The Adult Swim animated series Blade Runner: Black Lotus is set in Los Angeles 2032 and follows Elle (voiced by Jessica Henwick), a young woman who wakes up with no memories but possessing deadly skills that lead her to question everything she thinks she knows about herself. Guided by a locked data device and a tattoo of a black lotus, Elle sets out to learn the truth and find her lost identity, no matter the ramifications.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Henwick talked about how cool the opportunity is to be a part of the Blade Runner universe, when and how she saw the original film, what she was most excited about and what she was most nervous about in bringing this character to life, how the recording process worked, and getting to explore Elle’s journey of self-discovery this season. She also talked about what it was like to join another big franchise with The Matrix Resurrections, her experience working with director Lana Wachowski, and why they weren’t sure if the film was going to get finished.
Collider: When the opportunity to voice this character on this project came your way, what most appealed to you? What made you want to do it?
JESSICA HENWICK: It’s so cool. I love the original Blade Runner so much. I never thought that the opportunity would come up for that world to open. So many years had passed with nothing and they’re very protective of the IP. So, I felt over the moon that they let me be a part of it.
When and how did you first see the film? What was your reaction the first time you saw it?
HENWICK: My dad loves Blade Runner and used to quote the tears in the rain monologue to myself and my brothers. Finally, it was like, “Okay, you have to show us what you keep quoting because none of us understand what you’re saying. What are you talking about?” So, I don’t know how old I was. I was probably 12 or 13, or maybe a little older. My dad sat me down and I just remember being pretty gobsmacked. I’d never really seen anything like it. It stays with you. It’s such a hauntingly beautiful film. The world building is so immersive. It really hasn’t aged to me. I watched it again, a couple of years ago, and I was like, “Yes, it’s still awesome.”
What would the younger you, who watched movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix, think about the fact that your acting career would steer you toward projects in those universes and that you could actually step into them?
HENWICK: I probably wouldn’t believe it. I remember when I got Game of Thrones, and I was a fan before I got the show. I would watch it with my brothers, and I remember my younger brother saying, “Why don’t you try to get in on that? How cool would that be?” I said, “Are you kidding me? They’re never gonna let me on Game of Thrones. That’s not gonna happen.” And then, when I got Game of Thrones, I remember saying, “This is probably the biggest thing I’ll ever do and it’s all gonna be smaller from here on out. That was a fluke.” And then, when I got Iron Fist, my brother messaged me and was like, “You’re number one on IMDb.” It was funny because we had a discussion prior where he said, “What number are you and IMDb?” And I said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s not gonna be high. I’m never gonna get high.” And it kept happening. If you’d told me, as a child, that I was gonna be in The Matrix, I would have said, “There’s no chance that’s gonna happen.” And it was the same thing with Blade Runner. It’s just a really lucky streak.
With this project, you’re bringing to life the lead character of a well-known property. Going into this, what were you most excited about and what were you most nervous about?
HENWICK: I was most excited about taking Elle on a journey and taking the audience on a journey. She starts the show like a newborn child. She’s so fresh. She’s so naive. She doesn’t have the filters that we have now. She doesn’t know how to lie. She doesn’t know why you would lie. She doesn’t have modernisms. The way she speaks, she’s so pure. I knew where they wanted to take her, so I was most excited and most nervous about doing that, with my voice as my only tool. I hope I did it justice.
When you do something like this, that is part of a very popular and loved world, do you feel an extra weight of responsibility that you don’t necessarily have on other projects?
HENWICK: I didn’t have that daunting feeling because Elle is a new creation. If they’d come to me and said, “We’re gonna make a Blade Runner series and it’s gonna be about this character that’s already been played, or this character that was in 2049,” then I would feel more afraid because then the audience has an attachment to that actor’s performance and you’re always gonna be held up against them. That’s the measuring stick. With Elle, she is a new creation, so it was freeing to be able to do that within the confines of the Blade Runner universe and going, “Okay, this is the tone that I have to play in. This is the world. I know the voice is gonna sound like this. This is very realistic.” It’s film acting more than making anime sounds.
