Game Of Thrones newbie Jessica Henwick on her Singapore roots

Jessica Henwick plays new character Nymeria in the current season of Game Of Thrones. -- PHOTO: HBO ASIA
Jessica Henwick plays new character Nymeria in the current season of Game Of Thrones. -- PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Game Of Thrones actress Jessica Henwick, who has a Singaporean mother, persevered despite not getting many roles

Singapore could have had a bigger claim on Game Of Thrones' British actress Jessica Henwick than just the fact that she has a Singaporean-Chinese mother.

Four years ago, she was all set on leaving London to explore acting opportunities here, which she calls her "home away from home".

In Britain, the lack of roles for actors of Asian descent had been putting her off at the time, explains the 22-year-old, whose father is British.

"I was feeling rather jaded and I contemplated coming to act in Singapore. At least then I think I would be judged on my skills and not whether I'm Asian enough or white enough.

"I ended up staying in London because I got some jobs. But sometimes, I wonder how different my life would be or what I'd be doing if I had made that move," she muses in a telephone interview with Life! from her home in London.

It is a good thing that she persevered in Britain, given the number of high profile international gigs that she has landed of late.

In Game Of Thrones, one of the most-watched TV shows in the world at the moment, she plays new character Nymeria Sand, one of the Sand Snakes seeking vengeance for the death of their father Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal).

Nymeria debuted in episode four of Season 5 alongside two other Sand Snakes (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rosabell Laurenti-Sellers), which premiered earlier this week.

Then, there is news of Henwick snagging a role in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the highly anticipated new instalment in the popular Star Wars movie franchise.

Her coy refusal to talk about her rumoured part in the film - "What's Star Wars?", she says with a laugh - is loaded with meaning and perhaps a sure sign of her fast-rising star.

On Facebook, there is a fan-created page titled Jessica Henwick Appreciation Society, something which the actress finds "so funny".

"My friends keep taking the mickey out of me about that. I don't have Facebook, but it's obviously lovely to hear about it, that people do appreciate me.

"But it's really sort of surreal. You can't connect to that kind of thing on a day-to-day level. Everyone keeps telling me that my life is going to change, but I can't imagine it. I live in London and people here are too cool - they don't care if you're famous."

Her own mother, for one, has no idea just how big of a deal Game Of Thrones really is.

"She has no clue what it is. She keeps telling people the wrong name - like she'll just make up some TV show name when she tells people about me.

"To her credit, she has been watching the show and is trying to understand what I'm doing, but she kind of doesn't get it," she says, chuckling.

In fact, her whole family has been catching up on the show.

"It's weird to watch the show with your family, because there is sex and incest and all that. That would be a bit awkward, so we watch it on our own. But when we have our family meetings, it's definitely dinner table talk."

She is the middle child and has two brothers. Her father, Mark Henwick, is the author of the best-selling urban fantasy Bite Back books. Her mother is retired but used to work in the retail business.

While the actress has no plans to make a move to Singapore soon, she does not rule out the possibility of doing the odd acting project here. She is surprisingly well-versed on the ins and outs of Singapore's entertainment industry.

"I think Adrian Pang is a brilliant actor and I know he has a wonderful theatre company called Pangdemonium. I also watched The Pupil (2010-2011). You know that MediaCorp law show? Rebecca Lim was great in that.

"And I used to read news updates on Xinmsn all the time, but it has since closed down," she says, referring to the local entertainment news portal that was replaced by Toggle.sg last month.

She also happens to be good friends with Singapore-based British actor George Young. They got to know each other through mutual friends four years ago, starting off as e-mail pals before eventually meeting offline.

When Life! contacted Young, he had nothing but praise for Henwick. Nicknaming her "J-Hen", the 35-year-old actor says: "We hit it off as e-mail pen pals, discussing all sorts of career moves - which we still do. J-Hen is an ambitious little punk who won't stop until she's the queen of the world."

In any case, the actress has already made plans to visit Singapore for a holiday at the end of the year, regardless of whether she gets a job here.

"I'd like to see how much Singapore has changed in the past few years. If I get to work out some sort of job there at the same time, that's even better," she says.

Growing up, she came here at least once a year with her mother until she was 14 years old. The last time she was in Singapore was in 2010, when she travelled here with a group of friends as part of a South-east Asian tour.

"I love coming to Singapore and I especially miss the hawker centres. I know Newton Food Centre is very touristy, but I have very fond memories of that place. The chilli crab and the Hainanese chicken rice, they're all just so good. Just last night, I had the weirdest dream about rambutans. It's upsetting how much I miss the food in Singapore."

Until she hits the food centres here, Singaporean viewers will continue to keep a close watch on her in Game Of Thrones, where her role is the first major one for someone of South-east Asian descent on the show.

Says the actress: "When they first announced that I got the role, a lot of Asians were saying that this is amazing. The show has been on for a while and it's scary I am the first. But I take it all in my stride and I hope I can live up to that responsibility."

Henwick confesses that she has "found it difficult" as a performer of Asian heritage to get major roles in the Western entertainment industry. That is true even more so in her home of Britain than in the United States, she adds.

"The English media works on steoretypes and there has to be a reason why someone is Asian on the show for the audience to understand the character.

"So if there is an Asian girl being a rebellious teenager, she's in the show because her mother happens to run a Chinese takeaway shop. She cannot just be a rebellious teenager and happen to be Asian. There always has to be a reason, which I find quite backward. In America, they're more open to casting Asians without a reason for them to be there."

Still, she says that she has been relatively fortunate, given the circumstances. "I have gotten some really great jobs so I've been really lucky, but these roles are few and far in between."

Her career took off when she, as a 16-year-old, snagged a lead role in the children's adventure series Spirit Warriors (2009-2010), often cited as the first British TV series to have a predominantly East Asian cast. In the series, which is loosely inspired by ancient Chinese myths and legends, she plays Bo, one of several students who is transported into a parallel universe and gets special powers.

Henwick, who trained at Redroofs Theatre School, recalls that she and her mother chanced upon a casting call notice in London's Chinatown for a boy to star in the show.

"So we signed up my older brother for fun, but he wasn't interested in acting. I had been studying acting for a while though and the producers let me audition instead. They ended up rewriting the role for me so I think there was a bit of fate coming into play there."

Since then, she has played several other major parts, including barrister pupil Amy Lang on the TV legal drama Silk (2014), as well as on stage as the lead in Running On The Cracks (2013), the stage adaptation of Julia Donaldson's book.

For the latter role as a runaway teenager, she was widely praised by theatre critics. The Guardian wrote that "with tremendous physical presence, Henwick captures the sense of adolescent righteousness, passion and confusion of a girl trying to create order in an unfair universe", while The Times lauded her "understated" performance.

Henwick certainly hopes to do more theatre, calling the experience "so fulfilling for an actor to play a story from start to finish and to get immediate feedback".

As she gushes about acting, it becomes clear that she is in love with acting and not the hullabaloo that comes with it when an actor gains fame.

"I really hope I can just blend in on the streets and don't stand out. When we were in Spain, some of the Game Of Thrones cast members who have been there for six years, such as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, were getting mobbed and it was so scary.

"Nicolaj was just getting a coffee and a four-minute walk turned into a half-hour walk because he kept getting mobbed every few steps of the way. That doesn't really appeal to me."

yipwy@sph.com.sg

Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

Game Of Thrones Season 5 airs on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) every Monday at 9am, with an encore at 9pm on the same day.

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