Jessica Henwick was torn between Marvel and Matrix roles: 'It was a red pill, blue pill moment for me'
Jessica Henwick had her own "red pill, blue pill moment" coming into The Matrix Resurrections.
The actress, who's widely known for playing Nymeria Sand in HBO's Game of Thrones and Colleen Wing in Netflix's Iron Fist, found herself torn between a role in the fourth Matrix movie and a role in Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, she tells EW over Zoom from the U.K.
It began when she was on a hiking trip in the Meseta desert in Spain. "I got an email about [Resurrections] offering me a self-tape [audition], but I actually turned it down first," she says. "I was on an extended trip and it wasn't the place to go make a self-tape."
Once she was finally home a month later, she received another notification. Director Lana Wachowski hadn't yet found an actress to play the character Bugs, a blue-haired mystery woman with a white rabbit tattoo who crosses paths with Neo (Keanu Reeves) in the new sequel. The self-tape worked out that time, but now she had a choice to make.
The day she received the offer to fly to Los Angeles to chemistry read with the actors up for the role of Morpheus, including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, was the same day she got an offer to screen test for Shang-Chi. "[The studios] knew about the other offers, and both of them gave me the offer on the stipulation that I could only audition for one or the other. And there was no guarantee that I would get either," Henwick recalls. "It was a red pill, blue pill moment for me."
She ultimately sided with The Matrix because it felt like a rare moment. "I've had a great working relationship with Marvel," Henwick says of playing Colleen in Iron Fist. "I've obviously done Marvel TV, so I was already in the universe. I knew that joining The Matrix is not an opportunity that you get every day. Lana has had so many offers to make more Matrix films. I just knew it was now or never. Whereas, obviously, Marvel is a huge, wonderful company that makes films very, very regularly."
Clearly, Henwick's choice worked out, and now she's set to appear alongside Matrix alums Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Jada Pinkett Smith, plus newcomers like Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Priyanka Chopra, Christina Ricci, Eréndira Ibarra, and more.
Henwick felt all of her past action roles brought her to a place where she was physically capable of taking on The Matrix. She learned how to handle a whip through for Game of Thrones, she learned martial arts and swordplay for Iron Fist, and films like Underwater and Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought their own challenges.
"I'd learned through so many different teachers and so many different styles [of action], and it was kind of perfect for Bugs," she says. "The only thing that was really new for me was working with weapons, specifically guns. I'd never shot a gun in real life. I didn't realize how heavy they are and how hard it is not to blink when you do it."
The actress had also never worked with Wachowski before, whom, she says, has quite the unique style of filmmaking that kept the actors in "a permanent state of readiness."
"From what I know of the original Matrix, they were heavily, heavily storyboarded to the point where — and this is a story told to me by our armorer — you could go up to the storyboards, count out the background characters, and go, 'There are going to be eight extras carrying guns in this.' And you would get there on the day, and there would be eight extras carrying guns. Like it was that minute," Henwick recalls. "Obviously, it's been many years and Lana's made many films in the interim and she's changed her style of filmmaking. Now, it's very fluid and very instinctive. There were no storyboards for us to see, certainly. There was no plan. We would get to set, and then we would just wait for Lana to tell us what was happening. Lana shot 360 [degrees] all day. She could literally be filming Keanu and then halfway through his line, she would just turn the camera around onto you. And you better hope that you were in the scene and you were ready to go."
When the cameras weren't rolling, Wachowski would take the actors on art excursions and throw dance parties. It was about bonding the cast together, to make sure they were each on the same creative wavelength. "She's a very interesting director," Henwick remarks. (No word on if Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton made dance parties a part of Marvel's prep time.)
The Matrix Resurrections debuts in theaters and on HBO Max this Dec. 22.
For more on The Matrix Resurrections, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Dec. 17. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
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