This is a world with its own look and feel and technology. How did you approach this, to make sure that you had enough of an understanding of the world itself, since it’s not live-action and you’re not visually looking at things? How did you figure that out so that you would know how your character would be in any situation?
HENWICK: I was pretty lucky that they always had some track that I could watch, and then I was going to track, whether it was very detailed animation or of stills. I knew what they wanted her to do with her body and with her face. They were good at giving me guidelines. That’s not always the way it goes. When I did Blood of Zeus, I had next to no image in front of me. All they gave me was a drawing of the character and a two paragraph description, and then a bunch of lines, and I just had to do it with no idea. Obviously, I knew that this is world and this is the style it’s gonna be, and I knew what the feel and the tone was.
When you play a character that has no memory, does it work to your advantage to get to record in chronological order, so that you can actually build the character as the character is figuring things out?
HENWICK: Yes, which made it really difficult. You don’t record an episode once. You record an episode up to 50 times. So, we did it, start to finish. And then, four or five months would pass and they’d call me in and go, “Okay, we’re gonna punch in on Episode 1 and Episode 2, and then we’re gonna go to Episode 7, and then we’re gonna go back to Episode 3.” And then, another few months would pass and they’d go, “Actually, we have another pickup for Episode 1, and we also need you to record Episode 12 again.” So, it’s really easy, at the beginning, to go chronologically. It becomes progressively more difficult to go back to the opening voice.
Before even knowing who she is, how would you say Elle defines herself? How does she feel about who she is and what she can do?
HENWICK: I think she’s afraid of herself. When she wakes up, she has no memory of who she is, but she has this physical memory, a phantom awareness of what her body can do. She has these amazing fighting skills, and that’s scary. She’s a machine. She’s a weapon. Why is that?
You’ve said that getting to be a part of the Matrix franchise was a bit of a dream come true for you. What was it like to work with Lana Wachowski? What sort of environment does she create on set because she just seems like one of the most creative filmmakers?
HENWICK: She’s very creative and she has a very, very strong vision. She doesn’t work like any of the directors I’ve worked with. She loves running takes, so we’ll often go 20 minutes without a single cut. And she doesn’t do the normal thing, which is, "Okay, let’s set up for shooting A side, and we’ll shoot the wide, the medium, the closeup, and then we can all move the lights, so that we can shoot B side." Everyone had to be aware that it was 360, at all times. She would stand next to the operator and she would be shooting. Keanu is speaking and she’s shooting. She’s handling the camera, zooming in on him, and then she would just turn, and suddenly the camera will be on you, even though you’re on the other side of the line. That’s how she shoots. It’s very much how she feels, in the moment. It’s very instinctive for her. It’s fascinating to watch. I’ve never worked with a director who is going so much on a gut feeling.
Was that something that took a little bit of adjustment for you to get used to because that is such a different style?
HENWICK: I auditioned with her, so by the time I got to set, I already knew, "Okay, she’s gonna be like this." She’s gonna talk in the middle of your line. The things which might annoy you on another project, you just have to accept with her. You may be in the middle of your line and she’ll just turn the camera off of you because she decides, "Actually, I don’t wanna film you. I wanna film this for a second." She was like that in my audition process. I think she even pushed it more in the audition process, to see how I would react. If you can’t be flexible with a director like that, then there’s no point working together. You’re not gonna enjoy working together. She really wanted to make sure that every actor was just present and there, at all times, and ready to go.
She’s also known for doing awesome action set pieces. What’s it like to actually be a part of a Matrix action scene? Does it feel different from everything else you’ve done?
HENWICK: Now that’s somewhere I felt pressure because those fights are so seminal [to The Matrix]. Those moments from the original have stayed in my head, so many of those fight beats, that was really where I was intimidated going into it. I knew I had to be performing up here. You’re performing with Keanu. It’s John Wick. He knows what he’s doing. You can’t hold him back, in any way. I had to give it my all. I devoted myself to it. We trained pretty hard in the run-up, and we kept training all the way through filming. When we were shut down for COVID and we went off three months, I think it was, I still was at home training every day, even though we didn’t know if we were going back. When we got shut down for COVID, Lana said, "Well, maybe that’s it. Maybe we won’t come back and film the rest of it. Maybe the new Matrix will go down as this legendary film which incomplete, and no one will ever be able to see it. Maybe that’s what this is meant to be." And we were all going, "No, you have to finish the film." But she really did toy with the idea of just calling it quits. I don’t know if I’m meant to be talking about that.
