Raccoon City has a new saviour: British actor Hannah John-Kamen, blasting her way through the undead streets as Resident Evil’s emblematic protagonist Jill Valentine.
Taking the lead in Johannes Roberts’ franchise reboot, John-Kamen is updating one of the gaming sphere’s most iconic players, yet it’s a (virtual) reality she navigates with experience, having previously starred in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One as the villainous F’Nale Zandor. “Escapism is so important at the moment,” says fellow Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City actor Tom Hopper in conversation here as these two nerd-out, expelling the virtues of immersive fantasy; whether that’s via cinema, VR, graphic novel or an exceptionally-formed character.
Tom Hopper: Hey Hannah, you’re in London?
Hannah John-Kamen: Yes, back in London. I’ve actually started shooting my next project, Red Sonja for 2022. And obviously doing press for Resident Evil – after watching it, it’s really great!
TH: Brilliant, right?
TH: For the fans of the game especially, I think they’re going to be really happy. I felt like I was watching a live-action version of the game. There’s a tone Johannes [Roberts, director] has really nailed, just little nuanced things.
HJK: Absolutely. It really captures the 90s and that kind of isolation…
TH: Your hair in it, Hannah, your big 90s hair.
HJK: I know. I’m actually really chuffed about the hair and the authenticity of the character as well. You went to Umbrella Academy straight after Resident Evil, how was that shift going from one project to another?
TH: Yeah, it was weird. I literally went home for Christmas after Resident Evil for two weeks and then they flew us straight back out to Toronto to quarantine again for the start of Umbrella Academy. It was such a long shoot because we shot from mid-January all the way through until mid-September.
HJK: Wow. Shooting in Canada [for Resident Evil] with coronavirus was such a different approach.
TH: Complete shift.
HJK: Usually you meet up, you have a big cast dinner with all of the team. It’s that whole thing, isn’t it? Isolating when you first come and then suddenly coming out of isolation straight onto set, and then the team is all like separating.
TH: You came from London, right? You arrived and pretty much started straight after you came out of quarantine, didn’t you?
TH: It was like, “Right, now we’re shooting.”
HJK: I think originally they were going to fly me straight from Unwelcome without a day off, but I actually really fought that one. I was like, “No, give me one day before I travel.”
TH: Please give me a day. Just one day!
HJK: And then travelled and isolated for two weeks. That was kind of crazy. Have you ever had a moment during filming where you’ve had a revelation or seen things from a new perspective?
TH: I think the times that do that are when you have a particularly tough shoot. You have that as your benchmark of like, “Wow, that was tough.” Then any shoot from then on, you compare it to that and think, “This is easy compared to that one.”
HJK: It’s that whole revelation of just adapting to your hours, your set, your time, your trailer, the country you’re in, and telling the stories.
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“I think it’s just as important to make fantasy and reality.”
TH: I always think it’s really interesting when you’re shooting in different countries and you gain perspective on what a set is like when you have a language barrier. When we were shooting in Hungary a lot of the crew didn’t speak any English, and none of us spoke Hungarian. You find out that the communication errors on set can account for a lot of time being taken up. It’s a lot harder when you’ve got a language barrier there.
HJK: I think as well, for me, doing a ton of night shoots on Resident Evil, five days a week. I’m really good at sleeping, but I think it’s when you’ve been brought in the next day, like around 5pm time you’re in hair and makeup and you’re just knackered.
TH: You’re at the beginning of another twelve-hour shift or whatever.
HJK: Exactly. I found that when doing all those night shoots and then being in the trailer and having to really alert myself and wake myself up because we were doing really big scenes. You have to just slap yourself across the face.
TH: You get this weird second wind that happens halfway through the night, and then you get the delirious state where everybody gets a little bit giggly.
HJK: Coming on set a little bit sleepy and then having your gun and suddenly you have to figure out…
TH: You have to shoot some zombies.
HJK: That’s when I’m like, “Hey Johannes, how do we do this? Give me a revelation.” [laughs] I went to the cinema last night to see Dune – it’s brilliant.
TH: Is it?
HJK: It was really, really great. I find with everything sci-fi, politically, socially, feudal system-wise, it always mirrors society because that’s something that will never change: power.
TH: That’s why Star Wars is so good, right?
HJK: Exactly. I think the movies that are important to be making now, there’s a balance of inspiring tales of life when it comes to racial culture, social culture, but at the same time, I think escapism is so important. It’s important to be making fantasy as well as reality.
