Jessie Buckley: ‘The balcony love scene – and we couldn’t touch! You must be f**king joking’
She relishes challenging roles, but filming Romeo & Juliet in lockdown was a tough gig
Although it’s meant to be a one-on-one interview, and government rules prohibit group gatherings, Jessie Buckley has brought along a companion when we meet by the River Lea in London.
“This is my bike,” says the Irish actor, proudly presenting a battered turquoise Bridgford that has a malfunctioning bell, clickety spokes and rattling chains. “Sorry about the noise she makes.”
As we set off walking along the river path, the 31-year-old explains that she once paid a cycle mechanic to tighten the nuts and screws, which definitely made it a quieter ride, but also stripped the bike of its character. So she got the mechanic to loosen everything again and has been jingle-jangling around the city since, “like a happy, noisy clown”. Buckley thumbs the bell twice with satisfaction. Ting-ting!
In her new role we get a Kerry-accented Juliet, vital and quirky as Buckley herself, and perfect foil to the English actor Josh O’Connor as a hunched, repressed Romeo
The river path is bustling with activity this afternoon. Geese honk, narrowboaters tend wood fires, and in a car park that borders the water a man stands alone striking golf balls into a bucket. Buckley, dressed in torn jeans and a tightly fitted beret, stomping through puddles in her felty shoes, fits in well with the general chaos and eccentricity of the scene.
At one point she falls into conversation with a bearded older man in a T-shirt who staggers by, recognises her Co Kerry accent, and wonders (of the beret) why anybody from that lovely part of Ireland would want to “masquerade as a Frenchwoman”. Buckley hoots with laughter. The pair of them wind up exchanging endearments in Irish.
Listening to her chat, I realise that it’s possible to have watched many hours of Buckley’s consistent and excellent acting work without having seen much of her Irish side. She played a Glaswegian in her breakthrough film, Wild Rose, in 2018. Afterwards she went gravelly, English and posh in 2019’s Judy. That year she was allowed to do a generalised brogue in the ensemble drama Chernobyl, but her two biggest roles from 2020 – in the TV drama Fargo, and in Charlie Kaufman’s movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things – required that she go American.
Happily, in Buckley’s next bit of work, a filmed version of Romeo & Juliet that was produced by the UK National Theatre and will soon broadcast on Sky, we get something close to the realer thing – a Kerry-accented Juliet, vital and quirky as Buckley herself, and perfect foil to the English actor Josh O’Connor as a hunched, repressed Romeo.
Buckley is good pals with O’Connor, who recently won a Golden Globe for playing Prince Charles in The Crown. They’ve had similar career trajectories, upwards through stage and indie cinema to the Netflix-funded mainstream. When news first broke that Buckley and O’Connor would appear together in a contemporary version of Romeo & Juliet, there was huge excitement among British theatregoers.
The idea was for a short autumn run at the Lyttleton theatre, in a stage production directed by Simon Godwin. When Covid put a stop to audiences, Godwin brought his actors together for the dates they’d been booked and had them film Shakespeare’s play in the empty Lyttleton anyway.
“We were being tested every few days,” Buckley says of this chaotic, 17-day shoot. “Once, Josh couldn’t get tested for some reason. That was the day we were rehearsing the balcony scene. We looked at each other, like, ‘You must be f**king joking.’” Buckley cracks up laughing. “The world’s greatest love scene! And we couldn’t touch. We weren’t allowed to go near to each other. Anything that I put my hand on, or Josh put his hand on, the stage manager had to run in with a bottle of Dettol and sterilise.”
Buckley took a deliberate step backwards, enrolling at Rada to study drama for three years, hoping to get work in Shakespeare plays once she graduated
She remembers the evening they first got inside the National Theatre building, by the River Thames, back in October. It had been closed for six months by then. An old stage set had been left in place and there were dusty costumes on mannequins, “like the ghosts of the theatre, the only things that were still alive in there,” Buckley remembers.
“There was definitely a sadness around the place. You could feel it. But, I dunno, there was also a survival instinct. I know as actors we felt a real verve, a sense of: ‘We’re going to light this place up again.’ Everybody was just so hungry to do something in a building that had been dark for the first time in its history.”
Much of their version of Romeo & Juliet is filmed in front of the Lyttelton’s closed iron safety curtain. It’s a spare production, understated and sexy. With a super-trim running time (87 minutes) and a ridiculously good cast of established and rising talent (look out for Tamsin Greig’s slyly comic Lady Capulet and David Judge’s simmering Tybalt), this might be one of the most purely enjoyable Romeo & Juliets in memory. Buckley and O’Connor are fantastic, sharing a quiet charge whenever they’re on screen together, especially in the scene of their first meeting, the filmed format allowing them to murmur at one another instead of declaim.
