Jessica Henwick

Jessica Henwick’s Long Game Is Finally Paying Off

Two major movies after a Marvel show? The Knives Out star is ready to say checkmate.

Jessica Yu-Li Henwick is a mastermind — and she’s not shy about admitting it. In fact, it’s a title she wears with pride. Despite living life as a self-proclaimed Swiftie, the actress’s grand scheme had nothing to do with capturing a love interest like Taylor Swift sings about on her newest album, Midnights. Rather, Henwick says she found a way to “Mastermind” her way into one hell of a career high over the past year, evident in the fact that she nabbed breakout roles in two of 2022’s most star-studded films. 

“Of course, I'm a Taylor Swift fan,” she laughed when the comparison was made. “Who isn't a Taylor Swift fan?”

Aside from stepping into Netflix’s The Gray Man as Suzanne Brewer earlier this summer  — rubbing elbows with household names like Chris Evans, Ryan Gosling, and Ana de Armas all the while — the 30-year-old actress will soon grace our screens as Peg in Rian Johnson’s highly anticipated murder-mystery sequel, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (set to hit Netflix Dec. 23) alongside Janelle Monáe, Kate Hudson, and Kathryn Hahn (to name a few) — a career milestone Henwick maintains was the result of manifestation, over a decade in the making. 

“The story actually starts when I was 15 and in media studies class and I studied Rian Johnson's directorial debut, Brick, and I loved it. I wrote him fan mail and it's the only fan mail I've ever written in my life and he never replied,” she reveals. “Cut to filming The Gray Man and I get sent the script and my agent's like, ‘Hey, let me know what you think.’ And I said, ‘No fucking way, it’s Rian Johnson, set up a Zoom immediately.’”

“As soon as the call opened I said, ‘I have a bone to pick with you,’” she laughs. “I brought it up and he was kind of mortified. But I see it as the most, the purest act of manifestation.”

In actuality, Henwick’s offer to play Peg — the average-joe assistant who “doesn't care what anyone thinks about her” to Kate Hudson’s boisterous fashion icon, Birdie Jay — had little to do with that long-lost piece of fan mail and everything to do with an incredible work ethic, on-screen charisma, and impressively stacked résumé (plus, her classic British charm surely doesn’t hurt, either). 

Jessica Henwick

Sheryl Nields

And as we sit down to chat, the unacquainted would never guess that the actress who’s humbly recounting “pinch-me” moments on Glass Onion’s set, gleefully gushing over the movie’s biggest twists, and getting candid about dealing with imposter syndrome would be the same one to mention leading roles in little-known franchises like Star Wars and Game of Thrones in the next breath, but that’s only further testament to Henwick's totally grounded character.

Even so, Henwick says that playing both Suzanne and Peg quite literally back-to-back (“I wrapped The Gray Man in France and the next day I flew to Greece to start Knives Out,” she shares.) gave her the push to adopt both of her characters’ “no fucks given mentality” — a characteristic she plans to take with her, along with lessons learned from her “legendary” Glass Onion castmates, while continuing to mastermind future career developments.

“I think that everyone, women especially, reach a point in their lives where we start to hopefully ask for what we want and say what we really think,” Henwick says. “It just so happened that those characters came at that moment in my life where I was like, ‘You know what? I'm not going to do things because other people tell me I should do them or I have to do them. I'm going to do things because I want to do it or because it's the right thing to do.’”

Jessica Henwick

Sheryl Nields

InStyle spoke to Henwick about her hopes for a Peg and Birdie spinoff, whom she felt closest to on set, and the great Glass Onion chess tournament of 2021. 

Between Glass Onion and then The Gray Man, it’s been a phenomenal year for you. What have each of these projects meant to you?

I’ve been really lucky. I think that the two characters are on opposite ends of the spectrum, really. Suzanne and The Gray Man really allowed me to harness this all-American, Ivy League graduate who didn't care what people thought about her. Well actually, you know what? Now that I'm describing her, I'm like, “Peg also doesn't care what anyone thinks about her.”

It's interesting because Suzanne has power and Peg has no power, and so I think that's what I mean by playing these two characters back-to-back on opposite ends of the spectrum. But there is the unifying aspect of they don't care how they are perceived. They don't dress for anyone except themselves. The way they wear their hair, if they wear makeup or not, they're unified in that sort of no-fucks-given mentality, which I just think speaks to me in this moment in my career and in my personal life. I really was attracted to that aspect of both of them. 

While Glass Onion is certainly over-the-top in its own right, how did working on this film differ from the fantasy worlds of projects like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Game of Thrones?

Because those are fantasy or sci-fi, you have to try and ground it and make it as real as possible. It's not naturalistic, but it's not too heightened, and the best performers make it feel real. The thing with Glass Onion is that it’s set in the here, in the now. It's very current. It's very modern. So, you don't have to do that foundation building at the beginning of the film and you are kind of given permission to just go to the extremities already.

Rian was really great on set with saying, “No, push it further, be funnier, be bigger, be louder.” It did help also that almost all of my scenes are with Kate Hudson, and she is giving such a wonderful, flamboyant, over-the-top, eccentric performance. I was getting really jealous that I had to be the straight man. I did sort of push it in some of my other scenes and try something a little more comedic and lighthearted than what I've previously done.

Since so many of your scenes take place together, what was it like working opposite Kate Hudson throughout the entire film?

