Jessica Henwick is a Eurasian director, writer and actor born in Surrey. She was raised on a steady diet of Singaporean food and fantasy books, and to her father’s dismay dropped out of school when she was seventeen. Her BAFTA-nominated directorial debut “Bus Girl” won the Audience Award and Best Narrative Short at the Birmingham Film Festival and Coronado Film Festival, respectively. She is also the recipient of the Mary Pickford Prize for female filmmakers and last year was named The Hollywood Reporter’s Rising Star and Variety’s Top 10 to Watch. She can currently be seen in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” on Netflix.
Tara Karajica talks to Jessica Henwick about her directorial debut with the short film “Bus Girl, the short form, her acting career, women in film and what she is up to next.
What made you want to become an actress?
Jessica Henwick: I just always loved telling stories from a really young age. And, I think that I was always going to end up in the arts in one way. I started acting when I was a teenager and I think it was a pretty natural progression for me to end up writing and directing as well because I kind of see them all as the same thing, which is storytelling.
Can you delve more into your jump to directing? Was it difficult?
J.H.: It was definitely difficult. But I think a lot of the difficulties were in my mind. I had wanted to direct for a really long time, but I didn’t go to film school or even drama school and I dropped out of school when I was sixteen. So, I just felt like I wasn’t qualified and that’s what held me back for a really long time. And, my producer, Louise [Palmkvist Hansen], had been telling me for a while: “You should really try directing, you should try directing.” I kept saying: “You know, it’s not ready. I’m not ready. It’s not the right time. It’s not the right project.” And, finally, I got to the stage where I realized it will never be the right time, or the right project. You just have to do it and learn on the job. And, I was very privileged to be able to do that because of my acting and to have the support team, a crew and a cast who I had worked with on other projects – some of them anyway –. So, it was a perfect storm of everyone’s availability opening at the same time and we got quite lucky, I think.
How did Bus Girl come about?
J.H.: So, Louise, my producer, who I mentioned, called me and we’ve been going back and forth about making a short film because in England if you want to go through the BFI or any sort of Arts Council film funding, usually for a feature, you have to have made two shorts to prove that you can do it and to be eligible for government funding. So, I started writing down this idea and it happened very quickly. I think I finished the script in an hour or so and I sent it to her – it was a very early version, obviously – and she sent it to the phone company. We, for anyone who doesn’t know, shot this on a phone. And, they were like: “Yeah, do it!” I think we had a month of pre-production from that point onwards until I started filming in London.
I see there’s a parallel between the film world and the fine dining world and how difficult it is to exist in both ecosystems, but it’s also from a female perspective. Can you elaborate on that?
J.H.: For me, it’s always character and story first, but I’m definitely drawn to stories about underdogs and very female centric stories. I’m never going to write a film about five guys; that’s just not what I’m good at. And, I wouldn’t feel like I’d know what to do. But, of course, I can write about women very easily. And, yes, there are a lot of parallels. I really think that it’s about having a dream and something that’s not considered reachable. With the culinary world, the best chefs that we named drop, the Gordon Ramsays of the world – the first one that came into my head – are usually men. The percentage of women working as head chefs in Michelin starred restaurants is pretty disproportionately male. And so, I just wanted to write about someone who was trying something that didn’t seem statistically possible, which is really how I felt as a child when I started acting. Everyone kept telling me the chances of me being able to make a living from this work were so low because, I mean, how many Asian actors do you remember on screen in the 90s? Really? When I told people I wanted to be an actor, everyone would just go: “Lucy Liu.” That was the one person that they could name. Who is incredible, and I love her, but she is an American, and there was no one in the UK doing it. So, it really didn’t seem statistically possible. Even my drama teacher said to me: “You shouldn’t do this. There just aren’t going to be roles for you.” But I have that sort of delusional self-belief that you need sometimes to get you to keep going. And, I fed on it and the more people told me it wasn’t possible, the more I was like: “Well, then I have to do it.” Just to prove them wrong. So yes, there are a lot of parallels between breaking into the cooking industry and breaking into the arts, but I think across the board; any industry which you are in minority, whether that’s for your gender, your ethnicity, age, whatever it is. I hope that people can watch the film and go: “Oh, I know this feeling. I know this experience.”
I noticed that you drew a lot of inspiration from Wong Kar-wai’s films for Bus Girl in terms of aesthetics. Would you agree with that assumption?
J.H.: I’m a huge Wong Kar-wai fan and it feels silly for anyone to even compare. He has more talent in his little finger than I do in my whole body. I think he’s a genius! But I also think that every Asian director goes through a Wong Kar-wai phase. He is so seminal that it felt almost like a rite of passage, that I would get this out of my system and do a Wong Kar-wai thing and then be like: “Okay, I’ve done it and now I will try something else!” My favorite film of all time is Chungking Express. So, that was in the back of my head. We actually had a Chungking Express shot – the slow lead character and the really fast blurred background – and we couldn’t make it in time, but there’s also a reference to Eat Drink Man Woman [by Ang Lee] in the opening scene. The dish that she makes for her mother is the same dish that the father makes for his daughter in Eat Drink Man Woman. So, it was sort of an homage to how food is such a big part of Asian culture and how we communicate and how we express affection.
