Hannah John-Kamen | To Know Is to Raid, to Want Is to Entomb
The first episode of Black Mirror I ever saw was “Playtest.” If you know, you know. I won’t ruin it for you, but what I will say is that when I watched it I was literally (yes, literally) reduced to screaming in horror. My visceral reaction was in part evoked by the terrifyingly deft performance of a British actor named Hannah John-Kamen. She may not be a household name yet, but unless you’ve managed to miss out on some of the most culturally pervasive media being made at the moment—Black Mirror, Game of Thrones, the newest Star Wars films—you’ve already seen twenty-eight year old John-Kamen in action. With roles in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One, the highly-anticipated Tomb Raider reboot, and Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, she’ll be at the forefront of some of the biggest studio films during a time when fantasy narratives, representation in media, and conceptions about the future are being constantly reimagined.
John-Kamen greets me warmly as I round the corner to a conference room at Warner Brothers New York offices. The first thing I notice is her laugh, which is rich and contagious, and her sleek sense of style—she wears a long multi-colored coat and hair parted neatly down the middle. She’s got the magnetism and inquisitiveness of a natural performer, which she attributes to growing up in a unique family paired with an early passion for the craft. “I don’t have any other actors in my family. My dad’s a forensic psychologist, and my mom was a Norwegian model. I don’t know where it came from, but it was definitely there,” she tells me. “I don’t remember not wanting to act. I’d always perform. I’m from a northern town in England, and always had aspirations to go to drama school in London, and I did that. It was kind of plan A or plan A. I wonderfully got into Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and haven’t looked back since.”
In her third year of drama school, John-Kamen booked her first television role in a British show called Whitechapel. Since then she’s taken on roles in an impressive variety of projects, from film and television to musical theater and even video game voice over. Interestingly, most of John-Kamen’s notable roles have been within the science fiction and fantasy genres. “I love imagination and creating worlds because, you know, there’s no limit. It’s incredible. I always have been a fan of that. I’ve been a fan of comic books, I’ve been a fan of computer games, I’m a fan of fantasy movies. Like the Spielberg movies, I grew up with those. And I think that’s definitely what drew me to these roles.”
For anyone who’s still skeptical of the potential of fantasy or sci-fi or superhero narratives (hopefully Black Panther changed your mind), John-Kamen makes a good case for why it’s a space ripe for progress and reinterpretation. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, which is set to release in July, John-Kamen takes on the challenging role of Ghost, a complex anti-hero who was originally a male character in the comics. “[The Ghost] hadn’t been brought to life yet on-screen, so it could be anything. I was so happy to be able to play this role. It’s completely open for interpretation.” John-Kamen notes how Marvel characters are able to evolve with the times to reflect our culture’s new fantasies, desires, and dreams: “They always change. You take it off the page and make it your own.”
Reimagining well-known properties and updating them to reflect the progress we’ve made as a culture seems to be becoming a bit of a trademark for the actress. This year she’ll be lending her talents to a new take on the famously contentious Tomb Raider franchise as Lara Croft’s best friend, helping to continue the series’ evolution from fodder for male fantasies to a focus on representations of strong female characters and relationships.
John-Kamen is hard working and talented, and it feels like the stars are aligning for a career that’s just getting started. It was “plan A or plan A,” as she says. But, no one’s lives are as straightforward as they look on Wikipedia, and it has taken a lot of perseverance for her to get where she is now, landing starring roles in Spielberg films. She tells me about a time when things didn’t look quite as rosy as they do now.
“It was after my musical, and things went quiet, as they sometimes do.” In 2012 she starred in Viva Forever! based on the songs of the Spice Girls, which had a short run at London’s Piccadilly Theatre. “My confidence slipped a little bit. I went home for a weekend and my dad sat me down and said, ‘You know, Hannah, don’t go in there and be anyone else. Just be yourself. And just think of it like you’re rehearsing for the thing you’ve already got.’ I always remember that pivotal point after that weekend with my parents, where they helped me to stay grounded and to trust myself,” she recalls. “And then I came back and that’s when it all started changing. I got back to London and I approached things differently, with a bit more of a mature mind. So, thanks Dad.”
There’s something beautiful about the fact that in order to prepare for this life that she now leads—one that’s currently filled with superpowers and outer space bounty hunters and spaceships and adventure—she first needed to feel grounded. To return home, to listen to someone who’s known her since day one, and reflect on who she is. John-Kamen has a confidence and unique maturity that feels beyond her years, and it seems that while she’s at the forefront of evolving fantasy narratives and new representations in media, she’s also representative of a more personal dream that many of us are trying to achieve in our own lives—she’s learned how to be herself.
Written by: Shea Sweeney
Photographer: David Urbanke.
Flaunt Film Director: Wenck Brothers.
Stylist: Joseph Episcopo at Celestine Agency.
Hair: Eloise Cheung using John Masters Organics products at Kate Ryan Inc.
Makeup: Nick Barose using CHANEL Palette Essentielle at Exclusive Artists.