Kate is incredibly talented and one of my favorite actresses that I've ever worked with. Really fun. Never loses her sense of generosity. She's never in a bad mood. She's always in a good mood. I loved working with her — I would do the spinoff any day, the Peg and Birdie spinoff. She's a legend. She's had such an incredible career, and I love that people are sort of rediscovering some of her greatest rom-com films even now.

Kate gave me a piece of advice about halfway through and she said, “Stop taking the work home.” Because again, I'm so analytical. The next day I would go to set and I would say, “Hey Kate, how did that scene go yesterday? Was it okay?” And she was like, “Stop. As soon as you leave this room, let it go. Trust me, I've been doing this a long time.”

When working alongside an ensemble cast, how did you find small moments to shine without taking away from the scene at large?

When I signed on, Rian and I sat down for a meeting and I said, “She has these great scenes in the film, but there's a lot of times where we actually don't know what she's thinking.” And in a way, yes, there is that fear of, “How do I make it feel natural?” But then there was also the freedom of it meaning that if there were no specific orders, I can do anything I want. It was like fair game.

I just liked that Peg was always at odds with the group. When they're dismayed, she's kind of secretly loving it. And when they're really happy, she's miserable. I just always wanted her to be the flip side to the coin and also a bit of a touchstone for the audience's eyes because she's normal. She's not uber-rich, she's not a politician, she's not super left-wing, super right-wing. She's a very normal, recognizable woman who I have certainly worked with before.

What was it like working with such a star-studded cast?

Honestly, when I first started, I definitely felt like Peg. I felt sort of, “What am I doing here? I'm in this room with all these legends?” I'm normally quite a chatty person, and I found it was probably the most quiet I've ever been on a set, because I just wanted to listen and be a fly on the wall. But really that changed when we went to Serbia. We shot the first month in Greece and the second in Serbia where it was all interiors in one room and we were all in every single scene. 

We did so many different things to bond with each other. We did yoga classes together. Leslie [Odom Jr.] taught us how to play chess. We had a big chess tournament. We would have music sessions and jam and Edward [Norton] was playing the guitar and Daniel [Craig] would start putting on music and we'd all sit in the room and we'd put our legs up on the wall. I don't know why, but we'd always lie down on our backs with our legs up and just listen to music and silence together. It was really cute. 

What did working on this film teach you about comedy?

I learned something from every single member of that cast. From Kathryn [Hahn], I learned so much about comic timing. Her ability to turn the most basic phrases into a punchline, a joke, and create something from very little is incredible. Her physical movements, amazing. 

Who in the cast surprised you the most?

From Dave [Bautista], I learned the art of humility. That man is incredibly humble, which is incredible because he's got one of the largest fan bases out of everyone. When we would go out, he would be stopped and recognized. And he never got tired of it, he never got testy. He always was very kind and thankful.

From Daniel [Craig], I learned number one [on the call sheet] sets the tone. He was never late, always knew his lines, quite possibly the most professional actor I've ever worked with. 

Who were you closest to throughout filming? 

Maddy [Madelyn Cline]. Honestly, Maddy became my best friend on set. We absolutely loved each other. We got into so many different shenanigans. I'm really glad I had her because it was another touch of normality in terms of we're surrounded by these absolute legends and Maddie and I were like, “What are we doing here?”

When you read the script originally, were you able to decipher the big twist before it happened?

I'm such a big murder mystery fan and I really thought I would be able to guess. But no, Rian's just too clever. It's also, it's not set up in a way that ... It's not that kind of film. It's a rollercoaster ride. It's not Murder She Wrote, and I love Murder She Wrote. A good murder mystery gives you all the clues and it's all right there in front of you. But if it's really good, you will never be able to guess it. And when they reveal it, you'll go, oh, of course. And that is the feeling that I think Knives Out captures. 

If you watch it again the second time round, you'll see they're very fair. He shows you exactly the truth of what happens. I don't want to say anymore, but yeah, I couldn't know when I was reading it, I couldn't guess it. And when you're watching it, I don't think you'll be able to guess it either.

Small Talk

Who was your first celebrity crush?

David Bowie.

Are you into astrology? What’s your sign?

I'm a Virgo but I don't know much about astrology. I know more about Chinese astrology, in which case I'm a monkey. Very knowledge-focused. Wise. Mischievous. Get into a lot of trouble. It's pretty correct I would say.

What was your last binge-watch?

My Brilliant Friend, an Italian show on HBO.

Which celebrity have you been the most starstruck to meet or work with so far?

Morgan Freeman. I met him in an elevator in New Orleans and I got a photo with him. His voice is just as wonderful as you would imagine.

Which role do people recognize you for most often?

It depends. If I'm in England, people recognize me for Silk, this BBC show I did years ago. If I'm in an Asian community, people recognize me for Iron Fist for Colleen Wing.

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?

This sounds so lame. Reading a book. It's just a leisure to me to have that much free time. Because it's such a time consuming thing to sit and read a book from start to finish. That's something that's really special to me. If I'm on holiday, that's really when I get to sort of devour books and I've always been a bookworm.

Is there a pop culture moment that first sparked your interest in Hollywood?

You know what just came into my head? This is funny. Andy Serkis as Gollum. And seeing how far CG had come, seeing that it was a human performance, creating that noise and making those movements with his body, that was quite definitive to me. And I always said after I watched that I was like, “I have to do something like that.” I really want to do some motion capture. I've still not been able to, but hopefully soon.

Photographer, Sheryl Nields. Stylist, Jason Bolden. Hair, Marc Mena. Makeup, Jen Tioseco.

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