When Jessica Henwick joined her first acting class, an all-consuming sense of belonging immediately washed over her. The then 13-year-old decided to drop her other extracurricular activities—dance, piano, and choir—and dedicate herself to her newfound passion. Henwick, who grew up in the countryside of England, had no connections to the entertainment industry and was made to feel like her on-screen aspirations were out of reach. "Acting was such a pipe dream—even my drama school teacher tried to stop me from pursuing it," she says. "She told me there's just not going to be any work for me as an Asian woman. She said I should have a plan B, but I didn't want to do that."
Henwick was right to trust her intuition. Leaning into her love of acting has allowed her to cultivate a fruitful career, landing key roles in some of the most beloved television and film franchises. Henwick has appeared on Game of Thrones, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Iron Fist to name a few. Now, she's gearing up for the release of her latest blockbuster movie, The Matrix Resurrections (which will be in theaters and on HBO Max beginning December 22). Ahead, Henwick opens up about her character Bugs, why dying her hair blue for the film was transformative, and her love of free diving.
How did you land your first acting role?
I was in the right place at the right time. I was 16 and went to Chinatown in London with my mom. She saw these posters about an open casting call. They were looking for kids. I was too old, but my mom had this feeling that I should write them an email saying they should change the rules for me. So, I wrote them this email and somehow convinced them to let me audition with all these kids. When I got there, I did like four auditions, and then they ended up changing the role and rewriting it for me.
Since then, your career has just been on an incredible trajectory. Now, you’re playing Bugs in The Matrix Resurrections. How did that opportunity come about?
The first time I heard about the audition was in August 2019. I was on a hike, and I turned on my phone to tell everyone I was alive. I checked my emails, and I saw this casting email. I don't think I even read it. I just flat out turned it down. Not because I'm not a huge fan of The Matrix, but because I couldn't do the audition. I was in a Spanish desert, and there was no wi-fi there. I also mentally didn't want to do it. I had committed to this hike and was trying to make some big life decisions during it. Then in mid-September, I was finally home, and I got an email saying they still hadn't found anyone. I finally read the script and was like, Oh shit, this is really cool.
I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Lana Wachowski has been approached so many times to make another film in this universe, and she always says no. I knew it was now or never. I made a tape, and then after that, they flew me to L.A. to do chemistry reads with the actors. A couple of days after that, I was standing on the side of the road trying to get my Uber, and we couldn't find each other. While that was happening, I got a call from an unknown number. I picked it up and said, Yeah, I'm standing outside on the corner. Then, there's a long pause. And I just heard Lana's voice say, Jess, do you want to be in my movie?
I know you can't reveal a lot, but tell me a little more about Bugs.
Bugs is a true believer in the legend of Neo. She's kind of the closest character to the audience because it's almost like she's watched the original trilogy. She knows the story of what happened. She's a huge fan of his. She's convinced he's still out there, even though everyone thinks he's dead. When we find her at the beginning of the film, she's kind of devoted her life to tracking him down. That's all I can say.
Did you have any "pinch-me" moments on the set of The Matrix?
Oh, for sure. On the second or third day on set, we had a scene with Keanu Reeves. We were on this rooftop in San Francisco, and Lana was directing us from the inside of a helicopter. Then, Keanu comes out and says his line, and hearing his voice was such a "pinch-me" moment. I looked over at Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and we both were trying to keep a straight face but desperately wanting to break out into a smile. As soon as they yelled cut, we both looked at each other and started nodding like, Yeah, this is it.
In the movie, you have bold blue hair. What was your haircare routine while filming since you had to maintain your color?
It was such a nightmare. Filming was supposed to be over within five months. But because of the lockdowns, we ended up filming for 11 months with a three-month break in the middle. So, it was crazy trying to deal with my hair. When your hair is as dark as mine, trying to get it blue means you have to bleach it twice and then put the color in. Otherwise, it will just become a bunch of different colors, which happened to me. I posted all of the hair accidents on my Instagram. My hair went green. I'd never dyed my hair before this, so the maintenance was something new to me. I used a lot of special shampoos and conditioning treatments. I also love using coconut oil on my hair.
Despite the maintenance, were there elements of your hair transformation you enjoyed?
Yes, it was a transformative and emotional journey. For my first job at 16, I had waist-length hair. I later cut it off into a bob, so I'd already gone through the process of cutting my hair before. But changing my hair for the movie was different. It was truly freeing in that the emotional attachment was gone. We're taught to be so connected to our hair and defined by it. So, it's nice just to shake things up and free yourself of those ties. My hair also went to a good cause. We gave it to a wig company that works with children with terminal illnesses.
What does your skincare routine look like when you're not on set?
I like a minimalistic skincare routine because I have to wear so much makeup when I'm working. The most important thing I do is slather on SPF every morning. I rely very heavily on Shiseido products. I've been using them for a while because I like Asian skincare brands. I also like 111Skin. They have a very gelatinous sheet mask, which I am obsessed with.
When you do have downtime, what does self-care look like for you?
I've tried my whole life to meditate, and it doesn't work for me. I'm such an energetic person, so I can't shut off my brain to meditate. But, I finally found my version of meditation, and that's freediving. When I got to LA, I learned how to free dive. When I'm down there, it's the closest I get to complete clarity. I'll spend two or three hours in the water, and I'll come out feeling like I just went on a two-week holiday.
What advice do you often share with aspiring actors and actresses?
Be patient because it's a marathon, not a sprint. You also need to be true to yourself because that's the best thing you can do. I meet many actors who feel like they should dye their hair to fit into this bracket or dress a certain way. But being authentic will win people over. It's important to think about what you're bringing to the table that's new and unique to you.
I also think you need to maintain a sense of honesty with yourself. It's really easy to get caught up in the bullshit of this business. You cannot attach your happiness to a goal. I know how easy it is to say I'll be happy if I book this role or get this agent. That's a recipe for disaster. You have to find joy in the process and the journey. Otherwise, you're never going to be happy.
What are you looking forward to in 2022?
I want to do another solo hike. I'm just figuring out the exact route I want to take. Also, I'm excited to be taking a break. I'm very blessed to have done three big films back to back over the past two years. This is the first time in a long time that I don't have a contract looming in the near future. I'm excited about 2022 because anything is possible.