Down the rabbit hole with Jessica Henwick
Creative Direction & Styling
It has been a steady rise to where Jessica Henwick is today, playing Bugs in the next chapter of the Matrix film franchise: The Matrix Resurrections; a followup installment that has taken just as long in the making, as it has for her acting career.
Fresh off her years at Redroofs Theatre School in Berkshire and the National Youth Theatre in London, Jessica landed her debut role on British television, playing the lead character Bo in Spirit Warriors, an East Asian-centric children’s adventure series based loosely on the ancient Chinese myths and legends—and thus, making her the first actress of East Asian descent to play a lead role in a British television series.
In the initial years that followed, Jessica kept herself busy on all forms of entertainment platforms: from BBC Radio 4’s comedy show North by Northamptonshire, to the stage adaptation of author Julia Donaldson’s Running on the Cracks. Whereas on television, she appeared on Obsession: Dark Desires, and Silk created by one of Britain’s renowned showrunners Peter Moffat—both with themes that rocked the same boat; something that went over Jessica’s head, until she recapped those earlier TV years to us during our interview before the Christmas week.
These days, Jessica has won the public’s heart in more mainstream and global projects, such as her recurring role as Nymeria Sand in Game of Thrones, and Colleen Wing of Japanese samurai heritage in Iron Fist. Despite her limited screen time in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, she had made full use of every second as Jessika Pava, when she emerged from the other side as fan favorite.
While the New Year had barely begun, we have not seen the last of Jessica just yet! The Russo Brothers’ The Gray Man will premiere on the Netflix streaming service soon, followed by Rian Johnson’s sequel to his beloved Knives Out film. Not to mention, her little heart-and-soul project sponsored by Xiaomi, Bus Girl, which she wrote, directed and acted in.
Hey, Jessica! How’s it going over there in New York? I can only imagine how Christmassy everything’s become during this time of the year.
Hi! Um, I guess, yeah, there are some Christmas lights downstairs. It’s just cold, really, that’s the main thing.
Are you a big fan of Christmas?
Yeah, I mean, I’m a big fan of everyone stopping work and going home (laughs).
What do you get up to with your family on Christmas Day?
We play a lot of games, and we usually do a film marathon. I think we might watch The Lord of the Rings this year.
So how have the press junkets for The Matrix Resurrections been so far?
It’s been great—almost done! I’m on my last day of junkets, and I’m ready to go to the premiere, and get the film out.
How was the shoot the other day with Raul?
It was great! Yeah, it was really good. I’m excited to see the photos.
I’ve seen a few of them, and they’re lovely! I do hope that this interview matches up to the photos.
I’m sure it will!
Besides The Matrix Resurrections, you’ve also been busy with Bulgari.
Yes, I did a social engagement thing with Bulgari on Instagram called #MoreThanAGift during the holiday season. I mean, I do think my style is very casual; I’m very much about comfort over anything else. But, I love the snake motif from the Serpenti collection; the wraparound jewelry watch, with its sort of stacking style. Yeah, it’s beautiful.
“I must have sat three feet away from the screen, staring, absolutely transfixed. I was still too young to appreciate it, I think; I was more scared than anything else, you know—the mouth stitching scene, and the tiny robot crawling into the belly button… Those things really stay with you!”
So, let’s dive straight into The Matrix Resurrections.
When I first read the script, I saw that Lana (Wachowski, the film director) was really trying to do something different from the originals; and also, from the general blockbusters as well. It’s quite an unusual film: the pacing, the style, and the fusion of elements. We shot the film some time in 2019, I guess—I don’t remember the date off the top of my head. It took a lot of months, obviously, with COVID; we got one month in San Francisco before the city locked down, so we went to Berlin, but then, they also went into lockdown there. But now, I’m excited to get it out, and hopefully do justice to the fans.
How different was it for you going into The Matrix universe, compared to when you went into the Marvel universe with Iron Fist, or even the Game of Thrones universe?
