‘I like feeling out of my depth’: how Jessie Buckley went from Kerry to the West End

Killarney’s Jessie Buckley is to share a stage with Jude Law in a West End production of ‘Henry V’. The experience has been terrifying and ‘completely liberating’

Jessie Buckley, who was born in Killarney, sits at a long table in a rehearsal studio south of the Thames, sharing lunch with Jude Law.

The atmosphere is relaxed: Law wears his stardom lightly. The actors have five weeks to prepare for a Michael Grandage production of Henry V, which opens later this month in London's West End.

Buckley, who first came to public attention in the Andrew Lloyd Webber TV talent show I'd Do Anything, is filled with passion for Shakespeare. It was not always thus, she concedes with an infectious laugh. The 23-year-old laughs a lot.

Buckley was taught by the nuns in the Ursuline Convent in Thurles (“I was bored out of my brains at the back of the class”). She doesn’t think the classroom is the best place to get to grips with Shakespeare.


“Somebody asked me the other day what advice I would give to young people who want to do Shakespeare. It has to be experienced, either by you doing it, or by going to see it. It is not to be analysed. I realised that when I got a chance. Shakespeare is a sensual, physical thing,” she says, before adding “in my opinion”.

The added comment seems typical of the Kerry actress: confident of her thoughts and opinions, but reluctant to force them on anyone else.

Five years ago, Buckley left home in Killarney to apply for drama school in London. Turned down, she stood in line, without expectation, to audition for the Lloyd Webber show. “I was staying in a friend’s house in Surrey and I came up on the train.”

Three rounds of auditions later, she was one of those put before Lloyd Webber. She finished second in the competition, which was watched by millions.

“I think I got so far in the show because I didn’t understand the procedure. I was just having a good time being able to sing, surrounded by musicians and people like Andrew and writers.

“It was really exciting; I was 18,” she says. The TV talent show accelerated her progress, rather than created it. “I was doing things I thought I wouldn’t be doing for three years.”

She subsequently took a short course on Shakespeare at Rada (the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts). "That hit the Shakespeare thing in me I had never really experienced," she says. "I didn't think that I could do something like that. I found it so exciting and it turned something on for me, massively."

Having finished second in the Lloyd Webber competition, Buckley went on to play Anne Egermann in the West End revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.Buckley tells of learning to sing jazz in a Mayfair nightclub, Annabelles, surrounded by Russian plutocrats and beautiful young women.

“I ended up doing it because I had had a few drinks and ended up singing with a piano man one night, and he went, ‘I’d really like to work with you.’ It was bloody brilliant for me. First of all because nobody listened, so I could really learn my craft and take massive risks.”

The lifestyle of millionaires amused rather than enticed her. “It wasn’t something that I was dying to be part of, I didn’t look at those girls and think: I must get myself a Russian man. I just wanted to get good at singing. I didn’t pay much attention to that stuff.”

The celebrity lifestyle, she says, is a choice, not an obligation: "You can avoid all of it if you want to – if your work is good enough. I think it takes balls to do that. There is a lot of pressure, if you are successful and if you are a new hot thing.

“It is very easy to buy into thinking that you need to get a publicist, or that it is important that you are seen at X party, or Y party, but at the end of the day it doesn’t change [the work]. You can be anonymous.”

The experience of working with Jude Law and Michael Grandage on Henry V has been "completely liberating", if occasionally – at the beginning – terrifying.

“When you get the opportunity to work with somebody like Jude Law there is a fear. They’ve got lots of stuff under their belt. Who am I to come into this situation having only left drama school? But Jude is really, really exciting to work opposite, because there is a childish curiosity and playfulness and he’s . . . I was surprised, he is so approachable.

“He wants to have a dialogue, wants to work things out in the room. He’s physical, and there is a danger with him, which is kind of unnerving, but it’s brilliant.

Spring and summer saw her appear in the Globe Theatre alongside Roger Allam in The Tempest".

In between, she did an animation – "It's an adult animation, not an animation for adults," she says, roaring with laughter – called The Boy With The Cuckoo-Clock Heart. The boy of the title "lives with these three women who take care of him and who keep him wound up. Literally. He falls in love with this girl who has got glasses. His cuckoo-clock heart mends for itself, but then they get separated. The main woman who looks after him gets taken ill and is taken away."

She plays a prostitute with a wooden leg, and she based the voice on the raspy, nasal drawl of singer Paloma Faith. "I never expected that I would do something like that, and I loved it."

An uncertain line of work
Buckley is conscious of her profession's uncertainty. "I could be unemployed after this; you never know in this business."

But she is happy with the choices she has made so far. “I am incredibly lucky. I worked hard for my luck as well, I have made choices to do things because I wanted them to do them, not because they were the right thing to do.

Following Lloyd Webber, she could have played it safe, and “continued doing musicals, but I want to be provoked and to be changed, and I also want to change and I want to provoke.

“I know I have a lot to learn. I like feeling out of my depth. I like feeling like I could probably fail, because it makes me find a part of myself that I didn’t really know, an inner fighter in me.”

Henry V is at Noel Coward Theatre, London, November 23 to February 15, 2014