Cover Jessica Henwick talks about joining the Matrix franchise, representation and breaking barriers (Photo: Matt Berberi)

From Star Wars, Game of Thrones to Marvel, Jessica Henwick is no stranger to blockbusters. Now, she’s joining The Matrix Resurrections and tells Tatler all about it

It’s Jessica Henwick’s world and we’re living in it. The actress—who was born in Surrey, UK to a Singaporean Chinese mother and English father—is no stranger to blockbusters nor breaking barriers. When she was 17 years old, she made history as the first actress of East Asian descent to play a lead role in British TV. And the rise of Jessica Henwick continued from there—she joined Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Game of Thrones, Iron Fist, Love and Monsters and worked with some of the biggest names in the industry.

The actress is also booked and busy, having been attached to big franchises. She almost played Rey in Star Wars and was choosing between a role in Shang-Chi or The Matrix. If that says anything, Henwick is poised for success and she’s here to stay. Her stellar portfolio of roles show that Henwick is ready for anything—whether it’s getting down and dirty for action roles or navigating romantic comedies.

Henwick’s next venture into the spotlight? Joining The Matrix Resurrections, the highly anticipated fourth instalment in the epic sci-fi franchise after two decades as a new character, Bugs. Ahead of the movie’s release in Hong Kong, Tatler catches up with the British superstar about joining the iconic franchise, the importance of Asian representation and breaking barriers in the industry.

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Your character in The Matrix Resurrections is new and definitely one of the most intriguing ones. Can you tell us more about Bugs?

Bugs is a true believer in the legend of Neo. When we begin the film she’s devoted to finding out what happened to him and Trinity.

You had to choose between which audition to go back in for after a callback—a role in Shang-Chi and Bugs. What about Bugs appealed to you—or more generally, about The Matrix as a whole appealed to you that you chose to go for Bugs instead?

I love the themes that The Matrix series delves into. I remember watching the first one; I’d never considered the idea that what I saw in front of me might not be a reality—that there might be other versions of the world as I understood it. It was a formative viewing experience. (laughs) The film is talking about huge topics like choice, the evolution of the digital world, truth, big corps and big pharma. I think it’s all become even more relevant than it was back in the 90s.

What makes Bugs different or even special among the other characters that you’ve played?

She’s probably the most similar character to me I’ve played in a while. She’s a fan of Neo. I’m a fan of Keanu Reeves. She loves The Matrix legend. I love The Matrix trilogy. You get the drift!

You’re no stranger to joining big franchises and blockbusters. Was there pressure in being one of the new members to join such a beloved franchise that a lot of people grew up with?

When I first heard about the audition, I did feel a little hesitant. The original film is perfect, and should never be remade. If the film was just trying to replicate that, I don’t think we would get very far. But as soon as I read the script and realised that it was going in a new direction, I felt more comfortable diving in.

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You’ve always taken on these amazing strong female roles and you’ve expressed interest in wanting to do a woman-led version of John Wick. How’s that going?

Okay, that just started out as a joke because of my name! Though, I do love the idea of playing a character in a tragedy, which is pretty much how I see the John Wick character.

Besides your action roles, you’ve also obviously tried your hand in romance too (Love and Monsters, On the Rocks) and tried your hand at writing and directing (Bus Girl). Have you always been interested in all these things? How do you balance doing all these?

I actually wanted to write before I wanted to act! My dad is a writer, and my grandmother actually wrote a novel that was never published, so I guess it’s in my bones.

How do I balance it all? I just work very long hours. (laughs) I think that when I set my mind to do something, I can become quite fixated on it—to my own detriment! Everybody needs a break sometimes. I’m enforcing a break once I wrap up this press tour. I’m going to go home and play piano and bake and binge watch TV.

Speaking of Bus Girl, are you able to tell us a little bit more about this short film you directed? How did come about?

Like everyone else who was quarantined last year, I started cooking! It’s such great therapy!