Can you talk about the shooting process, especially as it was shot on a Xiaomi 11 phone? How did you manage to get this aesthetics on the phone? What were the constraints and the challenges, but also the perks and advantages of shooting on a phone?
J.H.: There are definitely pros and cons! The pros being it’s really small. We weren’t weighed down with heavy gear. We saved a lot of time on set between takes, or setting up the camera, which was just a case of moving the phone left or right. I didn’t need to move track and adjust this gimbal and get Steadicam guy. It was quite streamlined. So, I saved a lot of time during filming. But, obviously, to get that Wong Kar-wai aesthetic, Nick Cook, my DP who’s so incredible and I, we both agreed we want it to look a little bit more filmic and add some grain. That’s the con of filming on a phone; you do have to do a lot of post work to get it to where you need it to be because we also didn’t shoot with lenses. We wanted it to be as close to the user experience as possible because I would have felt like a hypocrite otherwise because I’m always telling people: “You know, don’t wait for someone to give you money to go rent or RED or an ARRI or whatever! You can make a film right now! You can make art right now! The ability is there! It’s in your pocket! And so, I would have felt a bit hypocritical if I then strapped it into a big lens and pulled it out on this massive rig and a crane because that’s just not feasible. I wanted it to be something that is attainable with a little bit of ingenuity. And, Nick did a lot of testing to see what are the strengths and weaknesses of the phone itself. It had three lenses; we primarily just used one really, but phones in general don’t do that well in darkness. It really crunches the blacks and so, we realized very quickly we’d have to over-light everything and then bring it down in post.
If I understand correctly, you were shooting Bus Girl while also shooting Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery?
J.H.: During pre-production, I was in Greece. Glass Onion was split into two months. Month one was in Greece and month two was in Serbia and in-between those two months, I had seven days, which I had built into the contract, and I said: “You need to release me for the seven days or I can’t make Glass Onion because I have to go make the short film. And, thankfully, Rian [Johnson] and Ram [Bergman], the director and producer of Glass Onion, understood – they’re filmmakers… And so, I flew in to London on a Monday, we shot for three days, and then, I flew back out on the next Monday. And then went to Serbia. I did all of pre-production remotely in Greece and all of post-production in Serbia between takes. So, I would do some acting and then we’d have fifteen minutes for the camera to set up and I’d run back to the green room where my laptop would be downloading the latest cut. And then, I would go and send an email like: “No, you need to move this by two seconds!” My poor editor, Morten [Højbjerg]! We must have exchanged hundreds of emails a week during this process!
Can you talk about acting and directing at the same time?
J.H.: It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I actually I did cast another actress and then she got pulled out of filming at the last minute and I was going to lose the funding. And so, I thought I’d have to just do it myself. It was easier than I thought it would be. I think I’m very good at compartmentalization. And, that was the secret to it. So, I would set up the camera next to my DP with a stand-in and then I would go in and I would call: “Action!” Start acting. Call: “Cut!” Come back over to the camera. And then, we would watch. We had two phones. One was filming and the other was for playback and pulling focus. We’d watch it back on this tiny monitor. And then, I would give everyone notes, give the other performances notes and I’d have to give myself notes. And, somehow treating it like that, like I was just a part of a prop helped. I don’t know how I would fare if it was really much more emotional. At the end of Bus Girl, we have that emotional moment. But if I had to do a whole film, where I was hysterical, crying, terrified, heightened… That would’ve been much harder. Definitely.
How did you prepare for the role?
J.H.: It’s funny! I actually really didn’t! I think because I had written it and I already knew I didn’t need to ask myself any questions or break down the character. I knew what I had written. So, it saved me some time.
It’s part of a phone trilogy, right? So, you have two more films to make.
J.H.: We’ve done the sequel, and originally it was going to be the two films, but I don’t know if we’ll complete the trilogy. Right now, I’ve done the two shorts on the phone and I really want to do a feature. I don’t want to do another short. So, it might be a case of Nash Edgerton’s short films. He made Bear and Spider. There’s a break between the second and the third one. So, I might do that and just come back in ten years with a new phone and see the difference. I think that could be quite interesting.
When is the second one going to be released? Now, I am very curious!
J.H.: I have no idea! Honestly! It’s really up to the company. I don’t even have a copy of the film myself. So, I don’t know.
What is your take on short films today?
J.H.: It is totally an art form in and of itself. I love short films! They’re very hard to do. They’re very hard because you have such a small amount of time and, for me, the short films that impressed me the most are: the shorter it is, the more impressed I am. If you can get me to feel something or think something or have some sort of experience in five minutes, even more impressive! I tried to get Bus Girl down to five minutes, but I couldn’t! It’s ten minutes! There was no way! But one of my favorite short films is The Cub by Riley Stearns, which is maybe five minutes. It’s three totally static shots, locked off shots. I think it’s genius and I wish that I was that smart that I could come up with something like that. I think short films and short stories are an art unto itself and I have a lot of respect for people who can just come up with them. Like that. I think my writing, especially because I’m so character heavy, does lend itself to a longer form where you can really dig into a character and really sort of interweave lots of plots and threads. That feels more natural to me than then writing a short.