HJK: Not to just escape, the same issues will always be there, but it’s in a different world, a different vision. I think it’s just as important to make fantasy and reality.
TH: Escapism is so important at the moment because the world is a crazy place. I think people use television, movies and fantasy as a form of therapy. They escape. It’s like reading a really great book or doing a box set. That’s what’s really interesting about the VR world as well now. VR can take you into – what do you call it when you’re a character in another world?
HJK: Like an avatar.
TH: That’s it. So you have your avatar in that world, and it’s kind of like Ready Player One. Which you know all about. I think the world is heading towards this virtual reality world where we can exist outside of ourselves and be whoever we want to be on the inside.
HJK: Have you seen Free Guy ?
TH: No, I haven’t yet, it’s supposed to be brilliant.
HJK: It’s absolutely brilliant. It’s the same realm as Ready Player One, really. It’s completely about that, this other oasis that’s been built, and the characters in the other world. It’s not even just about the characters that humans get to be, it’s actually the characters that are already in the game, the NPC’s [non-player characters]. Like for example, when you play James Bond and you’ve got the scientists going, “No, don’t shoot!”
TH: Oh yeah, I know what you mean. The whole concept of that is brilliant.
HJK: I think it’s definitely where we’re going. I have friends who have VR. It’s escapism. It’s needed.
TH: Oh my god, yeah. More and more people who were never into gaming or anything like that are doing it.
HJK: Way more.
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TH: I played with the Oculus VR in Toronto. Justin Cornwell, one of the actors on Umbrella Academy brought it on set. I was like, “This thing’s bonkers!” You can literally immerse yourself in a world. Then Elliot Page got one and he became obsessed with it. He was doing all these workouts on it, getting up early in the morning and doing these crazy workouts on his Oculus. Then occasionally you’d see his trailer shaking around because he was doing some gaming thing [laughs]. And I think it’s only in its infancy now.
HJK: Oh, absolutely.
TH: It’s going to become huge.
HJK: Next question: who do you admire and respect?
TH: Oh, lots of people. It’s hard in our industry because there are so many people that have been so ground-breaking or pushed boundaries. I’ve finally got round to watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – it’s been on my list to watch and I hadn’t got a chance yet. I’d been on planes and stuff and I was like, “I don’t really want to watch it on a plane, I want to sit down and watch it.” And I was glued to the screen – you’ve seen it, right?
HJK: I have.
TH: It’s like a bunch of short stories within one big movie that’s going to tell a story you know is coming.
HJK: Yeah. It just celebrates Hollywood. Even the way the fast cars are driving through the hills, it’s just 60s–70s chaos. It’s like that kind of rock ‘n’ roll time in Hollywood, but also that dangerous time – driving dangerously, taking drugs dangerously, the danger of not getting that role. I loved it. I’m obsessed with old Hollywood and Hollywood in general, growing up with my eyes glued to the TV screen as a kid going, “Wow, look at these old Hollywood movies.” Once Upon really provides a tone of what it was like to live in LA at the time. But the biggest thing was – it’s Sharon Tate. We all know the story of what happened so it just keeps you on edge the whole way through. Historically, knowing the tragedy that happened, I just found you’re anticipating the whole way through. Because it’s Tarantino and he knows how to do violence I was sat there going, “Oh god, this horrible scene is coming up.” And then actually, he rewrote history [laughs]. It was like the other ultimate version, if Dalton saved the day, like a Western.
TH: Exactly that. He becomes the hero without realising it. It’s like what would have happened if someone had come out and said, “Who the hell are these hippies on the bloody drive?” – it would’ve thrown them off completely and that night could’ve gone very differently. And the fact that Brad Pitt is tripping on acid [laughs].
HJK: And he still manages to basically kick some ass on acid. Brilliant. I watched that twice, actually, at the cinema because I loved it so much.
TH: I could easily watch it again. You know when you watch performances and you’re like, “Man, it’s just so beautiful”? Watching both Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in that movie, particularly DiCaprio at times, like when he freaks out in the trailer about his performance on set and goes, “What the hell was that?!” I think all actors can relate to that. I think a lot of people don’t realise that actors have that internal battle of, “Was that good? I don’t know if that was good or not.”
HJK: Or you know what that little girl does in the Western when she looks at him and goes, “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen,” and hugs him – that’s all he needed at that moment.
