Issue 15

Jessica Henwick

Amidst Hollywood’s homogeny, rising star Jessica Henwick is telling a different story.

By Eliza Dumais

Photographed by Tawni Bannister

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Jessica Henwick reads. Not in the way everybody “reads—wielding books as accessories or scanning texts for morsels of topical information. She reads fervently, indulgently, committedly. She can quote Elena Ferrante from memory; she adores the Brontë sisters. She thought herself a writer long before an actor, and in spite of her present Hollywood acclaim, she still identifies that way. “There was never a time I didn’t think I’d be writing, even while I was questioning whether or not I’d make it in Hollywood,” Henwick says over the phone from a hotel room in Los Angeles. “Writing just isn’t one of those things you stop doing.”

Right now, the actress, screenwriter, and director, 29, teeters on the edge of Household Name recognition, with impressive acting credits in blockbusters ranging from Game of Thrones to Glass Onion (the forthcoming sequel to Knives Out). Simply put, she’s busy. And yet, she’s still eking out time for projects of her own making. “I shot and directed my first short film, Bus Girl, on a weekend break from shooting the Knives Out sequel,” Henwick says. “I flew in and out of L.A. just for the weekend [to do it]. It was such a trip—a whole different way of storytelling. I loved it so much.”

Henwick wrote the short for Xiaomi, a tech company that makes smartphones with high-quality video capabilities. They were interested in collaborating, provided she could cough up a script worthy of the product. Henwick brought over a few things she’d been working on (“a handful of TV pilots I had floating around,” she explains), but Xiaomi executives wanted something “short and sweet, under 15 minutes.” They asked if she had anything ready to go that fit the bill, and in response, she said yes. “I totally lied,” Henwick says, laughing. “Then I went home and scribbled something down over the course of the next 12 hours. Lucky for me, they loved it.”

Bus Girl tells the story of June, a young busser navigating the rapid-fire intensity of a high-end restaurant kitchen. Henwick herself stars alongside Evanna Lynch (best known for her role as Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter franchise). And while the director has limited experience working in hospitality, the project has autobiographical ambitions. “I started conceptualizing Bus Girl at a time when I was becoming quite jaded about the roles offered to women of color and women over 40 in Hollywood,” Henwick says. “Everything felt stock or limited. I realized I was complaining all the time. Then all of a sudden, I was like, Why am I complaining? I should do something.” So, she decided to write the role she wanted to play herself.

Don’t think Henwick is apathetic about the future of Hollywood, though. She may experience the occasional bout of ennui over the film industry’s antiquated, often flimsy stance on inclusivity, but it’s hardly stopping her from fighting for screen time. After a recurring role as Nymeria Sand on Game of Thrones, Henwick earned praise for her portrayal of Japanese samurai Colleen Wing in the Netflix series Iron Fist — followed by appearances in the iconic sequels Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Matrix Resurrections (where she played the spunky, blue-haired newcomer, Bugs), and the anime series Blade Runner: Black Lotus. More recently, she’s received accolades for her roles in the Russo Brothers’ The Gray Man alongside Ryan Gosling, and Rian Johnson’s upcoming release, Glass Onion (aka Knives Out 2).

“Sure, I’m tired,” Henwick admits. “But I’m overwhelmingly happy about the number of projects I’ve been cast in over the last few years. Too busy is a good problem to have when we’re talking about movies. Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to believe it’s all really happening. As a kid, I was told it wasn’t exactly wise to pursue a career in acting, that there weren’t enough roles for East Asian women. It feels good to be proving that wrong.”

Henwick grew up in the rural town of Surrey, England, before moving to London, where she cut her teeth as an actor at the National Youth Theatre. And even before she started down her current path, it was clear she’d be a performer. “My mum says she took me to a performance at Legoland when I was five,” the multi-hyphenate notes. “At some point, the actors asked for volunteers to come up and take on various roles on stage.” Henwick raised her hand, but wasn’t picked. Undeterred, she climbed onto the stage as soon as her mother looked away. “I have no memory of this,” she says, “but I’ve been told it was good foreshadowing for the rest of my career.”

At age 16, Henwick snagged her first role onscreen as Bo in Spirit Warriors, a BBC children’s adventure series loosely based on traditional Chinese myths and legends. She was technically too old to audition, but after stumbling upon a poster for an open casting call in London’s Chinatown, she emailed the casting directors and asked to be considered. They agreed to give her a shot — and it turned out she was good. So good, in fact, that when she started shooting in 2010, she became the first actress of East Asian descent who had been chosen to play the lead role in a British television series.

Broadly speaking, Henwick is proud of that accomplishment — but she’s taking it with a grain of salt. It says more about the state of the film industry than it does about her, and frankly, she explains, it’s not how she’d like to define her career. “Hollywood has a really long way to go in terms of inclusion,” Henwick affirms. “Honestly, sometimes I hear myself talking about representation in film and I just sound like a broken record. It gets exhausting. It can even feel infantilizing to be asked about ‘being Asian,’ as if I’m supposed to comment on the entire Asian diaspora or the state of female roles in TV. I’m just one woman.” She takes a long, drawn-out breath, like an auditory ellipsis. “It’s a bit of a catch 22: On the one hand, I’m like, I never want to talk about this shit, and on the other, I never want to stop talking about this shit.”

