A matter of ‘Trust’: Gregg steps from Agent Coulson’s shoes to director’s chairWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes you have to finish something before you really understand why you wanted to do it in the first place.
Clark Gregg was sitting in a theater at the Seattle International Film Festival in early May, watching the premiere of one of his movies. This was not, in and of itself, an unusual occurrence for the 52-year-old actor. Gregg has attended more than his fair share of big premieres over the past few years — ever since the Marvel Cinematic Universe had been born and a certain S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Phil Coulson became, rather surprisingly, one of its most beloved figures.
This premiere was different. This wasn’t a bombastic superhero epic where the fate of the world was at stake. This was a small independent film, made on a shoestring. Gregg was still playing an agent, ironically enough — a down-on-his-luck showbiz representative of child actors, looking for that one special client who could relaunch his career. And he wasn’t just acting in this one. Director: Clark Gregg. Writer: Clark Gregg. This film — “Trust Me”— was his baby.
But even with all the work he had put into it, Gregg didn’t completely realize why he’d been so compelled to bring this story to the screen — not until he watched it that night. He hadn’t understood how personal it was for him, and how much it said about his own life.
“I went, ‘Oh, God. That’s what made me write this.’ It’s about how having a daughter, or a child that you love, can completely change who you are. And I have a 12-year-old daughter, and it never occurred to me that that’s what was driving me to write this. But here, two and a half years after I wrote it, that’s clearly what was motivating this.”
The To-Do List
“Trust Me” tells the tale of how Gregg’s character, Howard Holloway, stumbles across a child-star-in-the-making named Lydia (played by newcomer Saxon Sharbino) and attempts to launch her career despite pitfalls and surprises that come from both inside and outside the movie business.
“I was writing a bigger piece about a bunch of different kinds of stories, about grown-ups and children and Los Angeles. And it was just going to be an epic that would never get made. And this one felt different,” Gregg said in an interview with Toledo Free Press.
“From the beginning, it felt like an unusual mashup of kind of a comedy of desperation, about this former child actor, and a film noir about the brutality of a certain part of show business. It never was meant to be an exposé — I don’t think it’s representative. It felt like a story that was representative of an idea about success and stardom.”
Though Gregg has plied his trade as an actor for decades now — from performing in small off-Broadway productions to consistent roles on TV and film — he is no neophyte behind the camera. In addition to writing the screenplay for the 2000 Michelle Pfeiffer/Harrison Ford thriller “What Lies Beneath,” Gregg made his directorial debut with a 2008 adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel “Choke.” (Gregg also wrote the screenplay.)
But while in “Choke” he had a relatively minor role on camera, in “Trust Me” he is the lead, which, combined with his other responsibilities, was even more pressure than he expected.
“The most I’ve ever experienced. And at the same point, it was so laughably too much to handle that it became kind of funny. It was just you’re so thrown out of an airplane without a parachute, and a couple of napkins that you might be able to use to slow your fall, that you can only laugh and see if there’s a way you can pull it out. And I woke up nightly leading up to this, thinking of directors or actors I could give one of the two jobs to.
“And yet, I had this vision for the piece stylistically and for the role — and I felt the guy needed to be as old as I am for you to really buy that this is his last shot. And my partner, Mary Vernieu, really pressured me to not give up the part. And she’s kind of dependably brilliant about these kind of things.
“I got there, trying to get through a 20-day shoot of this ambitious, odd movie, and I realized that I was going to feel just as vulnerable and over my head as Howard Holloway did,” Gregg said. “For all the things I might sacrifice, it was going to work to support the performance.”
I love trouble
The similarities between Howard and Clark first became clear to Gregg as he was working on the original story, a piece of work that resists easy classification. “Trust Me” merges elements of comedy and drama into a tale that sees both the humor and the tragedy of Tinseltown.
“It came out of me that way,” Gregg said of the script. “Like life. Like some stuff I’ve been through and survived in a very different sphere, which is, everything’s fine, and you’re trying to work on something and collaborate on something, and then suddenly there’s a lot of money involved, and things get dark. And you find out what you stand for, and what your dreams are, and what you’re willing to do for them, and what you’re not.”