TH: To be told that you’re good.
HJK: I get that feeling from Joker with Joaquin Phoenix. I cried when I first saw it, happy tears. I’m the biggest fan of the Joker character, I grew up collecting all of Arkham Asylum, Mad Love, all the graphic novels. Also, my sister and dad work in mental health so I’ve grown up with that intrigue as well, and doing psychology. That was the most inspiring performance I have seen. I just thought, wow.
TH: As an origin story, I don’t think you can get better than that. It was just so perfectly done. That moment when he’s dancing down the stairs dressed as the Joker. It’s just so breath-taking as a sequence. You see him transforming, you see the inner Joker coming out.
HJK: The bit where you see him being born is when he stands on the police car at the end and does his big bow. Then everyone’s like, “Yeah!” and he turns around and his face just goes into this sad, sorrowful – it’s pain, and then he turns around again and smiles. That’s the Joker being born. That gave me goosebumps, because that’s what we do in life. I feel like we do that. There are two masks. It’s internal, and it can be pain. But that’s what I love about this industry, art, creativity is just a space – a needed space, a vital space. I’m so thankful for that space, it’s life-saving.
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TH: We’re in the fortunate and unique position that we get to exercise that muscle, putting on these external masks, living life as another person and seeing what it’s like to have those thoughts. Also, sometimes you get to say things you would never say in real life, you can let it all out. What was really funny, when we worked with Andy Serkis on SAS: Red Notice, when he plays these characters, this monster man comes out.
HJK: I know.
TH: There’s that scene, you know when he smashes me up against the wall in the movie and he’s like, “You fucking snipe”? That nearly took me out. It wasn’t even in the script, in the script he just turns to me and goes, “You fucking snipe.” But in this, I’m shooting the scene and out of nowhere he launches at me and he puts me through the set wall [laughs]. It’s like, “Oh my God, are you all right, Andy?”
HJK: [laughs] I bet Larry [Laurence Malkin] was like, “We haven’t got another set wall.”
TH: Exactly [laughs]. I had no idea that was inside of him.
HJK: He’s the nicest, nicest man, and watching his performance, I don’t even see him as Andy Serkis anymore. I’m like, “You are the character.” I love when that happens. Even with your own performances, because as an actor, I always go, “Oh god, here we go,” because I’m not the kind of actor that watches myself. I will, absolutely, because it’s not just about my performance; it’s about the collaborative crew and the scene and story and supporting that. I do like to be surprised and be immersed in the story. I watch things and I go, “Wow, I forgot that that’s Tom Hopper!” You forget that people are people. You just watch it for the actual story.
TH: Which is a testament to the movie, you just get immersed in the story. People often ask me if I get nervous on set and I’m like, “No, I’m never nervous during a scene. But I do get nervous the first time I watch the thing.” You’ve got to liken it to the first night in a theatre performance. You don’t feel nervous in the rehearsals when you’re working through scenes, but those butterflies in the stomach of the first night you go out on stage – the first time everyone’s going to view it.
HJK: When I did Killjoys – I did five seasons of that – me and my co-stars would always say your first day back is the first day back at school. When you’ve had your summer holidays, you’ve had six weeks off and then you get to come back, reinvent yourself, and woo-hoo, here we go. It’s like the beginning of a new term. That first scene back – literally me and my friends Luke Macfarlane and Aaron Ashmore would all just look at each other and laugh because we’re like, “We’re so nervous!”
TH: I know some actors get really nervous before scenes, especially first day shoots. They’ll lose sleep and they’ll be in a real tizz about it. I can understand that. I remember coming onto Resident Evil and because Covid had been that whole year, it’d been quite a while since I’d actually acted. I got on set and suddenly realised, “Oh shit, I’ve got to act. How do I do this again?” [laughs]
HJK: That’s so funny.
TH: It’s like driving a car when you haven’t in a while – you have to get it into first gear.
HJK: Absolutely. I had to shoot the last scene of Resident Evil on my first day out of quarantine. I came on set and had to meet everyone for the first time because they’d all been filming for weeks before. It was my first day but filming the last scene of the movie, it’s such a big, “Right, okay, get it going” – just like, oh my goodness.
TH: Yeah, you got thrown right in there. Your first thing was the last scene in the movie, that’s nuts. That’s the time you’re supposed to be most into your character but you’re like, “Who’s this person? Who am I playing?”
