Jessica Henwick on 'Love and Monsters,' 'The Matrix 4' and Pitching 'Jess Wick' to Keanu Reeves
Jessica Henwick’s star continues to be on the rise as the English actor has multiple projects releasing in the coming days. Henwick — who’s currently shooting the highly anticipated The Matrix 4 in Berlin — first returns to the screen alongside Dylan O’Brien in Paramount’s Love and Monsters, which premieres Oct. 16 on PVOD. Henwick and O’Brien play a couple named Aimee and Joel who’ve reconnected over radio after a “monsterpocalypse” separated them for seven years. Henwick also plays an integral role in Sofia Coppola’s latest film, On the Rocks, which Apple TV+ starts streaming Oct. 23. Finally, Blood of Zeus, her first of two upcoming animated voice roles, hits Netflix on Oct. 27.
Love and Monsters, which was shot on Australia's Gold Coast, was a surprisingly challenging film for Henwick since she had to unlearn years’ worth of martial arts and weapons training that she acquired on Game of Thrones, Iron Fist and The Defenders.
Heat Vision breakdown
“Aimee wasn’t meant to know how to fight … so I had to try and act like I didn’t really know how to do martial arts. After three years on Marvel shows, that was really a challenge,” Henwick tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I had to look like I had two left feet. So when we would do the choreo, we’d be like, ‘She just looks too good. How do we make this look more inept?’”
While Henwick can’t share any plot or character details regarding The Matrix 4, she’s definitely making the most of the opportunity by pitching John Wick 4 ideas to John Wick himself, Keanu Reeves. Given her background in martial arts and katana wielding, Henwick would fit right in on the John Wick set. In fact, when she played martial arts expert Colleen Wing in Netflix’s Marvel universe, she not only shot fight scenes at the same locations as John Wick, but she also hung out with the Wick crew at a time when they were both shooting.
“So I pitch Jess Wick to Keanu all the time. I’m probably driving him crazy,” Henwick shares. “I was like, ‘OK, Keanu, listen to me. Boom. John Wick 4, last five minutes, credits roll, post-credit sequence. Boom! You see my face, Jess Wick.’ I just started acting it out and then he started acting it out, too. We put on this little 10-minute show of what Jess Wick and John Wick would be like. Chad Stahelski, the director of all the John Wick movies, is flying out in two weeks, I think. So I’m going to go straight up to him and I’m going to say it.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Henwick also discusses the latest on her Amazon comedy series, Nancy Wu Done It, which she co-created, her secret talent involving Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and her unannounced lead role in an upcoming animated series that’s based on a popular sci-fi property. (Side note: The "w" in Henwick is silent.)
So I’m going to start with my most important question of the day. When can we expect you to release an album of your Interstellar piano covers?
(Laughs.) Gosh, I wish I was good enough to release a piano album. That would be such a dream. Alas, I think it’s a skill that will only ever be displayed on my Instagram. (Laughs.) It’s the most beautiful song [“Cornfield Chase”], is it not? I love it. I play it all the time.
That movie means a lot to me, so I was awfully impressed.
(Laughs.) OK, I’ll try and get an album together.
You’ve proven to be rather adept at acting, writing, swordplay, bullwhipping, piano and martial arts. Are you a quick study at pretty much everything?
Well, I was raised going to dance school and I do think that it taught me to basically pick up choreography very quickly, which is always what I say to stunt teams when I first meet them. I’m like, “I’m not a good stunt person. I’m not a good martial artist. I’m just a good mimic.” So yeah, I’m curious what will be next. My mom always told me that I should pick jobs based on what skill set they’ll teach me. (Laughs.) So I’ve got a pretty wide variety right now, but I’d love to learn horse riding and maybe do a Western.
So we briefly discussed Love and Monsters in your last interview, mainly the oysters that you guys were eating every day.
Well, Dylan O’Brien just added a new wrinkle to the mix in the form of oysters and arcade games. Does this mean you’re a gamer, too?
Oh, I love playing games. I grew up with two brothers and all those old Sega games. There was this one with a dolphin [Ecco the Dolphin] that was pretty trippy. I used to play that and a lot of Sonic the Hedgehog. And even now, both my brothers still game. But yes, arcade games. We would go to the local arcade on the Gold Coast and we would get bombarded with Dylan fans once they realized where we were going. It was quite upsetting, actually, because then we couldn’t go anymore. We had these point cards and we had racked up so many points to get the best prizes. The card is still in my office, but it’s wasted. Wasted points! (Laughs.)
