Hannah John-Kamen speaks to Kadiff Kirwan about her climb to success from Hull to Hollywood

PHOTOSRosie Matheson
TALENTHannah John-Kamen
STYLINGKaren Clarkson at The Wall Group
MAKEUPAlex Babsky at Premier Hair and Makeup
HAIRStefan Bertin at The Wall Group
INTERVIEW: Kadiff Kirwan
PRODUCER: Jasmine Perrier
LOCATIONCourthouse Hotel Shoreditch

This feature is taken from Grumpy Magazine’s ISSUE NO.16, available now in digital and print worldwide

As far back as Hannah John-Kamen can remember, she doesn’t have a memory of not wanting to to perform. Born and bred in East Yorkshire, UK, to a Nigerian father and Norwegian mother, she has spent the last few years mastering her craft across TV and film since her professional debut in BBC’s drama Whitechapel. Her first lead role as Dutch in Syfy’s series Killjoys exposed her to a wider public, which prepared her for the following projects that catapulted her into Hollywood — from her big screen debut in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to a trio of blockbusters in 2018 including Tomb Raider, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, and Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. This year, the Hull native can be seen in Netflix’s The Stranger and Peacock original series Brave New World, based on Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian novel. With her limitless imagination, the 31-year-old actress thoughtfully shapes her career with compelling performances and roles that push her boundaries. 

Illustration: Jenny Sorto (@unblissfull)

Hannah John-Kamen and Kadiff Kirwan met at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London in 2008, where they both studied acting. ‘‘We’ve been best friends ever since, so I thought what a better person to have a great conversation with than my wonderful fellow actor [and] bohemian best friend Kadiff,’’ she enthusiastically told us over the phone from London, a couple of weeks after our photoshoot on the rooftop of The Courthouse Hotel Shoreditch. A decade later, they worked together as co-stars for the first time on Netflix’s British mystery thriller The Stranger, playing ‘‘The Stranger’’ and DC Wesley Ross. While Hannah was on her way to make sure she is healthy to get back on set and start her upcoming productions, she was interviewed by Kadiff to talk about her dazzling journey since graduating from drama school eight years ago, working with Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg, and what draws her to the roles she carefully picks.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. This is only an extract.

On wanting to become an actor and getting into drama school… 

“When I had my Barbies as a kid, I’d be playing with them and making up these wonderful, crazy, imaginative stories. I’d spend hours writing these little scripts. I’ve always had such a passion for movies, films, and musicals. I was so much exposed to that as well — my mom [and I] would sit and watch classic movies together. But honestly, I don’t remember not jumping around and doing this [laughs]. I really wanted to get into drama school and discover myself. You remember this — we’d have the opportunity to dance. It’s interesting because I think that what I’m doing now at my age and with my experience is actually me starting to express it. 

On her first lead role as Dutch on Syfy’s Killjoys and how it prepared her for the next projects… 

“I was so excited. I was at this point in my life, in my career, where I was so ready to go out there and lead a show, to be honest. After doing a test in Toronto, I just thought, ‘Please let me get this.’ Because I felt this energy, and I was really ready to do this. […] It was a huge change. Killjoys really opened up the avenue [for] Black Mirror, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Ready Player One. It was something in my life I felt I needed. It was another milestone of moving on. I felt very free to go and embrace this character. It was wonderful. […] The character taught me how to be a strong, very independent, unapologetic, badass female. It was the part of my life that absolutely skyrocketed my own confidence and groundedness.

On diving into the world of Peacock Original’s Brave New World

“[Wilhelmina — Helm — Watson] is very funny and I thought, ‘I haven’t done this before, and this is such a relevant topic actually.’ She’s an alpha plus, she creates these pleasure bombs, but there is also a tragedy about her because she’s a conductor. She’s the one who’s never ever experienced what she creates. And there’s also this sadness of her. It’s a beautiful kind of journey that she goes on. Actually, her relationship with Bernie — Bernard — is wonderful because it’s a genuine friendship. […] My character [on Brave New World] would obviously create orgies. It was quite interesting to see the dancers, and how creatively you could make this kind of sexual spirit look and feel so beautiful. 

On how she approaches her daunting roles…

“I’ve done a couple of adaptations from books, comic books, and I don’t ever follow the book when it comes to a movie or an adaptation in a series — I always say it’s not the same, because at the same time the script is different, the characters are different. And if it’s a really interesting, strong character, then why not make it a woman, and inspire young girls to have another character to look up [to]? […] I think every role I’m playing, everything that I’m doing, is really [about] the character, the script, the actual message of the media. Because I’ll have more of a fun time doing it.

On working with Hollywood legends and staying grounded…

“When I met Steven Spielberg in LA, my dad said to me, ‘Hannah just look in the mirror, you’re a John-Kamen. Stay grounded, be who you are, enjoy yourself.’ It was the most wonderful, lovely experience. He is such a wonderful man and we had a beautiful chat. There will always be an element of going, ‘Oh my goodness,’ but we are all human beings, we are all here creating the same environment. […] There were moments I went, ‘I forgot I’m singing show tunes with Steven Spielberg.’’ I look back and I go, ‘It’s like a dream,’ but it did actually happen! And I got that job. It was perfect. I think it’s about using any nervous energy on set wisely, put it into the thing, and relax.

On finding her place in the industry…

“I personally feel like I haven’t had discrimination, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t seen it or I’m not aware of it. And it’s sad because in this industry, in award ceremonies, it’s very apparent the lack of [diversity], the lack of awareness, and actual appreciation, and creativity in terms of moving forward and being inclusive. But it’s good in a way that [the Black Lives Matter movement] has been during lockdown because it’s made a lot of people that I know, including myself, [self-reflect]. […] In this industry, creativity is a place where we should be able to feel safe and free to express who we are. And it’s been heartbreaking to see that hasn’t happened. There’s always more that we can do.

On leaving her mark…

“I have a responsibility as an actor and as myself to be open-minded and conscious about what I pick. […] It’s a really interesting time in everybody’s life, the world is on the same pace in a way. It’s scary, but use this time well, use this time to be creative. Also, you’ve got a voice — don’t be afraid to use it. I’m happy and very proud to be here, to be able to create and be part of this industry, where it can either help you escape or help you connect with. It’s a time of movement and it’s important to be part of it.

Full conversation and story appear in Grumpy Magazine’s ISSUE NO.16. Purchase your digital or print copy!


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