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Jessie Buckley: ‘I grew up in a household where music, writing and expressing yourself was really nurtured’

After a decade of blistering success, the Wicked Little Letters star has had a year off. Next up for the newlywed? Chloé Zhao, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Penélope Cruz

I am not going to let Jessie Buckley escape before asking her about being a few metres from the most jaw-dropping moment in Oscar history. Two years ago, nominated as best supporting actress for her role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, she was at the front of the auditorium when Will Smith walloped Chris Rock. Right? Ciarán Hinds, also there, told me ...

Wait? What? She’s giving me the Kerry cackle.

“You’re not going believe me. Ha ha! But I missed it.”

Hang on. Scratch that opening paragraph. She was elsewhere? Gyllenhaal and Olivia Colman, up for best actress in the same film, also seem to have been out of the room.


“Well, the good thing about the Oscars is you can go out and in,” she says. “I was with Olivia and Maggie. We’d made friends with the lift man. And our task in the breaks was to get him bottles of margarita! We were on one of our rounds to supply this wonderful man in the lift. We came back in and Benedict Cumberbatch and his wife were coming out. They were, like, ‘What do you think of that?’ We had no idea what happened. We walked out of the room in one way, and we came back into a room where the atmosphere was completely different.”

That’s almost a better story than being there.

“Yeah. We were making the lift man very happy.”

I am happy to relate that, on today’s evidence, a decade of blistering success has done nothing to dull Buckley’s joie de vivre. She still leans into her chortle with the enthusiasm you expect from your favourite wedding guest. When confronted with a tricky question, she twists her face into an asymmetric scowl that communicates sincere confusion. In recent years that gift for puzzlement has been put to good use with such exercises in nouveau weird as Alex Garland’s Men and Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. All good. But it’s nice to see her standing on tables and yelling obscenities at Colman in this week’s true-life comedy Wicked Little Letters.

“Oh, it was f**king great!” she exhales. “Honest to God, it was one of the funnest jobs. They’re all fun, but this was just so light and naughty. Getting to work with Olivia. We’re such good pals. I had done all this heavy material for the last few years. I was so happy to just fly.”

Wicked Little Letters concerns a fascinating story that played out in West Sussex, on the south coast of England, during the interwar years. The quiet town of Littlehampton was shocked by a spate of anonymous poison-pen letters, rich in maritime language, that circulated among “decent, respectable people”. Buckley plays a free-spirited newcomer who, we quickly discern, was falsely identified as the sender. She was the “wrong type”: freethinking, loud, an unmarried mother. The person on whom the character was based was English, but, playing the part in her own accent, Buckley insinuates implications of anti-Irish prejudice.

“Hmmm, I don’t really think I’ve ever experienced that,” she says as we chew over the topic. “I moved to London when I was 17. And I’ve been so welcomed here. I really think this story isn’t just about a type of woman from Ireland. This is about this damaging expectation that we should all be ‘ladies’! The women we love most are fun and have brilliant minds. If you give them half a chance they’ll feed you and feed themselves.”

Space precludes more than a potted summary of all that Buckley has achieved since leaving the Kingdom half her lifetime ago. She first gained fame as runner-up on the BBC talent show I’d Do Anything. After attending Rada, she secured decent TV parts in Taboo and the BBC’s War and Peace. True breakthrough came with her transcendent role as a Scottish country singer in Wild Rose, which was released in 2019. That Oscar nomination (she came close again last year with Sarah Polley’s Women Talking). Three Bafta nods. An Olivier award for playing the lead in Cabaret in the West End. A tremendous Mercury-nominated rock album with Bernard Butler. She is the sort of Renaissance talent they don’t just mint any more. That is Orson Welles levels of early achievement.

Many seeking explanation have looked to her upbringing in a Killarney guest house. As I mouth off about her having to be “on” when there are guests about, I note that asymmetric querying look again. This isn’t going to fly.

“It wasn’t like being a showbiz kid,” she says. “I just grew up in a household where music and writing and expressing yourself was really nurtured and respected. I was very lucky to have two parents who – not just for us but for themselves – gained so much from that, whether it was cooking for guests or going to the pub or playing the guitar or singing at church. They got so much nourishment from making things. And for me that’s the essence of everything I do. I love making things with people.”