So let’s pretend that the premise of Love and Monsters actually happened in real life, and we had to retreat to these underground colonies to avoid being eaten by monsters. Since everyone had a job or a role to fulfill underground, what would your responsibility be besides entertaining everyone with your Interstellar covers?
Oh my gosh, that’s such a good question. I didn’t even think about that. I like to think that my role would be a hunter-gatherer. I’m probably more of a gatherer; I’m not sure about the hunting. But I could learn how to forage well enough to feed the colony, I think.
Your character’s name is Aimee, which is spelled in an unusual fashion. How do you feel about unique spellings of traditional names?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I just question the motivations. It makes me quite suspicious of parents who do that. I wonder what they’re hiding, really. (Laughs.) No, actually … Jessica is just such a common name, and there are times when I wish I had a more unusual name. Though, Jessica has done me well.
Did you and Dylan shoot the radio scenes in the same room, while you were out of frame, or did you record your parts separately?
That was actually my first day on set, and I was in a tiny sound booth next to the stage. The funny thing about that is that I was improvising most of my lines. I had to play the other character, Janice, as well. And yeah, some of my jokes that I thought Janice should say ended up in the film. That gave me a lot of joy.
A lot of actors insist that the best way to shoot phone call-type scenes is by having their scene partner on set but out of frame. Is that your preference as well?
I mean, it depends how long the scene is. With something like Love and Monsters where you’re establishing the romantic relationship, it did seem really important that I was there for that. If it was me on-camera for a small phone call, I probably wouldn’t mention anything. But if I had been in Dylan’s place, I would’ve done the same thing.
[The following question contains spoilers for Love and Monsters.]
During the radio scenes, I felt like I caught wind of what Aimee would later tell Joel in the third act. Did you purposefully play those early radio scenes with the third act in mind?
Yeah, 100 percent. If I played that she’s flirting with him too much or that she’s asking him in any way to come, then it’d be goofy when he does come and she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know you were going to do it.” That’s so mean! And I don’t think it was like that for her at all. Yes, there’s some excitement there, in those radio calls, but it really is just wanting a confidant. She’s become so solitary and independent in this tribe of older people, and it’s nice to just talk to someone who she doesn’t have to lead. She can just drop the facade of strength, and be honest and vulnerable. Showing that vulnerability is probably what Joel interpreted as “Oh, she’s opening up to me. She wants me to come see her.”
[End of spoiler section for Love and Monsters.]
Aimee gives Joel her good luck charm, “Crocodile Carl.” Do you carry anything for good luck in that fashion?
I used to carry this stone that my mom found, which had a hole all the way through it. It was very smooth and it had a nice weight in your hand, if you know what I mean. It was cute, but I’m not that much of a good luck charm person.
You’ve already made katanas and bullwhips rather famous, but did you ever expect to add the door to a stove to your collection of on-screen weaponry?
(Laughs.) You know what? It was surprisingly challenging doing the action scenes in this film because I had to pretend to be someone who didn’t know how to fight. In the Marvel shows and Game of Thrones, those characters are meant to know how to fight, but Aimee wasn’t meant to know how to fight. She’s meant to know how to hunt to a very limited extent, so I had to try and act like I didn’t really know how to do martial arts. After three years on Marvel shows, that was really a challenge. (Laughs.)
It’s funny you say that because Maisie Williams recently said something similar to me. Basically, the two of you had to unlearn everything you spent years refining.
Yeah, I had to look like I had two left feet. So when we would do the choreo, we’d be like, “She just looks too good. How do we make this look more inept?” (Laughs.) So I was just trying to swing the door out of control and use it more as a battering ram. I also tried to keep the moves very, very simple and blunt. But yeah, I thought that Glenn (Suter), our stunt coordinator, did a great job of coming up with the fight that way.
Did you enjoy shooting on a real Gold Coast beach, or were you lamenting the fact that you weren’t filming on a green screen-covered soundstage?
(Laughs.) Oh, it was such a dream. On my second from last day on the film, we were out there on the beach at 5 a.m. and I saw a stingray breach. Stingrays do that; they’ll jump out of the water to clear off parasites or something. It’s something that they do for grooming, but you very rarely see it. I would also see dolphins every other day and that was amazing. But seeing this huge stingray breach was just such a dream. The Gold Coast is a magical environment to film in, and I was incredibly grateful for every single moment on that set.
