‘Brave New World’ star Hannah John-Kamen: “The beauty of sci-fi is that it mirrors today”

In a world where dystopian drama feels more like non-fiction, the 'Ready Player One' actress has made a career out of predicting the future

Everybody had different approaches to lockdown (or first lockdown as it may come to be known). Some turned immensely practical, in very old fashioned ways – baking bread, really getting into gardening, learning to sew. Others, in probably larger number, tried to complete every show on Netflix and made biscuits a primary food group. Hannah John-Kamen put her solitary hours into learning to skateboard. Not outside, because outside wasn’t allowed. She would, she says, “Just do it up and down my kitchen.” As lockdown skills go, getting proficient at wheeling up and down seems a fairly useless one, but it makes a kind of sense. For the past few years, John-Kamen’s life has been on such a roll, it seems silly to let a little global pandemic slow her down.

“Aldous Huxley was ahead of his time”

John-Kamen is one of those actors whose name you might not know, but you definitely know her face. She’s only had four movie roles so far, but there’s not a single small project among them. She’s been in the biggest sci-fi franchise in history (Star Wars: The Force Awakens); a high profile reboot (Tomb Raider); a Steven Spielberg blockbuster (Ready Player One); and a Marvel movie (Ant-Man and the Wasp). On TV, she’s clocked up two Black Mirror episodes, Game of Thrones and the lead in Netflix hit The Stranger. It is all, it’s fair to say, going rather well. “I’m so happy and so, so lucky,” says John-Kamen. “I’m lucky in how the experience I’ve gained has only got bigger and bigger with each project.” Successful as she is, she’s still just getting started. On the day we speak, she’s squeezed in our call around costume fittings for an unannounced new project (we’re forbidden from revealing what it is, but it’s rumours that John-Kamen will play the lead in a Resident Evil reboot). “I’m just dying to get back on set and get back to it,” she says. “Get my creative juices flowing again.”

Hannah John-Kamen
Credit: Rosie Matheson

We’re speaking to discuss the last role she banked before coronavirus put everything on pause. Appropriately, it’s a project about a world gone completely mad. She’s appearing in a reworked version of Aldous Huxley’s classic 1932 novel Brave New World. It’s set in New London, a supposedly utopian, but actually very sinister, future where love, monogamy, money and privacy have all been eradicated. Freedom and happiness come, apparently, from having no attachment to things or people, and taking mandatory medication called Soma to ensure you remain happy in that situation. Of course, human nature forces its way through this fiction and puts the whole of civilisation at risk. Brave New World is one of those books we’re all supposed to have read, but most of us probably never got around to. John-Kamen actually did.

“I read it yonks and yonks ago, when I was in drama school” she says. “I remember enjoying it a lot and thinking Aldous Huxley was very ahead of his time, but I didn’t really think about it much until the scripts for this came along. I decided not to re-read it. I thought I’d just learn about the character from the scripts.”

Brave New World
As drug-addled party planner Helm in ‘Brave New World’. Credit: Sky

Re-reading the book wouldn’t have helped much, as the plot and characters have been significantly re-tooled. John-Kamen’s has been twisted very much for the better, from a bookish lecturer to a drug-addled sex party planner. The role is fairly small but easily the most fun in a show that leans toward the serious. She plays Wilhelmina ‘Helm’ Watson, an eccentric who designs pleasure parties for the inhabitants of New London. These are basically orgies with a production budget, where all the elites of society gather to dance, party and, en masse, shag. “She’s the creator of all these pleasure bombs and feelies, so she’s kind of like the conductor,” says John-Kamen, “but she never really gets to experience them herself.” Despite being set in the future, Helm looks like an escapee from an Agatha Christie story, with big velvet kaftans and a grey 1920s bob. “I’m so glad you noticed that,” she says when we mention she looks unusually old-fashioned. “I think, in life, things that are considered forward thinking are actually always looking back to the past. We’re in New London, but I thought that Sunset Boulevard, vintage, dramatic-yet-psychedelic style would be kind of cool.”

“No matter when or where it’s set, sci-fi always looks at the same problems with society”

Brave New World is yet another science fiction role to add to John-Kamen’s list. She’s worked almost entirely in sci-fi and fantasy for her whole career thus far. “It’s not something I did deliberately,” she says. “At first I didn’t really notice it, but then I did Killjoys [a Canadian sci-fi show that ran for five seasons] and then I got Ready Player One and I thought, ‘Oh wow, ok’.” She certainly doesn’t consider it a bad thing. “You say it’s sci-fi… but it’s all pretty much mirroring today. That’s kind of the beauty of the genre. No matter when or where it’s set, it’s always looking at the same problems with humanity and society. I think it’s more interesting and fun to not set it in the real world.”

Hannah John-Kamen
Credit: Mike Blackett

John-Kamen’s path to acting has been a pretty smooth one, at least from an outside perspective. She grew up in East Yorkshire, the daughter of a Norwegian fashion model mother and a Nigerian forensic psychologist father. As a “tiny bohemian creator always in the dressing up box,” her eventual career was decided almost from the time she could walk. “It was an absolute given that this is what I would do, or try to do,” she says. “I was encouraged to apply for drama school and then I got in and thought, ‘Goodness, I’m going to move to London for three years.’”

