Jessica Henwick: On top of the game

Jessica Henwick: On top of the game
PHOTO: ST

British actress Jessica Henwick has all the ingredients for a successful career. She has the looks, the brains and a big heart that the entertainment industry loves. And she seems to get all the breaks.

Henwick, who plays Nymeria Sand - the whip-cracking princess warrior in Game of Thrones, was the first Asian face to get a prominent role in the worldwide hit HBO series.

As a Eurasian - her father is British and her mother is Singaporean-Chinese - her casting for Season 5, she said, was an "anomaly" because the role was not defined by her ethnicity.

In the Game of Thrones novel that the series was based on, Nym - one of the characters of the Sand Snakes trio - was described as the dark-skinned illegitimate daughter of Oberyn Martell.

"Ethnicity has nothing to do with the role. It's never mentioned and we don't talk about it. The reason [for being cast in the series] is outside my knowledge. Let's just say I won them over. I'm really passionate about Nym."

Henwick was in town for a week of promotional activities in time for the airing of the final episode of Season 5 on June 15, in between her personal agenda of hanging out with friends and appeasing her craving for Singapore chili crab and fresh coconuts at hawker centres.

In a media junket organised by HBO Asia for dozens of journalists from the region, the 22-year-old freely talked about her passions, her newfound fame and how comfortable she is in her skin.

Henwick debuted at 16 in the children's adventure series Spirit Warriors - playing a character who was originally a Eurasian boy.

Her mother signed up her older brother for an audition, but the producers let Henwick do the audition instead and later rewrote the role for her.

Since then, Henwick, who trained at Redroofs Theatre School, has played several other major roles including pupil barrister Amy Lang on TV court drama Silk as well as the lead in the stage adaptation of Julia Donaldson's book titled Running on The Cracks. For both performances she received positive reviews.

As a performer of Asian heritage, the Surrey-born actress has found her ethnicity to be both an advantage and liability as she was strict about refusing stereotyped roles.

"I played a Eurasian character in Spirit Warrior, so obviously my ethnicity helped me get my start.

"Following that, it's very hard work in this market. The number one export from England is the likes of Downton Abbey, [Jane] Austen adaptations, Shakespeare adaptations […] Not much leeway in terms of diversity," she said.

"Being an Asian actor in England is hard as there is a lot of misrepresentation and underrepresentation. I feel I'm part of a movement that is happening to help things. Hopefully it's [moving in] the right direction."

Henwick is conspicuously serious about acting and doesn't fall victim to the clamour that usually comes with fame.

Game of Thrones might have catapulted her higher in the film industry but living among famous people in London, she felt she was just "another Asian in the crowd".

"I still feel like it's insane, surreal," she said about being in the series. "I haven't grasped it yet. But it's been very fun."

The series did change her life because of the global exposure, which requires a lot of traveling (she loves traveling), and her own publicity events.

During downtime, she prefers to stay with family, especially her brothers, who she is very close with.

She said she was thankful to fans who had created a Facebook fan page named the "Jessica Henwick Appreciation Society" and found those who wanted her to sign their books or bodies "fascinating".

She added she did her best to respond to those who wrote to her or reached her on Twitter "because they make the time and effort and I want to do the same for them".

Henwick, who sat cross-legged on a couch while talking to journalists, shared her behind-the-scenes stories wryly, making the interview fluid and fun.

She spent six months mastering using a bullwhip in a massive tent where she had to remove water bottles, paper rolls and other things without destroying them and practiced wrapping the whip around a pole and tugging it.

She was trained in wushu and Thai kickboxing among other martial arts, "but the whip doesn't require any of those things".

She became very good at her new skill and choreographed her own movements.

Henwick did all her stunts without digital effects, which required her to stand in the corner cracking the whip so the rest of the cast got used to the gunshot sound it made and no longer flinched.

"Now I'm gunning for another whip; if there is anything cooler than a whip it must be two whips."

When asked how Henwick wanted the end for Nym to be, she said: "Happy, and alive".

There is no guarantee of lasting in the series, however, because even the most prominent characters die, one by one.

"No one knows what will happen, none of the actors. Basically, if you got a phone call from one of the producers then you're good. If you got phone calls from both producers, you are about to die," she laughed.

Regardless of how many phone calls she will receive in the next season, the public will hear more about her.

There are reports on Henwick appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which she coyly avoided answering and said instead that she wanted to be in Jurassic Park sequels or any film from Wong Kar-wai and the late Akira Kurosawa.

Or, better still, a female version of Indiana Jones or James Bond.

"I'd like to see more gender swaps. Who knows?"

Henwick is currently writing and producing her own film, a drama thriller.

"I'm currently trying to get my own film up off of the ground. I'm exploring the other side of the camera.

"I always want to be a storyteller. Acting is the way I'm telling stories. In the future I want to do writing and producing, doing things that inspire."

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