Did Underwater end up serving as a pretty good warm-up for this movie since you already knew how to confidently react to big monsters that weren’t actually there?
That’s a hard one because I filmed that so long ago. It was a weird time of my life where I don’t really remember what it was like to film that. (Laughs.) I think Kristen (Stewart) would probably say that it was so traumatizing that we all just blanked it out. (Laughs.) But yeah, I suppose it was my first real chance to work with the beloved castmate Green Tennis Ball On A Stick. But yeah, that never really gets easier. I would always prefer to work with a prosthetic or a real actor there any day. On Underwater, the scene where I dissected the squid was wonderful because we had an actual squid there. They had done some prosthetics, and in post, they added CG to it. But it was just nice to be like, “Oh, there’s a huge, wet, slimy, smelly thing on the table that we can all interact with.”
Yeah, I spoke to your friend Mamoudou Athie recently, and he also sounded somewhat traumatized by the Underwater experience.
(Laughs.) Well, it didn’t help that half the cast had a phobia of large open spaces of water. I don’t think that helped at all.
So this is the part of the interview where you start dodging my questions like Neo dodges bullets.
Uh-oh! Neo? Who’s that? (Laughs.)
If oysters defined the Love and Monsters shoot, what’s the go-to cuisine on The Matrix 4 so far?
I’m going to have to say something vegan because our director (Lana Wachowski) is a vegetarian/vegan. Actually, a lot of our cast members are and we have two food trucks every day — the vegan truck and the German food truck.
Given the circumstances, do you feel as safe as you possibly can on that set?
Yeah, I’m really not sure how we could make it any safer. Being friends with Mamoudou, I’ve talked to him [about the Jurassic World: Dominion set], so it’s interesting to hear how the different studios have taken different precautions. But yeah, we’re doing everything we can. We have regular temperature checks. We get Covid tests all the time. Short of us literally sleeping, eating and just living on the sets, I’m not sure how we could make it any safer. (Laughs.)
Overall, are Lana and co. as advertised? Are they what you expected them to be?
I don’t think I knew what to expect. I think that that’s a dangerous thing to walk in with, especially with a film like this, which has predecessors. I really didn’t want to go, “Oh, I expect it to seem like what the picture is in my mind of how the original was,” because so much time has passed. So it’s just been a pretty organic experience that way.
Has your alter ego “Jess Wick” had any showdowns with John Wick off-set?
(Laughs.) So I pitch Jess Wick to Keanu all the time. I’m probably driving him crazy. Though the other day, we did have a blast because I started just acting it out. I was like, “Okay, Keanu, listen to me. Boom. John Wick 4, last 5 minutes, credits roll, post-credit sequence. Boom! You see my face, Jess Wick.” (Laughs.) I just started acting it out and then he started acting it out, too. We put on this little ten-minute show of what Jess Wick and John Wick would be like. Chad Stahelski, the director of all the John Wick movies, is flying out in two weeks, I think. So I’m going to go straight up to him and I’m going to say it. And yeah, watch this space. (Laughs.)
You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.
(Laughs.) What do I have to lose? Nothing. This is 2020.
Plus, you have the ultimate proof of concept in Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing. You’ve even shot at the same New York locations as John Wick, such as Colleen’s big fight at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park.
(Laughs.) I know! We were literally filming at the same time. Half of our stunt team on Iron Fist season one worked on the John Wick films. So when I went back to New York, I hung out with the John Wick crew and had a great night. It’s a small world.
Before its delay in March, I was preparing for a Mulan-related interview, and as I was scanning through premiere photos, I suddenly did a double take. The name Jessica Henwick was captioned, but there was an unrecognizable Jessica Henwick in the photo. Is your new Matrix look the most extreme change you’ve ever made to your appearance?
(Laughs.) Yes! I mean, when I was sixteen, for my very first show, Spirit Warriors, I had waist-length hair and they chopped it off to a bob. So I’ve done the length thing before, but I’ve never colored my hair. And so, yes, this is definitely the most extreme look. Literally, no one recognizes me. For the past 10 months, I’ve not been stopped once in the street. It’s pretty interesting, actually.
Did your new haircut serve quarantine well in hindsight?
