If you don’t recognise Jessica Henwick’s name, you’ll definitely know her face. Over the last few years, the rising British star has acted in some of Hollywood’s biggest franchises – from Star Wars and Game Of Thrones to Marvel. Right now, she’s busy adding yet another iconic series to that list: playing an as-yet-undisclosed character in Keanu Reeves’ mind-bending sci-fi reboot The Matrix 4.
“It’s trippy, I grew up watching these films,” Henwick says over the phone from Berlin, where production is about to wrap up. “The first time Keanu spoke in character and said Neo’s lines, Yahya [Abdul-Mateen II] and I shared a look like, ‘Oh my god, it’s happening!’”
If that was all Henwick had going on in 2020, it’d still be a monster year – but there’s more. Those of you who’ve popped to the pictures recently (or fired up your laptop) may have seen her as Fiona, the suspected other woman, in Sofia Coppola’s Bill Murray-starrer On The Rocks; Aimee, leader of a beach-side colony in the “monsterpocalypse”-set fantasy-rom-com Love And Monsters (coming soon to Netflix); or maybe you heard her as the voice of Amazonian warrior Alexia in new Netflix animation Blood Of Zeus. In all, she more than holds her own opposite some huge names.
“Bill Murray spontaneously serenaded me – it was quite sweet!”
In the case of On The Rocks, it took a moment to process the dream cast around her. “We shot that film pretty quickly, so I didn’t really have time to truly understand what was happening,” Henwick says now. “And then afterwards, I was like, ‘Wait, I just did [a film] with Bill Murray, Rashida Jones and Marlon Wayans?!’”
One particular pinch-me moment came when the cast were filming in Manzanillo, Mexico, and Murray spontaneously serenaded her. “It was quite sweet!” she laughs. “He told me the song was called ‘Mexico’ but I’ve looked it up and it doesn’t sound like any of the [songs I’ve found] so I don’t actually know what it was. It’s possible [he wrote it for me]!”
Henwick might be surprised to find herself working with icons, but she’s been on that path for a while. Born and raised in Surrey by her Singaporean mum and Zambian dad, she started out acting in school plays and says she was drawn to acting because she “always wanted to tell stories”. That’s something that’s been a constant throughout her career so far. “I just want to create roles that I don’t feel I get to see enough of on screen,” she explains. “I want to tell stories that I feel haven’t been told.” Later, she adds that the one thing she wants to be remembered as, when all is said and done, is “just a good storyteller – that’s really what it’s all about.”
At the age of 16, she bagged the lead role as Bo in kids’ adventure series Spirit Warriors – the show was her first big audition and inspired her to drop out of school and pursue acting seriously.
“I was just so convinced that it was right, this was the thing I needed to do,” she reflects. “But it was very hard on my dad – he wasn’t that supportive because he wanted me to be a lawyer. I think it was a bit of a strain on the family, but I had the strength of being a youth and being naïve.”
That job also set a theme for her later work – that of a mould-breaker and outlier as an Asian actor in a white-dominated industry. Before Bo, no east Asian woman had played the lead in a British TV series. Not bad for a first-timer – although Henwick has worked hard to diversify her portfolio since.
“I want to create roles that I don’t see enough of on screen”
“I just really felt a pressure from myself to not create any more stereotypes than Asians already face,” she explains. “You can see for the next two years of my work [after Spirit Warriors], it was quite scattered – a lot of roles where being Asian had nothing to do with them or their ethnicity was not defined in the script.”
Years later, the same issue arose again when Henwick was in the running to play Colleen Wing in Marvel’s Iron Fist series on Netflix. She eventually accepted the part but only after making sure the character wouldn’t be “defined by her martial arts capabilities”. “I love martial arts, I think it’s beautiful,” she notes. “But I just wanted to know that she was more than just that.”
Despite a bright start in her home country, Henwick has found the British film and TV industry difficult to break into, especially compared to America. She first tried to make the move Stateside as a teenager around 2010, her first steps into the US industry provoked by a frustration at not being in the running for supporting characters, but bit parts. At first, things didn’t work out. “I couldn’t really book anything,” Henwick recalls. “I really struggled. I just don’t think I was ready for it.”
After giving it a go and not making any inroads, she decided to head back to the UK and regroup. Ironically, it was “as soon as” she was back on home soil that things “started clicking” and the States started paying attention to her. She showed off her badass bullwhip skills as Nymeria Sand on Game Of Thrones (filmed in the UK but made by US studio HBO) and had a role written for her on Star Wars: The Force Awakens by director J. J. Abrams himself.