I don’t really know how to compare! They are completely different projects and fandoms. I would have to think about the parallels between them. But for me, I just show up and do my job, try and play the character to the best of my ability, regardless of what the project is.
So, I’ve got to ask you this. The first Matrix film was released when you were just seven. The sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions, were released when you were 11.
Did you know anything about The Matrix growing up?
Yeah, I watched them. I think I started watching them when the second film came out. Of course, I’ve heard about it before then. Everyone would talk about it, all the kids in school, even though we were all too young to watch it. I found the DVD, and I was like, “OK, I need to see it!” I must have sat three feet away from the screen, staring, absolutely transfixed. I was still too young to appreciate it, I think; I was more scared than anything else, you know—the mouth stitching scene, and the tiny robot crawling into the belly button… Those things really stay with you!
Tell us more about your character, Bugs.
Bugs is just so likeable, you know. She’s a fan of the Matrix, and a fan of Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), and I found it really easy to relate to her: I’m a fan of the Matrix, I’m a fan of Keanu. I mean, we’re all similar to her, aren’t we? If you’re watching this one—and I would hope that you’re a fan of The Matrix, and a fan of Neo too to share the relevance—she opens the film, and her love for the legend of what happened is really what propels her on this journey down the rabbit hole.
Who were you most excited to work with on this film?
Everyone! Obviously, I’m a big fan of Keanu’s work, and I’ve worked with Carrie Ann (Moss, who played Trinity) before. Yahya (Abdul-Mateen II, who played Morpheus) is this brilliant actor; we have mutual friends, so I’ve heard wonderful things about him. Of course, you’ve got Neil Patrick Harris (who played The Analyst), and Jonathan Groff (who played Smith). It’s a really all-star cast of just like, phenomenally talented actors.
The Matrix has been known for its cool special effects, like how Neo dodged the bullets by bending backwards.
While you’re shooting, were there any scenes you’ve done that‘s supposed to come out cool on screen, but when you‘re doing them, you just felt like, “well, this just feels ridiculous”?
There’s one scene, which is one of the very first green screen scenes, and I had to sit on this robot. I had nothing to interact with, and I was just meant to be looking around, as if I was riding it. That was probably the only time I felt a little bit self-conscious (laughs).
“I’m so glad that I have that to my name, but like I said, I wish that there had been more East Asian actresses on screen before me.”
Everything sort of kicked off for when you were cast in the lead role for Spirit Warriors. It made you, and I quote, “the first actress of East Asian descent” to play a lead role in a British television series.
That title, what does it mean to you personally, as an actor, if it means anything at all?
I was a little younger then when that happened, so I don’t think I could fully grasp what that meant. Looking back at it now, when people bring it up a lot, it’s more embarrassing that that’s the state of the British industry. I mean, I was the first, and there have been so few since. That’s how I really feel, I think; there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done when it comes to embracing diversity in England on the screening stage.
Did that title somehow put you under some kind of pressure back then? I mean, you were just starting to move forward with your career. While you have been in many other projects before the bigger roles came along, there weren’t many roles that, shall we say, piqued the mainstream interest until you got your parts in Game of Thrones and Star Wars.
I mean, there’s always pressure from the community, and then also pressure from myself. Obviously, this is what I want to do with my life, so it’s part and parcel, really. But, I was really fortunate that I got to work in those years. I did a brilliant TV series called Silk in England (in 2014); I got to play a barrister pupil, who was dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. It was actually a really, really relevant story then, and even now. I also did a biopic of this young woman, Jane Trenka (in the 2014 TV series Obsession: Dark Desires), who wrote an autobiography about her experiences with stalking and harassment and—wow, I’m seeing a thread now in those years (laughs)—um, her experiences with stalking in Minnesota in the ’80s.
What about now, 10 years later? Does it still put you under any kind of pressure to do better, or live up to the title?
No, I don’t think about it at all. I don’t really carry that with me. I mean, I’m sure it definitely matters to people. I obviously can’t speak for anyone else, other than myself. It’s a mixture of celebration, but then, also acknowledging how overdue those things are, and how far we still have to go. I’m so glad that I have that to my name, but like I said, I wish that there had been more East Asian actresses on screen before me.
