Jessica Henwick on 'Underwater' and Her 6-Month 'Star Wars' Audition
Since her breakout role as Colleen Wing on Marvel’s Iron Fist, Jessica Henwick’s star is on the rise, particularly in genre-based action roles. Her significant presence throughout Netflix’s Marvel universe — including Iron Fist, The Defenders and Luke Cage — has resulted in the English actor’s castings in Underwater, Godzilla vs. Kong and Monster Problems. This past October, Henwick also landed her biggest role to date as a lead character in the highly secretive Matrix 4, alongside original castmembers, Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss.
In Henwick’s latest film, Underwater, she plays Emily Haversham, a research assistant who’s part of a group of people that are fighting for survival after an “earthquake” rocks their underwater station at the bottom of the ocean. For Henwick, the chance to be a hero alongside Kristen Stewart was something she couldn’t pass up, especially since two women fighting in support of each other is a rare sight for the science fiction-horror genre.
Heat Vision breakdown
“Isn’t that great? That — and getting to work with Kristen (Stewart) — was part of the selling point to me,” Henwick tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I was really in love with Brian Duffield’s script, and the fact that he developed two amazing women.”
With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker currently in theaters, Henwick couldn’t help but reflect on her experience on 2015’s The Force Awakens, an experience that began with her auditioning for Rey over the course of six months. Henwick also updates the status of her X-wing pilot character, Jess Pava, and whether she survived Episode IX’s final battle or not.
“Jess Pava is alive and well. You can read up on all her adventures in new spinoff comic books,” Henwick says with a laugh. “I was auditioning for a different character, actually, so I spent six months auditioning for that character. And then, at the end, J.J. said, ‘I want you to be in the film, but I want to write a character for you.’ That’s how Jess Pava was created. But, after six months, you can’t help but just desperately want [the original role]. So, I was a mess at the end of those six months.”
Despite Henwick’s beloved portrayal of martial artist Colleen Wing, it’s unlikely that she’ll swing her katana again due to the Disney-Fox merger and Netflix’s abrupt cancellations of all their Marvel shows. However, as much as she would’ve loved to explore the Daughters of the Dragon storyline alongside Simone Missick’s Misty Knight, Henwick is satisfied overall.
“I definitely would’ve loved to have done more Daughters of the Dragon-type stuff with Simone (Missick). We had so many great ideas,” Henwick explains. “So, that’s something that I would’ve loved to have visited, but for the most part, Colleen had a great journey. It was this real zero-to-hero type moment for her at the end of season two. So, yeah, I feel happy.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Henwick also discusses the claustrophobic nature of her Underwater role, her experience on Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks and Godzilla vs. Kong reshoots.
Before we get into Underwater, the world needs to know if X-wing pilot Jess Pava survived the final battle in the latest Star Wars movie.
(Laughs.) Yes! Jess Pava is alive and well. You can read up on all her adventures in new spinoff comic books. So, don’t worry, she’s doing great. She’s living her best life.
I know you’re used to having to wait to see your work onscreen, but when you finally watched footage of Underwater three years after shooting it, did you feel more of a time capsule effect than usual?
Yes, definitely. It feels like a lifetime ago. I feel like I was a different person, and it’s quite strange. Also, when we filmed it, so much of it was to be done in CG. So, watching it was just a completely different experience because we had no idea how it would look.
This film takes place at the bottom of the ocean — 36,000-plus feet to be exact. So, you’re confined in that respect, but you’re also confined inside a heavy-duty suit. Was your performance partially informed by the confinement you likely felt on set while in that suit?
Oh, completely. We were all in a lot of pain because the suits were so f------ heavy. That definitely helps to play the traumatic aspects that the characters are going through. We were living and breathing that world.
Can you handle close quarters in real life?
So, I have a weird thing about claustrophobia ever since Star Wars — when they were in the trash compactor. I have a weird thing about walls coming in, but I handled the claustrophobic aspects of the suits well. Some of the other actors couldn’t handle being underneath the water when we had the actual water-tight suits, but I think I held up.
Some actors have told me that fear is difficult to play, especially in circumstances that are so far beyond anything they’ve actually experienced. Even though you make it look easy, is fear difficult for you to play as well?
I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but it’s definitely hard to maintain for that long. The shoot was several months, and my character is in a permanent state of terror. She’s the most similar to the audience in that way; she’s just an average person with a very normal reaction to all this. She’s terrified, she’s crying, she’s a mess. So, it was hard to maintain that level of fear.
Your character, Emily, dealt with that fear by making small talk. Is that something you can relate to on some level?
Yeah, I think everyone does that to an extent. It’s a form of comforting yourself. She’s such a “chatty Cathy.” So, that was her thing.
Do you develop a deeper bond with your castmates when you’re all doing something physical in this fashion?
We were definitely all on the same page of this being so incredibly difficult … You bonded through trauma. (Laughs.)
Underwater really has a thing for Moon Pies, which I’ve never actually tried. Were you already initiated?
I hadn’t eaten a Moon Pie until I signed on to this film. Yeah, this whole film is one giant Moon Pie advert. (Laughs.)
You've been cast in a number of genre-based projects so far. When you envisioned your career growing up, did you want to pursue a lot of science fiction, fantasy and action roles? Or, is this path you're on sheer happenstance?