Gregg answered a lot of those questions himself as he was working to make “Trust Me” a reality. “I had a lot of people say, ‘We won’t. This doesn’t fit into a category. It’s kind of two different things at once. And we won’t give you the money to make it unless you change it.’ And I couldn’t. I was lucky to have a partner who liked it, and really kind of believed in what we were trying to do,” Gregg said, referring to fellow producer Vernieu.
“Because I felt like a lot of the movies that I loved that walked that line, a lot of them were in the ’70s. And I wanted to try and make a movie like that. I wanted to try something new, and not try to fit something into a box. I think that the purpose of independent film is to try, you know, to not succumb to those kind of commercial pressures and to try something risky. And that’s what we went for.”
They say that 90 percent of being a great director is finding a great cast. If that’s true, Gregg is an impressive director indeed. In addition to the “name” actors that fill key roles in “Trust Me” — Amanda Peet, Sam Rockwell, Felicity Huffman, Allison Janney, William H. Macy — Gregg’s film also features great performances from its unknowns. Most crucial of all is the role of Lydia, Howard’s hopeful superstar, played by Sharbino.
“Mary and I, and our other partner Keith Kjarval, agreed if we didn’t find someone that special — one of those people who people would go, ‘Who the hell is that?’ — if we didn’t find someone like that, we wouldn’t make the film,” Gregg said. “For a minute, that’s where we were. And when I hear people, so many people, have been touched and blown away by Saxon, and I still can’t believe that we found her. Because I didn’t believe that we would.
“One of the smartest things of the many that Mary talked me into, was how important it was to have Lydia and her father Ray played by actors that weren’t household names. That we didn’t know enough about. Because there’s kind of this unknown quantity to Howard, and the movie is very much seen through Howard’s eyes.
“So to find this brilliant character actor, Paul Sparks — who I had seen on ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ and remarked on — to kind of realize that that was the same person that I was looking at on this tape that Mary presented, who in real life couldn’t be more different than his ‘Boardwalk’ character, and is this kind of very masculine, soft-spoken Oklahoman. When we found both Saxon and Paul, that’s when I felt that we had a shot at making the movie work.”
The air that I breathe
Gregg is promoting “Trust Me” during his hiatus from “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the ABC series that resurrected Agent Coulson following his untimely demise in 2012’s “The Avengers.” There’s no doubt that the expansive fan base he has earned during his time wearing Coulson’s suit and shades has helped shine a light on Gregg’s other work. And it’s clear he’s thrilled by the response he’s gotten from Marvel devotees.
“The cool thing about the friends that Agent Coulson has made, and that I have made since Agent Coulson became a part of my life, is there’s a real deep connection. Because Agent Coulson, in the Marvel world of superheroes, is the guy with no powers. Who’s a bit of a nerd. Who’s probably been to a Comic-Con like I have. And there’s a real ownership — they brought him back to life when he died, with their human cry. So there’s a connection between those people and I, and it’s one that I’m very honored by.”
And whether it be through “Trust Me,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” or directly via his presence on Twitter, it’s clear that continuing to connect with people is a big part of what drives Gregg as a person.
“I spent most of my 20s doing plays in New York and it was really amazing, the greatest education. An intimate relationship with an audience that’s missing in film sometimes, most of the time. And then suddenly, there’s this way to connect with the people,” Gregg said. “I had taken up Twitter when my wife (actress Jennifer Grey) was on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ and found out that people kind of liked Agent Coulson.
“And suddenly you see the stuff you worked so hard on, in a vacuum, in a soundstage, to make it good, and make it real and make it work, and see that blowing people away, or in some cases not. It’s really — it’s a connection with people you’re trying to work for. And one of the reasons I came out to Hollywood is because it’s communication, it’s a form of communication. And at its deepest, it’s even a form of nonverbal, emotional communication with, you know, an unimaginable number of people.
“And that’s why films are exciting. You can reach so many people. You can touch and inspire them, if you’re lucky, the way that I have been touched and inspired by other people’s films and television.”
“Trust Me” is available On Demand and will be shown theatrically in select cities beginning June 6.
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