In the theater scene, Clark Gregg is known as one of the founders of the longstanding Atlantic Theater Company, along with David Mamet and William H. Macy. But many more geeks people know him as Agent Phil Coulson, a pivotal character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (

Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor and The Avengers). He also wrote and directed the funny film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel Choke, and co-starred with Julia Louis Dreyfus in the long running CBS comedy, The New Adventures of Old Christine (of which we've seen exactly zero episodes). But after many years in Hollywood, Gregg has returned to the off-Broadway world in NYC to participate in Ethan Coen's latest collection of one-act plays.

Called Happy Hour, the acerbically amusing show features Gregg in two roles: as a barfly trying to get a word in edgewise with a drunk apocalyptic ranter, and in a bigger part as a philandering businessman futilely trying to cheat on his wife while on a business trip. Last week we spoke with Gregg about working with Coen, his role in the Marvel Universe, cell phones in theaters, and a lot more. Happy Hourcontinues through December 31st.

How did you get involved in this? I'm a founding member of the Atlantic. It's something I've been involved with for my entire adult life and the last play that I did was eight years ago, right before my daughter started preschool in Los Angeles. And I did not want to be away for her for any length of time. I've been looking for the right piece to do and this one kind of timed out with the holidays, so I wouldn't have to be away for her too long and then it was some of the funniest, some parts of the writing, were as funny as anything I've maybe ever read and I'm also a huge fan of Ethan Coen's writing and so I said yes.

So do you reside in L.A.? I do, yeah.

I wasn't aware that you hadn't done theater in so long. Your performance seemed very comfortable to me. I guess you don't really lose it.
You know, you may but I haven't yet, I don't think. It feels pretty good; I thought it was going to feel more uncomfortable, but I did a sitcom for a couple of years and one of the great things about a sitcom is that you have an audience, which certainly was how I came up working. And it was really comforting to have 200 or 300 people. You don't have a stand-up comic kind of warming them up and pizza and snacks and everything to put them in a really good mood before the dark comedy of an Ethan Coen play, but it's kept me from at least getting rusty.

When I saw it on Sunday, during the second act it was just like one cell phone going off after another. Does that happen a lot? Is it distracting? That's funny, that was particularly a cellphone-ish audience. It's happened once or twice, not too much. People are really... New Yorkers are pretty respectful about it. I think when you were there, this particular jackass, his phone rang like three times. I seriously thought, at what point do you turn it off? Or at least mute it.

It was an elderly man. And I think it's a generational thing where sometimes they haven't quite adapted to the new technology. Oh, oh, now I completely understand. Yes, this is like when I'm trying to help my parents understand the DVR.

Yeah, and also during the intermission people will then check their phone and then forget to turn them back off again. Oh, I think you solved this mystery completely. That's exactly what happened.

Okay, I admit it, it was me. Damn it, John!

No I'm kidding; I'm militant about shutting my phone off. In Russia they were experimenting with technology to prevent a cell phone from operating in a theater. It's some sort of cell phone blocker, which I don't think we can legally use in America, unfortunately.
That's funny because there was a Writer's Guild strike a couple of years ago and I, as a member of the Writer's Guild, I was picketing in front of Fox Studios and I noticed, on the picket line, none of us could get our emails on our phones. And I thought, "They've got some kind of blocking device that they're torturing us with." I thought they were illegal.

So working with Ethan Coen, what was that like? Was he really involved in the production? Yeah, I'm pretty sure that this is the third evening of one acts that he and Neil have done together, and they had him around. Ethan was around with Neil most of our rehearsal and really kind of making little changes to the dialogue and the plays and he continues to do so. I had a couple of new lines today, which will definitely test you to see how rusty you are or aren't, doing live theater.

Such a fascinating guy. Is there anything he said to you or to anybody else that helped you and stuck out at you as interesting or helpful? Let me think about that. There were so many things, little things. You don't usually get to have the writer there, and so often you're kind of interpreting the subtext of the lines through your own prism of experience. And even though you continue to hold onto the right to inject your own experience into it, it was really kind of amazing to have Ethan's take on what that subtext was in some moments. To find out the moments that I thought were really kind of dark and hard hitting, some of them had a little more heart underneath them, in his take. And also, weirdly, in other moments the converse was true. Moments that I thought were kind of like the vulnerable cracks in very philosophically confused characters in dark circumstances—the moments where they really opened up about about their feelings. But Ethan's like, "No, no not at all. He's just trying to get off the phone."

That's funny. I really liked in the last piece that whole thing about the diver and the blowfish. That's really funny. Me too, It's really, it's just such an absurd and hilarious bit. By itself that would have gotten me here.

So do you feel like you are there, where you want to be with the performance? There's a lot of stuff that feels like it's on the right track and then there's... You know I guess maybe this is always how it is, but I feel like there's more to discover and every performance is really...I take a lot a notes afterward and I try to think it through and figure out what I found out. And just keep trying to push the rock up the hill 'till the tuning fork starts to hum. I think the balance of these pieces is such crazy, absurdist comedy and [has] such dark, honest, human struggle in them. It's a really complex balance to hit to have that all work and feel like part of the same piece. And I feel like I'm going to be probably trying to get closer and closer to the right balance of that long past when we open.