There was a point where I think everyone in Hollywood wondered whether whatever they were working on just might not finish, or if productions might not start again. There was definitely that unknown for everybody for awhile.
HENWICK: Totally, and a lot of projects in that middle tier folded because when they came back, the COVID restrictions are so high on a film set that it added another 5% or 10% to the budget. If a film couldn’t afford that, they just had to fold. No one wanted to put anyone at risk and the unions really stepped up to make sure the cast and crew were all protected. For me, even though I didn’t know whether we would come back, I couldn’t think about that, and so I trained throughout the entire break because I just had to focus. I just had to be positive and go, "No, we’re gonna go finish the film. We have to. This can’t be how my Matrix journey ends."
Without revealing something that you’re not supposed to, what are you most excited about fans getting to see you with The Matrix Resurrections?
HENWICK: I’m excited for fans to get to see Keanu. We love him. We love him as Neo. He’s amazing. He is the beating heart of the film and he can do no wrong. So, I think fans are really gonna enjoy that. Carrie-Anne has a really interesting role in this film and I think a lot of people are gonna be happy with her work. That’s really what I’m excited to see.
And I have to say that your blue hair is bad-ass, so there’s that too.
HENWICK: Thank you. Yeah, it took a while to grow on me, but I’m really pleased with it. It looks great on camera. It’s a bit of a nightmare, in real life, to keep it looking blue.
What do you enjoy about doing the kind of voice work you do with Blade Runner: Black Lotus? What do you enjoy about it and what is the weirdest thing about doing voice work that people wouldn’t necessarily realize?
HENWICK: Gosh, that second part is hard. Yes, I do enjoy it. I love it. I think it’s so freeing, as an actor. Certainly with Elle, I don’t tend to get cast, in real life, as women who are naive or not confident in themselves. I tend to get cast as women who are quite self-assured and confident and bold. And so, with voice work, it’s a chance to go, “Okay, if you don’t see me, what can I do with my voice?” I can play these crazy characters and I can do all of these voices that I just wouldn’t be allowed to do in real life.
What’s the craziest thing about voice over? I think people will be surprised at the time between recording to it coming out. It’s long. I started recording this more than two years ago. It’s been a long journey. Animation just takes time. When they sent me the first three episodes to watch, enough time had passed that I couldn’t remember all of the exact details or what I did, so there was a degree of separation between me and the anime. I was able to watch it as a fan and just go, “Oh, my God, this is so cool,” without going, “Oh, they kept that take? Oh, that’s what I sound like?” The time that it takes would surprise most people.
Would you say that we’ll have a good sense of what’s going on and will Elle have a clearer idea of what is happening, by the end of these episodes?
HENWICK: Yes. She really goes on a journey of self-discovery and it almost comes to a point where she’s looking for identity in other people. She’s looking for them to tell her who she is, and there comes a point where you have to go, “Okay, we all are the captains of our ship.” She has to choose her identity for herself. It’s a really beautiful journey and I think it ties in really well with the themes throughout the films.
Because you’re getting to do such cool projects and you’re playing such interesting characters, is there something you feel like you haven’t gotten to do yet? Do you want to go do a comedy? Is there a historical figure that you’d like to play?
HENWICK: For sure, I would love to do a comedy. I would love to do a romance, just because that’s different. But I just don’t really get to even read for those roles. I would love to start tinkering in other genres. We’ll see.
Comedy just seems a little bit terrifying.
HENWICK: Oh, absolutely terrifying. I’d probably be terrible, but you don’t know until you try.
You could do an action comedy.
HENWICK: Yeah. With the next Rush Hour, I will happily take up the mantle of martial arts comedy.
Blade Runner: Black Lotus airs on Adult Swim on Saturdays.
The 13-episode series will be framed from the perspective of "the one that's hunted."
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