Jessica Henwick is still riding high from the BAFTA awards when she sits down with Variety to discuss her pivot to writing and directing. Her short film, “Bus Girl,” didn’t win in the Best Live Action Short category on the night but Henwick appears genuinely thrilled simply to have been nominated for the project, which she wrote, directed and starred in.
“I really had very low expectations for ‘Bus Girl,’ my first short,” Henwick says. “I did not think it would get into festivals, I certainly didn’t think it would get the BAFTA nomination. I literally just did it because I wanted to see: am I capable or is [directing] a fantasy? Because I didn’t go to film school or drama school. I dropped out of school when I was 16 and I have no formal qualifications at all. So it really was a trial by fire.”
Henwick may not have a diploma from a fancy film school but she has spent her entire working life on set, watching how some of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors make movie magic up close. They include the Russo brothers (with whom she worked on “The Grey Man”), Lana Wachowski (on “The Matrix Resurrections”) and, most recently, Rhian Johnson (on “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”) “For the last sort of five, six years, I really started to look at directors differently and focus more on what they did and try and absorb things that I want to emulate,” she says. “I’ve definitely taken something from every single director I’ve worked with.”
Johnson is even credited in the “thank yous” on “Bus Girl,” both for the advice he gave (“He’s kind of become a mentor figure,” Henwick says) and also for enabling her to make the short in the first place. Crew, location and cast (including “Harry Potter” star Evanna Lynch) had all been locked for the “Bus Girl” shoot when Johnson offered Henwick the part of Peg, the long-suffering assistant to Kate Hudson’s obnoxious socialite Birdie Jay in “Glass Onion.” Henwick agreed to take the role on condition she could take time off to make “Bus Girl.” “Everyone thought I was crazy,” Henwick recalls. “They’re like, ‘You’re gonna turn down this massive, incredible film for your three-day short film shoot?’ And I was just like, I’ve committed. I’ve booked out these people and I’m [pulling in] so many favours. It was all set up.”
Fortunately Johnson and producer Ram Bergman agreed for Henwick to take a week off “Glass Onion” to shoot her short and then enabled her to edit it in between takes on the Daniel Craig-starrer. “I’d run back to the green room, I’d download the latest cut, I would make a phone call and write an email and say ‘No, you need to move that by two seconds’ and ‘the grade looks too green’ and then I’d run back on set and keep acting.”
For Henwick, making “Bus Girl” was a “now or never” moment that signified her move from actor to actor-writer-director. “If I if I drop this for acting, that’s it, I’ve dropped it,” she remembers thinking when she made her request to Johnson. “That’s me, in my head, saying acting is the priority forever. And it’s not anymore.”
While Henwick may be better known for her on-screen appearances (she has also starred in “The Force Awakens” as well as “Game of Thrones” and “Luke Cage”) she reveals she’s been writing longer than she has been acting, starting with fanfiction as a teenager. “When I was a kid, I said ‘I want to be a storyteller,’” she explains. “I see acting and writing and directing as just different strings of the same bow.” Around five years ago she sold her first script, to Amazon Studios, and has just turned in the last draft for one of two pilots over at another major U.S. streamer.
Part of her desire to write stems, she says, from her disappointment with the kind of roles previously available to women and particularly women of color. “It made me sad to see so little diversity and women sort of sidelined,” she says. “And I just thought, well, I can keep complaining, or I can try and be a part of the change I want to see.”
While Henwick notes there has been “incredible change” in the industry over the last decade, particularly for the AAPI community who have until recently been one of the most underrepresented groups on screen, it has been slow, especially in Henwick’s homeland. At last month’s BAFTAs, there was much discussion over the fact that a record number of nominations for actors and creators of color – including Michelle Yeoh, Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler who were all up for Best Actress – still resulted in a nearly all-white list of winners. In particular, despite landing ten BAFTA nominations including for Best Picture, “Everything Everywhere All At Once” walked away with only one award (for editing).
Given that Henwick hasn’t been offered a decent role in the U.K. for five or six years, the results perhaps didn’t come as a surprise to Henwick. “It does make me sad that England is a little bit slower on the uptake,” she says. “[In America] there’s more willingness to see me in roles which aren’t specified as Asian. I still think that that’s a hurdle in England; if a role is written neutrally with no ethnicity attached it must be a white actor. That’s happened time and time again.”
But she is also reticent to blame BAFTA for the results of the awards last month, saying “the focus should be on the industry itself.” “That’s not to say that the 2021 breakdown of BAFTA members was not upsetting to read,” she adds. “But I think that they’ve made a huge attempt to diversify their membership.” Henwick says everyone should try to do their part when it comes to improving diversity in the industry, from financiers to agencies. “When I was crewing ‘Bus Girl,’ it was really important to me that I had diversity,” she says. But she says some agencies didn’t even have any female crewmembers on their books. “So they have a part to play in this,” she says. “If you’re a head of a department, look at who you’re bringing up underneath you.”
Henwick has already filmed a sequel to “Bus Girl” (prompted by phone company Xiaomi, which funded the shorts and was thrilled with the first one) and a third film is on the cards although her focus now is on writing and directing her debut feature. In the meantime, she is set to appear in Kitty Green’s upcoming film “The Royal Hotel” opposite “Inventing Anna’s” Julia Garner and, together with “The Sandman” star Lourdes Faberes, has also launched East by Southeast, an organization to highlight British East and SouthEast Asian talent on stage and screen.
“A lot of this industry feels like you’re just being a professional waiter, you’re waiting for someone to say yes to you,” Henwick says of her pivot to writing and directing her own projects. “‘Yes, you can in act my film,’ ‘Yes, you can crew my film,’ ‘Yes, you can make this film.’ I got sick of waiting. And I hope if someone’s reading this and is in that position now, stop waiting. You’ll never get this time back.”