You also are in the first one, you have a part that doesn't have many lines but I thought you really brought a lot to the scene with the mustache. It's funny, the minute that mustache goes on I really, I feel like a very different person.

What's going on for you in that piece? What are you trying to do in order to engage with so little to say? You know, it's a piece about a guy who's got a very passionately held and very specific vision about the nature of, or I guess the role of, technology. Specifically digital technology, and the coming apocalypse. And what you can tell from my character when he's actually trying to participate in the debate, is that he's not a complete stranger to some of these ideas. And I'm very interested in what he has to say and I just... there's a certain point I thought it's important that he backs it up. You can't just make up whatever you want, it has to have some kind of connection to the scientific theory. And you can't really live in Los Angeles without, at some point or another, hearing somebody espouse an "out there" philosophy that sounds legit but has no basis whatsoever in anything scientific.

Did this sound "out there" to you? Because the overall argument that our civilization is unsustainable seemed pretty true to me. There's tons of the stuff that the guy believes that works for me, Clark. It's just that alarming. But then there are parts of it where, you know when it's really time for this to get grounded in some kind of observable reality, I don't feel like it holds up. But then again, one tends to get a little biased by one's character's point of view.

How would you describe what Ethan is going for in these plays? What is being expressed?
It's funny because—I could be wrong about this—but my understanding is Ethan has said that he didn't necessarily write them to go together. And yet they feel very thematically linked to me. There's definitely a strong theme that's about people trying to either articulate or share a philosophical foundation that makes them feel less alone, and it ameliorates their tremendous loneliness in a world that's very hard. "In a world," oh my God I sound like the Moviefone guy. In a world that's... It's hard to point out some of the ways I was just talking about; an observable scientific basis for the idea that there is meaning for our life.

Do you have comic book fans coming up to you in the lobby?
There have been a couple of Agent Coulson fans who have shown up. I'm always happy to see them though.

As I was leaving the office to do the interview, I told one of my coworkers I was interviewing you, and she was like, "Oh my God Agent Coulson!" and blah blah blah. And I said, "I don't know, I just saw him in a play. I don't know what you're talking about." And then as I was waiting for you to call I started Googling more stuff and found that just yesterday somebody wrote this whole piece on about how you are the Boba Fett of the Marvel Studio Universe. [Laughs] That's a great compliment. I love that they connect it to my generation. That's funny. It's the other job, the other thing that I need to come back to. Probably the only thing I come back to more regularly over more years than coming back to Atlantic is this recurrent character in the Marvel Universe. It was a small role that's kind of gotten bigger and has now turned into four movies so far, and really seems to have connected. The character seems to have connected with the comic book fanboy and girl people. It's been a really, really fun thing for me.

Yeah, so do you get strange things handed to you or strange questions or propositions or things like that? You know, wouldn't that be exciting? No. I definitely have signed some parts of people's bodies that should never be signed and there's this amazing artist in Russia who's a fan and she started doing these really cool works of art featuring Agent Coulson and other members of SHIELD. I love them. She sends them to me and I enjoy as much as I can enjoy looking at pictures of myself.

Is there talk of Agent Coulson getting his own sort of spin-off, lead movie role? There's been a lot of talk of that. So far most of it has been coming from me [laughs]. Every once in a while the Marvel guys kind of fantasize and talk to me about it and it's definitely... His own movie, I don't know, we'll see. There's definitely a lot of talk about a SHIELD movie.

Were you interested in comic books before you got mixed up in all this? You know, I loved them as a kid. I definitely was into them for a certain period of time, but it's not something that really carried through into adulthood. I wasn't going to Comic Con before all this stuff, but one of the really fun ones l liked was Iron Man. In fact, a lot of the ones I did like were Marvel comics. A couple of days into the shooting of Iron Man, when they started to expand the role I had to say to the Marvel Exec, "You know, I need a little brush up here on Tony Stark." And the next day they handed me this 500 page encyclopedia with incredible artwork, detailing it and bringing me up to speed. I've become, again, a bit of a fan of some of that stuff; the really well done comic stuff is a very particular pop culture mythology that I really enjoy.

Is there one outside of the Iron Man thing that you feel particular resonance with? The ones that I really...I was at one of the comic cons and actually I went and bought a bunch, and I realized the ones that I really was interested in seeing were the ones that I'd had when I was a kid because I didn't have that many, I didn't have hundreds, but there was this guy Iron Fist who was a big kung fu superhero, which was right in my wheelhouse because I was in the '70s and going to see Bruce Lee movies and I kind of got the same comic that I had. And I remember that I had drawn this comic, I had done a whole version of this myself another episode for this guy, and I went back and I saw the original and I could remember every frame of the comic and it was really nostalgic, which I think must be a reason why a lot of people who aren't 21 or 22 connect to some of these Marvel movies.