Henwick had originally auditioned for the role of Rey, which eventually went to Daisy Ridley. “It was very hard for me when I didn’t get it,” she says, adding that the audition process was “very long, very arduous” and lasted around six months. “But I see why – Daisy did such an incredible job and it was 100 per cent her journey to make. It wasn’t meant for me – my life would have been completely different!”
There can be a downside to joining iconic franchises with huge fanbases scrutinising every scene, story and character arc. Not scoring a lead role like Rey has freed Henwick up from intense scrutiny or, worse, racist trolling such as The Last Jedi’s Kelly Marie Tran has had to endure on social media. “I’m lucky in that most of my characters have been older characters or there’s not as much current knowledge on them,” says Henwick. “They’re not the huge showstopper characters that people get rabid about.”
“I was number one on IMDb, ‘Iron Fist’ was top of Netflix, ‘Game Of Thrones’ had just come out – I was riding high”
As well as the “sweet consolation prize” of having Abrams write her a new character – Jess Pava, the first female X-Wing pilot – Henwick’s also grateful for what she learned from him. “It was an incredible journey, getting to work with JJ, locked in a room together for hours over and over,” she says. “I will carry his demeanour with me – the childlike excitement he has is something that I want to always have, no matter what job I’m doing.”
Despite Hollywood’s seal of approval, the UK still wasn’t as interested. “I was number one on IMDb, Iron Fist was the top watched show on Netflix, my last scene in Game Of Thrones had just come out – I was riding high in America,” she explains. “In England, meanwhile, I got an offer to audition for a character called ‘cafe shop employee’ in some Daniel Radcliffe film. She had five lines and they wanted me to audition for it.” While you typically have to audition for bit parts, it’s rare that an actor of Henwick’s stature would need to for such a minor role. Looking back, Henwick is clearly frustrated: “It was just like, ‘God, there’s never been a time where it’s been clearer how the US versus the UK sees me’.”
That dichotomy is a larger problem she sees in her home country, where representation is lacking and non-white actors get less opportunities. “Unfortunately, most British actors who are ethnic minorities will end up feeling like they have to go to America at one point or another because the roles are just so much more diverse there,” she says.
Luckily, a more liberating avenue has opened up recently, one that seems to offer more freedom in terms of roles: voice-acting. Playing Alexia in Netflix animation Blood Of Zeus has been a revelation for Henwick’s career – but her ethnicity would’ve stopped her getting the part had she needed to appear on camera, she says. The idea of being free to play anyone because you can’t see the actor voicing them is interesting, especially following Jenny Slate and Hank Azaria’s decision to give up voicing characters of colour on Big Mouth (mixed-race teen Missy) and The Simpsons (Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and Carl Carlson). Is the world of voice acting a way for actors of colour to level the playing field a bit?
“It’s a complicated subject,” Henwick replies, taking time to pick the right words carefully. “I’m glad people are talking about it. I think the issue is that it was happening in one direction and not the other – and historically, it has always happened in one direction. So it’s evening the playing field a bit and then the feeling will be more free.”
“I pitched the idea of ‘Jess Wick’ to Keanu Reeves and he loved it!”
Henwick’s experiences in the industry aren’t uncommon – but instead of waiting for locked doors to be opened, she’s put herself in the driving seat and taken control. As well as acting in high-profile productions, she’s been writing them too. One project she has in the works is a period drama miniseries that begins in 1910 and runs for 30 to 40 years, following three British-Chinese sisters.
Another has already been picked up by Amazon Studios. Co-written with Kai Yu Wu (Paper Girls), the story follows an Asian-American YA author who finds herself thrown into one of her own novels. “Kai and I are both big fans of murder mysteries and teen detectives and we were just joking that [popular teen mystery series] Nancy Drew was due a revamp – which, of course, has since happened,” Henwick explains. “But we were joking that if we revamped it we would call it Nancy Wu because she’d be Asian. Then it just snowballed from there.”
Right now, though, Henwick has to finish work on The Matrix 4 before new coronavirus restrictions in Germany elongate production even further. When she’s not shooting her final scenes, she’ll likely be putting her time to good use – pitching her own spin-off of one of Keanu Reeves’ other franchises to her co-star.
“I pitched the idea of Jess Wick to him all the time,” she laughs. “He loves it! He’s so entertained by it.. or, well, maybe he’s just pretending to be.” Has she managed to convince him to pass the idea on to studio bosses? “Maybeee,” she says coyly. “I dunno!” If they have any sense, they’ll jump on the concept fast. Henwick’s about to make the leap from notable up-and-comer to one of Hollywood’s most exciting leading ladies.
Photographer: Matt Berberi
Stylist: Olga Timofejeva at The Only Agency
Stylist assistant: Dani Kleinman
Hair: Saskia Krause
Makeup: Jazz Mang