Jessie Buckley on Covid filming: âThe worldâs greatest love scene â and we couldnât touch!â
T hough itâs 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. âThis is my bike,â says the Irish actor, proudly presenting a battered turquoise Bridgford that has a malfunctioning bell, clickety spokes and rattling chains. âSorry about the noise she makes.â As we set off walking along the river path, Buckley, 31, 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, âlike a happy, noisy clownâ. Buckley thumbs the bell twice with satisfaction. Ting-ting!
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 County Kerry accent, and wonders (of the beret) why anybody from that lovely part of Ireland would want to âmasquerade as a Frenchwomanâ. Buckley hoots with laughter. The pair of them wind up exchanging endearments in Irish.
Listening to her chat, I realise that itâs possible to have watched through many hours of Buckleyâs consistent and excellent acting work without having met this true Irish persona at all. She played a Glaswegian in her breakthrough film, Wild Rose, in 2018. Afterwards she went gravelly, English and posh in 2019âs Judy. That year she was allowed to do a generalised Irish brogue in the ensemble drama Chernobyl, but her two biggest roles from 2020 (in the TV drama Fargo, and in Charlie Kaufmannâs movie Iâm Thinking Of Ending Things) required she go American. Happily, in Buckleyâs next bit of work, a filmed version of Romeo & Juliet that was produced by the National Theatre and will soon broadcast on Sky, we get something close to the realer thing â a Kerry-accented Juliet, vital and quirky as Buckley herself, and perfect foil to the English actor Josh OâConnor as a hunched, repressed Romeo.With Josh OâConnor and Lucian Msamati in the National Theatreâs Romeo & Juliet. Photograph: Rob Youngson
Buckley is good pals with OâConnor, who recently won a Golden Globe for playing Prince Charles in The Crown. Theyâve had similar career trajectories, upwards through stage and indie cinema to the Netflix-funded mainstream. When news first broke that Buckley and OâConnor would appear together in a contemporary version of Romeo & Juliet, there was huge excitement among 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 theyâd been booked and had them film Shakespeareâs play in the empty Lyttleton anyway.
âWe were being tested every few days,â Buckley remembers of this chaotic, 17-day shoot. âOnce, Josh couldnât get tested for some reason. That was the day we were rehearsing the balcony scene. We looked at each other, like, âYou must be fucking joking.ââ Buckley cracks up laughing. âThe worldâs greatest love scene! And we couldnât touch. We werenât 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.âThereâs a fear of death all through the story. And when the real world meets it halfway, it took us down a rabbit hole
She remembers the evening they first got inside the National Theatre building, 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, âlike the ghosts of the theatre, the only things that were still alive in there,â Buckley remembers. âThere 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: âWeâre going to light this place up again.â Everybody was just so hungry to do something in a building that had been dark for the first time in its history.â
Much of their version of Romeo & Juliet is filmed in front of the Lytteltonâs closed iron safety curtain. Itâs 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 Greigâs slyly comic Lady Capulet and David Judgeâs simmering Tybalt), this might be one of the most purely enjoyable R&Js in memory. Buckley and OâConnor are fantastic, as expected, sharing a quiet charge whenever theyâre on screen together, especially in the scene of their first meeting, the filmed format allowing them to murmur at one another instead of declaim.Suit (above) alexandermcqueen.com and dress (top) ports1961.com. Photograph: Charlotte Hadden/The Guardian. Styling: Melanie Wilkinson, assisted by Peter Bevan. Hair: Yumi Nakada Dingle at MA+World Group using Aveda. Makeup: Caroline Barnes at Frank Agency using Max Factor
Doom seems to shimmer behind everything â in part, Buckley says, because of the castâs awareness of what was going on in the real world, outside the National Theatreâs walls. âThereâs a fear of incoming death all through Shakespeareâs 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.âAt our guesthouse weâd do traditional Irish dancing. Not like the dancing on the Titanic. I was awful at it
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 countryside after well over a decade. Something about the pandemic broke her bond with London, she says. âI realised I was almost addicted to the city, consumed by it, constantly in a race with it.â
At the turn of the year she bought an old house in Norfolk. Buckleyâs description makes it sound like the setting of a gothic horror novel. âItâs been there since the 1600s. Some of the walls have the original paint, pigâs 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 thatâs 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 thoughtâ¦â
Go with the pigâs blood, the waxy door, the witch markings?