TH: It’s very odd. We’re having that experience at the moment, because the way the locations are in this movie, we’re pretty much shooting it backwards. We’re shooting the ending and we’re having to go back through the movie. It’s always strange to do that. I think it’s fine when you know the script really well and know where your head is at, but there’s that element where you’re starting off at the end. Then as you start to do scenes near the beginning, you’re like, “I probably would’ve done that a little bit differently,” or there’s little nuances you would’ve done or thought about. Laura, my wife, made a good point, she’s like, “That’s the point where you have to trust that the director knows how to scope that performance so that it does flow.”
HJK: That is a good point. I went to the cinema not too long ago – won’t say what I saw, but I could tell with an actor that they definitely shot out of sequence. You know when you can sometimes tell?
TH: Yeah, it’s very strange. That’s really the pinnacle of our job, isn’t it? Especially when you’re shooting like that. You have to be so prepared of where you are, where you’ve been, what’s happened previous to now. The other point I was going to make as well – me and my wife always talk about this, how there’s three versions of a movie. There’s the scripted version, the what happens on set version, and then, in some cases, the way the edit is put together can be like a whole different movie to what you thought it was going to be.
HJK: You hit the nail right on the head. You’ve got the script version, the set version, and then the edit version where you watch it and you go, “Oh wow, that’s so different.” Actually, it can be cut up so much that part of that has been put over there with the movie or the trailer. It’s very funny.
TH: And it can be a good or bad thing. It can be like, “But the script was so good and it felt great on the day. What happened?” Or it can be the opposite.
HJK: I’ve had to put my foot down before, for what I call the ‘panic dialogue’ that needs to be squeezed into one second.
TH: Yeah, where it’s like an exposition or something?
HJK: Just that. I said, “I can’t actually get it out that fast.” I was going [speaking incoherently fast], and then it cut back and they’re like, “You need to go a bit faster.” I went, “I can’t speak that fast! My character doesn’t speak that quickly.” With ADR [Automated Dialogue Replacement], I sometimes wish they could just trust the silence. Silence is a big thing. Less is more. Let the music, let the silence, let the scene just be.
TH: Yeah, that’s the magic. Especially when you’ve earned it.
HJK: Are you looking to direct, ever?
“[acting is] limitless. It’s being on the playground again.”
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TH: I had this conversation the other day. It would have to be the right thing. The thing I don’t think people realise about directing is how much time it requires of the person. I admire directors so much because we come in as actors and we’re in for five minutes in the grand scheme of things. We come in and do the bit that they’ve been prepping for god knows how long – especially writer-directors.
HJK: Exactly, absolutely.
TH: And then after we do our shoot, then the edit starts for them, and they don’t leave the editing suite for six months to a year. I met with Johannes for Resident Evil when we were midway through shooting Umbrella, and he was like, “This is pretty much the first time I’ve left the editing suite.” I was like, “What? Are you kidding me?” He was like, “Yeah, we’ve been having coffees and meals brought to us and I’ve been going back home at ten, eleven at night, sleeping, and then going straight back into the editing suite.” It’s full-on. You have to really put your life aside for the movie. How about you? Would you be up for it?
HJK: I want to exec produce, I want to produce and create. I can’t claim I’m a writer because that’s a huge process in its own right, but definitely when it comes to storyboarding, creating a story, the characters, the content, the creator of a universe, the language – that’s me. And actually, I would love to direct. I got pitched something to direct in a few years, and I said I’d do one episode. I can’t carry a series but I’d do a private episode if it’s the right passion piece.
TH: TV’s a great place to exercise that muscle. There’s something beautiful in what you were saying about coming up with an idea and birthing that. Then eventually it becomes a thing, it becomes something people watch that began with a conversation of: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”
HJK: That’s what it’s all about. People ask me, “Why are you acting?” And I say, “Because I have fun.”
TH: We’re some of the luckiest people on the planet to do what we do – we’re basically kids who play around with toys.
HJK: Yeah, it’s limitless. It’s being on the playground again. And also, when people say to me, “When did you want to be an actor?” I always go, “I don’t have a memory of not wanting to be an actor.” It’s not even specifically an actor, it was just performing. Dancing, dressing-up, putting on accents, telling a silly joke. It’s just instilled, it’s ingrained in me.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City is out now.
Interview originally published in The HERO Winter Annual 2021.
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