Tribeca: Marvel Star Clark Gregg Goes Dark and Takes on Hollywood
The man best known as Agent Phil Coulson wrote, directed and stars in a new film about child actors, and speaks with THR about the seedier side of showbiz and franchise movies.
"I think the sad man who wrote this is a very jaded figure," Clark Gregg says with a smile, a wry and jokey response to the notion that Trust Me, his new dark comedy, is a film that he could not have made earlier in his career. At 51, he has been showered in both the gold and grist spit out by the Hollywood machine, and this movie -- which he wrote, directed and stars in -- reflects the perspective of his many varied experiences.
Trust Me pitches Gregg as a failed child actor who has become a flailing agent for the ambitions of a new generation, struggling to keep up with the more bloodthirsty -- and frankly, shrewd -- heavyweights of the industry.
"You know, I had done a couple of movies with young actors," Gregg explains, "and seen that world a little bit and some of the people who kind of operated there and try to find a muscular ten year old thoroughbred to ride to the big time, and there was something kind of twisted about that, that I thought would be a great indie comedy."
How these hyper-competitive adults use the dreams of children as pawns in their unending power games is hilarious fodder for a film, though its root in reality makes it painful, too.
"There’s this world that’s often distorted, and weekly the headlines are filled with a young performer, at some discipline of the business, because the pressure is too great," he observes. "From Michael Jackson to now, Justin Bieber seems to be having some issues. And I was lucky I wasn’t an actor then."
Trust Me kicks into gear when Gregg's hapless Howard stumbles upon Lydia, a shrewd tween who is both wise and talented beyond her years. From a broken home, with a father who can’t manage his own sobriety let alone his daughter’s career, Lydia is new to the business and quickly relates to Howard's underdog story. She signs up with him and then stays loyal, even after a tricky plot, enacted by a rival client-poaching shark agent played Sam Rockwell and cold blooded studio execs portrayed by Felicity Huffman and Allison Janney, forces Howard to reveal a past failure with a client that has haunted him ever since.
Undoubtedly ironic given the film’s focus on the cutthroat negotiations involved with casting child actors, Gregg says he spent a "terrifying" month and a half unable to find his Lydia. Then, he met Saxon Sharbino, a now-13-year old from Texas with limited industry experience. She’s smart as a whip on screen and composed but giggly off, describing the various moments she was certain she had blown her auditions. Those fears seemed to charm Gregg even more.
"I have really good parents, and I haven’t been through a lot of the stuff, I haven’t been through anything that Lydia has been through," Sharbino, who now features on the Fox drama Touch, says. "But I mean, you can connect to the character’s loneliness, the character’s pain, or you can’t really play the role."
The movie, which shifts from comedy to a darker story with elements of modern noir, in many ways focuses on regret and the torture of endlessly replaying the past in one’s head. It made for a meaty role that Gregg was determined to play. It helps that the last five years have been the best of his career.
Already an established television actor and a burgeoning indie film writer/director (including an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's Choke), his star skyrocketed when he debuted as Agent Phil Coulson in 2008's Iron Man. Gregg has played the part in an animated series and four films, including last year’s smash The Avengers, and his place in the multi-billion dollar franchise is crucial to the point that they’ve risen him from the dead for ABC's new spinoff show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Still, he continues to spend most of his time in the independent film world, which is experiencing a "weird" time as financing becomes scarcer amid a shift in viewer habits.
"If you're used to having a giant trailer from your trips to the Marvel Universe, [indie film] can be jarring," Gregg admits. "But, so much of the most interesting work, some of the most interesting writing -- [this is the] place where you can afford to take risks, because as things have gotten more expensive and blockbuster-oriented, those are carefully thought out by the marketing teams.
"The marketing teams are involved in the early script meetings," he continues. "For better or worse, however people receive this movie, this is the movie I wanted to make. The limitations came from budget and logistics, they didn’t come from people saying, 'You can't talk about that, you can't try to do a movie that takes these chances with tone.'"
The calculations of big Hollywood studios are exacting, a cold math that factors audience profiling and past success stories to produce big cash on the other side of the equation. "They know mathematically, here are the things we need to show in this to get the people who saw the first one to come back [for a sequel]," Gregg explains. "'If we get a Cinemascore of about 45, we’ll make this.' It’s bizarre."
That being said, he has nothing but praise for Marvel -- they're his bosses, sure, but the various films in the new canon, from Captain America to Thor and Avengers, have earned solid-to-rave reviews, as well. "They deserve a lot of credit," he says of the studio's creative executives. "These movies could have been lame."
As for movies based on toys -- see: DreamWorks Animation’s new Trolls franchise -- Gregg is less convinced.
"It doesn’t even seem like they’re the same medium," he cracks. "I'm sure there's going to be a movie about Slinkies next month. Games, even. Which has to do with brand recognition. Duncan Yo-Yo, anything that people might know the name.
On the bright side, Gregg knows that the element of surprise is on his side.
"This is different," he says. "We’re coming at them completely blind, which we’re using in this way."