Doom seems to shimmer behind everything – in part, Buckley says, because of the cast’s awareness of what was going on in the real world, outside the National Theatre’s walls. “There’s a fear of incoming death all through Shakespeare’s story. And I guess when the real world outside is kind of meeting that halfway, it took us all down a rabbit hole. It made it a very full-on experience, a double whammy of tension, very raw.”
Walking along the river, heading in the direction of central London, its towers sometimes visible in the distance, we talk about other aspects of this strange year gone by. Buckley made a big decision, recently, to leave the city for the English countryside after well over a decade. Something about the pandemic broke her bond with London, she says. “I realised I was almost addicted to the city, consumed by it, constantly in a race with it.”
At the turn of the year she bought an old house in Norfolk, on the east coast of England. Buckley’s description makes it sound like the setting of a Gothic horror novel. “It’s been there since the 1600s. Some of the walls have the original paint, pig’s blood mixed with lime, I think. And there are marks all over the walls, from when people in the 17th century were told to write Ws above the fireplaces to stop witches coming down the chimneys. One of the doors is waxier than the others, because that’s where they used to keep the greyhounds, centuries ago. It has character and soul, this mad old house, and my other option would have been a one-bed in London. So I just thought . . .”
Go with the pig’s blood, the waxy door, the witch markings?
BUCKLEY COMES FROM an artistic, unconventional family. Her mother had been an opera singer before she started a family. Her father was a part-time poet who also ran a guesthouse. While Buckley and her four younger siblings were growing up, “we chipped in at the guesthouse, which was fun, serving mushrooms and scrambled eggs to American tourists in the morning. We all thought we were very grown up. As a family we lived in the guesthouse for a bit. We got to know the staff. At the end of the night we would do some Irish dancing. I was awful at it.”
Her skills were singing and acting. As a teenager, Buckley got her first acting job in the chorus of a production of Carousel in Dublin. When she finished secondary school, in 2007, she took a gap year and, about halfway through, moved to London with the idea of enrolling at drama school.
After one or two rejections, she decided to audition instead for a BBC reality show called I’d Do Anything, in which contestants competed to play Nancy in a West End production of Oliver! Buckley made it all the way to the live TV final, where she finished second. This bit of hard luck has come to look more and more fortuitous as time has passed.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things explored some of the more morally compromised aspects of love. Obsession. Idealisation. Delusion
She got a part in a different musical, Trevor Nunn’s production of A Little Night Music, which ran for over a year including its transfer to the West End. Afterwards, in 2009, Buckley signed up for a six-month residency as a jazz singer at the upmarket London nightclub Annabel’s. Here, surrounded by bankers and oligarchs, she got used to performing to people’s backs.
“It didn’t bother me. I was never, like, ‘Hey! Guys! Over here!’ It could feel intimate and creative even though nobody was listening. And once or twice you’d see somebody who was suddenly paying attention . . . Y’know, these people, they’re all in bloody Annabel’s, they’re not gonna be interested in some Irish tinkerer singing away in the corner; they’re interested in money or whatever else. But sometimes something would shift in one person. And that would be enough.”
Though Buckley had an agent by this time, and also a long run in a hit musical under her belt, she knew she lacked proper theatre training. So she took a deliberate step backwards, enrolling at Rada to study drama for three years, hoping to get work in Shakespeare plays once she graduated. Out of Rada in 2013, it all happened very quickly.
She was cast as Miranda in The Tempest at the Globe, then in Michael Grandage’s Henry V, then in Kenneth Branagh’s The Winter’s Tale. In 2016, she made her first screen appearance, in the BBC’s big-cast production of War & Peace, and the following year Bafta named Buckley (along with O’Connor) as a rising star of the screen.
HER BIG YEAR was 2018, when she starred in the independent movies Beast, a psychological thriller, and Wild Rose, a drama about a young mother in Glasgow who pursues a career in country music; Buckley sang and cowrote some of the original songs. That year she also filmed a small-ish part in Judy, the Judy Garland biopic that went on to win a ton of major awards for its star Renée Zellweger. (Later, at the Bafta awards in 2020, Buckley gave a moving performance of a song from Wild Rose, and cameras showed Zellweger, in the audience, moved to tears.)