So, over quarantine, I was in England, and I obviously had no access to anyone who could cut my hair. And I just wasn’t feeling comfortable enough to do it myself with such an extreme hairstyle. So it just grew out into this shaggy bob thing; I was actually kind of into it. What I love about it are the speed lines on the side, which increases the aerodynamic aspect of my head. So, as soon as I got back to The Matrix set, I was like, “Please put the speed lines back in,” and they did.
Did you look for any voice work during quarantine, or did you mostly keep up with your Matrix training?
I actually did a pretty big animated series, but I don’t think they’ve announced me yet. So I don’t know if I can say it, but I’m the lead in that and I’m excited for that to come out. It will be on Adult Swim in 2021, I believe.
And this is different from Blood of Zeus, right?
Yeah, that’s a Netflix series. I think that comes out on Oct. 27. What can I say about this other new one? It’s based on a very big film that’s in the sci-fi world and was recently revisited. And they’re now venturing into the animated world. That is what I will say. (Laughs.) So I’m doing that and a couple of other voice gigs, but that’s the one that I’m really the most excited about. [Writer’s Note: Could it be this?]
I enjoyed Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks quite a bit. What stood out to you about Sofia and her way of working?
She’s very, very quiet. She’s just so earnest, quiet and sweet. But she’s also quietly strong. I had such a good time working with her, and I’ve never worked with anyone like her. She never raised her voice once. During my introduction scene with Rashida (Jones) and Marlon Wayans, there’s this shot of Rashida’s face as the wheels start to turn in her head; she starts to realize what’s going on there. It was just this close-up of Rashida, and Sofia was just standing by the camera and was very gently and very quietly speaking to her. She was like, “Now you’re thinking this and now you’re thinking this. And now you’re wondering what you’re going to do about your kids.” And you can slowly see the changes on Rashida’s face. It was just so beautiful, and you could hear a pin drop. And then, she called cut and everyone applauded. It was a really, really touching scene, actually.
It’s interesting how both of your new movies culminated on a beach after someone tried to figure out where you were for most of the movie.
(Laughs.) Yeah, that’s true. I didn’t even think about that. That is true.
Besides your secret piano-playing skills, it was recently revealed that you’re also an accomplished writer. What can you say about Nancy Wu Done It, your comedy series that Amazon picked up?
Gosh, that’s a hard one. I don’t know how much I can say, except my co-writer, Kai (Yu Wu), and I came up with the idea a short while ago. I actually had just found out that the Marvel shows were all being canned. I was in China at the time, and for the first time in years, I didn’t have a single contract lined up in front of me. That was incredibly freeing, but it was also a little daunting. I thought, “What if I’m done? What if that’s it? What if I never act again?” So I think that that kind of spilled out into our lead character, who is a writer and has those same fears of, “What if it’s all over?” Hopefully, we’ll have more news to share soon, but it’s a project that’s so close to me and I love it so much. I love creating these crazy female characters that I don’t feel we get to see enough of, and yeah, I’m excited to share it with the world.
Did you write a role for yourself?
We haven’t even got close to discussing that, honestly. We’re still tinkering with the series arc, but I would love to, yeah. We’ll see. It definitely wasn’t written for that purpose, but I love the show and I would love to be a part of it.
Since we closed on this subject last time to great effect, what are your most active group texts, currently, involving present and former casts?
(Laughs.) Well, the Matrix cast is so big, and it’s so mixed in terms of who has what chat app on their phone. So we don’t actually have one. Isn’t that crazy? Among my former casts, honestly, it’s probably a tie between Iron Fist season two, and Love and Monsters. I also speak to Mamoudou almost every day. I am so grateful that I met him on Underwater because I will cherish that friendship forever.
I’ve only spent 30 minutes with Mamoudou, but he really impressed me. That reminds me of something we talked about, so maybe you can settle the debate. While I was watching his series Oh Jerome, No, I realized that Mamoudou sounds exactly like Adam Driver. I even did some digging to see if anyone else aligned in that thinking, and there’s a growing number of people who agree. Where do you weigh in on this?
He told me about this. (Laughs.) I suppose when you mention it, there’s something similar about their voice, but I didn’t notice it until you pointed it out. Now it’s going to be hard for me to stop thinking about that, so thank you very much.
I wish I could play you his initial reaction to hearing that comparison. It’s quite something.
(Laughs.) You’re hilarious.
Love and Monsters is available on PVOD and Digital on Oct. 16.