How much of you is there in every character you play? Can you manage to dissociate yourself from your own persona in order to play someone else?
J.H.: I actually enjoy it more when the character is further removed from me. I find it more enjoyable. But I’m sure that I’m better when the character is closer to me. I think that’s natural for most actors – 90% of actors – and then you have the 10% who are Daniel Day Lewis and completely disappear. But, for most of us, you can see: “Oh, this is how they process anger, happiness, grief…” We’re drawing from the same well each time, so it definitely has trace elements of yourself.
Has any character you played, any role completely, radically changed you or your worldview or has done something to you that has stayed with you or will stay with you forever?
J.H.: Changed my worldview… That’s interesting. Let me think… All of my roles have changed my life in some way, but to change my worldview, what I believe… That’s intense! I just did this film recently, The Royal Hotel, and I can’t say much about it. It’s not come out yet, but it definitely made me think a lot about the idea of your truth. Something that can seem very true to you is, in fact, not reality or not true to the other person in that situation and, how you can bring things into fruition like it’s almost you’re so afraid of a cat scratching you that the cat senses your fear and scratches you – that kind of negative manifestation. It definitely made me think a lot about that, which will all make more sense when the film comes out.
Do you have any favorite role among the ones that you’ve played so far?
J.H.: Bus Girl is actually really far up there. Maybe it was just because it was so fulfilling creatively to be directing. The experience as an actor versus as a director really has bled into one another. I loved working on Glass Onion as well. It’s interesting because I don’t isolate something down to “Was this my favorite role?” or “Was this my favorite character?” I’m also thinking about the filming experience. Did I get along with the director? Were we somewhere interesting? Did I feel fulfilled? So, it surprises people because I think a lot of people would think: “Oh, it must be the biggest role you’ve played.” And it’s like: “No.” It can be a really small role, or it can be a short film. It’s just about whether the experience felt like I was making something important and scratching an itch. So, Bus Girl is actually really, really up there.
You’ve been in film and TV. Do you have any preference for any of the medium?
J.H.: No, I don’t. I don’t really have a preference. I’m actively looking right now to see if there’s more good TV coming my way just because I like the idea of having that much real estate to get into a character. With a film, you have such a small amount of time to tell the story that you want to tell. So, I’m definitely actively interested in TV right now. Mini-series specifically.
Is there any character, any person, anyone you would love to play? Do you have a dream role?
J.H.: I have been talking about this for years! I want to do a period drama. I want to do a classic British period drama. It’s very, very hard to get into, especially if you look like me. So, I think this is a case of: “I’m going to have to write it.!” Otherwise, it’s not going to happen. I can’t wait for someone else to give it to me. So, that’s actually a script I’m working on right now with my producing partner from Bus Girl. We’re hoping to get that up and running.
There’s been a lot of talk about women in film lately. Where do you see yourself in this conversation? What’s your take on it? How is it in the UK now?
J.H.: Like I said earlier, the industry has changed. It’s definitely getting better. I will say that I’ve been doing this just over a decade or something and I probably only worked with with four or five female directors. I’ve worked with dozens of male directors. So, it’s definitely a slow change. But The Royal Hotel, the Australian film I just did, was directed by Kitty green, who’s one of my favorite female directors. She did The Assistant with Julia Garner and is just so talented. The experience of working with her has been fascinating and she reminded me of Sofia Coppola, who I did a film with a couple of years ago. Female directors bring something very different to the actor relationship. There is a real collaborative sensitivity. I don’t know how to explain it, but I’ve never felt more seen than in those two experiences. So, I feel hopeful for the state of the industry and I’m excited to see what happens. But I also think that people should really celebrate how far we’ve come.
Do you have a favorite female film filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
J.H.: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma. I thought that that was such a fascinating, beautiful, clever, film. I don’t know who that DP was, but the way she told the story through the camera, without words, was really, really fascinating. Brilliant. Another film that I loved was Breathe by Mélanie Laurent, who we obviously know as an actress, but she is a phenomenally talented director. And, that film, I think, displays the complexities and the love-hate toxicity of young female friendships so well. I need to see it again! I’ve not seen it in years, but that’s another one. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m naming films made by female filmmakers which have some of the best crafted female roles. We’re bringing our own experiences to it and our depth of lived experience as a woman. Those are full of fascinating female characters; from the number ones on the call sheet all the way down, all really felt recognizable. Those are the two films that come to mind immediately. Kitty Green’s Assistant is definitely up there as well. It’s so stripped back and bear and fills you with such a quiet desperation; it’s very effective and real.
What are your next projects?
J.H.: I’m just taking a break.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Jessica Henwick.