to it?
It was really clear early on that there was some chemistry between them, but they really had been friends... and then later we got to see this episode when they worked together early on, where you could tell that Coulson had a crush on her, [and] she didn't quite take him seriously.
I don't know how much it was in the cards. Definitely, there was something. I think the fans pushed for it more than anything else because there's a vocal group of people who just like, as you identified it, the "Philinda" ship. They just like the chemistry between them and the fact that they've known each other [for a long time], and also the number of difficulties and blocks that have to keep them from ever realizing this.
It was some time in Season 5, it was the first time you ever saw them kiss. Did they kiss when they were robots? I think they might have kissed when they were LMD's once. Or one of them was an LMD.
As if we don't have our hands full with Fitzsimmons, you have to throw Philinda in there too. It's not fair.
I know... no one wants to see a show about happy people having fun.
I would still watch it, but you're right. Is there any chance of a Philinda happily ever after, or is that optimistic to the point of foolishness?
I mean, it's pretty optimistic given that poor Melinda May... you know she finally gets this guy and they finally kiss, and he's dying, you know. And then all of a sudden she makes peace with that and they have this kind of nice happy ending on his way out. And then there's this evil version of him and she wants to kill him more than anybody. She shoots him in the head. It's definitely a little much to have him back once again.
I think in a way it's a lot more challenging to have a version of Coulson that seems very much to be Coulson's life force in this super-advanced LMD. That's harder for her in many ways than the evil guy walking around pretending to be Phil.
Do you think that in terms of the MCU films that the Avengers will ever find out about the journey that Coulson has been on, or is he on his own road now?
I don't know. The part of me that just is Phil Coulson has him in there, he very much wants to explain. But that said, every time I say that there's a headline that says, "Clark Gregg wants Phil Coulson to meet the Avengers." That's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that would be cool, but I wouldn't trade the journey that happened instead.
I wouldn't trade what you described as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. having 130 episodes to become their own separate thing within the Marvel universe, that I think if someone watches the seasons on Disney+ eventually, I think it stands up pretty well. So I'm grateful for what it is, I'm happy to end it here, and I will never not take a phone call from someone who has an idea about how he might become part of another moment.
The final season of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues on Wednesday nights on ABC.