Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star teases her time looping directorial debut: 'It's a healing episode'
In the ABC super-drama's twisty episode, titled "As I Have Always Been," the Zephyr gets caught in a time storm that threatens to destroy the entire ship. As if that wasn't difficult enough, Daisy (Chloe Bennet) and Coulson (Clark Gregg) find themselves trapped in a time loop, forcing them to watch their friends die over and over again until they figure out a way to save them before the clock runs out. Like the best time loop episodes, the hour finds meaning in the repetition through exploring the duo's relationship to each other and the rest of the team.
"For it to be a Daisy [and] Coulson-centric episode, I was just beside myself with excitement the entire time," Henstridge tells EW. "It was so lovely to get OG Coulson in there with his suit. We really got to dig into some gorgeous, emotional, existential questions, but also a lot about their relationship. It’s quite a healing episode, even though there are some really sad things that happen in it."
Below, EW chats with Henstridge about her journey to stepping behind the camera, her primary scene partner's Iain De Caestecker's absence, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So when did you first realize you were interested in directing?
ELIZABETH HENSTRIDGE: I think as soon as I booked my first acting job in front of the camera. I was just fascinated by all the different parts that went into that. I trained in theatre, so it wasn’t something I had [experienced] before until I booked my first little student short film kind of thing. I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to direct, but I knew I was fascinated by the whole process of how a film or TV show got made, and I realized there was so much prep work that went behind the scenes before, as an actor, you step on set.
Being on a regular on a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., you’re on set all the time and you just get to see so many different directors come in, how different producers work and writers. For the first season of S.H.I.E.L.D., I was just sort of expecting to get fired every second [laughs] and was just at my limit in terms of acting on the show. I was still getting used to it, but as the seasons went on, I got more comfortable with Simmons and being an actor on the show and being given different challenges. Honestly, I was looking to push myself and get out of my comfort zone, and so I asked to shadow because I was curious and ready to learn something new. I started shadowing different directors, and I just loved it. I loved being at video village and seeing every single take. I loved asking why they were doing it. I took so many notes. And I think was once I started shadowing, I realized, “Oh my gosh, I love this.” It helped that I got to shadow the best directors out there: Clark Gregg, Jesse Bochco, Nina Lopez-Corrado, and Gary Brown.
At what point did you start shadowing?
I think I started shadowing, officially, in season 3. But [in] season 2, I was just kind of always hanging around and asking questions, and just being generally annoying probably [laughs].
What was your reaction when you found out you’d be directing a time loop episode?
I found out I was directing at the start of season 7. We all have meetings [with the showrunners] to talk about how the season is going to go for our character. Usually, they don’t tell us anything at all; it’s just a nice catch-up. They told me then. I burst into tears. But they didn’t tell me what the episode was. As it was going on, they were saying, “You’re [episode] 9.” All credit to them, it’s not easy to give an actor an episode to direct because I’m in all the episodes. They wrote me light in the episode before, so I’d have time to do the different meetings and prep.
Then as we got closer and closer, it was all about the time [travel] stuff and I was like, “I wonder what time period I’m going to get.” They kind of gave me a wry smile of like, “Oh yeah, maybe don’t worry about that…” [Laughs] It wasn’t until we were in prep the week before we go to shoot and I get the script and they’re like, “Hey, it’s a time loop. We’re going to be block shooting and it’s going to be different.” As a director, it’s just the most incredible episode to get because it’s very challenging. You have to shoot it differently, you have to make sure that each scene is still interesting. The pace has to [stay] up because you’re doing so many of the same scenes over and over again with slight changes. I was busy, let’s put it that way.
What did you do to keep the pace and energy up throughout all of the repetitions?
It’s just the best crew in the world and obviously I have the best cast. It wasn’t difficult for me to keep my energy up or the cast and crew. It felt like we were doing something quite special and quite different. But in terms of making sure the energy stays up in the episode for the audience, the writer Drew Z. Greenberg, who is just incredible... the energy was just there in the script. Then you just think, “How am I going to use different angles? What are the cuts? How do I want to come in and out of each scene?” On the day, it was all about, “Let’s keep the energy up.”
Simmons ends up playing a big role in this episode. How did you handle directing yourself?
That was a funny one. Honestly, it was harder to direct other people in the scene while I was in it. Credit to our cast, everybody made that so easy and comfortable. I wasn’t so much worried about directing myself because I can be extremely critical of myself. It was more yelling cut and then turning to someone within the scene and say, “Hey, don’t forget to maybe hit that word” or whatever the direction was, or “Hey, that was great! Hey, that was very different, but…” The other actors in the scene were so brilliant and supportive and responsive.
Drew, we got a system down that we would always have eye contact. We’d spoken so much about Simmons, so I really understood we were on the same page with it. At the end of the take, he’d give me the thumbs up or we’d chat about it and kind of go from there. And they had playback where I could watch it back if I wanted to. I tried to maybe block it so I could see the other actors, but sometimes that just wasn’t possible. It added a couple more layers onto it, but it was definitely fun. Wearing lots of different hats made for a dynamic day.
What was the highlight or most memorable experience of directing?
Our day one was on a Friday, so everybody is quite tired. It was maybe a difficult day to start an episode, but obviously the crew was amazing and everybody rallied. Even though you’re tired, people had great energy. But we started on the most mind-twisting day: it’s when Daisy wakes up in the hyperbaric chamber. I’d color-coordinated everything — I had grids, I had spreadsheets — but it was at the end of a long week getting everybody’s minds on how we were going to shoot this and what the method was, and [remembering] what loop Daisy is in now [in each take]. It was a really complicated day.
We had a power cut. All of the power went out, so the bed wouldn’t go up and down. It was just one of those days where you go, “Oh my gosh, this is day one?” At the end of the day, Chloe came up to me and she just said, “I’m so proud of you,” and I started crying and she started crying. She said, “We’re going to do this and this is going to be amazing.” That was such a moment of, “Oh my God, this is happening. I’ve wanted this for so long and it’s happening with Chloe Bennet, who has created this iconic character in Marvel but also is just being very supportive.” This is a huge episode for her and Daisy, and really pivotal in her journey, that to have her support just stands out to me.
This season has been really light on Fitz so far. What was it like to go through most of the final season not working with Iain?
It was awful! It took a lot of getting used to. We’ve been separated so many times, but him not being around as a friend [was hard]. He’s such an integral part of the crew, you know? I was grateful for the scenes that I got. I had such an amazing time in season 7 and I feel like we just got so many great things to do and I really loved Simmons’ journey and how she kind of grew. But Simmons will always be FitzSimmons in my eyes, so it was really difficult. I speak to Iain a lot and was like, “We miss you!” But, you know, all is not lost. There may be hope at the end of the tunnel. You never know.
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.
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