The Matrix has changed the filmmaking landscape not just with its thought-provoking premise and visual style but also paved the way to having a diverse cast of characters. It has made stars out of actors like Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, and countless others. In the latest entry The Matrix Resurrections, Keanu and Carrie return to reprise their famous roles in a brand new story taking place in the mysterious computer-generated world with some new characters. Among this new cast is Jessica Henwick, who plays hacker Bugs who helps Keanu in his journey through the Matrix. The actress came to New York to promote the film, doing a Q&A with the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment discussing her role in the movie, her lifelong goals in film, and her thoughts on Asian representation in the industry.
Did you see the original? What was your thought process going into this?
I was seven when the first one came out so I didn’t watch it in the cinema. But, I remember I was in Malaysia, I must have been 12 or 13 just when the second one came out. I tell everyone in interviews that I’ve found a VHS tape because I didn’t want to say that it was a pirated DVD. It was a pirated DVD that was bought out of a car in a street market. I found it and I obviously heard The Matrix, the first one was such a big pop culture moment. I knew I wasn’t supposed to watch it, but I really wanted to watch it. I was still too young and it scared me. I was so afraid of my mouth getting sewn up and I never contemplated that your belly button was your orifice. So the idea of a robot crawling in there gave me nightmares and it really stayed with me. That wasn’t the story you were expecting, is it?
What happened when you were offered the role?
When I was offered the role, I said no at first. I saw an email and it said Project Ice Cream. There was an attachment from my agent and a little addendum which was basically like, “I think this was The Matrix”, no one would say. I was going through a weird thing where I didn’t know if I wanted to act anymore. I was on this hike, so I just said no. It was more than a month later that I finally got home, finished the hike, and decided I’ll keep acting. I was lucky that Lana hadn’t found anyone and they asked me if I wanted to make a self-tape so I did. After that, it was pretty quick.
Let’s talk about your character, especially the hair. What was the idea behind that?
It was really intentional. Lana doesn’t tell you anything that’s going on inside her head. She showed me a photo of this shade of blue and told me this is what it has to be. Obviously, I know and you know that red and blue are very symbolic in the movie. She would not tell me why I had to have blue hair. It would make sense to have red hair. I don’t know if she wanted to throw people off. I guess that’s my hair in the Matrix and I’m representing the Matrix in some way? I don’t really know why she wanted it that blue but there was a conversation about it. It was very much set as soon as I was cast.
Did you keep it for a while?
I mean no. It just seems like that because filming was supposed to take four months and with COVID, I was on the project for 11 months. It was almost a year of my life. I was blue-haired and then for a while, I went purple. But that was just for the weekend for myself and then I would go back to blue for work. It was meant to be a fast shoot and then obviously we got shut down and we were in San Francisco when Patient Zero happened. We got out two days before they locked down. We flew to Berlin and we were there one week before they locked down. We all went home for three months and then we went back to finish the film. We were the last films shut down and we were the first film back up. We were really creating the blueprint that you now see if you were working in film, it was a pod system. It was all Lana’s idea pretty much.
How did that work in terms of scheduling and flying all over?
It was interesting because I guess insurance has said it’s too dangerous to force the cast and crew to come out so everyone was given a choice. All the cast said yes but some of our crew left. Our original DP was John Toll and he never came back after the break. We all flew in and then we basically operated in these small groups where you would be given a lanyard of a certain color and you can only hang out with people of that color. You would go to your house and do nothing at the end of the workday. You weren’t allowed to go out, you would just only fraternize with the cast and crew, but only a select amount of them. It was kind of isolating and honestly, it was really sad. It was a fractious way to make a film separating everyone like that and it’s not really how I like to work.
Let’s discuss the fighting styles you had to work with. You have done several different fighting techniques over your career. This one seems a little different, so what was the training like?