She also took ensemble parts in the HBO series Chernobyl, the Robert Downey jnr blockbuster Dolittle and the Keira Knightley drama Misbehaviour. “Filming stuff is always weird,” says Buckley. “You end up with a memory of an amazing communal experience [from being on set] and then over time it transcends through different hands, editing, music, grades, the director goes on his own journey with it – and ultimately it becomes something else, something greater or bigger or worse. And that’s kind of hard. You can never reclaim what it was. You can almost feel nostalgic for what it was.”
People don’t need to know what I think. I can put that into something paid, that I feel fulfilled by. I’m better at expressing these things in other people’s shoes
Unusually for someone her age, Buckley has never had a public profile on social media, and she takes no obvious part in what she calls “the subterranean world of Twitter and Instagram”. When I ask why, Buckley says: “People don’t need to know what I think. I can put that into something paid, that I feel fulfilled by. I’m better at expressing these things in other people’s shoes.”
She had a bumpy time in the British tabloids, in 2017, after a two-year relationship with one of her fellow actors in War & Peace, James Norton, came to an end. He subsequently dated the actor Imogen Poots, and in an interview Buckley described the break-up as acrimonious.
Since then (and who can blame her) Buckley has shied from chat about her romantic life. Although she is expansive and lyrical on almost any topic I think to mention, the only time Buckley hesitates or turns vague is when conversation touches on her “fella”. She’s been with him a while. By the sounds of it they’re moving to Norfolk together; the rest is unknown, and that’s presumably the way she wants to keep it.
We talk more generally about love, “the f**king madness of it”, in Buckley’s words. Look at Juliet and Romeo, she says. “Their love is so powerful it doesn’t even feel like their death is the end of it.”
And look at Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the young woman she played in Chernobyl. In one unforgettable scene, drawn from real events, Buckley-as-Lyudmilla breaks quarantine rules and risks contagion to embrace her fiance while he dies from radioactive poisoning. “I remember reading that part of Lyudmilla’s story in Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich,” Buckley says, referring to a book of witness testimony that inspired much of the show. “You realise just how powerful love is, that you can become blind to fear if you love that much.”
Her 2020 movie, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, explored some of the more morally compromised aspects of love. Obsession. Idealisation. Delusion. We meet a young couple, played by Buckley and Jesse Plemons, who may or may not actually exist. Characters in the movie shift about in age; costumes and names, and even the actors themselves get swapped in and out without explanation. Slowly, horribly, the idea emerges that Buckley’s character may be only a memory of somebody glimpsed and obsessed-over for years by Plemons’ character.
When it debuted on Netflix, last September, it created a lot of excited (and sometimes frustrated) internet chatter. I couldn’t stop thinking about the film for days and I sent out many “WTF?” texts to smarter friends, begging them to explain what happened. Buckley got quite a few such texts from her own friends, she says. But as for what really happened in the film? She has no idea.
On set, cast and crew would exchange pet theories. “People would say, ‘Ohhhh, now I understand what this or that means.’ And I was like: ‘Do you? Tell me!’ ” In the end, she says, she found it easiest to think about Kaufman and his cinematographer Lukasz Zal as artists putting together some surrealist painting. She and Plemons were just the paints.
“It’s a weird film, because it has a lot of space,” Buckley says. “We don’t often get films that have that courage, to not fill in gaps. As a piece of art, it’s asking you to come to it, as much as it comes to you. The film doesn’t push feelings on you but instead it pulls feelings out of you. And some people don’t want that. They find that uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable.”
WE’VE BEEN WALKING along the river path for about an hour and a half, overtaken by joggers and cyclists and roving chancers, Buckley’s bike clanging and chuntering next to us. “I told you she was noisy,” Buckley says.
It’s darkening, and she checks the time, deciding to cycle the rest of the way back to the London flat she’s been staying in. There’s a script waiting for her there – a new film by Alex Garland, Men, which is about to begin shooting. Buckley stars as a woman who moves to a creepy house in the English countryside, which seems perfectly fitting.
Before she leaves, I ask her once more about the old house she’s bought. Does she intend to paint over those creepy marks on the walls, the letters scratched in centuries ago to repel witches, or will she leave them be? Buckley stares. “I love them. They’re part of the story of this mad old house that has lived for so long. Honestly, it’s like a person, this place, it’s grown and aged. It has these wounds and scars.”
The last time she visited, she admits, she stood inside and thought, “F**k! This thing is probably going to fall down on me tomorrow.” But then, Buckley says, “It was like the house knew I was thinking that. And I could almost hear it say, in reply, ‘No! I won’t fall down yet! There’s still one more person who can love me!’”
And with that lovely thought she climbs on her bike, rings the bell twice in farewell, and rides away. – Guardian
Romeo & Juliet is on Sky Arts at 9pm on April 4th