EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: ELIZABETH HENSTRIDGE ON “MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”
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- The Simmons and Fitz relationship
- Playing a less-conflicted character
- Her solo act on Episode “4,722 Hours”
- Favorite moments from season 4
- Real-life perks of playing fiction role
By Abbie Bernstein
Elizabeth Hendridge as Jemma Simmons
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
It’s a coincidence, but Elizabeth Henstridge turns out to be color-coordinated with her dessert. A press conference for the Television Critics Association winter 2017 press tour has just concluded on one of the Southern California soundstages for MARVEL’S AGENTS OF SHIELD, with all of the Season 4 regular cast, executive producer/Marvel Vice-President of Television Jeph Loeb and executive producers/show runners Jeff Bell, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon in attendance.
Once the formal Q&A is over and people are on their feet, blue ice cream is handed out to everyone here. It so happens that the confection is almost the exact color as actress Henstridge’s shirt, which serves to bring out her eyes.
Henstridge, originally from Sheffield, England, appeared in several episode of the British soap HOLLYOAKS. Her feature credits include the vampire drama THE THOMPSONS and last year’s thriller WOLVES AT THE DOOR.
Henstridge is now in her fourth year of playing S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Dr. Jemma Simmons, a genius in biology who has been through a number of different ringers. As of this writing, Simmons is trapped in the Framework, an artificial world constructed by artificial intelligence expert Dr. Holden Radcliffe (John Hannah), where things have gone very wrong. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fascist archenemy HYDRA is in charge in the Framework world, and only Simmons and fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) remember their real lives on the outside.
But don’t count Simmons out. She’s survived a deadly alien disease, trying to jump out of a plane (in order to spare her comrades from the contagion of said disease), being submerged at the bottom of the ocean and being trapped alone on an alien planet in the episode “4,722 Hours,” for which Henstridge received wide acclaim in a largely standalone performance.
But Simmons’ most impressive survival feat may be her romance with fellow scientist/S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Leo Fitz, played by Iain De Caestecker. Joss Whedon is one of the creators (with Jed Tancharoen and Jed Whedon) of the AGENTS OF SHIELD series, and romance often has a rough time in his shows. The Framework version of Fitz seems to be committed to HYDRA villainy, but Simmons still holds out hope for his redemption.
Henstridge, cup of blue ice cream in her hands, takes some time to talk about Jemma’s journey, starting with the Simmons and Fitz relationship. For starters, she’s relieved neither one is dead.
“I didn’t think that they would ever get together, so just to have even fleeting moments of them being happy is really nice. They come face to face with a lot of challenges this year and we’ll see how they do with that, but they’re very committed to each other. It’s like what Jeph Loeb was saying about putting things through the Marvel prism is that we get to see them and how, if you go from best friends to lovers, there are difficult things about that transition. That’s why the stakes are so high and they haven’t gotten together for such a long time. So we get to see them in very domestic situations, but instead of it being a hot girl at work that the girlfriend is jealous of, it’s the hot LMD [Life Model Decoy, a high-end artificial intelligence android] at work. It’s quite normal situations in an extraordinary setting.
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Unlike some actors who are most content when their characters are miserable, Henstridge says she’s fine playing Simmons when she’s enjoying domestic harmony.
“I’m so soppy, I love it. As an actor, the conflict is always the most fun to play, but as just a human and having played this character, I love to see her happy and I think the thing that [Simmons and Fitz] will always bring to each other is that happiness, that no matter what’s going on, they can always look at each other and feel safe, and feel okay, even in the most dangerous situations. And I just feel so lucky to have gotten to be in a double act, because it’s the best job in the world, but sometimes it can be stressful, and sometimes it can be hard, and it’s so nice to have a partner in crime to go through this amazing journey, and Iain De Caestecker is just a brilliant actor, he just makes me better. So I always feel very lucky to have been in a duo with him.”
The episode “4,722 Hours” was something of a tour de force for the actress. Does Henstridge now feel like she’d like to do theatre, perhaps a one-woman show?
She laughs. “Oh, gosh, I don’t know if I’m talented enough for a one-woman show. [Being alone onscreen] never felt like it was that isolating, just because I got closer to the crew than I ever had. A lot of it was handheld, a lot of it was one or two takes, and we just kept moving, so I felt like I was on a football team or something, and we were just trying to win the game, play the game, and I missed the whole cast, but I never felt like it was only me. And we just had such a connection, because when we’re on stages in the built sets, the cameras are on rails and they’re quite far away from you, whereas when you’re on locations, and especially the locations we were shooting on, it was all handheld and the cameras were very close to our faces, and it was a much more personal relationship between actor and cameraman. So yeah, from that point, it felt much more like theatre. It felt like we were just all in it together, which was perfect.”
Pictured left to right: Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), Daisy ‘Skye’ Johnson (Chloe Bennet)
At the time of this interview, Henstridge (and everyone else) was forbidden from discussing the Framework, so she reflects on some favorite moments from earlier in Season 4.
“I loved working with Jason O’Mara as Director Mace. He’s just so funny, and he brings little quirks to the character, and every take is different, and he’s a true actor, and so I’ve learned so much being with him. And I think I just loved the scene where I just kind of took him down and said, ‘I know a secret about you.’ Those scenes, you always feel so powerful, and it’s not something I would do in real life, so it was a nice, fun moment.”
What are other things that Henstridge gets to do while playing Simmons that she doesn’t get to do in her real life?
She laughs again. “Everything. You get to steal food every day. Everything’s free on set – lunch, breakfast, craftie [craft services, i.e., the production catering department]. The thing I love the most, and why I’m just addicted to this job, is that the people you get to be around, the lives you get to know.
“It’s the relationship you have with the crew and the cast, and everybody working together. It does feel like a family. We get to work with so many talented people, so that’s – this world is easy to be isolated in, with everything online, and especially living in L.A., everybody’s in their cars. And I get to come to work and just be in – it’s like being back at school. You’re just immersed with tons of people and we’ve been doing this for four years now, and people have had babies, and now they’re walking and talking, and to have those relationships with people is really special.”
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ELIZABETH HENSTRIDGE ON “MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Henstridge is now in her fourth year of playing S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Dr. Jemma Simmons, a genius in biology who has been through a number of different ringers.