JESSICA HENWICK IN NEW YORK, DECEMBER 2016. DRESS AND EARRINGS: DIOR. STYLING: MIGUEL ENAMORADO. HAIR: EDWARD LAMPLEY FOR TIGI HAIRCARE/BRYANT ARTISTS. MAKEUP: CYNDLE KOMAROVSKI FOR CHANEL/HONEY ARTISTS. MANICURE: ERI HANDA FOR DIOR VERNIS/MAM-NYC. SPECIAL THANKS: PIER 59 STUDIOS.
In 2009, Jessica Henwick noticed the audition poster for what would be her breakout role pasted up on the street in London's Chinatown. That poster led her to being cast as Bo ("a very modern kid sucked into the spirit world") on the hit BBC series Spirit Warriors. With that part, Henwick essentially made history; she became the first East Asian actress to play the lead role on a British television drama. "It broke barriers," she says, noting it also created pressure to pursue roles that bucked stereotypes. "I turned down a lot of work. I didn't want to ever feel defined by my ethnicity."
After Spirit Warriors, Henwick continued to act, including a stint onstage, while working behind the scenes in various industry jobs—as a production assistant and set dresser—to learn more about the business. But her next big break—or really a cataclysmic one—came in 2013, after a six-month audition process, when she was chosen to play pilot Jessika Pava in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Nearly all of the rebel fighter's scenes were filmed on a pivoting platform while Henwick communicated via walkie-talkie. "Most people couldn't take more than ten minutes, and I was like, ‘Keep going!' " she recalls. "Most of my lines were improvised; I just made them up." The Star Wars audition led the 24-year-old actress to Game of Thrones, where she continues to play the fiery Nymeria Sand. Game of Thrones is just one of four TV shows on which Henwick will appear this year. She will also star in the psychological thriller Fortitude; and as the martial arts heroine Colleen Wing in Marvel's Iron Fist and spin-off The Defenders. Of her character Wing, Henwick says, "The most defining word that comes to mind is alone—in all its positives and negatives. She doesn't want to be anyone's love interest and open herself up in that way." The actress had to strike a balance as a tough-talking New Yorker who is still disciplined and deferential to her sensei.
Henwick realizes that her performances are informed by an ability to acclimate to various situations, a product of a childhood spent traveling between countries with her Zambian father and Singapore-born mother. Such broad cultural exposure also helped with all of the accents that the Surrey-born actress has been asked to play so far in her career. "Yes, I want to continue to broaden expectations of what an Asian can be," she says of choosing her parts, "but also pursue ones that would have spoken to me as a young Asian."