Lunchtime at the Grand Ole Opry, and the joint is jumping. Onstage, a fizzy red-haired singer is Nashville personified in white cowboy boots and a denim skirt, with a voice like Belle Meade bourbon.
I’m corralled on the balcony next to the sound desk and opposite a neon sign announcing “Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry”, rumoured to have been donated by Taggart when STV shot an episode here, 20 years ago.
Govan’s hallowed country venue, a former cinema, is darkened by tobacco coloured curtains and brown varnished wood for the rest, but the mood is brightly exuberant. Halfway through her rootin’, tootin’ hoedown, the singer abandons her band and bounces down onto the dancefloor to join a line dance, cheered on by a posse in stetsons who show no signs of fatigue, despite the fact that this is the twelfth time we’ve heard Jessie Buckley run through her set.
It’s another two days before there’s a chance to chat with Buckley; the 28-year-old has been filming every day, appearing in almost every scene, and the Wild Rose producers are fretting that she is on the verge of losing her voice. Finally, on her last day in Glasgow, with the director satisfied he has everything in the can, we repair to her trailer which Buckley compares favourably to the family caravan back in Kerry, before getting down to business by showing off her bruises.
“That’s from me jumping around like a heathen for months in these boots,” she hoots, extending a lightly mottled leg. “When I first got to Glasgow, I started breaking them in and wore them everywhere. They were blinding white, so I did get looks, and it opened up quite a number of white boot conversations in Maryhill.”
Buckley’s cheerful, garrulous pell-mell Irish accent may come as a surprise if you have only seen her as the genteelly rebellious Marian Halcombe in The Woman In White, or a Russian aristocrat in War and Peace, or holding her own against Tom Hardy’s curious cockney hybrid in Taboo. But not if you remember her as a beaming ingénue with riotous curly hair in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2008 search for-a-star show I’d Do Anything.
Aged 18, with no formal training, Buckley auditioned on impulse and blew Lloyd Webber away with her powerful balladeer voice. With quasi-Biblical solemnity, he declared she had “the sacred flame of star quality,” making her a clear favourite to win the plum role of Nancy in his big budget revival of Oliver. However in the final sing-off, the audience voted for former cruise ship singer Jodie Prenger instead.
“I was broken when I didn’t win, but in the long run it was the very best thing that could have happened to me,” she says now, reaching for a bottle of water. “It got me to London, got me an agent, and introduced me to some great friends.”
One of her new friends, Oliver producer Cameron Mackintosh, suggested a three week course at Rada on Shakespeare to broaden her experience. Buckley fell hard for the Bard, picking up encouraging reviews for appearances in The Winter’s Tale as Perdita, appeared in a West End production of Henry V as Princess Katherine with Jude Law for six months, as well as Miranda in The Tempest at the Globe.
Wild Rose is her first singing role in years sandwiched between Beast, her acclaimed first feature film where she plays a disturbed young woman who gets involved with a possibly murderous outsider, and The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, in which she portrays Queen Victoria opposite Robert Downey Jr’s animal conversationalist.
The one role she refuses to be cast, is as an overnight success; “I worked in a clothes shop in the East End of London, I sold cereal from a market stall, I played jazz in a night club where nobody listened to me for two years,” she ticks off. “You can never be sure when the next job is coming. And when I do get work, there’s apprehension, every time. That’s why we do it. I always want to go somewhere that makes me feel totally out of my depth. I always want to come away from a character, and a social situation feeling that I’ve learnt something. That’s why I don’t ever want do something I’ve just done.”
Her latest challenge is Rose-Lynn Harlan, a thorny Glaswegian single mother with dreams of becoming a country star, although inside her white cowboy boots is an ankle tag, one of the conditions for parole after she was caught chucking bags of heroin over a prison wall to fund her flights to Nashville. Rose-Lynn is vivid and valiant with a voice as big as a room, but she’s also self-centred, reckless and a reluctant mother who leaves her two kids to be raised by her disapproving mother (Julie Walters).
“The first thing was the accent,” admits Buckley. “I was definitely nervous about that.” As well as five months with dialect coaches, she moved to Glasgow a month ahead of filming in the city. She listened to Scottish radio, and spent time in Priesthill, where Rose-Lynn was raised, meeting up with other girls who were from similar situations. “An accent is like a piece of music: you find the rhythm, you find the sing-song nature of it. So I’d listen to these women and the energy of how they spoke, and I listened to Scottish radio, then I’d go out to pubs like the Lauriston and Ben Nevis, or wee shops to buy things in my new Glasgow voice,” she says.
Wild Rose is written by Nicole Taylor, who won a BAFTA for the BBC drama Three Girls, a dramatisation of the Rotherham child exploitation scandal. A longtime country obsessive, Wild Rose was an opportunity to write about her home town and her passion for country music. However, not only is her leading lady from Killarney, rather than Killermont, but country music was not on her playlist, as Tom Harper found out when he pitched her the part of Wild Rose.
