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Clark Gregg Reveals What He's Learned From Playing Agent Coulson - Exclusive

With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s seventh and final season underway, the latest chapter of Agent Phil Coulson's life is coming to a close — at least for now. Since his big-screen debut in 2008, when Coulson helped kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Iron Man, we've seen the MCU's resident everyman take on HYDRA, travel back to the '90s to help flesh out Captain Marvel's origin story, take over as head of S.H.I.E.L.D., and die not once but twice.

It's been quite a journey for Coulson and his legions of fans — and it's been an adventure for the actor who plays him, Clark Gregg, too. While Gregg has publicly said that he's not sure if this is the end of Coulson on the big and small screens, the upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D. series finale has given the MCU vet an opportunity to look back on his time with the fan-favorite character and examine the biggest lesson he's learned along the way.

"There's an episode at the end of season one where Nick Fury shows up [...] and Nick Fury was trying to remind Coulson that people can accomplish anything, as long as they're working as a team," Gregg tells Looper during an exclusive interview. "I really feel like that's the theory of Phil Coulson."

He continues, "When we met him, he was really a guy that believed in what S.H.I.E.L.D. stood for, but he also wasn't afraid to make fun of people who were taking themselves too seriously." That changed as Coulson's story carried on and the character began taking on bigger responsibilities.

Surprisingly, it's sports — not comic books — that Gregg turns to in explaining the kind of person Coulson is. "I love basketball. We'd just been watching the Michael Jordan documentary, and he couldn't win a championship until he managed to make everyone on his team their very best self," Gregg says. "There are two huge, key wins in his championship run where he was double-teamed and he passed the ball to John Paxson or Steve Kerr. And I think that's so Coulson, because he picks these people against everyone's recommendation [...] and elevates them and puts them in positions of responsibility."

Gregg references Chloe Bennet's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. character (who begins as an anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. hacker named Skye but ultimately becomes the cornerstone of the team) and Henry Simmons' Mack (who ends up taking over for Coulson as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as examples. "I really examined the way that he trusts the people around him and lets go of trying to control too much so that they can really rise," the actor shares.

That's something that a team player like Gregg, who's an accomplished writer and director in addition to an actor, can really take to heart. "It's been a great lesson that he has passed on to me," Gregg says, "and I think one that's appropriate for his kind of not trying to be the ultimate superhero character."

How Agent Coulson really let Clark Gregg show his range

Thanks to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the MCU's flexible timeline — you can cover a lot of ground when time travel is involved — we've seen multiple versions of Coulson pop up on our screens over the years. Gregg jokes that "there's even undercover Coulson in The West Wing, according to many people," referring to his stint as FBI Agent Mike Casper on Aaron Sorkin's political drama.

Gregg claims to have a favorite take on Coulson (although he didn't share exactly which one that is), but says that what he really enjoys about the role is the chance to stretch his muscles while playing each iteration.

"From being this guy who's kind of posing as a pesky bureaucrat in Iron Man and riffing with Tony Stark, to the guy in the Avengers with this great heroic death scene, to evil, alter-ego Sarge, and now super advanced-AI android Coulson, or hanging-out-in-a-Blockbuster, a-shocking-amount-of-hair Phil Coulson," he says, "the fun thing is to get to keep the vision. Just the fact that it kept giving different, exciting challenges for so many years, that's been really, really fun."

Just keep in mind that, for all of the different takes on Coulson out there (not to mention the character's profound impact on the MCU), Gregg hasn't actually been playing Coulson for that long. "It's 11 or maybe 12 years. It just seems like a decade and a half," he laughs. "For 300 years, you have been playing Phil Coulson [...] Since the time travel season, that's kind of how it feels."

The seventh and final season of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs on Wednesdays at 10 PM on ABC.