When did Elizabeth Henstridge become one of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s true stars? Originally a supporting player, her budding romance with Ian De Caestecker’s Leo Fitz has thrust her to the top of the show’s food chain, and her (pardon the pun) out-of-this-world performance on this week’s episode, built entirely around her time stranded across the galaxy, will likely launch her to an entirely new level. Paste chatted with Henstridge about the pressure of carrying an entire show, potential backlash against her new potential paramour, and where Gemma Simmons goes from here.
Paste Magazine: This episode finally answered the biggest question that viewers have had since Simmons was sucked into the monolith at the end of last season’s finale. During all of those months between filming that scene and this week’s episode, were you clued into what the heck happened to you?
Elizabeth Henstridge: No, I didn’t know what the portal was. At the end of Season Two, I had no idea what had happened to her, where she was, or what the monolith was, and so the same old theories were running through my brain as much as everybody else’s. Then, coming into Season Three, I knew that she would be back from the planet, and I knew that she’d be back fairly quickly. I knew that she would be suffering from PTSD, and I knew the environment of the planet—that there would be no light, no sunlight, and that the properties of that planet would be different to the properties of earth.
That was pretty much it. Until I was privy to the script of episode five, I concentrated on what it does to a body to be without sunlight, and to be in isolation and the day-to-day activities that she would really struggle with. A couple weeks before, we were due to start preparations for episode five, I was told the ideas and what they were planning on doing with them. I was just blown away. I thought it was just so cool, and I was hoping and praying that it would all happen, but I was definitely shocked when we were on the first day of set, and it was like, “No one’s told us we can’t do this yet. I guess we’re doing it.”
Paste:This episode broke new ground for the show, being the first bottle episode for what is usually a huge ensemble program. Did you feel some pressure, being the first cast member to be tasked with carrying an entire episode on your back?
Henstridge: Oh my gosh, tons of pressure… I just didn’t want to let them down. I can’t tell you how much I love everybody involved in the show, and our executive producers are just really great friends. We’re family, and I just thought, “Oh, what if I mess this up? What is this going to do?” But then as soon as I read the script, It became so apparent that this was a huge team effort, and the ensemble might not have been onscreen, but it was offscreen in a huge way. I just thought the script was so beautiful, that all I had to do was remember my lines and I knew that we’d be fine.
Paste: Showcasing Simmons in this very unique, life-altering situation allowed us to see her in a truly desperate state for the first time, something that you portrayed so beautifully. What did you do to tap into these emotions that might come with being stranded on another planet?
Henstridge: Thank you. I start everything with the script, and I think all the answers you ever need are in there as long as it’s a good script. Then I researched what happens, what it’s like to be in isolation. I read different people’s accounts about battling with survival and different things like that. But honestly, when we were filming out in the desert—110 degrees—we had so much work to get done, and we were fighting the light, it kind of felt much more like method acting. I was instantly transported to survival mode anyway.
Paste: Of course, the curveball this episode threw at all of us was the revelation that there was another human stranded on that planet with you, Will. He and Simmons are driven together by their circumstances, and while Will seems like a great guy and all, it’s going to be tough for a S.H.I.E.L.D. fan to warm up to anyone getting in the way of Simmons and Fitz being together. What do you expect the fan reaction to be when the dust settles?
Henstridge: My first reaction to the episode was, “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. I promise I’ll work very hard.” My second reaction was, “What the F about the Simmons fans?” I was kind of mad at her at first. I thought, “How could she do that?” I never thought she would do anything like that, and then reading the episode and going through that, I think it totally makes sense, because of the moment that the connection between the two of them commences. It’s like she’s lost all hope, and she’s absolutely at rock bottom, and he says exactly the right thing.
It’s more of a visceral reaction to just how hard and painful this whole situation is. They get together in an explosion, rather than in the kind of a friendship that’s been the story of Fitz and Simmons. I definitely think it’s justified. And hey, humans are messy. Nothing is ever exactly how you envision it. So yeah, I was anxious about how hardcore Fitzsimmons fans are probably going to react, for sure. I get it. I get their frustration, and get the anger, and that’s part of us telling good stories—that people are going to have conflicting reactions.
Paste: Beyond the romantic complications, this experience has undoubtedly been life-changing for Simmons in many other ways. We’ve always loved her pure passion for scientific discovery, but the hopelessness of her interplanetary experience seems to have squashed that. Is it altered forever, or will she find it again, as we saw glimpses of this week?
Henstridge: Definitely, it will come back, and ultimately that’s what saves her. She was swimming and loving the oasis of the water, and then she’s pulled underneath. And then she figures out a way to escape, but then she also goes back in there because she’s curious as to what that was. Her curiosity saved her. I think the wonderment and the naiveté is potentially gone, but then Will helps to give her that back and she gets super excited about how they are going on this picnic to see the sunrise, and it has nothing to do with getting home. It’s just seeing it in wonderment.
So I think it’s been jolted, obviously, when she is back on earth without Will, but she definitely still has that. And I hope she gets to a place where that comes as freely as it did before.