B uckley 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, âwe 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. Not, like, dancing in the basement of the Titanicâ¦ Youâre imagining one of those dances, arenât you? This was more traditional Irish dancing. I was awful at it.â
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 Iâd 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.With Johnny Flynn in the psychological thriller Beast. Photograph: Bac Films/Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock
She got a part in a different musical, Trevor Nunnâs production of A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory, 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 Mayfair nightclub Annabelâs. Here, surrounded by bankers and oligarchs, she got used to performing to peopleâs backs. âIt didnât bother me. I was never, like, âHey! Guys! Over here!â It could feel intimate and creative even though nobody was listening. And once or twice youâd see somebody who was suddenly paying attentionâ¦ Yâknow, these people, theyâre all in bloody Annabelâs, theyâre not gonna be interested in some Irish tinkerer singing away in the corner, theyâre interested in money or whatever else. But sometimes something would shift in one person. And that would be enough.âPeople donât need to know what I think. Iâm better at expressing these things in other peopleâs shoes
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 Grandageâs Henry V, then in Kenneth Branaghâs The Winterâs Tale. In 2016, she made her first screen appearance, in the BBCâs big-cast production of War & Peace, and the following year Bafta named Buckley (along with OâConnor) as a rising star of the screen.
H er 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 co-wrote 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 RenÃ©e 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.)In Chernobyl: âYou can become blind to fear if you love that much.â Photograph: Album/Alamy
She also took ensemble parts in the HBO series Chernobyl, the Robert Downey Jr blockbuster Dolittle, the Keira Knightley drama Misbehaviour. âFilming stuff is always weird,â says Buckley. âYou 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 â and ultimately it becomes something else, something greater or bigger or worse. And thatâs kind of hard. You can never reclaim what it was. You can almost feel nostalgic for what it was.â
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 âthe subterranean world of Twitter and Instagramâ. When I ask why, Buckley says: âPeople donât need to know what I think. I can put that into something paid, that I feel fulfilled by. Iâm better at expressing these things in other peopleâs shoes.âIn her breakthrough film Wild Rose, in which she both sang and co-wrote some of the original songs. Photograph: entone group
She had a bumpy time in the 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 actror 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. Though 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 âfellaâ. Sheâs been with him a while. By the sounds of it theyâre moving to Norfolk together; the rest is unknown, and thatâs presumably the way she wants to keep it.
We talk more generally about love, âthe fucking madness of itâ, in Buckleyâs words. Look at Juliet and Romeo, she says. âTheir love is so powerful it doesnât even feel like their death is the end of it.â 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. Buckley says, âI remember reading that part of Lyudmillaâs story in Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich [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.â
Her 2020 movie, Iâm 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 Buckleyâs character may be only a memory of somebody glimpsed and obsessed-over for years by Plemonsâ character.In Charlie Kaufmanâs Iâm Thinking Of Ending Things: âItâs a weird film, because it doesnât fill in gaps.â Photograph: Lifestyle pictures/Alamy
When it debuted on Netflix last September, it created a lot of excited (and sometimes frustrated) internet chatter. I couldnât stop thinking about the film for days and I sent out many âWTF?â 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. âPeople would say, âOhhhh, now I understand what this or that means.â And I was like: âDo you?! Tell me!ââ 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.
âItâs a weird film, because it has a lot of space,â Buckley says. âWe donât often get films that have that courage, to not fill in gaps. As a piece of art, itâs asking you to come to it, as much as it comes to you. The film doesnât push feelings on you but instead it pulls feelings out of you. And some people donât want that. They find that uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable.â
W eâve been walking along the river path for about an hour and a half, overtaken by joggers and cyclists and roving chancers, Buckleyâs bike clanging and chuntering next to us. âI told you she was noisy,â Buckley says. Itâs darkening and she checks the time, deciding to cycle the rest of the way back to the London flat sheâs been staying in. Thereâs a script waiting for her there â 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.With OâConnor at a Bafta party last year. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images
Before she leaves, I ask her once more about the old house sheâs 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. âI love them. Theyâre part of the story of this mad old house that has lived for so long. Honestly, itâs like a person, this place, itâs grown and aged. It has these wounds and scars.â
The last time she visited, she admits, she stood inside and thought, âFuck! This thing is probably going to fall down on me tomorrow.â But then, Buckley says, âIt was like the house knew I was thinking that. And I could almost hear it say, in reply, âNo! I wonât fall down yet! Thereâs still one more person who can love me!ââ
And with that lovely thought she climbs on her bike, rings the bell twice in farewell, and rides away.
Romeo & Juliet is on Sky Arts at 9pm on 4 April.