HATS off to Jessie Buckley who got over not becoming Nancy in I’d Do Anything by launching a stellar stage career and joining Kenneth Branagh’s theatre company, writes Claire Black. Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown
I almost don’t recognise Jessie Buckley when she walks into the pub clutching a bottle of water. She looks shockingly young. Fresh faced and freckly and overdressed for the ridiculously warm day. “What it really needs is a good rain,” she says, sounding like a proper Celt.
It is seven years since Buckley, aged 18, was a contestant on BBC1’s I’d Do Anything. Do you remember that? The contestants were vying for the role of Nancy in the revival of the musical Oliver! in the West End. It was a show as gaudy as a dressing-up box at a fancy dress party. Even presenter Graham Norton was all primary colours and satin shirts.
Buckley came second to Jodie Prenger. There was a bit of an upset because three of the judges chose Buckley to two who chose Prenger, but the public vote snagged it. (There was the faintest whiff of skullduggery in that Buckley is Irish, from County Kerry, but people in Ireland couldn’t vote in the competition.) But as is so often the case with winners and runners-up on reality TV shows or talent competitions, what might’ve seemed like a missed opportunity back then turned out just fine in the end.
It doesn’t take five minutes in Buckley’s company to work out that she’s not exactly the cookie cutter young actor eager for fame and fortune, ready to bounce from musical to musical to make a living. And it doesn’t take more than a glance at what she’s done since wearing the Nancy dress and singing As Long as He Needs Me to show that her decision to follow her own path – she turned down the opportunity to understudy Prenger in favour of the role of Anne Egerman in a revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn. Since then she’s trained at RADA (she graduated in 2013), played Miranda in The Tempest at The Globe opposite Roger Allam, and Princess Katherine in Michael Grandage’s Henry V opposite Jude Law.
This autumn brings more high profile projects for Buckley. Not only will she be seen in the BBC’s eagerly awaited adaptation of War and Peace – she plays Princess Marya Bolkonskaya – she has also landed herself a place in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s eponymous theatre company.
Now best known for directing slightly silly Hollywood movies (I give you Thor), Branagh is returning to his theatrical roots this autumn by putting on a season of plays in London’s Garrick Theatre. The run will include Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, an adaptation of Francis Veber’s The Painkiller, John Osborne’s The Entertainer and Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale. It’s in this latter play, alongside Dame Judi Dench as Paulina and Branagh himself as Leontes, that Buckley is appearing.
“It’s so exciting,” she says, looking a bit shy. “To be part of Ken’s company is really exciting. It feels like joining a massive family. Just speaking to him and understanding what his values are and how he plans to pass on these stories which have already been passed through this kind of theatrical family. It’s like it’s being passed on to a new generation, especially because Judi did The Winter’s Tale at the RSC.” She starts to look even more bashful at the mention of the great Dame. Has she met her yet? She shakes her head. “Never. But I can’t wait. I feel so lucky to get the opportunity to work with people who have such a wealth and weight of knowledge.”
It sounds grand, but really, what excites Buckley about acting – and what she sees in the illustrious company of which she’s now a part – is pretty simple. “It’s about telling a story, being a family and giving the audience a good time,” she says with a shrug, sucking her fizzy water through a straw.
Buckley heard she’d been offered the place in Branagh’s company at the airport when she was getting ready to fly back to London from Ireland. She’d spent a couple of months back home catching up with her family. She thought her agent was pulling her leg, but no, Branagh had seen her in something and was, she says, “brave enough to take a risk”. It’s only as the reality has dawned and discussions have been taking place with Branagh or she’s been at a wig-fitting that she’s really allowed herself to believe what’s happening. “What’s really exciting is that now I’m starting to think about what I can bring to this,” she says. “I’ll probably be standing in the wings taking notes every night like a weirdo.”
Buckley is a lovely mixture of almost geek-like enthusiasm and down to earth straightforwardness. Sometimes she gets tangled up in her sentences and she has, she tells me with a laugh, a tendency for “making up words and talking sh*te all the time”. What there isn’t even a trace of is fakery or phoniness. She talks about inspiration and aspiration, fate and destiny but she manages to do it without sounding like an eejit. And yes, she talks about wanting to be a good actress but actually she talks just as much about wanting to be a good person.
It feels like there’s maybe a bit of fate in landing the part in The Winter’s Tale, she says. “It’s the first Shakespeare that I read. And when I went to RADA to do a four-week Shakespeare course it was the first text that I learned, so this feels pretty special.” It was the producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh who suggested Buckley might want to go to RADA to do that Shakespeare course, she had never studied his plays previously. “I was like, what is this guy all about? He’s good.” She shakes her head. “It opened a massive interest. I love that about this job – what’s meant for you won’t go past you. The best thing is to be pushed. I like things that scare me and that I will learn from and will make me a better actress and woman. You have to take risks.”
She looks vaguely uncomfortable when she says something serious like this. But she warms to her theme.