London turned out not to be just three years, but a permanent move. “It was a whole new world. I was desperate to get out and be around my fellow bohemian sorts,” she says. “It was a beautiful time in my life.” If it’s all looked easy since, she says that’s not entirely the case. “I’ve definitely had moments when I had no idea what my next job would be. I remember auditions where I just wasn’t getting the jobs… It was actually going home and seeing my parents that made me carry on. They said, ‘You’ve just got to stay grounded and keep going’… Then I came back to London with a different attitude and not feeling so insecure, and then boom, Killjoys. I just got it.”

“When I met the Spice Girls, I sang ‘Mama’ with Mel C – pinch me!”

She had quite a high profile job before Killjoys, but it didn’t work out as hoped. It might be expected that it would be something that contributed to that early insecurity, or even something she’d be embarrassed by now. From 2012-2013, John-Kamen played the lead in the critically-reviled Spice Girls musical, Viva Forever. Choice review quotes include, “Viva Forever! has absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever” (Daily Telegraph) and “Charmless, messy, lacklustre” (Independent). John-Kamen has nothing but affection for it. “Are you kidding me? Bloody hell, that was so exciting,” she exclaims. “Jennifer Saunders [who wrote the show] is one of my idols. So were the Spice Girls. I was obsessed with them growing up. It was absolutely amazing. I got to sing Spice Girls every night! I regret nothing.” She says she was predominantly a Baby fan as a kid but loved them all when she met them as an adult (she’s very diplomatic). “They’re all exactly like their Spice Girls personas. Exactly… They didn’t disappoint… The first time I met them was when they came to one of the rehearsals. Me and Mel C sang ‘Mama’ together around a piano. I thought that was completely amazing… Me and Sporty singing together. Pinch me!”

The musical may have been a flop, but the Spice Girls can take credit for spotting something that huge Hollywood directors would notice several years later. It was J.J. Abrams who gave John-Kamen her first (very brief) movie role, as First Order Officer #1 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “As a first film experience, that was insane,” she says. “You walk on set and everyone’s in costume. You’re on Star Wars with J.J. Abrams. It was very, very, very surreal… Honestly, sometimes I forget I did it. Then I remember, ‘God, I was in Star Wars.’ My brother was so jealous.’”

The ultimate movie experience came two years later, when she was cast as F’Nale Zandor, a supporting villain in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. John-Kamen was so terrified by the prospect of auditioning for Spielberg that she didn’t tell her family until she got to his office. “I remember standing in the toilet and looking at myself in the mirror. I called my dad and said, ‘I didn’t want to tell you, because I didn’t want to jinx anything, but I’m absolutely freaking out right now.’ My dad said, ‘Is there a mirror in there?’ Yes. ‘Look in the mirror. You’re a John-Kamen. Remember that. He’s going to love you and you’re going to have the nicest time.’” Sometimes it really helps to have a psychologist for a father. He was clearly correct, because Spielberg gave her the job in the audition and she says she still considers him a friend. They’re email pals. “I’m not dropping him a line all the time, but it’s nice to catch up every now and again and see how he’s doing.” He is, by all accounts, doing very well.

Read Player One
John-Kamen played a villain in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’, F’Nale Zandor. Credit: Alamy

Big directors in Hollywood are taking notice of John-Kamen, but her career is also, perhaps unintentionally, a sign of how Hollywood’s approach to casting is changing. Her role in Brave New World is the second she’s played that was originally written as male. The first was her part in Ant-Man and the Wasp. She played Ghost, a tragic character who had the ability to phase through solid objects. In the original Marvel comics, Ghost was a man. In Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World’s Watson was a handsome male lecturer. She says it’s becoming more common that roles won’t have a gender specifically attached.

“It’s important to have female roles for people to look up to”

“I think it’s more that they’re becoming genderless, rather than being switched from man to woman,” she says. “We’ve got to just be forward thinking and it’s really important to have more and more female roles for people to look up to. It’s a huge thing in this climate to definitely push, but I have to say that for me it was not a conscious thing with Ghost and with Helm. It was just a wonderful thing that the production and the creators have gone, ‘We would like you to play this role.’”

As Marvel baddie Ghost in ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’. Credit: Disney

While she’s worked consistently and on bigger and bigger projects, that major lead role in a movie has so far eluded John-Kamen. That is probably about to change. While she will neither confirm nor deny, it is very, very heavily rumoured that John-Kamen has been given the lead role of Jill Valentine in the reboot of the Resident Evil series. For those unfamiliar with the utterly terrifying video games, Valentine is a member of a military unit that goes on a mission to find missing colleagues and discovers an outbreak of zombies. The previous Resident Evil series encompassed six fairly low-budget movies and grossed over $1.2 billion, so her casting would likely lead to being the face of a franchise. She has been shooting something since COVID-19 struck and says it involves, “getting a corona test every week, to make sure I’m negative, and then between filming staying indoors and not exposing myself to any risk.” Exactly when her next big project starts shooting will depend on how the pandemic develops, but if Hannah John-Kamen has to go into lockdown again, she won’t let it halt her progress. She’ll just keep skateboarding until it’s time for her career to go rolling on again.

‘Brave New World’ premieres October 16 on Stan

Image credits:

Photographer: Rosie Matheson
Stylist: Karen Clarkson
Makeup: Alex Babsky
Hair: Stefan Bertin
Producer: Jasmine Perrier
Photography assistant: Flossie Hughes
Stylist assistant: Jonathan Johnson