On a break from a photo shoot in Acton, west London, wearing a Sixties-style yellow checked coat and ugly-chic chunky white trainers, Hannah John-Kamen fixes me with a gleeful stare.
‘Boom!’ she says, puncturing an imaginary balloon. ‘Just one pop and you can change somebody’s whole outlook.’ She is talking about her latest role in Netflix’s The Stranger — you’ve already binged all eight episodes, right? — but that ‘Boom!’ could easily also refer to her career trajectory thus far.
In the past five years she has played a string of strong, complex women, leaving no time for a holiday, but she’s not complaining. She was Daenerys’ friend Ornela in Game Of Thrones; then she was summoned to LA by Steven Spielberg, who cast her on sight as the steely head of operations F’Nale Zandor in Ready Player One and recommended her to director Peyton Reed to play Ava Starr/Ghost in Ant-Man And The Wasp. This cemented her supremacy as the in-demand action star of the moment. With all these sci-fi roles, it’s lucky she is, she admits with a proud grin, ‘a bit of a nerd’, breaking into the Game Of Thrones dialect, Dothraki, to tell me ‘something about the danger of dragons’, while comically pretending to check for them.
And now comes The Stranger which, for the tiny minority of people who have yet to watch it, concerns a mysterious woman in a baseball cap — John-Kamen — who sidles up to lawyer Adam (played by Richard Armitage) at a ‘dads and lads’ football game, tells him his wife has faked a miscarriage and recommends a paternity test for his sons. With that she disappears, and his life begins to unravel. It’s the latest Harlan Coben adaptation from the team who did The Five and Safe. It has the same producer as Happy Valley and a similarly twisting plot, full of dark riddles. The action has moved from New Jersey to suburban Manchester — familiar to the East Yorkshire girl from Beverley (although 10 years in east London have softened her accent). Coben was on set throughout, giving his view on everything from hairstyles to casting and, most radically, making his eponymous Stranger a woman (the character was male in his 2015 novel) after seeing John-Kamen audition, a move she modestly deflects as something he was already considering. Coben also wrote to Jennifer Saunders to ask her to play Heidi, who is also cornered by The Stranger.
‘I always play characters that are “villains”, in inverted commas,’ John-Kamen says, a glint in her icy blue eyes, inherited from her Norwegian mother, a former model. ‘But every character has a reason for how they behave. I try to understand what’s brought them there. With The Stranger, I asked Harlan to tell me how the show would end so I could know what’s driving her.’
Ant-Man And The Wasp was cast colour blind and John-Kamen, whose father was born in Nigeria and moved to London during the Biafran War, has said that means ‘now any young girl, any mini-me watching a movie can go, “I want to do that.”’ When she was cast, Reed said: ‘It’s important people see themselves reflected in movies. The Marvel Universe is filled with white people and I think it needs to be less so.’ John-Kamen is eloquent on the need for change in her industry, as highlighted by the dominance of white men at the Baftas and Oscars. ‘I’ve been lucky, but the lack of representation is definitely something which has to be addressed and action has to be quick. It’s disappointing and we have to strive for change, now.’ She’s proud of the British film industry: ‘So many Hollywood things are coming here, like Ready Player One and The Stranger, both made here.’
John-Kamen’s father, a clinical forensic psychologist, and mother, who looked after John-Kamen and her older brother and sister, brought her up with a strong sense of pride in her identity. She still calls on them when she needs a boost. When Spielberg invited her to Los Angeles to audition for Ready Player One in 2017, her father came into his own. ‘I had been playing it cool all the way there and didn’t even tell my parents I was going. Then when I said my name at reception it didn’t feel real.
‘That’s when I panicked so I went to the bathroom and called my dad. It was the middle of the night back home in England. He asked if there was a mirror and told me to look in it and he said: “You are Hannah John-Kamen, you are going to be fine, you are my daughter. Just be yourself, I love you and call me afterwards.” Everyone needs a Johnny John-Kamen in their life.’
It worked. ‘I went to Steven’s beautiful, calm office with trees outside and I wasn’t fazed any more. I just couldn’t wait to meet the man. We ended up talking about my parents. I still pinch myself. At the end of our interview Steven told me to stand up and asked how tall I was. I’m five foot eight. He said I’d got the job. Apparently he never offers anyone the job on the spot. That’s when I lost my cool. I skipped down the road like a Disney character. Absolute wow.’