Buckley had the presence to boss the male roles in school productions of great musicals. She learned piano, clarinet and harp. It sounds as if there were half a dozen paths she could have chosen, but she ended up bellowing As Long as He Needs Me at Andrew Lloyd Webber on I’d Do Anything, a show designed to find the female lead for a West End production of Oliver! Buckley is part of a generation of Oscar-nominated actors – Jennifer Hudson, Emma Stone, Ariana DeBose – who had their first break on TV talent shows (few actually winning). That sounds like a gruelling introduction.

“I guess it was a bit of a journey,” she says. “I went in totally benignly, and I honestly thought it would take me 50 years to even peek behind a curtain of professionalism. It just was so exotic. It was so far away. I did it because I didn’t get into drama school. So I look back and I think: Would I do that now? No! Way!”


“No. I was really passionate about singing and wanted to be part of this industry. I had this sheer ignorance about the business. I didn’t even know there was business attached to it at the time. I was singing with everything I had – because I just wanted to be part of it. Looking back, I have awesome respect for that 17-year-old who was so brave.”

I am fascinated by her decision to then go on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She had been on the telly for weeks. She had played opposite Maureen Lipman in Trevor Nunn’s production of the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music. She must already have been the most famous person in her year at Rada.

“Even though I’d gone off and done A Little Night Music, it was just in the back of my mind that there’s more that I need to understand,” she says. “I want to have a long, interesting career. It was just getting to know myself – also get to mess up in private, read plays and just be with people my own age away from business. The business is nothing to do with me.”

The current boom in domestic acting was forming as she was moving from Rada to high-end TV and on to film. She connected with that coming wave when she played opposite Paul Mescal in The Lost Daughter. They are about to work together again in Chloé Zhao’s version of Maggie O’Farrell’s much-loved novel Hamnet, a study of how William Shakespeare and his wife negotiated the death of their eponymous son. It is quite a time to be an actor and to be Irish.

“I guess we’ve always been a country of great storytelling,” she says. “There was a time around the Celtic Tiger where it felt like we lost our identity in Ireland. I was 15, and I definitely felt the pressure of that. That wasn’t who we were. We’re people of the land and people of community – and people of storytelling and character. Now, on the other side of that Celtic Tiger, there is such an essence of our identities coming out. That’s very powerful and strong. You can see it all over the place. It’s in the music of Fontaines DC and the writing that’s coming out of there. And also the acting that’s coming out.”

It doesn’t feel as if Buckley has been away. Christos Nikou’s unsettling, allegorical Fingernails – more JessieWeird – premiered at Toronto International Film Festival last autumn and landed on Apple a few weeks later. Women Talking opened here earlier that year. Now we have Wicked Little Letters. But, partly thanks to the Hollywood actors’ strike, she has been allowed a spell to decompress. She lives most of the time in an ancient house in Norfolk that, according to an earlier interview, retained the original paint made from “pig’s blood mixed with lime”.

“I’ve had the whole year,” she says. “I haven’t done anything for a year. So it’s been great. I’ve been home for a good year. Which was really nice.”

Buckley didn’t quite do nothing. It emerged just last month that she married her boyfriend, Freddie, last summer. Speaking on Table Manners, a food podcast presented by the singer Jessie Ware and her mum, Lennie Ware, she announced that the event had happened at that now not-quite-so-crumbling pile in East Anglia. We know that Freddie is English and that he makes a great anchovy pasta. We know that he has “gone back to university to work in mental health”. Having been burned before with media coverage of an earlier relationship, Buckley looks to have kept the ceremony admirably discreet. I don’t wish to intrude, but does she wish to tell us any more?

“I’m very happy,” she says in a manner both friendly and final.

Fair enough. The period of calm is about to come to a close. We learned recently that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s follow-up to The Lost Daughter is to be a take on the Frankenstein story. Buckley stars opposite Christian Bale, Annette Bening, Penélope Cruz and Peter Sarsgaard. She is already in a state of preparation for that and Hamnet.

“I’m gearing up to go pretty soon,” she says. “Which is great. I’m so happy. It’s been so great to go and do a year of life. I’ve worked nonstop since I moved over. So just to be a human and cook and do the normal things that are important has been great. But I’m so excited to be going back to work on these two projects. I couldn’t dream of two things I want to do more than work with these two amazing female directors and such incredible casts.”

It couldn’t have happened to a more pleasant person.

“I feel really lucky and really challenged and excited. It’s been like an ideal year.”

Wicked Little Letters is in cinemas now