For seven seasons of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the character of Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) has enchanted audiences and pulled off the miraculous task of having us root for her everlasting happiness despite constantly finding herself in universe-sized turmoil. She’s beloved. And while the character of Simmons constantly battles for a sense of normalcy, the actress who portrays her, Elizabeth Henstridge, took on her own adventurous task of directing an episode for the first time.
Henstridge directs Episode 9 of the seventh season entitled, “As I Have Always”. It’s a departure from the first half of the season, which found our favorite band of strong-willed Agents, Superhumans, LMDs, and well… Deke, jumping through decades and casually trying to save the world without causing too many ripples in time. In contrast, “As I Have Always” contains its action within the Zephyr, as well as in a loop of time alá Groundhog Day. But instead of wrestling with the mundane (when do they ever?), the crew must find a way to stop the loop before being obliterated by a time storm vortex.
In many ways, this episode seems poised as a pivot point for what is shaping up to be an emotional and fulfilling final leg of the series. Henstridge spoke to TV Guide about her directing origin story and how she tackled one of the season’s most impressive episodes.
How did this opportunity to direct an episode come about?
Elizabeth Henstridge: So, I started off by shadowing— I think it was Season 3? We have the most incredible directors that come onto the show. And we have a few that are sort of regular directors. So I got to know them well enough to say, hey, I would love to be annoying and hover over your shoulder and take tons of notes. So I shadowed Jesse Bochco a bunch. Kevin Tancheron, Nina Lopez-Corrado, Garry Brown, Clark Gregg— I did both his episodes and I just absolutely loved it.
I’ve always loved being on set since the second I got my first job and I’ve just been fascinated by the whole filmmaking process. So I was curious to shadow. And then any time I wasn’t working, I was usually by the monitors kind of asking annoying questions to someone, and then I gained the confidence to put my name forward to direct. And now, Season 7, they took the chance.
Did you get to choose the episode you directed or did the producers just say, here you go, here’s one of the most important episodes of the season?
Henstridge: [Laughter] The latter! You know, it was kind of a scheduling nightmare. For an actor to direct an episode — you have a couple of weeks of prep as a director and then you shoot it and then you’re in post-production. So in terms of trying to have me in scenes and then also going to a ton of different meetings was difficult. I think Episode 9 was the perfect one in lots of different ways, but also just logistically. I had to be fairly light in the episode before and then have time in the episode after to kind of sneak away and do director stuff. I haven’t actually asked [the producers], but I don’t think that it was a mistake that it was a Chloe Bennet-centered episode. We’ve kind of seen Daisy recovering for a while now, so she needed this. And for it to be centered on her relationship with Coulson as well was just, for me, pure magic as a crazy fangirl of both of them. It was a dream episode for me.
What was the biggest learning curve? Or did you just immediately walk in like, “I got this”?
Henstridge: Absolutely not. You know, I’m an actor by trade, so I hope I gave off the impression that I was cool as a cucumber. But with the time loop and block shooting… there was just a lot that I had never done. On top of obviously never directing an episode of TV before.
I’ve had such brilliant advice and so many directors that just go, “When you’re on site, you can prep as much as you want, but you just have to be able to be flexible in the moment, take opinions from different people.” Ultimately, you have to make that final decision. And you’re never 100 percent sure if the decision is right. But just making one is the main thing. I think after the first day I kind of felt more confident saying, “Action!” “Cut!” and then it becomes all about the episode and not about here’s Elizabeth, the actor being a director. It just becomes 100 percent about the script and the work. And everybody’s kind of over the novelty of me being the director and we’re just here to make the best episode possible.
What was it like working with your castmates from behind the camera?
Henstridge: I mean, at first, I just wondered how this was going to be. The weirdest moments honestly, are when you’re in the scene and then you yell, “cut!” and then you give direction, all from within the scene. That was a different thing to get used to. And testament to all actors and everybody who were so accepting and and just immediately respected me as a director, which is not an easy thing to do. It’s a different dynamic for everybody.
They made it so wonderful and were very supportive. It was known that I wanted to direct and everybody had seen me shadowing. It was something that felt very supported by the cast. They were the best. Jeff [Ward] was so well behaved it was almost freaky how quiet he was. I’m not used to Jeff Ward being quiet ever, and he was just so wanting to be well-behaved for me being the director. It was just brilliant. You know, there’s always going to be a day where everything goes wrong. And when you have actors that are just willing to get through it… It was such a gift.
This upcoming episode is an emotional one. How did you turn that switch on and off from actor to director?
Henstridge: Well, we see Simmons go through a little bit of trauma. And honestly, I was on such little sleep by the time we got to those scenes, it was really nice to be able to have some kind of emotional outlet. [Laughter] So those scenes were some of the easiest I’ve ever done, just because, you can kind of let everything go a little bit. So it was quite cathartic to be able to do them.
But it was something I heard from other directors that also act in their same project that the lure is to not really think about the acting, because you know that you can do that. And they said, “Make sure you still do all the acting work and still approach the script in that way as well, because sometimes you can think you don’t need to worry about it and then you get to those scenes and go, ‘Oh, my gosh, what are my lines?’ And then all of a sudden you’re just trying to think about too many things.” So I really took that to heart and made sure that I prepared those scenes as I would as an actor. And then think about them as a director kind of separately. There’s never enough hours in the day to do everything that you want to do, but I was so grateful for that advice that I could enjoy those things as an actor as well.
Was there anything that really surprised you about the whole endeavor?
Henstridge: I think it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I knew I was going to be a challenge, but there’s nothing that compares. No amount of shadowing compares to actually doing it. And, in hindsight, I shadowed extremely established directors that kind of can make it look easy. And when it’s you that has to make those decisions— it pushed me to my limit. In a brilliant way.
You’ve been doing something very unique and fun this season in that you’re hosting YouTube lives alongside every episode so fans can watch with you and members of the cast and crew. How did that idea come about?
Henstridge: I am so proud of this season. I’m so proud of the crew and the cast and all the people behind it. I think as I start to develop other projects after the show, and it just made me realize the caliber of people that I have connections with. And I have mined their talent and their advice and their wisdom. I just really wanted to be able to share some of that with other people and specifically in terms of directing and writing.
You know, what would that look like to be able to hear from the writers and directors of the different episodes? And the actors. And to find out fun behind the scenes stuff. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to direct this season, and that was just a dream come true for me. But to learn how other people have done it… Perhaps there’s somebody watching that might want to direct and to learn how these different directors do it, because there’s no one way, there’s no one path. So really, it just came from wanting to celebrate this season and wanting to share and thank the fans that have been with us since the beginning. And then also share some of the ways that people have gotten into this industry, which sometimes can feel quite closed off.
Do you think it’ll be more exciting or more nerve wracking getting the fans’ reaction in real time this week?
Henstridge: Oh, gosh, I don’t know! I am really nervous. I almost said I wasn’t going to do one, but I don’t think my friends would let me not do one. I’m nervous, but the thing is, by the time it gets to people’s TV screens there are so many incredible people that have worked on it. And I’m really, really excited for people to get to see how amazing Chloe Bennet is in this episode because she knocks it out the park, and it’s so lovely to get to see a Daisy front-and-center episode because we haven’t had one of those for a little bit. I’m just so excited for people to see her in it.
Any plans on directing in the future? Would you like to keep going with it?
Henstridge: Yeah, definitely! When we wrapped I directed a short that I wrote and we’re now developing that into a feature. Directing is going to be a big part of my life moving forward. I’ve got the bug now.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D airs Wednesdays at 10/9c