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Jessica Henwick Is Shaking Up Hollywood and The Red Carpet


You can’t put Jessica Henwick in a box. The 29-year-old performer acts, directs, writes, and is at the start of an exceptionally busy year. Currently saving Keanu Reeves from the simulation of The Matrix as Bugs in the franchise’s latest installment, Henwick is also streaming into living rooms in the sci-fi anime Blade Runner: Black Lotus. Then she’s jumping back to the big screen for the spy thriller The Gray Man opposite Chris Evans and Ryan Gosling. After that, she’s off to Greece to go toe-to-toe with the super rich in the follow-up to Knives Out. “This year has been a whirlwind,” she shared on the phone from Los Angeles. “I don’t think I’ll be able to fully grasp the magnitude until it’s over and I’m back home.” 

Home in Surrey, England, is where Henwick’s appreciation for storytelling first began. Her father, Mark, is a successful science fiction novelist, while grandmother authored several unpublished books. Thanks to their influence, she was drawn towards creative pursuits early, and by the age of 12, she was performing with local drama groups and penning her own stories. Bringing characters to life proved thrilling. “Acting is such a beautiful form of escapism, and once I started classes, I fell in love with it,” says Henwick. “It’s a difficult feeling to describe, [but] I always knew that I was meant to tell stories in some form; it’s in my blood.” 

Henwick as Bugs in The Matrix 

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Henwick disappears into her characters, so much so that many will be surprised to discover that the sapphire-haired cyberpunk from The Matrix and Game of Thrones’ whip-wielding Nymeria Sand are the same person. Still, there’s a strength that unites the people she portrays. Even when they seem dangerous at the outset, Henwick’s women are capable, intelligent, and not to be underestimated. Conveying that takes preparation. “It never comes easy; there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears when you’re preparing for the action and stunts,” says Henwick. “You work night and day, and the process is all-consuming. Your entire life becomes training and trying to put on muscle, but it’s [also] a psychological thing.”

Even before she mastered the stunts, Henwick understood that reviving a beloved franchise after 20 years would be a challenge. “Even if you haven’t seen the film you know about The Matrix, it’s impossible to avoid the impact of the original,” says Henwick. “I loved the films growing up, but when I was approached [about the part], I said no because I didn’t feel I was in the right frame of mind.” At the time Henwick was busy figuring out her future during a 40-day hike through France where she took stock of her life. “I just wanted to have a pure experience,” she says. “Thankfully by the time I finished they hadn’t cast everything yet!” 

Henwick in Greta Constantine 

Photo: Getty Images

To embody Bugs, Henwick had to dig deep. An idealistic freedom fighter, she serves as a guide to the upgraded version of the simulation taking Neo—and the audience—into a dystopian future. Bugs is a welcome addition to the franchise’s lineup of iconic characters. “[Bugs] is someone who reached a position of power at a young age so she has that bravado,” says Henwick. “I liked that she’s confident in her knowledge and knows she has the skills to back up her position. Playing a new character does take a bit of the pressure off as people don’t come in with expectations about my performance, and I have the freedom to do what I like with it.”

That included a full-scale makeover that saw her ditch her long dark locks for a stylized blue undercut. “The original plan was to shave my head entirely,” says Henwick. “But within the world of The Matrix, that has its own connotations. Lana came up with the idea that only half of my head would be shaved, and the other half would be this very specific bright blue. Carrie-Anne [Moss] and I had to go through these haircuts, and it was quite emotional because she hadn’t seen herself in the Trinity hair for so long. For me, it was a bit of a relief. I’d just gone through a huge overhaul in my [personal] life, and the hair had started to feel like baggage.” 

The beauty transformation meshed with the outré look of the film and prompted changes within Henwick’s personal wardrobe. “Normally, I seek comfort and warmth, big cable-knit sweaters, turtlenecks, huge chunky leather boots. In the winter, I can dress like a fisherman,” Henwick says. “When I had long hair, I leaned towards baggy clothes and dressing masculine, but once I’d gotten my haircut, I wanted to wear feminine styles. I love great tailoring, pieces with sharp, clean lines that were made to last.” 

in Chiristopher Esber 

Photo: Getty Images

Quality is a must, but so is visual impact. Whether it’s a belly-baring Christopher Esber midi dress in a unique shade of olive drab, like the one she chose for Bulgari’s Kensington Palace High Jewelry gala back in October, or the neon-infused tartan suiting and hoodie she wore while sitting front row at Hugo Boss’ Milan spring 2022 show, Henwick keeps things interesting. Even when she’s Zooming in for an appearance. “We’ve done a lot of upper body dressing lately,” she says. “My press tours have been primarily virtual, so we’re trying to find shirts with interesting necklines or figure out how to do something that focuses on the shoulders. My lower half isn’t getting any love, but I still want to stay on message with clean lines and tailoring.” 

Though she hasn’t gone full Matrix cosplay à la Hailey Bieber and Kendall Jenner, Henwick likes clothes that leave an impression. “Now that I’m in my late twenties, I like to push the envelope a bit,” she says. “It’s been a journey. In the beginning, I was so self-conscious I felt I had to cover up when I was on the red carpet; I’d never show my legs even. Now I’ve been to enough of these events to realize the only thing that matters is that you’re feeling good and having fun.”

The strategy works for Henwick, who ended 2021 with an epic fashion moment at the Unforgettable Gala. She was dazzled in a transparent, wet look gown from buzzy Greek designer Dimitra Pesta. The piece was from Petsa’s Central Saint Martin’s graduate MA collection, ‘Wetness,’  a radical exploration of the feminine body. “I just thought it was so cool when I saw it,” says Henwick. “[Dimitra] spent six months coming up with the technique to create that wet look on the fabric. She’s so talented, and I loved that I was able to wear a new brand and use that moment as an opportunity to support a young female entrepreneur.” 

in David Koma

Photo: Getty Images

Henwick’s next big female-focused project may be her most personal. Her directorial debut, Bus Girl, comes out later this year. “I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember, but the jump to directing felt huge,” she says “[So] I decided to start with something short.” An intimate comedy-drama about a young Asian woman who cleans tables at a high-end restaurant while dreaming of someday becoming a chef, Bus Girl draws inspiration from classic movies like Chungking Express. 

The lessons Henwick learned in front of the camera inform the types of projects she’s interested in taking on. Her goal: break the cycle of repetitive and reductive media about women and people of color. “I’d been in the industry long enough to see how cyclical it all was. We’ve been stuck telling the same stories about women, especially women over the age of 40, or women who are ethnic minorities,” says Henwick. “I figured I could complain about it or try and do something about it.”