9:00 am EDT, July 22, 2020

Elizabeth Henstridge goes behind the scenes of her ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’ directorial debut

Elizabeth Henstridge gives us a sneak peak of what it was like to take the director’s chair in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 7, episode 9.

The episode, titled “As I Have Always Been,” takes the team out of the 1980’s and into a potentially catastrophic time-vortex. With only Daisy and Coulson aware of their predicament, the two must battle the clock (and their despair, and a mysteriously rogue force within the Zephyr) to save the… well, insert your chosen unit of time here.

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Elizabeth Henstridge also makes her directorial debut in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 7, episode 9, stepping between the roles of Simmons and episode captain. We spoke with Henstridge about her experiences taking the helm, and what fans should look out for as they watch the episode — and then watch the episode again. And, you know, possibly again.

Elizabeth Henstridge talks directing ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ season 7, episode 9

To start at the beginning, what was your path to directing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 7, episode 9?

I started shadowing! Since being an actor, I’ve always been so curious about how it all works. [Television is] such a beautiful machine that just moves so quickly, and the best sets are the ones that have the best people working on them. And I was just so fascinated by how people got to where they are, and what each department did, and how it all kind of perfectly fits into making the magic happen.

I mean, the relationship between an actor is such a special one, and so I would always be chatting to the directors about what they were thinking, and how they come up with shots and why, and was just fascinated by directing and how people approached it. And I just started… shadowing directors, you’re just on set all day, every day, and you’re their little annoying shadow, basically! And I just absolutely loved it. The day just flew by, like eighteen-hour days would just seem like nothing. I just felt like I was so thirsty for the knowledge!

And then I just started expressing an interest in directing and put my name forward as really wanting to do it. [I] kept shadowing the whole time really, from I think about season 3 onwards. And if that was all it was, then it was worth it to me, just to have the opportunity to get that knowledge and wisdom from people was invaluable. I got to shadow Clark Gregg on both of his episodes, Jessie Bochko, Kevin Tancharoen, Nina Lopez-Corado — you know, just incredible artists. And then season 7, they said “We’re gonna give you your shot,” and it went from there!

This is no ordinary episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. What was it like when you saw the script and realized it was yours to bring to life?

It was unbelievable, honestly. I absolutely loved the episode, just reading it. It doesn’t stop, there’s so much in there and I loved reading it. And then I kind of went, “Oh my gosh, I’m directing it! That is my name on the front page, this is happening! What the heck have I done??” And you know, at that point you can’t turn back!

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 7, episode 9

I’ve never worked so hard in my life, I just tried to put everything into it, and I had a lot of support along the way. But there was that kind of out-of-body experience of, “Oh my gosh, this is SUCH a cool episode! Oh my gosh, I get to do this. How am I gonna do this??” But we got there in the end!

You’re not just directing this episode — Simmons has a few really crucial scenes! What was it like to balance that responsibility with directing?

I really enjoyed it, to be honest! For me, this episode focuses on Daisy and Coulson, and I am obsessed with both of their characters. It, for me, had such a rich relationship, emotional moments… and it’s not that Simmons didn’t have much to do, I guess, but I think I studied the story and the script kind of tirelessly, and to be able to act in it, those were almost moments of complete release for me. It was lovely to be able to just kind of know that I knew what I was doing! When I was acting, you obviously have to be with it — you’re not questioning everything. But it was my first time doing it, so in the back of your mind you’re always thinking, “Ahh, was that the right decision? Is that the right bottle, over that other bottle? Should the chair be there? Yes, it should.” You know, it was nice in a way to have to those acting moments where I could just switch off, and I knew I could do those bits!

What was it like directing your co-stars after seven years of working together? Was it weird to boss them around, or was it kind of fun?

Yeah, it was like, payback time! It was so fun, and really, I cannot sing their praises enough. All the actors, I just was so supported the entire time, and respected as a director — which is a big deal. Like, when you walk into the same environment but you’re now playing a different role, it’s difficult sometimes. It’s different. It’s something that I was a bit nervous about how that would be percieved, and everybody was just very supportive, very respectful, and treated me as if I was the director. Which I’ll be forever grateful for, because that transition isn’t always an easy one, especially if you’re in the scene as an actor, and then also as a director at the same time. That can be kind of a mind-trick for people. But it was a really positive experience. 

agents of s.h.i.e.l.d. season 7, episode 3 daisy

Chloe [Bennet] and Clark are just absolutely terrific actors — I mean, there is nothing they can’t do. When you see the episode, there’s such wonderful comedic moments, and then they just absolutely crush your heart. And for an actor to be able to do both of those on a twist on a dime, it was like a masterclass watching them.

Were there any scary or challenging points in the process for you?

