“I met him! I bumped into him in an elevator. I asked to take a photo and I was so nervous so it was blurry. I kept having to redo it and he said ‘well come on now, I don’t have all day.’ And I said, ‘oh I’m sorry Mr Freeman, I’m sorry’.”
Not so much as three minutes into our Zoom call, Jessica Henwick tells me this classic anecdote or cautionary tale—depending on how you look at it—about meeting your heroes. This, off the back of me asking her which films left an indelible mark on her growing up. “Honestly, The Shawshank Redemption. I was obsessed with that film—I absolutely loved it. I thought Morgan Freeman was the best actor in the world. I still sometimes think Morgan Freeman is the best actor in the world.”
It’s funny to hear the 29-year-old talk about fangirl behaviour when she is part of some of the most iconic cinematic, televisual and literary universes ever created, and thus fandoms. For those playing at home, she’s a fictional citizen of the worlds of Game of Thrones as Nymeria Sand, Star Wars as Jessika Pava, Blade Runner as Elle in the CGI anime series, The Matrix Resurrections as Bugs and Marvel as Colleen Wing. Fast forward to the present day and Henwick stars in Joe and Anthony Russo’s 2022 film The Gray Man—which premieres on Netflix on July 22—as Suzanne Brewer. As much as she’s captivated by cult favourites, however, it has not been a calculated move to have appeared in so many of them. “It’s unintentional,” she shares. “I’m not trying to tick every franchise off.”
Henwick adds: “When people ask me ‘why do you do so many nerdy-type things or genre pieces?’ I respond, ‘Well, what are the roles being sent to me?’ There does seem to be a lot more willingness to see Asians in fantastical situations. If I read a script and it’s set in an office or a council estate, it’s very rare there’s interest in an Asian being cast. It’s like I have to fight to get in. I’m kind of bored of the stories society tells us, so I want to write a new story. And I want to be part of the change. I don’t really take no for an answer.”
Another film that was influential on the young Singaporean-Brit is Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar-wai’s sensory Chungking Express. While it is Henwick’s intention to continue to be an agent of change in Hollywood, it’s not lost on her that Asians now have a meaningful seat at the table, thanks to the impact of her predecessors. “I definitely feel like I’m a part of the wave,” she says thoughtfully. “I do have to pay respect to people like Lucy Liu and Benedict Wong who helped forge that path. Benedict Wong played my dad in my very first job—Spirit Warriors—and really was a mentor to me and took me under his wing. If I was born 40 years earlier, I definitely wouldn’t have the career that I have today.”
Growing up in Surrey, England, Henwick knew from an early age she wanted to entertain people. By the time she was a teenager, she was certain she wanted it to be her career, falling in love with an after-school acting class, with all other hobbies falling to the wayside. Despite her passion and attending the lauded Redroofs Theatre School—which counts actress Kate Winslet an alumnus—she still needed a big imagination. She explains: “It was hard to look at someone where I grew up and visualise myself. We just didn’t have Asian representation where I was from. It made me sad that there wasn’t really someone I could look up to and model my career after.”
“It’s like I have to fight to get in. I’m kind of bored of the stories society tells us, so I want to write a new story.”
Now, Henwick is that person for many aspiring entertainers, even more so as she adds the highly anticipated Netflix summer blockbuster The Gray Man—a tale about a global manhunt for a CIA mercenary who operates in the shadows and finds himself the target after inadvertently uncovering incriminating secrets—to her bill of credits. She also holds court with the likes of Chris Evans and Ryan Gosling, who play the antagonist and paladin in the film. “It’s a brilliant homage to spy films. We’re going all over the globe and it’s a very international cast. You will not see what’s coming. It’s full of twists and turns. And that’s what really appealed to me. I would say it feels very current and modern. A lot of spy films feel like they’re from another era and that’s not the case with this.”
A love letter to the espionage genre aside, even a seasoned big-budget action buff like Henwick was impressed by the grandiose set pieces in The Gray Man. In particular, one that occurs at the climax, with 50 extras and most of the cast, where she was able to truly feel the sheer scope of the film. While these moments certainly highlight the gravity of the role of those behind the lens calling the shots, she now has even more admiration for those with the megaphone.
“I think anyone who can go home to where they grew up and feel bigger than their boots is a bit of a weirdo.”
As a director, writer and actor on her own projects like Bus Girl—her directorial debut—and its sequel Sandwich Man, she appreciates “that it’s always about the bigger picture. As the actor, my job is to just take care of my character and that was very much how I saw it for a very long time. Now as I’ve written more and started directing, I do understand you just need to tell the story.” However, she’s not the only storyteller in her family. When I ask her what her father, a science fiction and fantasy novelist, thinks of her penmanship, she can’t help but laugh. “I think my dad likes my writing. I actually just pitched him a pilot episode of a television series yesterday and he was very supportive.”
In what could be seen as a glittery, illusory industry, family helps keep Henwick judicious. They love playing board games, with the occasional spot of mahjong. “It’s hard to not be grounded when you’re in the middle of the countryside in your childhood home. I think anyone who can go home to where they grew up and feel out of touch or bigger than their boots is a bit of a weirdo. There’s nothing more humbling than going home and your mum saying, ‘you look skinny. You need to eat more. And you folded your laundry strangely in your bag’.”
While discussing reconnecting with her Singaporean roots thanks to a forthcoming trip, I realise I’ve discovered our heroine’s Achilles heel. “I have tried durian many times, I don’t like it. I can’t handle it. I do miss the rest of the food though, like kway teow, laksa, chilli crab—I miss it all the time.”
It’s not just famous local dishes that spark a feeling of warmth in her—the protagonists she once played do too. When I ask if she ever thinks of them, she describes the sensation with an interesting analogy. “It’s like an ex; when you’re driving and a song comes on and it reminds you of them. That’s what it’s like with my characters. I often take mementos; I rediscover one and it just takes me back.” Her possessions? She now has a fake rubber gun and Bugs’ sunglasses from The Matrix Resurrections, and a katana from her Marvel time. From The Gray Man she kept a practical pencil skirt. As for Game of Thrones, she held onto one of Nym’s wrist wraps.
One paracosm yet to be parlayed into is that of Bond. James Bond. Would she be a Bond girl? She would love to. Seeing as she has just been shooting with arguably the most enduring Bond ever—Daniel Craig in Knives Out 2—I suggest he could potentially put in a good word. In fact, she’s a big fan of the 007 star. But despite calling bona fide industry authorities her colleagues now, she confesses, “Morgan was the only person who got me starstruck”. Perhaps they will work together someday—there seems to be no glass ceiling for Henwick. “I’ve had a good run; I’ve been quite lucky—touch wood.” Something makes me think luck has nothing to do with it at all.
Photography Paul Scala
Styling Fabio Immediato
Hair Nao Kawakami/The Wall Group
Make-up Neil Young/Premier Hair and Make Up
Manicure Michelle Humprey/ LMC Worldwide
Stylist’s assistant Mariam Taiwo Sonekan
Pre-order your copy of the May/June ‘Blue’ issue of Vogue Singapore online now or pick it up on newsstands from 13 May 2022.