Some people have dealt with the last 18 months of the pandemic and lockdowns by partaking in simple pursuits such as binging every episode of Succession or embarking upon a couch-to-5k mission. But for British actress Hannah John-Kamen, the solution to COVID-19 angst was to kick zombies in the face.
“I shot two movies, Unwelcome with Douglas Booth (a horror which will be released next year) and Resident Evil,” the 32-year-old says while enveloped in the squishy cushions of a corner booth at London’s Shoreditch House. “I literally had one day between going out to Canada to isolate for two weeks to shoot Resident Evil. Weirdly, shooting a zombie movie during a pandemic made sense in a very odd, peculiar way. It was really good for the soul.”
Photo:Rashidi Noah; STYLING: Found and Vision vintage leather overalls and lace top; Gina shoes; Shaun Leane jewellery
The seventh installment of the video game–inspired Resident Evil movie franchise, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, is indeed a curious case of art imitating life. It acts as a ’90s-based prequel to the original hit—the peak-noughties movies starring Milla Jovovich—following Kaya Scodelario’s Claire Redfield on her return to her hometown of Raccoon City, where she discovers a pharmaceutical experiment has gone wrong and caused an outbreak that has turned the population into zombies. The only chance of survival? Teaming up with John-Kamen’s Jill Valentine, a police officer who knows a thing or two about standing up for herself in a male-dominated world and is very comfortable toting a gun—a combined skill set that proves to be rather effective for dealing with the undead.
“She’s a survivalist… How do I take that into my own life?” John-Kamen ponders as she nurses her latte. She’s bathed in autumn sun streaming in through the private members club’s industrial windows. “Oh my God, I love a zombie film,” she continues enthusiastically. “And I loved the [Resident Evil] games! I used to go over to my friend Adam’s place [to play them], and now, I get to play Jill Valentine!”
“I'm character driven and story driven in everything I do,” John-Kamen says, noting how fortunate she has been to notch up an IMDb profile page full of bold roles and huge franchises—Marvel, Game of Thrones and Star Wars, to name a few. “And when I get given a script where it’s a badass, strong female character, I’m not going to say no to that because that is something that empowers me, and I learn from playing those roles.” How do these experiences empower John-Kamen in her own life, though? “I know how to kick bum, literally, in my own life now! I actually know how to do Krav Maga,” she says.
Photo:Rashidi Noah; STYLING: Found and Vision vintage Antony Price dress; Gina shoes; Shaun Leane jewellery
John-Kamen grew up in the late ’90s, which her new movie is a time capsule for. There are pagers and walkmans, Jennifer Paige’s “Crush” on the soundtrack and John-Kamen’s very ’90s beauty look. She calls it her “Mariah Carey hair.” Although, she also admits it has a little “Julia Roberts circa Pretty Woman” seasoning, too. But being born in 1989 (same here), she gleaned her style influences whilst sitting at home watching noughties music videos on MTV and spending countless hours on MSN messenger using her alias “Sweet Sugar,” which, as she attended an all-girls school, was her only access to boys. (Same again!)
The pinnacle of that era’s influence on John-Kamen? “I was really loving Christina Aguilera in the year 2000. I was 10, and I actually was plucking my eyebrows to death,” she laughs. “Thank God they grew back. I used to pluck them down to the bone! I look back at photos of me and my friends when we’re around 12 years old, and I have on my Miss Sixty jeans, Hooch bag, French Connection.” She, unfortunately, didn’t complete the ’00s wardrobe tick list by owning a Juicy Couture tracksuit. “My mum wouldn’t let me have one. She thought it was tacky. She said I was too young to have something written on my bum saying juicy. I guess I was only 11,” she says.
Photo:Rashidi Noah; STYLING: Alberta Ferretti suit; Found and Vision vintage T-shirt; Gina shoes
Raised on the rural outskirts of Hull by her Nigerian-born father Johnny, a forensic scientist, and her mother Astri, a Norwegian fashion model, John-Kamen holds another power akin to her kick-ass alter egos on-screen: a strength of character. “My parents always said to me (and it’s been my biggest inspiration), ‘You are your own thumbprint. You are your own identity. You are unique. Never try to be anyone else. Always be yourself from the ground up. Work hard, be who you are, be inspired by yourself and always learn,’” she says.
For all the positives John-Kamen remembers from her formative years, it was still a difficult time for a mixed-race girl in the UK, with diversity in many towns and villages a rarity. “Being the only mixed-race girl at school, I denied my curly hair,” she explains, wearing her long hair in a half-up, half-down style today. “I wanted to straighten it and conform so badly. I just wanted to fit in. There’s a lot of mixed-raced girls I speak to, and we all went through the same thing, a bit of an identity crisis. I was always looking to straighten my hair. I wanted to dye it blonde. I wanted to have blonde streaks. My beauty regime was trying to fit in and look like the blonde Christina Aguilera look, look like my Barbies and look essentially white. But actually now, it’s completely the opposite. It’s about embracing everything that I am and naturally am. My school was an all-girl school, and I did fit in, but I didn’t believe I did, which was sad. Times have really changed, and it’s beautiful to see my nephew and my niece going to school embracing their curls and braids.”