I think it’s a combination of several things. I’m definitely a big fan of these genres. I grew up loving Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, all of these things. So, those projects have always appealed to me, but it’s definitely not been intentional. I think it’s more a case of what roles are available to Asian women in my bracket at this point in time.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a sci-fi horror-thriller where two women have each other’s backs like they do in Underwater. It’s also noteworthy because the film was shot roughly six months before the fall of 2017, which is when women from all over the world united in support of each other.
I know. Isn’t that great? Yeah, that — and getting to work with Kristen (Stewart) — was part of the selling point to me. She’s so multifaceted in this because she’s strong yet fragile. I was really in love with Brian Duffield’s script, and the fact that he developed two amazing women.
Because of your previous action roles such as Colleen Wing, are you able to re-acclimate to training and learn choreography a lot quicker than when you started?
Definitely, yes. I used to do dance a lot when I was a kid. So, I always say that I’m not good at stunts; I’m just good at picking up choreography because I was in that mindframe from a very young age. With Underwater, it wasn’t stunts, per se … The big trick was getting used to moving your body in slow motion and then talking at a normal speed. That was a hurdle.
Have you tried to maintain the skill set you acquired from playing Colleen since you put so much time into it over the years?
(Laughs.) It’s like riding a bike, but if you gave me a katana, and a few hours, I could remember some of the things I did. It’s the same with the bullwhip I used on Game of Thrones. But, I definitely don’t practice either in my spare time. I like the idea of going to a different job and learning something new each time. I’m actually trying to get a job now where I have to learn horseback riding.
Recently, there was a very exciting casting report involving you and The Matrix 4. Is it safe to say that the skills you acquired via Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing will come in handy on this project?
(Laughs.) “Is it safe to say that Colleen’s skills will come in handy on that project?” I think it’s safe to say that Colleen Wing’s skills come in handy on all my life’s projects! (Laughs.)
Since you can’t talk about the length of that particular casting process, was The Force Awakens a lengthy casting process?
Oh, my god, dude. That was f------ six months. That was a long one. I was auditioning for a different character, actually, so I spent six months auditioning for that character. And then, at the end, J.J. said, “I want you to be in the film, but I want to write a character for you.” That’s how Jess Pava was created. So, it was a very, very long experience. It’s hard because I’ve been doing this long enough to know that you go in, audition, put it to the back of your mind, don’t think about it and don’t get emotionally invested. But, after six months, you can’t help but just desperately want it. I’m also such a big J.J. fan. So, I was a mess at the end of those six months. [Editor’s Note: Henwick was a finalist for Rey.]
What do you remember most about shooting your X-wing cockpit scenes at Pinewood?
The thing I remember the most is that all the other actors would get motion sickness. We got into this plane rig, and it would lift you up 20 feet in the air. It would also move like a rollercoaster. The other actors could only do 10-15 minutes of filming before they would get sick, have to stop and come down to get back on their feet. So, I was the one who was up there saying, “No, keep rolling! I’ll just start riffing.” I love roller coasters so I thought it was hilarious.
I didn't realize how popular Jess Pava (X-wing pilot Blue Three) is in fan circles and fan fiction. Apparently, they want her to date Rey, hence the "BlueRey" portmanteau fans have coined for them. Are you always amazed when fans devote that kind of energy to your characters?
(Laughs.) Yeah! It was lovely. I think people really connected to the fact that she was the first female X-wing pilot that we’ve seen — in the films, anyway. The amount of fan fiction and fan art was beautiful. That community is wonderful.
A lot of people, including myself, are disappointed that you’ll likely never play Colleen Wing again. Overall, do you feel fulfilled, or did you still have ground you wanted to cover as her?
I definitely would’ve loved to have done more Daughters of the Dragon-type stuff with Simone (Missick). We had so many great ideas, and Simone and I have a really wonderful chemistry in real life. So, that’s something that I would’ve loved to have visited, but for the most part, Colleen had a great journey. It was this real zero-to-hero type moment for her at the end of season two. So, yeah, I feel happy.
How was your experience on Sofia Coppola's latest film, On The Rocks, for A24 and Apple TV+?
It was amazing! I love her. I’m such a big fan, and Bill Murray is great. I don’t know how much I can say, but it’s a wonderful film. I’m so excited for it to come out.
Have you gone back to do reshoots on Godzilla vs. Kong yet?
On Godzilla, I think I’m in the clear with reshoots. I think … (Laughs.)
Lastly, for reasons I’ve yet to figure out, I'm fascinated by Hollywood group texts. Do you currently have a favorite group text among your former casts?
Let me open my phone and see … I do have a group text with the Marvel guys — Finn Jones, Sacha Dhawan, Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup. But, it’s a little calm recently … There’s a very lively Monster Problems group text between me, Dylan O’Brien and Tre. We were all staying in the same hotel together, and we all had an obsession with oysters. So, the majority of the group text is just, “Where can we get the best oysters in Australia?”
Where do you stand on baked or fried oysters?
I don’t like them at all. They’ve gotta be raw with some lemon, maybe some vinegar and a little bit of chile. I like a clean-tasting oyster. (Laughs.)
Well, that is too good of a closing note.
I can’t wait for this to come out so I can screen-shot it and put it in the group text. (Laughs.)
Underwater is now in theaters.
by Carolyn Giardina
by Rebecca Keegan, Hilary Lewis
by Chris Gardner