NEW YORK — Like the character he plays, Clark Gregg has worked his way up the career ladder. Five years ago, he played Agent Phil Coulson for the first time as a small role in the Robert Downey Jr. romp “Iron Man.”
Now, after gaining an ever-higher profile as Coulson in subsequent projects including last year’s mega-hit “The Avengers,” Gregg has broken out as the star of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the new acronymic sci-fi thriller (airing at 8 p.m. Tuesdays on WCIV), which finds Coulson leading a hand-picked band of agents on their extra-special missions.
Gregg’s own mission: to savor his spot as No. 1 on the “Marvel’s Agents” call sheet after years of diverse, solid and often acclaimed work that, nonetheless, fell short of making him a household name.
Gregg, 51, has earned his new prominence. As Coulson, he projects a mild demeanor (except when he doesn’t) and a boyish smile (except when he takes dead-aim with his weapon or busts a bad guy in the chops).
And he looks good, though not too good, in his habitual company-man business suit.
“Coulson never takes his suit off,” said executive producer Maurissa Tancharoen, speaking from Los Angeles, “whether he’s on the beach, in the jungle ...”
“But at the risk of spoilers,” stepped in fellow exec producer Jed Whedon, “you will see him in a future episode — sans tie!”
Agent Coulson is also a master of the dry quip.
“The show doesn’t take itself too seriously,” Gregg notes gratefully, “except in the moments when it needs to. The rest of the time it has a real sense of humor. ‘I’m going to Taser you and watch “Supernanny” while you drool into the carpet’: That’s just not the kind of line I’ve gotten playing an agent in something else,” like, for instance, “The West Wing,” where he had a recurring role as an FBI special agent.
It should come as no surprise that Gregg has a gift for comedy. From 2006 to 2010 he played the mild-mannered ex-husband of Julia Louis-Dreyfus on her CBS sitcom, “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”
Now he gets to lead a team of sexy operatives from the (wait for it) Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division who investigate the extra-normal and superhuman people infesting their futuristic world.
Like “The Avengers,” “Marvel’s Agents” boasts a comic-book soul and the creative mojo of Joss (brother of Jed) Whedon. Rounding out its cast are Brett Dalton, Ming-Na Wen, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge and Chloe Bennet as Coulson’s team.
“Coulson loves his job,” says Gregg. “He’s jaded, he’s seen too much, but he can really geek out. You could imagine him doing selfies with crazy alien corpses! I’m making that up, but he’s WAY into what he does.” So is Gregg.
Gregg has covered a great distance to get there. He studied drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where playwright David Mamet and actor William H. Macy were his teachers. He later joined them to form New York’s respected Atlantic Theater Company. He has written screenplays, including the 2000 Harrison Ford fright drama “What Lies Beneath.” He has directed two films from his own screenplays, with his dark comedy “Trust Me” set for release next year.
Along the way, Gregg met actress Jennifer Grey.
“The universe threw us at each other a number of times,” he says with a laugh, “but all our attempts at flirting nearly ended up in fistfights. Then, after four years of that, finally something clicked.”
They wed in 2001.
When he first took on the role of Coulson, Gregg saw comics-bred cinema as a breed apart from his dramatic work.
“I had worked with Mamet, Macy, (‘West Wing’ mastermind Aaron) Sorkin! I thought this would be different, that it would be slumming in a pop-culture world.” He now eschews such snobbery.
“When I see the connection that this kind of project has made with people on a global level, I realize that’s what I got into acting for,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a higher, more highbrow goal to hope for. After all, Shakespeare wasn’t doing work for the queen, he was writing for a bunch of people chewing on disgusting sausages and talking back to the stage.”
Gregg laughs and effects an apologetic air. “I don’t mean to retroactively trash the sausage vendors of Elizabethan England!”