This year, Jessica Henwick stars in Netflix’s The Gray Man and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. But she says a lot of her acting career has involved waiting for roles.
“Total blind faith,” she says. “You have to kind of be a psycho about it. It didn’t make sense that I should have that faith. It didn’t make sense that it should have happened. If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s not going to happen. And so even though I sometimes had that small voice in the back of my head, like, Hmm, you’ve been going to auditions and you’ve not been booking anything, maybe it’s done. Maybe it’s over, I had to at least outwardly say, ‘It’s gonna hit, it’s gonna land, it’s just waiting for the right time.’ You just have to repeat these mantras to yourself.”
She broke through in 2015 at age 22, with roles in both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Game of Thrones. Now 29, she’s grateful for her lean years.
“I know actors who’ve gone a lot longer and haven’t been able to pay their bills. But certainly, when I did Game of Thrones, I saw what it’s like to go from zero to one hundred, and a lot of those actors, that was their first audition they booked. They didn’t know what to do when the show was over because they had always been successful, so they assumed they would always be successful. It’s a humbling experience I think every actor should go through.”
She grew up in Surrey, England, and “jumped back and forth a lot” between Malaysia and Singapore during her formative years, she says.
“I was a very happy child. I was raised with two brothers, but I always knew I wanted to entertain and tell stories in some way. And so even though my family had no real connection to the industry, and even though statistically speaking, this shouldn’t be happening, I would just fill my time with reading stories, writing stories, writing plays — I made a film club. I would put on shows. Anything to get that kick.”
Before she landed roles in films like The Gray Man, Henwick first played Bo in the 2010 BBC children’s adventures series Spirit Warriors and thought roles would come easily afterward. They didn’t.
“I followed that by two years of unemployment, thinking, ‘Well, why isn’t anything happening?’ I just was the lead in a TV series, and assumed it would be so easy from then on out, but it didn’t happen. And then I did a bunch of other jobs and then returned to acting,” she says. “I was a PA and I was a set dresser. I did crew jobs. I was an extra… but I really think I was just trying to soak up the atmosphere of a set.”
As we speak, Henwick is in the kitchen.
“While we’re talking, I’m going to be swapping chicken between two plates,” she says. “I’ve got to make dinner for my family.” She appeared in various TV shows including Silk and Inspector Lewis before landing her big franchise roles.
And this year she can expect a much higher profile. In The Gray Man, out today on Netflix, Henwick stars alongside Ryan Gosling, Regé-Jean Page, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas. Last year, she appeared in The Matrix Resurrections and voiced Water Lily in the animated Blade Runner: Black Lotus series.
“I’ve been doing this a really long time. So I would say it’s slow,” she laughed, thinking of her career trajectory. “There was a big struggle at the beginning to be seen for anything, and I feel lucky that I’m on a kick right now. What got me here is just consistency.”
But having success can take a toll on relationships, she says.
“I was talking to my friend Eiza about this yesterday, and we were talking about the difficulties of maintaining a relationship in this industry because we are in a relationship with our career,” she says. “There’s no way to get to this point without doing that. So I’ve just been thinking about that a lot, and the sacrifice — and I don’t complain in any way, because I feel very lucky to do what I do. But I remember growing up just being so single-minded about what I wanted and I would miss weddings and miss birthdays… so you miss your friends, the birth of their child — you make a trade. You pay for it. So, I guess that’s it. I made the trade. That’s why I’m working.”
In The Gray Man, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, she plays a CIA agent who is tired of being overlooked.
“I was just in a place of my life where I was like, I want to play someone who’s fucking mad. Because a lot of the time with female roles, you’re always playing someone who’s nice, or they want you to be likable. They want to make sure that you’re not being too harsh, too cold, too stern. And the Russos were just like, ‘No, meaner, meaner, angrier. Embrace it. This is a woman who’s just been so fucked over,’” she says. “It was just a nice experience to feel unbridled and not like I was being held back.”
Henwick herself is tired of being pigeonholed into stereotypical roles for women.
“You’re always searching for someone who’s like fully fleshed out, and at this stage in my life, I’m very much looking,” she says. “I’m bored of playing the girlfriend or the plus one or the assistant. I want someone who has their own goals, motivations, who just feels like a real person. Alive.”
She was delighted to get to work with not only Evans and de Armas, but Ryan Gosling. She joked that his skin looks so good in real life that to gaze upon it is like “looking into the sun.”
“My favorite when I was in the scenes with him, sometimes I’d be like, ‘What the fuck is he doing?’ Because he’s just coming up with it on his own. It’s not on the page a lot of the time,” she says. “I was very taken aback when I had my first scene with him. I was like, Wow, he’s really playing it differently than how I expected. And then I watched the film back and I think he’s the best thing in it. I think he’s so brilliant and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s a lot of fun. He also just, like, glows. His skin is glowing. I don’t know what it is. I need his regimen.”
Henwick recently wrote, directed, and starred in the short film “Bus Girl” about an aspiring young chef navigating the cutthroat high-end restaurant industry. And she’s already begun her follow-up short, called “Sandwich Man.”
“I loved it. I had a really phenomenal time, and I think the biggest lesson I learned is you are only as good as the people around you. You can have all your ducks in a row, but if you’re not communicating with your team, or if everyone’s thinking it’s a different thing, it’s not going to work. Communication is so important. So I was very lucky on ‘Bus Girl’ that I had a phenomenal DP, Nick Cooke,” she says of making “Bus Girl.”
The whole movie was shot on a Xiaomi phone with the goal of capturing the energy of London.
“I’m such a big fan of Chungking Express, because to me, that film doesn’t make any story sense, but it captures joy so well that it’s very infectious,” she says. “So I wanted to capture the feeling of bittersweetness, of kind of people passing in the night and almost circumstances. The magic of living in a city, when I first moved to London — it felt like, Oh my gosh, anything is possible here. The city is what you make of it.”
The Gray Man opens in theaters on July 15 and is available to stream on Netflix on July 22.
Main Image: The Gray Man actress Jessica Henwick stands on a metal staircase in a warm jacket. Photo by Matt Berberi.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2022 print issue of MovieMaker Magazine, on newsstands Aug. 2.