Jessica Henwick On Finding The Joy In Film And Paving The Way For Asian Representation

Jessica Henwick On Finding The Joy In Film And Paving The Way For Asian Representation

Photographed by Sheryl Nields

Glass Onion’s Jessica Henwick talks jam sessions with Daniel Craig and East Asian representation in the film industry.

When Jessica Henwick isn’t flying country to country shooting her next big project, or on press tours promoting her latest releases, she’s at home with her family in the English countryside. The half-English, half-Singaporean-Chinese actress has already amassed an incredible filmography since she started acting over a decade ago, which includes a historical first in terms of representation on-screen.

Her television debut was on the BBC’s Spirit Warriors, a children’s adventure series that first aired in 2009. With Henwick in the lead role, she found herself becoming the first East Asian actress on British television, second only to David Yip in the 1980s police drama The Chinese Detective.

The notion seems odd today, but it opened the actress’s eyes to how much work had yet to be done. Since then, she’s been championing racial diversity and advocating for better roles, free from Asian stereotypes.

Henwick now has the likes of Game of Thrones, Marvel’s Iron Fist, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Matrix Resurrections, and Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks, in her repertoire. It’s clear that the actress is on her way to becoming one of the biggest names to watch of this generation.

She sits down to talk to Vogue Philippines right toward the end of a whirlwind year, with two major pictures being released.

Midway through the year, the Russo brothers’ new title was released, called The Gray Man, which sees Henwick starring alongside major names like Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, and Ana De Armas. Since then, she’s found herself on a major press tour for her upcoming release, the highly anticipated Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which likewise has quite the collection of major actors.

Henwick plays Peg, the unassuming and forbearing assistant to the glamorous Birdie Jay, played by Kate Hudson. Birdie is just one of the guests invited to a murder mystery weekend hosted by an esoteric millionaire, Miles Bron, played by Edward Norton, a suspect in the ongoing investigation of Daniel Craig’s character Benoit Blanc. Blanc finds himself in attendance at the weekend event, alongside other fabulous guests played by the likes of Janelle Monae, Katherine Hahn, and Dave Bautista.

In a way, Glass Onion turned out to be quite the full-circle moment for Henwick. Besides basing her character on her own experiences as a personal assistant in her early days in the industry, Henwick tells us about another career coincidence that involved director Rian Johnson.

After receiving the script while she was in France shooting The Gray Man, Henwick hopped on a call with Johnson and right away told him she had a bone to pick with him. “The only time I’ve ever written fanmail was when I was a teenager,” she tells us. “I wrote Rian fanmail after watching Brick and he never replied! So I immediately told him that and we had a real laugh about it.”

Thankfully, the two found themselves on the exact same page in terms of Peg’s character, and the rest was history.

Courtesy of Netflix.

The movie has quite the ensemble cast. What was it like working alongside such big Hollywood names?

Trippy! It’s always weird when you’re working with someone you’ve grown up watching. But it really was part of the reason why I signed on; to use it as a learning experience and study from them. I feel like I had a crash course in acting, directing, and writing, all on one film set for two months. 

Was there anyone in particular that you enjoyed learning from?

Rian [Johnson] definitely! I love the way he runs a set. He’s so collaborative, he’s so kind and generous. I’ve been a fan of his since he first made Brick! It felt incredible to come full circle and be able to see what he’s actually like on set. 

Is there anyone that you may have been a little intimidated by?

I definitely was intimidated by Daniel [Craig] at times! Bond is such an icon in British cinema and something I’ve grown up with. I think Daniel is phenomenal, but I had read interviews with him and I thought he sounded a bit scary. [I’m] happy to report that he’s actually, just dad energy. Yes, he’s scary and intimidating, but he’s also really funny and kind. I just want to make him proud!

He would love to have little jam sessions, and he put his music on, and we would all lie down on the floor of the green room. We would just sing and vibe together. That was a joy.

That’s unexpected! That’s really cool. 

I know! I think it’s unexpected too, but you know what? Having read interviews with him, I realize he’s just incredibly dry and I think that’s what came off as being scary to me. 

Courtesy of Netflix.

What was it like on set? I understand you guys shot in Greece.

Yeah! We shot exteriors in Greece and interiors in Serbia. Greece was a holiday. We were put up in these villas on the coast, and it was summer camp. It was a hot, phenomenal, summer camp. 

And then we went to Serbia, which was lovely but very different because we were stuck indoors every day on one set. So we all went a bit stir-crazy. It didn’t help that the set was meant to be Miles Bron’s—that’s Edward [Norton]’s character—house.

He’s meant to be quite an esoteric and eccentric genius, so there was nothing chill about the set. It was all bright blood red and shag carpets and huge ugly pieces of art. There was like a Kanye West mural on the wall. It was very in your face. 

I never realized how much the color of the wall affects your subconscious until I was in that room with the red walls for a month and I realized “oh my god, I never want to see red again!”

How did this experience differ from your previous projects like Game of Thrones or Star Wars?

It’s interesting because we were effectively stuck together. We shot it in COVID, so there were nine of us and we were there from day one till the end. We lived together, we ate together, and we were very much encouraged to hang out because we weren’t supposed to be going out. We were using a bubble system, a pod system to try to protect the cast and crew. 

It was very insular but it felt like a sleepover, a really long sleepover. Whereas the other films I’ve done, you know, new actors are constantly coming in. When I did Game of Thrones we would see each other for three days, and then we would see each other a month later and film for a day, then we would fly to another country. The scope of it felt massive, and I think this felt like it was getting back to basics, despite the fact that it’s a multi-million dollar budget. 

