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Best of 2015 (Behind the Scenes): Elizabeth Henstridge talks filming her S.H.I.E.L.D. bottle episode

(Tyler Golden/ABC)

Earlier this year, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did something so far unprecedented in their 50+ episode run: in order to explain what happened when Jemma Simmons was swallowed up by a monolith and transported to an alien planet, they tossed out their usual narrative formula in favor of a bottle episode called “4,722 Hours.” Hailed by fans and critics alike, the episode was a showcase for actress Elizabeth Henstridge, who captured our emotions and our attention as she carried out a journey that featured only one other guest actor — and no regular cast members. For our year-end coverage, Elizabeth Henstridge details the experience behind filming one of the show’s most ambitious hours of television. 

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When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. made the decision to do a bottle episode focused entirely on Jemma Simmons and her experience surviving on an alien planet, everyone was surprised — including Henstridge herself. “I knew this was something in the pipeline… ideas were being pitched around and there was nothing concrete, but this is what they had in mind,” she tells EW. “And I was so excited by the idea that I just didn’t think it would happen. This season was just so strong and I felt like, why would any of the big cheeses up top want to change the formula when it’s working so well?”

Factor in the challenges that come with doing a very focused, very specific episode, and Henstridge became doubtful that the hour would actually happen. “I kind of checked in and I got the script like we would any other, a few days before,” she reveals of finally becoming aware that she was carrying an entire episode. “I got a rough copy of it maybe a little less than a week before we were going to shoot it. So that’s when it was like, ‘Oh my god. I have to do my homework!’”

Although the episode itself was meant to be isolating, off-screen, Henstridge didn’t feel nearly as alone as her abandoned counterpart thanks to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tight-knit cast and crew. “Everyone was very supportive, but it hit me a couple days in: ‘Where is everyone?’ It didn’t really hit me that all my best friends weren’t going to be there until we started shooting, and I was like, ‘I really miss them!’” Henstridge admits. “But when we started, I’ve never moved so quickly in my whole life during filming. There was a lot to do and we didn’t have that much time to do it.”

Putting Simmons’ story at the focus of the episode meant Henstridge worked more closely than usual with the crew and creative team during the shoot. “I spoke a lot more with [episode writer] Craig Titley and [director] Jesse Bochco than I have on any other episode, because I had a lot more to do,” she says. “The thing that kind of surprised me in a way, when we started filming… we were off in this quarry desert and then we were way, way off in God knows where. The sense of isolation and fatigue and being exhausted was there. We were freaking hot!”

While the elements obviously paled in comparison to what her character went through, the overall environment did help foster Henstridge’s emotional state. “To have no comfort of the usual shoots we do and be climbing up hills and running around…there was very little acting required because it was extreme conditions, and little old me who usually doesn’t do this every day. I felt like I was on a planet!” Henstridge says with a laugh.

Roughly halfway through “4,722 Hours”, Simmons happens upon another stranded individual: a man named Will Daniels (Dillion Casey), who has been living on the planet for 21 years. Naturally, the two bond and become increasingly close thanks to their situation. But what about Simmons’ other half, who was left behind searching frantically for his best friend? “To get complicated stuff to do in terms of relationships and desires I think that’s what you want as an actor,” Henstridge says, though she was the first one to share fans’ worries about what was happening to Fitz. “As soon as I read the script, I was like, ‘What about the FitzSimmons people!?’ Because they’re going to be mad. And I was worried!” She says. “In the lead-up to their exit, she was kind of crushing on Fitz again… she was in a very complicated situation, and as an actor you try not to judge your character. But I was just thinking, God, she’s really putting herself into a tight spot here.”

Henstridge talked extensively with Titley and Bochco about how to approach the situation in a way that wouldn’t damage one of the show’s fan favorite couples. “We talked about, how do we make this plausible and real that she would fall in love with someone, because she doesn’t think she’s going home? And how do you get that across? It’s not that she doesn’t love Fitz,” Henstridge explains. “Because we spent three years building this relationship between Fitz and Simmons… and we’re just going to destroy it with one episode? Obviously not! So we needed to figure out a way to make it all make sense.”

It’s common for television episodes to end up with more footage than they have room to show in 42 minutes, and even though “4,722 Hours” didn’t involve a large amount of characters, Henstridge reveals there were still a variety of moments that ended up on the cutting room floor. “The episode came in, I think, 22 minutes over when we did the final cut — we filmed a lot,” she says, detailing one of the smaller moments that didn’t make the cut, which includes Simmons losing her necklace, given to her by her grandmother, that Will finds and returns to her. “The relationship… it was a beautiful thing,” Henstridge says of the time she spent with Will. “But it was just very different. Their whole dynamic was very visceral; it was a very human need to just be together, kind of heightened by the fact that they’re the only two people on this planet and what they’ve been through together, and these extreme scenarios. It was a need, where her relationship with Fitz is a lot more intellectual and a lot slower. I think that was the only way she’d go and be with someone else in those certain situations.”

The popular saying is that it takes a village, and while in front of the camera it was all Henstridge, behind the camera, there was a team of dedicated crew members, all who came together and worked hard to make “4,722 Hours” such an outstanding hour of television. “It was a real team effort,” she says. “It was me in front of the camera most of the time but behind the scenes… I was hot filming in my jeans and a little top basically, and the person filming me is holding a 45-pound camera with a ton of equipment and has been doing that for the past 10 hours. So as much as I can say it was a challenge, it’s nothing compared to our crew. And they all did it gladly. Everyone was just so excited to create something kind of different.”