Blade Runner: Black Lotus voice actor Jessica Henwick has become more and more an ever-present part of nerd culture today — something she says is not by design, but “just how it happened.” However, as she tells Consequence, “I will say that I’m a huge genre fan. I grew up reading a lot of fantasy books. I was a big bookworm, I would write fan fiction. So it’s a dream to be in so many properties which I was first and foremost a fan of before I joined.”
Henwick’s fandom of choice in her fanfic days was “of course” Harry Potter, because as she explained, “I’m British and I’m in my twenties.” That’s one of the few remaining fictional universes in which she hasn’t played at least a small role: While her resume currently includes Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (playing a Resistance pilot), Game of Thrones (one of the venomous Sand Snakes of Dorne), and the highly-anticipated The Matrix Resurrections (a blue-haired force known currently as Bugs), perhaps she’s most familiar to geek audiences as Colleen Wing, the female lead of the MCU/Netflix series Iron Fist.
Providing the voice of Elle in Blade Runner: Black Lotus gave her the chance to engage with a whole new storytelling world. Set in the year 2032 (thus, 13 years after Harrison Ford ran around Los Angeles in search of rogue replicants, and 17 years before Jared Leto looked like this), the Adult Swim CGI anime series begins with a young woman with no memory of who she is stumbling into the Los Angeles underworld. Fortunately, she has innately known fighting skills at her fingertips, though they might not be enough to help her uncover her true identity.
In this interview, transcribed and edited for clarity, Henwick explains how she came to be a part of the series, and went into detail about what was involved in recording not just her dialogue, but the vocalizations needed for the many fight sequences. (It’s more complicated than you’d think!) She also reflects on how Iron Fist ended abruptly with a second season finale that featured Colleen becoming the new Iron Fist — and how she’s ultimately glad the story ended there.
In terms of Blade Runner, what was your relationship with the franchise prior to this?
I mean, it’s such a dreamy film to me, the visual tone, the soundscape, the acting, everything about it. There’s something dreamlike to me. And so I do remember when I watched it, I would have dreams about it. But I never thought I would be a part of this universe. I actually, I met Denis [Villeneuve] for [Blade Runner] 2049 to discuss working with him and then, you know, [because of] scheduling, I ended up taking the Marvel series. But when that was over, I thought, oh, okay. That was my only chance it’s over. It’s gone.
And then I didn’t even audition for Black Lotus. I just got this email out of the blue. I guess Joseph [Chou], one of our producers, had seen some of my other work and was like, we straight away went to you, which is lovely and such an honor. I was taken aback and pleasantly surprised and yeah, I feel very lucky.
When you came into it, were there conversations about doing an American accent versus British?
No, we found the voice very, very quickly. Yeah. There was no discussion about changing accents.
What was the process of finding the voice?
I mean, I went in and I said, look, okay. So the way I see her is almost like a newborn. She doesn’t have the modernisms that we have in our speech. You know, obviously they hadn’t written her with any slang and I said, it would be someone speaking for the first time. And so I think that she should sound so raw. There’s no filters. She doesn’t lie because she doesn’t know how to lie. She’s literally speaking from the heart so much in the first half of the season.
And that was kind of how we found the voice. And then the constant challenge was how do we grow that as she becomes more and more self-assured and as she gets a stronger identity, how do I do that when my only tool is the voice?
Speaking of the voice, when you’re doing voice work, of course, you’re not just providing, you know, the dialogue — you’re also providing essentially sound effects. What was the process of voicing a fight scene like?
So there’s two different ways that you can do it. And it’s up to each actor. First is what they call chasing picture. And so if it’s a five-minute fight scene or whatever, they would just play it. And you would try and add noises while you’re watching it. Everything is, you know, half a second delayed, and then they just move the whole audio track half a second earlier to match it in. That’s one way of doing it.
The other way is they play you the clip in advance and they play it to you again. And the longer my fights got as the series went on, the more I leaned towards this, which is I would then go, okay. So I would literally learn the choreography, like, “Okay, it’s an upper-cut and then I’m running, it’s Superman punch, I’m turning around, it’s an elbow, okay. Then I get hit…”
I would learn the choreography, and then in the booth, I would be doing it so that I knew exactly what kind of sound it would be, because the struggle is to make sure that every sound sounds different. When you get punched, it doesn’t sound like when you’re punching someone else, it’s an exhale versus an inhale, or an inhale versus an exhale, and you don’t want everything to just go like [grunting noises]. It’s coming from different parts of the body.
It got to the stage where I’d provided so many fight scenes that I actually had to stop them and say to Wes Gleason, our voice director and [directors Shinji Aramaki and Kenji Kamiyama], “What other noises can I make in this fight? I can’t keep doing [grunt noise] anymore. I can’t. Can I use a different consonant?” I just kept trying to find different sounds to make throughout the show.
It’s interesting that you shifted to learning the choreography later on in the process, because if I’d been in your shoes, I would have thought, oh, that’s the more complicated one. I’ll try that initially, and then eventually shift to what sounds like a slightly easier way, which is just mimicking what you see on screen.