Courtesy of Netflix.

You seem to have done so many genres from action to fantasy. Is there any genre that you enjoy the most out of all of them?

I think the little kid in me loves working in fantasy. I had a real voracious appetite for it when I was a child. I just devoured fantasy books and fantasy films. I was obsessed with it. As an adult, it’s not so much the genre that speaks to me, it’s more [about] how original is the piece. How intelligent is it? Every story has been told, it’s hard to make something feel new and exciting, and smart. That’s always what I’m looking for. 

Which one of your projects was, maybe not necessarily a “favorite,” but stood out to you in terms of your experience working on it?

Working on Love and Monsters was a lot of fun. Mainly because Dylan O’Brien is one of the funniest actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. That man, ugh! I wish they released the bloopers or extra scenes because he came up with so many funny improvisations, every single take. 

It’s just never seen the light of day, which makes me sad. I really got along with the cast and crew, and it was such a great time so I remember that really fondly. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it was in Australia on the Gold Coast in the summer. I got really lucky on that one. 

And recently, I’m in this film called The Royal Hotel, which is coming out in 2023. That was one of the films that sort of reminded me of the purity of acting. It’s a very simple script, there’s no CG [computer graphics], there’s no action, there’s no spectacle to it, but it is the most involving story. The characters are just fascinating, so I’m very excited for that to come out. I’m very excited to see it because I haven’t watched it yet!

I’m excited to see that! Do you have a favorite part of filming?

I actually really love pre-production. I love the act of creating the character and working with the director. Going through the hair and makeup and costume is always really fun for me. I think it’s the first thing the audience sees, and we’re very quick to make judgments based on someone’s physical appearance. So I always like being very specific. 

With Glass Onion and Peg, I wanted her to scream “don’t look at me!” That’s what she’s saying. There’s nothing flashy about her, yet she works with some of, possibly the most outrageously dressed characters in the film, and by contrast, she just wears gray. She’s incredibly practical and I just wanted to capture those aspects of her character. 

Were there any projects you’ve had where you really enjoyed the costumes?

Again, in Love and Monsters, I had this really funny cape that Dylan and I would crack jokes about all the time. It was a handmade, handwoven cape and it’s in this theme where I’m super drunk. I started prancing around set and pretending I was a bird! It was definitely the most interactive costume I’ve had. 

Also at the beginning of my career, I played a barrister pupil in a TV series called Silk, which was on the BBC. If you’re familiar with barristers, they have to wear a wig and gown. The white wig, you’ve probably seen images of it. It’s a super scratchy white wig and a long black gown. It’s very dramatic, I really don’t know why we still do it. But I was able to go and get a real barrister’s wig and gown for that, it was cool. 

Courtesy of Netflix.

I also read somewhere that you were one of the first East Asian lead characters on the BBC.

I think I was the first East Asian actress on British TV. There was a guy before me, an actor who I’ve actually worked with, David Yip, in The Chinese Detective. That was in…I think the ’80s? After that there was no one, then in 2009, I did a TV series called Spirit Warriors. It was a long time coming. 

I wasn’t conscious of it at the time. I didn’t know that, I just thought, “Oh this is cool, I want to be an actor, and look I got a job!” And it was only during production—we had almost every British East Asian or Southeast Asian actor come onto that show and someone said to me “Do you know how rare this is? We’re all in the same room on the same show, that never happens.” 

It’s always like, you’re the one token Asian and that means there will not be a single other Asian on the show. It was only then that I became aware, and I started researching it, and I realized. Obviously, I had known as a consumer that there was not enough East Asian representation, but I didn’t realize just how bad it was and how this community was crying out for this kind of representation. It’s something that has remained important to me to this day. 

Do you feel like there’s been any improvement over the years since you started?

There definitely has. I will say, give credit where it’s due. Crazy Rich Asians had a huge impact on both the American and British industries. It proved that there was an appetite for it, there was an audience. It’s crazy than anyone thought there wasn’t, ever!

You look at something like Squid Game, which did so phenomenally well, and the entire thing is subtitled, which the industry was always telling people “No, Americans don’t wanna read subtitles!” Lo and behold, it became the biggest show to come out of lockdown. 

I definitely think change has happened, is happening, but it’s not totally an even playing field for sure. There’s always work to be done. I think we need more East Asian creatives behind the cameras, honestly. On-screen, the statistics are starting to look up, but in terms of studio executives, producers, writers, directors, there is a dearth of East Asians there. 

What advice would you give to aspiring actors or anyone who wants to get into the industry but may not really see themselves represented in the media?

Be the change you want to see. If you feel like your story has not been told, who better to tell it than you? I’m always encouraging actors to take control of the narrative and write their own work, create their own work, create their own opportunities. 

If you’re not in the industry at all and you’re just looking for that first step, I would say go online and find your local TV or film productions, and see if they’re looking for crew members. That’s what I did, I was a PA (Personal Assistant), I was a set dresser. Those opportunities were really invaluable to me to understand how the industry works, and it didn’t come with the price tag that drama school did. 

That’s great advice. What actually inspired you to get into the industry?

I always just wanted to tell stories, and when I was a kid I would write novels and plays, and I would always put on shows for my parents. I was always a storyteller, I was always a performer. 

And then I kind of honed in on acting when I was a teenager, driven by that realization that no one was doing it, there was no one to look up to. The impact on my psyche when I was a kid! You know, I look back, watching all those period dramas, and I just wanted to look like them. It’s so sad, and I’m glad kids these days have something else to aspire to, to see themselves reflected in.

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