Yes, definitely! I think it was just the first time of doing anything. I think the first day of prep, when you go and have a ton of meetings with all the heads of departments. I drove to work every day with my pump-up music. As a director, you have to lead, and you can maybe not be feeling so confident on the inside, but on the outside you have a responsibility to be a leader. And so I had to walk into the room owning it.

Related: Ming-Na and Natalia Cordova-Buckley break down emotional resolution and a spa day on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I knew my stuff, I’d done so much work, I knew I knew it going in. So for me it was those first meetings I was in, kind of owning that space and owning a director energy — not in an arrogant way, but an inner confidence I had to find for presenting myself as a director. And everybody was so brilliant to me, it was more just having to step into that role confidently, I guess.

And then similarly with the first day on set, you’re walking in and the first time I yelled “Action!” it was like, oh God! And then “Cut!” I was the person at school that hated reading out loud to the class, I would always sit in the back and kind of hide little bit. I guess it’s the whole thing of being seen and stepping into a leadership role. It’s such a collaborative process that you have to be okay with allowing your voice to be heard, behind that. So that first day was scary, definitely.

And amazingly, at the end of it, Chloe came up to me and she was just like, “I’m so proud of you. This is gonna be amazing.” That just meant so much, to have such vocal support from Chloe, who is the center of the episode, meant the world to me.

That’s so nice! While you were directing, did you include any Easter eggs, or details fans can watch out for?

A huge story point comes from Enoch, there’s some very significant lines that kind of signify what might be to come, and particularly where Coulson’s head is at and what he’s thinking. And that might signal how we move forward and eventually bring this whole beautiful beast to an end.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 7, episode 9

There’s some real poignant lines that I guess are more concepts and ideas of how each character might approach the finality of the show. And then Enoch drops a pretty huge bombshell that I don’t think is Easter egg status, because it’s quite out there!

On your new YouTube channel, you’ve discussed your training in theater. Did that background help you in directing for screen?

Yeah! I think the principles are all the same. For me, everything starts with the script. Certainly the training I did, we did a lot of work on how to break down a script and why writers write it that way, and what it could mean, and how you get all the clues from the writer. And certainly for this episode, the script was so incredible! Drew Greenberg did just an amazing job, it was masterfully structured. But that really helped to understand where to keep the pace up, understand how many angles we would need, and where could find those moments of stillness and stay in that same shot and let it breathe, and let the words be the center and not try and do any tricks around it. And all that comes from my theater training of how to read a script, in terms of the story that you want to tell.

Because of the way it’s structured, “As I Have Always Been” involves a lot of editing — what was that part of the process like for you?

I loved that! Kelly Stuyvesant edited this episode, and she’s just so brilliant. I’ve actually sat in on the editing booth for different episodes quite a lot, just from shadowing. I wanted to see the whole process. And she’d let me come sit in her office, and I’d just watch her do her thing, so that was just such a fun process. And at the end of every day, I’d send her a shot list of how I envisioned coming in and out of scenes, so that by the time I got to the editor’s room, we were so on the same page for how we were seeing the episode.

And of course, she just brought such magic to the episode. A time-loop episode is so reliant on the editor as well, and she just absolutely nailed it. There were different things that we put in in post to kind of help highlight different moments.

agents of s.h.i.e.l.d. season 7, episode 2

The way that it works is, I get an editor’s cut and once we’ve got that to where I’m happy to submit it, then the bosses — Jed Whedon, the [executive producers], they do their pass and that’s the final pass you see. But I think the cut I handed in was like a minute over [time], so there were pretty good chances that not much would get changed. And a couple of things did, but I’m so proud of this episode.

The editing process was brilliant because, you know, at that point you can only work with what you’ve got! So it’s more, how do we make this the best that it could be with what we have in front of us? So that was just like playtime for me, and especially with someone like Kelly, who’s just so talented.

Finally, what have you taken away from the experience of directing?

I think a sense of achievement. A sense of being able to do it. I think you can work so hard toward something and really fight for it, and really want it, and then when you get the opportunity to do that you can either just keep moving and go for it, or you can just go, actually I don’t really want to do this anymore. And I’m just so proud of myself that I did it, and we have an episode! Just to have to gotten to work with the caliber of people that are involved in the show and were involved in this episode is just one of the greatest gifts of my life. Just to have that access to that talent, and decades of wisdom.

It’s a huge reason why I started a YouTube channel and am doing these YouTube lives, because I want everybody to be able to have that connection with these incredible people behind the camera that you might not have met before, but that have the most amazing knowledge to impart. Whether you want to work in the industry or not, it’s still such useful, positive messaging — that if you have a dream, there’s always a way of getting there. And that’s something the show has given me. It’s literally fulfilled two huge dreams of mine, and that’s just… well, amazing! I still can’t quite believe it.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 7, episode 9, “As I Have Always Been,” airs Wednesday, July 22 at 10:00 p.m. on ABC.

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