Besides acting, you’ve also been writing and producing short films, such as The Heart of the Forest in 2016, and Baliko in 2019. They’ve also won awards and nominations at film festivals, like the Gothenburg Film Festival and the Copenhagen Film Festival.
Your latest little project coming up is Bus Girl, in which you wrote, directed, and acted. Can you tell us more about it?
Yeah, Bus Girl is a short film that I actually wrote to direct and wanted to have another actress in it. But, due to recent scheduling issues, I ended up having to play the lead role myself. So, I did act, write and direct it during a very crazy three-day break between filming Knives Out 2. The entire thing was shot on a Xiaomi Mi11. They very kindly sponsored the short film, and it was a real trial by fire! I’ve been on so many sets over the years, but this was my first time directing. I have so much respect for directors, because the entire project really is in their hands; they’re like puppet masters. I had to experience it firsthand myself to really understand that. I can’t wait to get it out there! It’s a real labor of love.
What would you say were some of the lessons you’ve learned as a first-time director?
Change your shoes at lunch (laughs). You’re literally just standing on your feet all day, so you better change shoes at lunch or you’ll get blisters!
You’re quite a big fan of the Wizarding World, and one of the cast members in Bus Girl is Evanna Lynch.
What was it like working with her?
Yeah, I didn’t think that she would say yes, honestly! I was really surprised; it seemed like such a reach. But, she was lovely to work with, and so professional and sweet. We do have a bit of a shared understanding. I think growing up in the industry as women working from a very young age, we have some shared background. Obviously, she is on a whole other level with Harry Potter; you know, she was internationally famous from a young age, whereas I can’t quite claim that (laughs)! Evanna is super, super talented, and I’m excited to see everything that comes for her.
Have you read her book, The Opposite of Butterfly Hunting?
No, I haven’t! Have you?
I’m planning to do that! She’s amazing, isn’t she? I saw her recently in an interview promoting the book, and I couldn’t help thinking how much alike she is to Luna Lovegood herself.
Ah, I don’t know about that (laughs)! I was surprised at how different she is from Luna.
Really, you think so?
Luna is like a space cadet, and Evanna is a really well-spoken, grounded young woman. I don’t know—I think Luna is kind of fun with the fairies a lot of the time, whereas Evanna is so grounded and just wonderful.
“Change your shoes at lunch. You’re literally just standing on your feet all day, so you better change shoes at lunch or you’ll get blisters!”
DP, Video editor and colorist
Jenna Kristina/The Wall Group
Vanessa McCullough/Forward Artists
When it comes to writing stories for short films, do you think you’ve written the story-with-the-capital-T that you’ve been wanting to write in your career or your lifetime? Has the story been written already, is it still in the works, or has it just not come to you yet?
I haven’t written anything but short films, so I would hope that they are not the story-with-the-capital-T! I also don’t even know if most writers are aware when they write “the one”. So yeah—to be continued (laughs)!
When would you say inspiration hits you best when it comes to writing?
I do get a lot of ideas really late at night, but I think it’s the time pressure that gets me going: I have to get something done before going to sleep, and that’s what forces my brain to work. You know, having that kind of deadline for sleep. But also, it will be in the middle of the day, or my brother will say something, and I’ll just scribble all the way in this notepad that I carry around. Bus Girl came together very, very naturally. That was really, really pleasant; I was in LA shooting The Gray Man, which is coming out next week. I just started pacing around my living room, and I thought, “OK, food. I want to make something about food.” Then, within 10 minutes, I had top-to-bottom, the entire story. I wrote it out that same day, sent it off, and got the green light that evening. So, that did feel like one of those moments, when it came very naturally. It’s not always like that, of course; sometimes, it is more of a struggle, and a bit more of a back and forth.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Have fun at The Matrix Resurrections red carpet premiere—and Happy Christmas!
Thank you, Merry Christmas—bye!