Ah, but the fights would get longer and longer. And so if it was a short fight, I would still chase picture, but it got to the stage where it was so long that, you know, you start half a second late and then it becomes so complicated, the choreography, that you’re a second late and then you’re two seconds late. And so you can’t move the whole track like this. You have to chop it up. And it just makes the sound engineer’s life a little bit more difficult. But I would flip flop back and forth between the two plans.
It’s wonderful to hear you talk about the process just because I feel like with voice acting, we who do not do it don’t understand the toll it takes on your voice.
It trashes your voice. Well, Blade Runner, the fights would trash my voice, but doing the actual voice of Elle was fine. She’s quiet and she’s quite internal. And so it wasn’t that much stress on my vocal chords, but there are so many fights that, yes, I wouldn’t be able to speak for a couple hours after I did them. I voice another show, Moley, which is this kid’s show. And that that’s a push for every single line. I do a crazy voice in the show, and every single session is four hours. And by the, by the end of it, I’m wrecked. It’s tiring, voice acting is tiring. Everyone thinks, oh, that seems easy. It’s not, it’s hard.
Timing-wise, when were you working on Black Lotus in relation to the other things you’ve got going on? I’m thinking very specifically in terms of The Matrix, just because I feel like there’s some overlap there — there’s some correlation.
Definitely. I mean, I think Lana [Wachowski] would admit it, that that’s lots of homages to Blade Runner in The Matrix. I started working on Blade Runner… I’m going to say like two and a half to three years ago.
We were going for awhile, because you don’t record an episode once. With Blood of Zeus, I came in and I smashed it all in a session. And then I went for one pickup session and that was it. With Blade Runner, I would meet them solidly every sort of five months and we would rerecord lines and we would go back and add new lines and we’d add voices and effects. It was a constant evolution as we all kind of made it together.
I’m going to reference a terribly cliched phrase at this point, which is, you know, the idea of the bad-ass woman, a type you’ve gotten to play in a number of different roles. It’s been great to see the flood of them appear in pop culture, but what’s been key to you about finding the nuances of each character — you know, making sure to find the differentiations between Elle and other roles you’ve played?
Well with Elle, I think it was just grounding it and making it realistic and naturalistic as a performance. On the surface you can go, “Okay, she’s super badass because she can do all this fighting, but she’s actually so vulnerable and so raw when we find her.” She’s so fragile, probably the most fragile character I’ve ever played. And so I wanted to honor that and be really true to that.
I approached it with the same amount of prep as I, as I would have a screen role — it’s less about, oh, how do I make it different from this previous character I played, and more about how do I make it true to this situation and how do I make it true to what she’s going through? I can’t imagine how awful it would be to wake up and have no idea who you are.
You mentioned in other interviews that you didn’t read ahead with the scripts, so you were learning about Elle’s situation as she did. When you reached the end of the season, did you feel like that was the right choice?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. Because we re-record so much, that only lasted for the first few sessions and then, and then after that, it’s like, okay, we’re jumping back to Episode 1 and actually I’m going to pop in and change Episode 5 and Episode 2 needs these new lines, but yeah, for that first run of recording, to not read ahead was very helpful. It was the closest I’ve ever come to method acting.
What specifically about doing Elle do you feel like you’re going to take forward and incorporate into other characters you play?
Well, definitely with other animation, I’m now interested in bringing that level of naturalism to it. It can be tempting with animation to fill sound, to just to fill it out with sounds small vocal sounds all the time, like, “mm, mm” — all these tiny little things for every flicker of emotional change. But the likelihood is if I heard a noise right now, I would just look silently.
So what Wes wanted to do was strip it back, pull it back, and make it as realistic as possible. At first I was worried that it was going to feel empty and, and then I watched it and I go, oh, it just feels real, and it feels heavy, and the weight of the tone is so perfect. So I definitely think going forward in animation, I’ll be interested to try and find a balance between the two.
To wrap up, looking back on your experience with Iron Fist, I’m curious about how it sits in your memory right now — especially given the fact that Season 2 ended in a way where Season 3 could have been really exciting for Colleen Wing.
Yeah, it would have been, it would have been exciting, but I feel really happy with the journey that Colleen got to have. And she went through so much that I’m actually okay with just leaving it on a happy note of, okay, she’s coming into her own and she has this power and she’s found her place. Because really she was, she was so tortured. Her backstory was so awful and being betrayed by Bakuto who was basically like a surrogate father, and then realizing she was sending these kids to that dooms…
If we’d gone for another season, we would have had to put her through more conflict and more tension. And it’s just like, no, let her have her happy ending. I’m good with it. Though, saying that, I do miss her. I really miss working with Simone Missick and getting to play off her. And I think we would have done amazing things if we’d gone for another season. But, it wasn’t meant to be, alas.
Blade Runner: Black Lotus premieres Saturday, November 13th at midnight ET.