“I think you create your own luck. I’m a massive believer in if there’s something you want in your life then you put it out there, you have to take those steps. It’s three-quarters’ hard work and then fate and whatever else. I think it’s cowardly to rely on luck in this industry because you have to galvanise and be brave in acknowledging that in the first place. It’s not about being cocky, it’s about embracing your bigger self. Why not? Life is so short. There are so many things I want to see and feel and taste and experience. I’d hate not to live my life. That’s not to say it’s all rosy, no one’s life is all rosy. But you learn most from those bumps in the road when your luck runs out.”
Pitching up in London when she was just 18, Buckley was turned down by two drama schools, which is how she found her way on to I’d Do Anything. She’s had stints of being a jazz singer too, but she did eventually find her way to RADA. And although she enjoyed it, she’s clear that there are other ways. “There’s no right or wrong in whatever anybody chooses. Ultimately it’s about becoming the biggest, fullest person that you can be; a person, not an actor. Whether that’s going travelling or going to drama school or studying literature. I have the greatest respect for anyone who does what they want to do, however they do it.
“There were easier routes I could’ve taken. I could’ve kept working after that show – done musical after musical. That just didn’t challenge me enough. I just knew there was more that I wanted to do. I’m an actress. I want to challenge people’s perceptions of who I am. Also, I think you just have to go with your gut. I was a jazz singer for a year and a bit because I fancied it. I’m a bit of a go with the wind kind of person. I want to surprise myself and other people.”
Maybe that’s why Buckley likes learning on the job, soaking up the influences of other people, finding her way as she goes. “It’s where you learn the most, especially from those actors who’ve been in the industry for a long time. You have to respect and be open and want to learn from those people. They’ve worked to be as honest as they can in an industry which can, at times, be false.”
It’s interesting that she describes it this way and it makes total sense. Buckley loves acting and performing but it’s clear that she’s not interested in showbusiness or becoming famous. Those bits of her job can, she says, be kept separate if you want them to be. “I think you make a choice. I’m lucky that I come from a very rooted family and at those times when it’s got too much for me I know for me I need to get back to that. Walking, hiking, seeing family and friends – that’s what you need to tap into.”
Buckley is the eldest of five. She has a brother and three sisters ranging in age from nine to 22. “I love them,” she says with a beaming smile. “Just before Christmas I spent a couple of months at home. I decided I wasn’t going to work, I was just going to be a sister for a while. It was amazing.”
She hadn’t been back for a long time. It also felt important to rebalance – work is only one part of life. “For me to be a sister and a daughter is really important. With my youngest sister I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just a visitor in her life.”
Buckley is possibly unique among all of the actors I’ve interviewed because she says she loves auditioning. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, they are nerve-wracking, but I love trying to figure out what a character is about, where their pulse is. And if you’re lucky enough to meet with a director to do that and see how you can expand a character that only exists on paper into something that comes to life, that’s even better.” And her enthusiasm extends to rehearsing and researching too. “I love it when you get somebody and you have to figure out what is different between her and you and how you will make that leap, even if it’s a small jump.” The process, Buckley says, is unique. “It changes every time I do a job. Sometimes before I start I read lots. I played a photographer once so I took loads of photos. For Princess Katherine I used to sneak into church and watch people.” She laughs. “Weirdo.”
When she was in The Tempest at The Globe, she’d go hiking every Sunday and learn her part that way. “You have to work out what works for you. And then some people just learn the lines, say them and get off.” She pauses. “Lucky bastards.” She laughs. “I’d just get too nervous. I would hate not to experience things to the full and not to try to improve myself.
“If I was like, ‘hey guys, I’ve got this’, I wouldn’t bloody bother. I wouldn’t spend weeks reading stuff or sitting in churches – don’t tell my granny I did that. You have to find a love and care for it every time because that’s what makes it personal.”
I’m suddenly struck by the fact that with all this talk of acting, I’ve forgotten that Buckley can sing. Really sing. I wonder if she gets the same kind of satisfaction from singing as she does from acting?
“Singing is so much a part of who I am – I sang before I acted, my mum’s a singer – I absolutely love it but it feels like a very different way of expressing myself and recently it’s started to feel like a private expression. At the moment for me it’s about letting go, it’s an indulgence. I think in a way I’d like to keep something for myself.”
It’s the fight against the fake that Buckley’s all about. And that, I guess, will be the common factor in her career even though she has no idea what comes next. “I want to continue learning in whatever way that is – singing, acting, when I stage my opera career.” She bursts out laughing, but I don’t know that she’s entirely joking about opera. She sang Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with the Halle Orchestra at the Manchester Festival last year and she loved it.
“I just want to keep surrounding myself with interesting characters, people and worlds that feed my experiences for a life that’s full and exciting.” She pauses for a minute and I can tell she’s replaying what she’s just said. She smiles. “That’s all I want.”
• Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s Plays at the Garrick opened earlier this month with
Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The Terence Rattigan double bill Harlequinade/All On Her Own opens today; for ticket information see www.branaghtheatre.com; the website also features information about the Branagh Theatre Live broadcast to cinemas on 26 November