From student to superheroes: Elizabeth Henstridge

Birmingham graduate Elizabeth Henstridge, actor, director and star of Marvel's AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. returned to campus in February 2023, for a screening and Q&A with students at the invitation of B-Film: The Birmingham Centre for Film and Television Research. She shared her experiences and advice with students…

Audio described version of Elizabeth Henstridge video.

Studying at Birmingham

Elizabeth on stage during her student days'When I first visited campus I thought, "I need to go here. This is special." The feeling is the same now, it still has that magic.

'I think I always knew in my heart that I wanted to act, but doing an all-encompassing degree in Drama and Theatre Arts gave me the opportunity to explore other aspects of drama before I committed.

'Birmingham was just always the front runner because it hit all the things that I was really passionate about but also covered the related areas that would be really good for me to learn, in case there's something outside of acting that I want to do.'

As a recent graduate

'My first year out of education, it felt like the stakes were so high to succeed right away, but it's not fatal if things go wrong. I gave myself five years to go for it, with no Plan B, waitressing to pay rent and doing short student films to get more experience.

'I wrote to everyone I could find on IMDB, and got three meetings in LA. My last audition before I got on the plane back to England was for Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. When I landed, I found out they wanted me to go back!'

Joining the Marvel universe

Elizabeth played biochemist Jemma Simmons in all seven seasons of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The Agents help people with superpowers to master them and handle alien attacks.

Elizabeth says: 'My essence is Jemma's essence, and with each series the writers worked with my strengths. Jemma changed me more than I changed her.

'I saw every Marvel movie on release day; I love superheroes and action movies. Of all the Avengers, I think Jemma would get on best with the Hulk; when he’s Bruce Banner, he's a top scientist. Jemma and Bruce would be a good fit together in the labs.'

Becoming a TV director

'I had not always wanted to be a director, but as I got more comfortable on S.H.I.E.L.D, I asked to shadow one of the Directors and did a short film to prove to them that I was committed. I directed our Groundhog Day episode; the characters are trapped in a time loop and need to figure out the right actions to get out of it.

'Directing one episode of an ongoing series is like jumping onto a moving train. You have to figure out how much they want a fresh approach or to reflect the existing tone.

'Clark Gregg, who played Agent Coulson, had directed two episodes of S.H.I.E.L.D before. He had belief in me and that is a very powerful thing. There is no greater gift someone can give you when you are building your belief in yourself. He was a mentor who taught me not what to do but how to think.'

Advice for graduates looking to get into TV or film

Elizabeth spoke to hundreds of arts students to share her experiences and advice on working in the arts.

  • On getting started: 'Whatever you want to do in the arts, get a group of people together and start creating. The more stressful, the more you are probably learning! If you can get ten seconds of good footage from a few different projects, that is your showreel to send to people.'
  • On writing: 'Film is director-led, but TV is a writer's medium. It is a very vulnerable thing to write a script; you are putting your whole heart on the page for someone else to read. Be as brave and vulnerable as you can, and then be compassionate with yourself if the notes you get back are hard.'
  • On imposter syndrome: 'I did experience imposter syndrome, like so many people early in their career. I focused on what the higher purpose was that I wanted to do with my life; for me, it is to be creative and to inspire people. Be your own best friend, but try not to serve your ego. Work on your confidence, self-worth and self-love.'

Want to become a mentor like Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) was to Elizabeth? Your advice and experience could be invaluable for a student or recent graduate.