Xiaomi had read my scripts before and knew I wanted to direct something small to dip my toe into the water. So they asked if I’d like to shoot a short film entirely on a Xiaomi Mi11 phone. It wasn’t a hard decision. I think I’d put off directing for so long, wanting to wait for “the right moment”. I realised that the right moment sometimes doesn’t come. Sometimes you just have to create the moment for yourself.

It seems like a lot of the work that you’ve done is in fantasy, science fiction mostly involving a lot of action. Do you have a certain affinity for these kinds of stories and roles?

The funny thing when people say that to me is that I really haven’t! I spent a lot of my early career turning down action roles, and I’ve probably done more non-action than action at this point. But I guess once people see you in something, it’s hard for them to see you any other way.

I do love genre, I will say. I’m British, so I grew up on Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I just love the worldbuilding. Whenever I was having a tough time growing up, I would just escape into these fantastical worlds.

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You’ve broken barriers—the first East Asian actress to play a lead role in British television, one of the few Game of Thrones cast members with an East Asian background and more. Tell us more about why these kinds of milestones matter for you and for the community at large?

On the one hand, it’s important to me that I help create change. I don’t think there’s any point talking about something, or complaining about it if you aren’t able to help come up with a solution. On the other hand, I’m not particularly proud of these statistics. It’s 2021! There should have been way more movement before I started acting in the UK.

But it is what it is. I’m glad to be a part of it, and hopefully, show young Asians that it is possible to pursue a career in the arts. When I was growing up, there was no one I could look to for inspiration. Everyone told me it was an impossible career choice.

Being the first or the few, always comes with pressure. And with representing the underrepresented, there’s also pressure. Is that the case for you?

I try not to think about the pressure too much! I try just to focus on making cool art, and hopefully, it speaks to people, but I can’t control that.

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To be an actor, you kind of have to have this blind faith in yourself, because if you don’t believe you can do it, then no one else will
Jessica Henwick

Talking about representation in the industry, it has improved in some way. But there’s still a lot to be done. How has it changed since you started to where it is now and where do you hope it’ll go?

When I started there was a small BESEA (Britain’s East and Southeast Asians) group of actors in England, and it was pretty divided. There were so few roles, and it was always the same actors fighting each other, so there wasn’t much of a sense of community.

I’m glad to say that as representation has evolved, so has that sense of community. I try to be a part of it, though it’s hard as I rarely get to work in the UK. But at the beginning of this year, I co-created @weareexse, which is a group just devoted to highlighting the amazing talent at work and trying to uplift BESEA across the industry in all roles.

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Your roles have always showcased empowerment for women. Do you see some similarities between yourself and the characters that you play?

I mean, my mother definitely raised me to be vocal and confident and really fight for what I believe in so I do tend to be attracted to those roles! But I’m an actor, I’ve always loved playing the quieter roles, or women who are more vulnerable or sensitive than I am.

You mentioned that it was hard on your dad, especially when you pursued acting. Not to call you a rule breaker but being Asian in a white-dominated industry, was it scary when you first tried to step into it? Do you still feel the same now?

You know, I think back and I’m shocked at how boldly I went for it. Statistically speaking, this should not have worked out! But I think to be an actor, you kind of have to have this blind faith in yourself, because if you don’t believe you can do it, then no one else will.

Over the years since you nabbed that role in Spirit Warriors when you were 17 years old, what’s something that you learned about yourself?

That I’m impatient. It’s a pro and a con. I think it got me to where I am. But I’m trying to just appreciate the moment and enjoy the ride for once.

You’re booked and busy for the coming year. What are you looking forward to and what can we look forward to from you?

I’m so excited for fans to see the end of the Blade Runner: Black Lotus series. And I feel lucky that I have two great films coming out next year. Everyone is going to fall in love with Ryan Gosling in The Gray Man. That’s all I can say about that one. And Knives Out 2! I mean if you loved the first one (like I did) then you’re gonna love this one. Daniel Craig smashes it out of the park.

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The Matrix Resurrections will be shown in Hong Kong cinemas on December 22, 2021.

 

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(This article was originally published on December 17, 2021 and was updated on December 22, 2021.)

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