After babysitting a diva billionaire in high-tech battle armor, a giant green rage monster and a haughty Norse god, Clark Gregg steps up to the ultimate challenge. In “The To Do List” he plays the father of a sexually active high-school girl.
Gregg shot to something like stardom as Marvel Comics’ dapper, dryly witty S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson, whose presence in the company’s diverse superhero series served as their narrative glue. He’s set to reprise that role this fall on ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” even though his character died dramatically in last year’s “The Avengers.”
Reincarnation is familiar territory for the Boston-born Gregg, a triple-threat screenwriter, director and performer whose career routinely moves in surprising new directions.
Before his Marvel breakthrough, “I was barely getting by. I spent a lot of years in little movies playing some officious bureaucrat who shows up for a few scenes,” he said in a call from New York. Then he “wrote in my little guest house so I wasn’t doing nothing all day.”
He struck gold with the screenplay for 2000’s hit Harrison Ford thriller “What Lies Beneath,” and wrote and directed a surreal indie adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Choke” starring Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston in 2008. He was last seen spouting pitch-perfect iambic pentameter as Leonato in Joss Whedon’s gossamer garden party “Much Ado About Nothing.” Now he’s filling a glaring gap in his résumé as an uptight dad in a raunchy summer sex comedy.
“The To Do List” casts him as the overprotective father of Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”), a Type-A valedictorian who prepares herself for the college dating scene by creating a checklist of sexual experiences.
“I thought it was a really funny script,” Gregg said. “I loved the fact that it was the kind of movie I had grown up with. Where the sexual coming-of-age story was told from the Judge Rheinhold character’s point of view. The ‘American Pie’ movies. The fact that it was now a woman objectifying these guys and trying to get some sexual expertise under her belt, I loved that whole take on it.”
Genre-jumping “scratches so many different itches,” Gregg said. “It’s a thrill walking onto the bridge of the Heli-Carrier [the Avengers’ flying headquarters] with that cast of superheroes, that’s unparalleled. As a creative person who likes to write as well, making a film with my friends and acting with them in it is as satisfying as anything I’ve ever done.”
In his next writing-directing project, “Trust Me,” Gregg plays a struggling Hollywood agent opposite Rockwell, Felicity Huffman and Allison Janney.
In “The To Do List,” Gregg’s collaboration with Connie Britton, a longtime friend who plays his permissive wife, reaches a new level. The couple has a comedic lovemaking scene at their town’s Passion Pit. The sequence takes Gregg’s persona as a responsible, upstanding member of the community and gives it a jumbo pie in the face.
As a veteran of mega-franchises and underfunded independent productions, Gregg said he’s happy whenever his participation helps a small movie get produced. “The idea that I could help a project like this get made, to whatever extent that is true, couldn’t be more of an honor to me. When I make my little films, the fact that someone like Sam Rockwell shows up in them is the only reason they get made. I have such deep gratitude about that, that any way I could help other filmmakers, I would be thrilled.”