Photo:Rashidi Noah; STYLING: Found and Vision vintage Gucci blazer and Jitrois leggings; Roger Vivier shoes; Shaun Leane jewellery
Although John-Kamen feels she didn’t have “bad memories of being held back” by others or “any racism,” she does recall holding herself back in the quest to “fit in,” and she says that microaggressions—a term that wasn’t commonly used at the time—were commonplace. “I could see that I was the only different-looking person [on the playground], and I didn’t want everyone else to see that. It was like it’s my secret that I’m not going to tell, and [I thought], ‘I hope they don’t find out that I’m actually mixed race.’ It’s a very bizarre way of thinking, but that’s what I felt,” she says. I then ask her about the microaggressions she had to fight against. “It was stuff like going into a shop and being told, ‘The sales section is over there,’ but they don’t tell the white person about the sales,” she replies. “Or someone saying, ‘I’m not racist. I have a Black friend.’ I’ve had it before where someone goes, ‘Oh my God, can I touch your hair? Is your hair real?’ I get a lot [of] ‘Are your eyes real?’ When you go out to a party, you go out for dinner, you get commented on, and it’s a bit of a Josephine Baker moment where you go, ‘Why are you looking, staring, pointing and prodding me like that because I’m not doing it to you? No one else is doing that to anyone white in this room.’”
With her age, experience and high profile, I wonder whether she feels more empowered to call people out now. “Absolutely,” she says instantly. “I feel like it’s my duty. I will never stand by and let that happen and for people who aren’t there yet who don’t feel like they can.” The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last year also inspired John-Kamen: “We were all forced to lock the f**k down, shut up and listen.”
There’s also something about hitting your 30s that encourages growth and reflection, and John-Kamen isn’t immune to that. “I actually look back at my life and in certain moments of it and go, ‘Wow, Hannah, how did you get yourself out of that?’ I remember there was one [time] where I was working, working, working in my early 20s, and then I didn’t work for a really long time. In my head, I was like, ‘Oh no, I'm failing.’ But actually, no, I wasn’t,” she says. “I worked in a bar for a bit and was just a young girl in the big city—just living, surviving, making the wrong decisions and falling in love with the wrong people, which we have to do! It’s a rightful passage of life! I lived in an apartment the size of this table in Archway.” She gestures over the marble table towards a location that may only be a 15-minute car journey away but is now worlds apart from this memory. “It was above a kebab shop. The guys downstairs looked after me. I used their internet. They let me have free food because I was so skint, and I didn’t want to tell my parents. I was so happy because the pressure of being a successful movie star wasn’t in my head. I had the biggest parties as well with all these boys in my tiny, little room,” she adds, flexing the archetypal ambitious grit of a Virgo.
Photo:Rashidi Noah; STYLING: Found and Vision vintage Jitrois coat; Alberta Ferretti top; Gina shoes; Shaun Leane jewellery
As our chatty hour draws to a close, I have to know about the look she is serving today. Consisting of leather trousers, industrial black boots and a bohemian cropped top, it conjures up another noughties icon. “I am channeling Coyote Ugly because I went to see it the other night at Rio Cinema in Dalston as part of the LGBTQ+ festival. There was drag. I’ll get a video up,” John-Kamen says, grabbing her phone excitedly. “It got so rowdy. We were all singing along. This is my friend, Nicole.” She points at the video to a girl living her best early noughties fantasy. “We all just started screaming to LeAnn Rimes. I forgot how stylish the girls were, so I just started getting my leather pants out again. Literally, I was on Instagram shopping going, ‘Leather pants, Coyote Ugly top, done!’” she adds.
Wait—she’s an Instagram shopper? “Do you know what? Because your phone’s listening to you all the time, it’s a bit scary. It knows you more than you know yourself. I go on the shopping thing, and I’ll go, ‘Oh my God, I love that. That’s so me. I’m buying it, literally gasping.’ Thank you, Google, for listening to me going, ‘Do you know what I really want?’”
“What you really, really want,” I sing to the tune of Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”—a not-so-subtle nod to John-Kamen’s first big gig in the Spice Girls musical Viva Forever! in London’s West End. “What I really, really, really want is a ’90s-inspired outfit,” John-Kamen says with a laugh before she leaves to fulfill her current leading role: being a dog mom. She grabs her phone again to show me her pride and joy, a toy cockapoo called Mogley. “He’s actually in doggy day care. He’s with all his mates today. My dog is my child, and I’m proud of it,” she beams. I can report both mother and 18-month-old baby are doing well.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is out in cinemas on 3 December.
Photographer: Rashidi Noah
Photography Assistants: Adam Aouati and Joel Shoyemi
Stylist and Creative Director: Karen Clarkson at The Wall Group
Hairstylist: Stefan Bertin at The Wall Group
Makeup Artist: Kenneth Soh at The Wall Group
Special thanks to Romilly Bowlby at DDA