So when I signed on, the great thing about Bugs and The Matrix is it doesn’t have to be a traditional form of fighting. My experience is quite traditional and I wanted to feel like this amalgamation and I think I was truly ready to do this fight style because of all my other experiences on these other projects. I get the role and the first thing that they make you do is a stunt assessment. I go to LA and I go into this empty warehouse near LAX and Chad Stahelski is there. Chad is Keanu’s original double in the first Matrix film. You probably know him now as a director of the John Wick films, which is the craziest origin story. He was there and he just watched me throwing punches, kicks, and how much choreography can I learn. I then did the whole thing in reverse and did the whole thing on your right side. Basically, he assessed me and he said to go with this really visceral, fast Kenshin style. So I trained like that, I get to set, and Lana doesn’t like making decisions before you get to set. So she would just rewrite the choreography on the day. So I have trained for three months to learn this fight and two months to learn that fight. She was then like, “How about you do a kick up here?” Thank god I knew how to do one because she was just changing her mind on a whim. The training was the hardest I’ve done not physically, but mentally. When we got shut down in Berlin, Lana fought so hard to get us to keep going. She even contemplated buying out the insurance herself and we would film with a skeleton crew of like 6-7 people and we would all be there off insurance doing it on our own in our spare time not going through the system. Basically renting out the idea from Warner Bros. and they said no. She was so bereft that she ran us all, she gathered us all together, she FaceTimed us and said maybe this is it. Maybe this is the legend of The Matrix 4 and we won’t come back and I don’t even know if I want to come back. Maybe The Matrix 4 will be this mystery of all this footage that no one will ever get to see and that’s what our destiny is. Of course, I just cut all my fucking hair off. So the hardest thing was training for three months when I was sent home because morale was so low and we didn’t know if we were going to come back and we didn’t know if Lana wanted to keep directing the film. They can’t do it without her because she owned the rights. So training with no goal post was difficult. I think I was the only cast member that solidly trained in the break, myself and Keanu of course.
The film felt so meta after watching it. How did you feel after reading the script?
Those are my favorite scenes honestly. When I was reading it, I was cracking up. I couldn’t believe that she got it pass Warner Bros. to make jokes about them. It was so bold and it was such a commentary on the original films, the response to the films, and all those real discussions that she’s had. She would go into rooms and the execs would her what the Matrix was and what they thought she needed to do. You know, she had a million offers over the years to make a fourth film and she turned all of them down, but that’s what the meetings were usually like.
I want to talk to you about your filmmaking career when you started making your short film.
I’ve been acting for 14 years years. I started at a very young age and part of that questioning my career two years ago was that I just wanted to stop and take a second and get rid of all the noise which they talk about in the film. I wanted to make sure I was doing this because I wanted to do it and not because I was used to it. It’s really easy to lose track of that and when I came out of that hike, I just wanted to tell more of my stories and I was jaded with the stuff that I read. We’re at a complete over-saturation point now, there have been more TV series and films that are so easily available, and its so much regurgitation of the same ideas. Especially as a woman, there are roles available for women, women of color, and women of a certain age as well. I love that this film is like a love letter to Trinity. I think with another filmmaker, it would’ve been like maybe casting a younger Trinity. But obviously, Lana would never have done that. All I’m saying is that I don’t like complaining about things, I like just doing it instead of being a part of the change. I directed my first short film. I’ve written before and I’m sort of in the writer’s system now with two companies. This was my first real go at directing. It’s called “Bus Girl”. The lead was supposed to be Jessie Mei Li. I lot of people look at me and think another actor directing themselves like a vanity project. I didn’t want to be in it and then her schedule, she’s filming this Netflix film with Tom Hardy. Because of COVID, all of the studios now are putting everyone is holding. So it doesn’t matter if you’re filming or not, they just say we’re going to pay you to stay home and do nothing because we want to work with you. So she wasn’t even filming on our film dates but Netflix just said no, she’s not released. And so at the very last minute, I had to change the plan and the short I’ve made is shot on a Xiaomi phone and they’re funding the project. Xiaomi basically said it’s you or it’s nothing so we gotta pull the plug. So I had to do it, which is a challenge.
Really? How was it directing yourself?
It sucks. I hate it. I’m never doing it again. I wouldn’t direct myself again until I found a producing partner or first AD who I felt creatively and synchronicity because the issue was, the first I called action I would do the scene, I call cut in the scene. I would walk over to a phone which was my monitor. We had six phones, the phone we were using would focus on another phone, and then we had phones set up as monitors. We also have our B-camera phone. I would go look at this tiny phone to see the scene, I would give everyone else direction and I would be like I need direction too, what should I do? I would have to go back into the scene and forget about all of that and try and be in the moment. I don’t understand how people like Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Michaela Coel do it, I think they’re amazing. Next up is directing straight and I don’t want to be in it.
I wouldn’t be remiss if I didn’t talk about Asian representation in Hollywood and how it’s changing. Even with this film with you and Keanu at the helm. What was that like? What are some of your thoughts there?
It’s funny because when I was auditioning, it was open ethnicity so I was going up against girls of all ethnicity. In another mainstream Hollywood film, you would know there’s an Asian lead already, you’re not going to get it. You have that mentality that there’s only room for one. But no, Lana didn’t seem to care and we also had Priyanka in the cast. If you look at the first Matrix film, it was ahead of its time and it was always diverse as it always has been. Very forward-thinking. It’s amazing to be part of a film that is so diverse and has a history of breaking boundaries.
The Matrix Resurrections releases in theaters and HBO Max on December 22nd, 2021.