Harper directed one of her first big TV performances in a lavish, confident and lascivious adaptation of War and Peace that came studded with rising British stars including Jack Lowden, Lily James, James Norton, and Tuppence Middleton.
Buckley’s downtrodden Princess Marya won over audiences with her struggles with a bullying, remote father, before falling in love with Lowden’s Rostov. Off-camera, she says the cast became a tight-knit unit with a thirst for Russian vodka that fuelled karaoke battles on location in Lithuania. For a while, she was stepping out with James Norton, who played her brother Andrei, but her relationship with the series’ director Tom Harper has been rather more durable.
In the pub one night, he passed her the script for Wild Rose, but she still took some convincing: “Before we made the movie, I thought country music wasn’t for me, it was for the bad Daniel O’Donnell impersonators in my home town,” she sniggers. Yet Harper prevailed, telling the producers that he’d only do the film if Buckley was attached. “They didn’t know what the hell was going to happen, I’m sure – I’m not Glaswegian and I’ve never sung country, you know?”
The first country song she really liked, “without knowing it was country music, just because I was a fan,” was Janis Joplin’s cover of Me and Bobby McGee, but she lights up now when talking about country queen Emmylou Harris, “I loved her style, and the songs she chose. The way she sang had a purity and honesty that I wanted to find in Rose Lynn’s character, the idea that when she sings her defences just drop away.”
This may be what Scots love about country. It’s sentimental, and so are we. Country doesn’t deal in camp, black comedy or understatement; it tells you its troubles like a lonely stranger in a late-night bar – simple, straightforward and sincere. In the film, Rose-Lynn has “three chords and the truth” written on her arm from elbow to wrist, a reminder of country’s melodic simplicity.
Buckley nods, and points at the tattoo that is still on, dyed onto her arm: “I’ve sung jazz, musicals and lots of different genres, but this has been the most freeing singing experience because country stories are so human. It’s about real people, in real life, with their heart on their sleeve.”
It’s also a musical genre that has spent more than its fair share of time behind bars. Rose-Lynn’s jailtime was shot in Greenock Prison, where the inmates assure her that she when she leaves, she’ll be the next Dolly Parton. Unlike Rose-Lynn however, Buckley is keen to return; “We’re going to do some prison gigs there and hopefully do some fundraising for rehabilitation for the people that come out of those prisons afterwards,” she enthuses. “That’s something I’m really, really keen to do. Anyone of us could be in prison if we were from the wrong area, or made one stupid mistake, or got involved with the wrong guy.”
Did she get to talk to some of the inmates? She nods. “They were lovely, open girls, who just wanted to see what was going on.” Then unexpectedly she adds, “I had a uncle who was in and out of prison back in Ireland. So it’s something quite close to home and I feel really passionate about, not marginalising them from our society.”
Buckley doesn’t want to say any more about this personal connection, resisting efforts to draw her out further and instead directing us back to more general chat. Earlier, however, she tells me that the Buckleys are a tight knit family. The eldest of five, she speaks to her parents Tim, a hotelier, and Marina, a harpist and singer, most days. It was her mother who encouraged her to play the piano, clarinet and harp, and packed her off to “harp camp” as a teenager. Social suicide, she says wryly, but she loved it.
Nowadays, she moves swiftly from one acting gig to another, so finding time to rehearse with her Wild Rose band was a squeeze. At the time, she was filming the BBC series The Woman In White, but would fly in from Belfast twice a month to practise with the likes of Neill MacColl, son of folksinger Ewan, on guitar while Scottish stalwarts and the masters of Celtic ceremonies, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain supplied accordion and fiddle.
“They were so fun, so lovely, so talented, so funny,” she enthuses. “The first time I went to the Grand Ole Opry, I met up with Phil and we went for an Indian beforehand. Then we sort of snuck into the Opry undercover. We were so confident that our cover hadn’t been blown that by the end of the night we were on the floor doing some line dancing with him. Then this guy walked up to us and said, ‘Sorry to bother you, pal, but are you that Aly Cunningham chap?’ He just laughed.”
“This city has stolen my heart,” she says. “I’ve felt so welcome. It’s such an open city. I never felt any judgement – and while folk are intrigued by the movie industry, they’re more interested in the person.”
While they were filming scenes on location in Maryhill, she says, the film unit caught the eye of some of the local girls, who hung around watching the shoot. Between takes they got chatting, Buckley invited them to watch her stage scenes at the Grand Ole Opry later that week, and they all showed up.
“One of them said ‘I love your cowboy boots – can I have them after you’ve finished?’ Then later, she asked ‘what’s your drink’ – which is gin and tonic.
“So when I got to set the next day, she’d brought a box of doughnuts for the whole crew from Greggs, where she works. And there was a gin and tonic for me, with a card with white cowboy boots on the front.”
Buckley laughs, and pulls off her scuffed leathers. “So I’m going to send these to her, once we’re done.” n
Wild Rose is in cinemas from 19 April