Jessica Henwick Talks Colleen Wing, The Defenders, and Iron Fist

Iron Fist’s breakout star is back to defend Hell’s Kitchen.

This article was originally published in the Den of Geek magazine SDCC special edition. Click here to view the full issue.

Colleen Wing will kick your ass—that’s how actress Jessica Henwick describes her Iron Fist and Defenders heroine, anyway. The fictional martial arts instructor and samurai master at the center of Marvel’s Netflix universe has quickly become a fan favorite—and that’s a tough hill to climb, all things considered. 

Henwick herself is no stranger to a challenge though. The 24-year-old has spent the past nine years jumping tirelessly between genre roles like Nymeria Sand in HBO’s Game of Thrones and X-wing fighter pilot Jess Pava in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Recently, she picked up a role opposite Kristen Stewart and T.J. Miller in the thriller Underwater. But it was her leading turn in Marvel’s Iron Fist that pushed the actress directly into the spotlight.

Based on the comic book series of the same name, Iron Fist follows the journey of Danny Rand, a martial arts master who was orphaned as a child and trained in the mystical city of K’un-Lun. After returning to New York as a grown man, Danny meets Colleen (Henwick), who is running a dojo in Chinatown. Together, they attempt to take back his father’s multi-billion dollar business from the clutches of the Hand, a secret cult of martial artists.

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The Netflix series suffered a number of setbacks early in the process. Some fans felt Marvel missed an opportunity to cast an Asian actor as Danny Rand while critics met the series with, at best, lukewarm reviews. Though Iron Fist eventually found its footing, Henwick’s Colleen Wing consistently stood out to audience members and critics alike. (“Why couldn’t Henwick be the star of Iron Fist?” Variety’s chief TV critic, Maureen Ryan, lamented in an early review, calling Henwick’s character “underwritten” for her talent.) 

Taking a break from filming Underwater in New Orleans, Henwick spoke with Den of Geek about Colleen’s mindset, her decision to take the role, and where fans will see her character next.

Colleen Wing has undoubtedly become a fan-favorite in the Marvel world. What drew you to the role in the first place?

I had been in talks with Marvel prior to Iron Fist and I had researched all the prominent female roles that I was interested in. Colleen Wing came up really early in the process, and I had a strange feeling. Iron Fist had already been announced, but no other news about it had been released. And so I wrote to my agent and I said, “If that ever goes into production, and you ever hear about a character that has these characteristics, let me know.” And lo and behold, a year ago, she messages me and she says, “Okay, so there’s this project, and it’s got a codename—and the character is called ‘Christine,’ but she matches all the characteristics you had mentioned. I think it’s the one you were talking about.” So I read the sides, and it was immediately clear to me that was it. 

There were so many things that I liked about her. She’s strong but she’s vulnerable. She’s got this hard, New York exterior to her, but the Japanese culture [from which she hails] is so counter to that. So she’s kind of this walking contradiction, and I just thought there were a lot of places I could go with her.

So I made a self-tape, flew to LA, auditioned with [Finn Jones], got on a plane, and when I landed, I had a phone call from [Iron Fist producer] Jeph Loeb, saying, “I have three words that are gonna change your life forever: Welcome to Marvel.’”

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The show itself has gathered a dedicated following since its debut in March but it’s also faced some controversy, specifically over what some believed was a missed opportunity to cast more Asian actors. What ultimately convinced you to take the role?

Jeph Loeb. He rang me and he told me about Colleen’s journey. Normally, the actors are kept in the dark about what happens to their character. But he rang me and said, “Look, I’m just gonna lay it out for you.” And he told me everything that would happen in the first season… He told me all the secrets and then he said, “If we go forward with you and with this character, this is what she’d do in The Defenders. This is what she’d do beyond that even.” So I saw the scope of the possibilities, and that was what convinced me—it was always Colleen that convinced me.

There’s a scene in one of the first few episodes in which Colleen takes part in a two-on-one cage fight and wins after brutally beating both opponents—a huge shift from earlier when she lectured a student for doing the same. The moment marked a turning point in her character’s arc and was ultimately one of the most powerful moments on the show. How did you get into that frame of mind and what were you feeling when you went to film the scene itself? 

The thing I loved about that scene was that there was so much to it—it wasn’t just a fight; it revealed so much about her. She tells her student Darryl, “Preserve your honor, because you have it. Preserve your integrity. Don’t fight for money, you’re better than this.” And then she goes and does exactly what she told him not to do, which reveals so much about her lack of self-belief. She portrays this confident exterior—she pushes it out onto the world—but at the end of the day, she’s never truly believed in herself, which is why she fell into the clutches of the Hand. It’s why she’s never pushed herself, even though her skills far exceed what she shows her students. Danny kind of sparks in her this idea of, “You have this fire in you! Why do you limit yourself to saying that you’re just a karate teacher?” She has this absolute inability to believe in herself born out of all these things that happened to her as a child, and that scene was obviously a [culmination] of that. 

But she also got a kick out of [the fight]. She got an adrenaline rush. And so it wasn’t hard to get into that mindset. When you are doing the full fight—and we would run the fight top to bottom from every angle, it’s like a five-minute fight—I felt that adrenaline rush. And when I walked in and saw these guys… I felt that “I’m not good enough” feeling as well. So I was going through all of Colleen’s emotions. Those days, filming those scenes, were some of my favorites, and also some of the hardest and most trying experiences on that show.

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With filming on The Defenders now wrapped, fans are eager for details. Will they get to see Colleen’s character develop more in the new series? How involved is she in the storyline? 

Yes! Colleen is a pretty large part of The Defenders. The Defenders picks up a bit after Iron Fist. Some time has passed since we left Colleen on Iron Fist—when she was in K’un-Lun with Danny and they realized that K’un-Lun is gone—and we pick up a short time after that. She’s with Danny still, not in New York, and they’re both searching for answers. But she’s been with Danny 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and she hasn’t really had any time to come to terms with all the things that happened in Iron Fist.

And neither has Danny. So they’re both kind of at the boiling point, and what we see in The Defenders is they have to crack. Something has to happen, something has to break, because the amount of tension in both of those characters is insane. 

Final question: In one word, how would you describe Colleen Wing to new fans just dipping their toes into the Iron Fist series for the first time?

I want to say “badass!” Yeah, definitely ”badass.” 

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