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Jessica Henwick on Watching Keanu Reeves Watch Himself in The Matrix

Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images

In Lana Wachowski’s long-awaited return to the franchise she created with her sister Lilly, The Matrix Resurrections, new addition Jessica Henwick is living the dream of every ’90s kid. She steps into the Wachowskis’ virtual playground to play Bugs, a rebellious, blue-haired gunslinger in search of the messiah figure named Neo (Keanu Reeves). Bugs was once a simple window cleaner, but when she sees a balding man in a suit trying to leap from a roof, she recognizes him as Neo and the image awakens her. His lore enraptures her; Bugs believes that if she can find Neo, he can once again become a symbol for humankind’s freedom. She isn’t a new Morpheus (that honor goes to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), but she carries that character’s idealistic spirit and unshakeable beliefs, while adding a youthful energy to the old wars whose scars still seem to shape this universe.

For Henwick, who was 6 years old when The Matrix was first unleashed, Resurrections is the breakout performance she’s been building toward following an eye-catching run last year, when she starred in the Kristen Stewart–led horror flick Underwater, supported in Sofia Coppola’s dramedy On the Rocks, and delivered tenacious action scenes in the postapocalyptic adventure Love and Monsters. In Resurrections, it’s nearly impossible not to identify with the British Chinese actress’s character: Bugs is the personification of the audience. In a swooning sci-fi romance that sees Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) finding each other again, Bugs vocalizes the excitement of seeing Wachowski playing in the tenor of The Matrix again.

Talking with Vulture by Zoom, Henwick discussed the surreality of working with Keanu Reeves, her grueling physical training, and where she falls on the distinction between choice and fate.

What’s your first memory of watching The Matrix?
I remember it vividly. I was in Malaysia, and I was staying at a family friend’s house and I had heard about The Matrix many times before, but I’d never seen it. I found a copy of it and I was too young to watch it, but I put it in and I was transfixed by it. It really imprinted itself on my mind. I’d never before contemplated the idea of reality and the idea of what we see being a construct.

So much of the movie is a series of déjà vus and callbacks to the previous movies. In what ways did it feel surreal to be on those sets?
It was very trippy when Keanu would come in, in character, in the costume and with the hair, and doing the voice. It was wild. I can’t imagine how it was for him. There’s a clip that just came out; it’s us in a cinema and the original film is playing as a projection in the background while we have a scene standing in front of it. I remember Keanu staring at the screen and I said, “When was the last time you watched this film?” He was like, “I mean, it must have been when it came out.” So he was just staring, and I was looking at young Keanu and thought, Holy shit.

That must have been so disorienting. What directions did Lana give during those kinds of scenes? And what were your impressions of her as a director?
In that scene, she was more focused on making sure that the exact right moments were playing on the projection. I remember we had to do so many takes because it wasn’t playing in sync with what we were saying. We either caught up too much or we fell behind. I’ve never worked with a director like Lana. She’s very intuitive, very fluid. She kind of just goes with however she feels on the day. Of course, she’s been living in this world for 30-odd years now, so she knows it better than anyone else. Her attention to detail is laser-focused.

Bugs is a wizard with guns, and she spends a lot of the movie in hand-to-hand combat against the agents. Next to Neo, she probably has the most action scenes. What was the physical training like for this film?
It was long. And it was sweaty. [Laughs] I got injured more on this film than I’ve ever been injured on anything else, because we were only meant to be shooting for four or five months — and then with COVID, and all the shutdowns over and over and over again, I was on this for 11 months. It was a long time doing stunts and I don’t think my body was ready for it. But the most interesting thing was learning how to work with guns. I’d never really worked with them before. I was kind of afraid of them. It’s really hard when you shoot and you get the kickback and everything’s going off and it’s loud. It’s really hard not to blink. I really studied hard to make sure I wasn’t blinking, because that’s such a giveaway that someone doesn’t know how to shoot. And I wanted it to feel like Bugs could do this behind her back.

Bugs sees Neo as a hero, a kind of messiah figure who needs to return to free more humans from the Matrix. With your two characters spending most of the film together, what was it like working with Keanu Reeves?
I love him. He maintained a playfulness that you don’t always expect from someone who’s been working as long as he has. He comes every day to set fresh, ready to work and full of ideas. Sometimes you work with actors who have that much experience and they just wanna do it their way. And Keanu’s not like that. He comes in and he goes, “Well, how about this?” It feels very fresh. He’s like a puppy dog.

I’m always struck by the difference in tonalities between the freedom of reality and the crushing oppression of life inside the Matrix. Bugs, for instance, presents herself inside the simulation with blue hair, sunglasses, and a chic all-black aesthetic — she’s quirkier and more mischievous there, whereas in reality she is more reserved (and wears drabber clothes).
Yeah, I tried to find the common thread because you don’t want it to feel like two different characters. So I actually tried to sort of fuse them together a bit. It is much more somber and heavy in the real world than it is in the Matrix world. What I found fascinating was with someone like Bugs, her look in the real world is very different from her look in the Matrix. Her look in the Matrix is how she wants to be seen. So for me, that was kind of interesting to psychologically pick at. Who is someone who wants to be seen like this? Why does she want to be seen like this? Why is this a choice?

There’s almost a superhero aspect to being a savior who chooses their look and persona. 
I think The Matrix was the original modern superhero film. I don’t think that movement would’ve happened without The Matrix. It kind of proved that there was a huge audience for those stories, that you could make it cool, that you could be accessible to people who were from all across the world, all ages. It had such mainstream success. I think a lot of those superhero films have a big debt to The Matrix.

Bugs and this version of Morpheus are the new blood in the franchise. They share a kind of brother-sister relationship as they track down Neo. How was filming with Yahya?
Filming with Yahya was great. We did a chemistry read together and we have a mutual friend that he worked with in The Get Down. So I felt comfortable going into the film knowing I already had a bit of a connection with him. And he’s just chill. He gets to set and he has his headphones in. He’s in his own space and really comfortable in his own skin.

What scenes were especially memorable to film?
There’s a scene where it’s just me and Keanu talking to one another, Bugs and Neo, and I remember at the end of the day, Keanu came over and shook my hand and was like, “You really did a really good job today.” I was so nervous about that scene. It was my audition scene. But we didn’t actually shoot that scene until one of my last days. So it was 11 months of waiting to do that audition scene again. The anticipation was through the roof. I almost don’t like waiting that long because then you start to overthink a scene. For some people that works, but for me it doesn’t. I like that Keanu style, which is to keep it fresh and keep it playful and find it in the moment. But [in this case] there was no way for that to happen.

The decision between living with the truth or a lie — the red versus blue pill — isn’t presented as a choice in Resurrections. It has more to do with fate. Do you believe in choice or fate?
Oh, I think it’s a choice. It’s always a choice. I mean, I’m Asian. So I was raised with some level of superstition and that kind of ties in with fatalism. But I think that we are the masters of our own universe.

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