A glib treatment of race is only one of the trials Henwick has faced in Hollywood. For all of the clout Henwick has amassed for starring in blockbusters alongside powerhouse actors like Keanu Reeves (a personal highlight, she gushes, without losing her cool somehow), it’s also true that acting is, well, a job. It requires constant metamorphosis. Case-in-point: In the last five years alone, Henwick has pinballed in and out of roles — she’s studied martial arts and swordplay (Iron Fist), buzzed off most of her hair (The Matrix Resurrections) and practiced balancing stacks of cups and full plates along a single arm (Bus Girl).

There’s a kind of solace in this type of cosplay, she says. “It can be relieving to disappear from your own world, or your own brain, or your own constraints, and inhabit a character,” explains Henwick. “But that’s sort of an unnerving thought—I mean, I often find myself in therapy, asking myself, Do I want to be other people so desperately that I’ve made a career of it?”

For all the ways acting can provide a handy dose of escapism from the socio-political hellfire in which we live, Henwick says that’s just the half of it. In order to inhabit a role, she explains, you do more than cut your hair and wield a sword. You try someone else’s psyche on for size. You take on their personal traumas, emotional hang-ups, idiosyncrasies. And as hard as it may be to properly enter into a new character space, it can be even harder to exit. It’s an occupational hazard: You begin to blur the lines between your baggage and your character’s baggage. You lose track of where they end and you begin. “In The Gray Man, my character is super aggro,” says Henwick. “She’s irritated and inflammatory the whole time—constantly riled up. And when we were filming, I’d notice that I was leaving set feeling that tension. I’d be more confrontational than usual, or short-fused.”

Nearly a decade prior, in a markedly different character study, Henwick played Amy Lang, an eager lawyer-in-training on the BBC serial drama Silk. She says she felt an immediate kinship with the character, a keen, wide-eyed pupil who, early on in the show, witnesses something unspeakable at her law firm. Her naivete deflates as she confronts the grotesque realities of her "dream job," while in parallel, Henwick was also becoming increasingly jaded as Hollywood’s dark underbelly began to reveal itself to her.

“I was that young, wide-eyed actress,” the artist recalls. “And slowly, day by day, I was seeing more of the industry up close—the harder parts. That was this major turning point for me. I felt like I was processing my own experience through Lang.”

What she knows now is this: Such things are central to the muddied, nonlinear progression of womanhood. “As a woman, you have to harden yourself, prepare yourself. You’ll see things and feel things that cause you pain, or make you feel like you’re in danger,” Henwick explains. “At the same time, you have to remember that there’s a really beautiful side of this industry, too, [and] that you chose to be here, and you’re grateful for it. That you love what you do.” It’s hardly the shimmering and hopeful Hollywood ideal, but for her, acting has afforded Henwick a feminine rite of passage—her way of trading in the people-pleasing campus of girlhood for the firmer boundaries of the adult world.

Fortunately, Henwick has her ways of coping—small tactics designed to help her prioritize her own mental health. She’s religious about talk therapy; she reads 19th-century novels; she writes (mostly scripts these days, though she admits she has a draft of an original novel sitting in a drawer somewhere). Occasionally, she attempts one of her mother’s recipes, which typically lacks measurements of any kind. (“You’d have to stand there and watch my mother cook to know how much of anything to use. It’s all so intuitive to her,” she marvels.)

But maybe most restoratively, she hikes—alone—spending long stretches of time hurtling along quietly. And while scaling a mountain solo has its risks, Henwick has learned to curtail her anxiety. “You do have to be afraid to some degree because things will kill you in the wild,” she concedes. “You need to be wary of danger, but without letting it consume you.” Before ambitious treks, Henwick often returns to a beloved passage by Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail solo in the ‘90s before penning Wild, her account of the experience. “I have to find this quote for you so I won’t butcher it!” she says, punching keys on her laptop while she searches. When she finds what she’s looking for, she reads aloud: “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are often told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.”

In Henwick’s case, this fragment of wisdom is densely layered. Yes, it’s about swallowing fear, digesting it, reshaping its contours, changing its chemical properties. But it’s also about storytelling—about the ways we make sense of the world by condensing life into the container of “plot,” then whittling ourselves into characters therein. There’s power in understanding that. When it serves her, Henwick can access the sword-wielding sturdiness of Colleen Wing, the unapologetic laissez-faire of Bugs, or the humility of June. And at once, she can play the role of Jessica Henwick—finding space to inhabit a story that’s hers, pieced together of her own hard-won toolkit of memories, boundaries, eccentricities—when she alone is protagonist enough.

“You get tired of reading, or writing, or watching the same story over and over,” Henwick muses. “The classic hero’s journey. The most standard plot structure. Someone saves the cat, blah blah.” She pauses. “I mean, if it works, it works—there’s no denying that. But I’m so inspired by the people who are reinventing the wheel. Those are the films I want to be in, the books I want to read, the scripts I want to write, the characters I want to play. How motivational is that—that we can create something without a classic hero or a traditional climax that’s still powerful?” She laughs, or sighs, or clears her throat. Maybe all three at once. “God, there’s so much power in remembering that you’re the storyteller. We should remind each other of that more often.”

STYLIST: BETTINA BATI

HAIR: MARC MENA

MAKEUP: TAMMY YI