On set her friendship with Spielberg blossomed. ‘We’d sit next to each other near the monitors and sing — “A Bushell And A Peck” from Guys And Dolls and “Singin’ In The Rain”. We’d print out the lyrics; it was professional.’
She wanted to do as many stunts as possible in Ready Player One and was disappointed to be held back. ‘They’d let me do certain things but then they wouldn’t let me walk across a slippery floor because it was dangerous, but I loved my stunt double.’
John-Kamen always wanted to be an actress, but she wasn’t scared of hard work. ‘When I was 14 I told my parents I didn’t want pocket money, I wanted a job. The only one I could get was dishwashing in a restaurant called Francois for £3.50 an hour but when I got my first cheque I felt so proud. My hands were dry with calluses but I had money I’d worked for.’
Her father’s background in psychology has come in handy in her acting career; her older sister is also a psychologist and her brother works in music. ‘My dad and sister taught me the importance of switching off at the end of the working day. You have to. When I’m given a hot towel in the make-up chair to take the day off and I realise I’m emotionally exhausted — that’s when I switch off.’
Her mother introduced her to old films: Some Like it Hot, Singing In The Rain, Sunset Boulevard. At 18 she moved to London and went to what was then the Central School of Speech and Drama, living in West Hampstead and going out in Camden. ‘Drama school is where I grew up. I always wanted to get out and go to London. There was so much bohemian energy.’ It was there that she made friends with Kadiff Kirwan, who plays DC Wesley Ross in The Stranger. She got to know him through the type of due diligence practised by her Stranger character. ‘We were at drama school together and I remember before we started I went on his Facebook page and saw him in this huge French Connection coat, looking fabulous, and he’d said his favourite movie was Legally Blonde. He sent me a message saying, “Hey girl”, and I had this feeling we were going to be friends.’
In her third year at Central she was spotted by an agent and cast in the ITV drama Whitechapel. A role followed in the Spice Girls musical Viva Forever, written by Jennifer Saunders (so The Stranger was a fun reunion). She has fond memories of it, even though it was panned by critics. ‘I don’t read reviews — all I cared about was that we had bums on seats every night and the fans loved it; they danced at the end and dressed up.’
To keep in shape for all these action roles she eats healthily, runs and works out with a former Olympian trainer. But The Stranger was more about having an agile mind. It made John-Kamen think about what she would do if she were in Adam’s position. ‘If a stranger approached me would I investigate what they said? Or is ignorance bliss? You wouldn’t want to believe them but there would be a voice at the back of your head wondering.’ And she loved the baseball cap her character wears, which lends her a certain Victoria Beckham look. ‘It was like my superhero cape.’
The Stranger is a deft hacker, breaking into websites and using gaps in privacy to find out people’s secrets. During filming in spring last year there was a news story about the Sugar Daddy website being hacked. ‘It was crazy how that mirrored the script; it was about these sites which are meant to be anonymous but you can find the names. We don’t realise how exposed we are. We are tracked all the time with CCTV, social media — you need to have an iPhone, you need the iCloud, you need to be connected.’ She pauses before saying with an enigmatic smile. ‘Also I’m a huge fan of the TV show Catfish, which shows you all the hacking tricks.’ Did it make her reconsider what she shares online? She has more than 200,000 Instagram followers but uses it mostly for work, with pictures from the Baftas and her film premieres. The occasional snap of her mastiff dog, Otis, sneaks in, usually with her boyfriend, a Canadian boxer turned bartender who has just moved to live with her in Dalston and open a new bar on Bradbury Street called, simply, The Bradbury. ‘Hack me if you like,’ she declares. ‘You’ll just see what I had for breakfast.’
Next she’s playing Wilhelmina in a TV drama of Brave New World with Demi Moore as Linda. ‘It’s brave, it’s new, it’s a world — you have to watch it,’ she says teasingly, sounding like The Stranger. ‘Aldous Huxley was ahead of his time.’ She’d also love to do ‘a good old play — there’s a particular adrenaline to that you can’t explain’. Do dramas like that and The Stranger provide distraction from our turbulent politics? ‘In darker times you need comedy but you also do need a reality check.’ And her Stranger will definitely give you one.