The Yorkshire actor plays a dysfunctional teen in her new dark comedy. She tells Janet Christie why it’s her best role yet
Yeah, you said the name!,” says Jessica Barden, laughing, when I ask the Yorkshire-born actor about her new series The End of the F***ing World out on Netflix and Channel 4 this week.
It wasn’t intentional, but asterisk, asterisk, asterisk is kind of hard to say, so I’ve just cut to the chase.
“So many people don’t say the name,” she says, “and because Netflix is American they have different rules on swearing and some people are really funny about saying it. I do wonder how they will announce it on Channel 4 when it comes on,” she says.
There’s a bit more than swearing to contend with in The End of the F***ing World, a darkly comic series based on Jonathan Entwistle’s hit short of the same name, which also starred Barden. Developed from the award-winning graphic novels by Charles [Chuck] Forsman it’s an unconventional coming of age love story that is by turns funny, violent, uplifting and totally screwed up.
Channel 4 commissioning editor Roberto Troni says, “if David Lynch made a romcom road movie about a pair of teen misfits in British suburbia, it might look something like The End of the F***ing World”.
“Yeah, totally true,” says Barden. “The comics are set in Middle America but we translated it to be set outside London, and filmed it in Surrey, but it’s about the really weird offbeatness and eccentricity that’s found in the mundane everywhere.”
Now 25, Barden stars as 17-year-old Alyssa, a confused teen outsider alongside Alex Lawther, who plays James, and who thinks he might be a psychopath. Ready to graduate from killing animals to humans, he has someone close in mind, as the pair embark on a journey to find Alyssa’s absent father and things take an increasingly surreal, menacing, yet strangely comic turn.
“I’ve played a lot of teenagers and I think sometimes they tend to make them a bit too mushy, because you’re not actually connected to yourself at all really when you’re a teenager. I love playing Alyssa because she is like me and my friends when we were younger,” says Barden, “where you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing in your life. You make terrible decisions and one minute you are horrible to your parents and your friends and feel like the entire world hates you, then the next you feel like the most confident, smartest person in the entire world and totally formidable, yet you’re constantly having to deal with the repercussions of things you do because you’re changing all the time.
“Alyssa and James are not the coolest teenagers at school but they aren’t bothered. I wasn’t a teenager that was cool either,” she says. “I stayed at home and loved my own company because I was just petrified of everybody else my own age, which I think a lot of people are.”
Barden is delighted to return to a role she first played five years ago, now that Forsman has finished writing the comic original and it has been turned into a series.
“When we did the short film I was sent the comic books and loved it, but Chuck had to finish writing it, so the job was only five days and then I went straight to do Far From the Madding Crowd and sort of forgot about it. There was always talk of it being a film or a series but you don’t pin your hopes on things in this business. Then it all came together and it was so special to be all back again on something we did at the start of our careers. And to make a film for Netflix and Channel 4 was a dream come true. It’s the best it could have been because we’ve all learnt something over the time in between. It was my favourite job I’ve ever done,” she says.
This is no small claim because Barden already has an impressive CV. After starting acting as a child at school in Wetherby, Yorkshire, she went to drama classes and landed roles as an extra on various TV shows.
“We all went for roles as extras at my school because a lot of children’s shows were filmed in Leeds near where I grew up. My Parents are Aliens was a big one we all did. You’d get £20 and I really liked doing it. I was a weird kid, didn’t complain – I can say way more now – didn’t get tired or moan about being hungry and if they ran over time, my mum was great and would always wait. So they would give me speaking parts and I just worked my way up.”
Named as a Screen International Star of Tomorrow in 2015, most recently she starred in Julian Barratt’s gloriously silly Mindhorn and the arthouse horror film Habit. On the small screen she was the lead in Channel 4’s 2016 BAFTA-winning TV drama feature Ellen, with Joe Dempsie and Jaime Winstone, and in the Golden Globe-nominated TV series Penny Dreadful. She’s built up experience in ITV’s Vera, Channel 4’s Coming Up and Chickens as well as racking up big screen appearances in Tamara Drewe with Gemma Arterton and Dominic Cooper and Hanna, alongside Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana. She acted opposite Amy Adams in Lullaby and Mark Strong in Anna, with Carey Mulligan in Far From the Madding Crowd and also starred as Nosebleed Woman in Yorgos Lanthimos’ intriguing dark comedy The Lobster, alongside Colin Farrell, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, John C Reilly and Ashley Jensen.
“Every single job is fun, but I like it to be a mix of knowing what you’re going to do every day, with learning something every day. The Lobster was great for that because the director Yorgos [Lanthimos] has a particular style – my audition for him was to pretend to die choking on a peanut – and there’s no rehearsal. He tells you not to act, just to do it, and you do it so many times it just works. We were filming and staying in an amazing hotel in Ireland with amazing actors. Hanging out with John C Reilly? Any 21-year-old actor is going to think ‘this is the greatest job in the entire world!’” she says.
Barden has played a lot of teenagers, and still does, despite being in her mid-twenties, and has learnt to make the most of her youthful appearance.
“I used to hate that I looked really young but now I’m glad. I didn’t rush to push out of playing younger roles and now I love that I can go back and still do them. It’s helped my career and given me more time and I try not to wish away time, to just see what people offer me.”
Despite her experience playing teens, her own life has been very different to the norm in terms of suffering any existential angst or wondering what to do with her life.
“I left school when I was 15,” she says, “after GCSE’s. I came to London and started working because I knew what I wanted to do. I had always wanted to do it.”
Barden had encouraging parents, with a father who is a prison officer and a mother who is an accountant and two brothers, all of them storytellers. Home is still Yorkshire which she visits when she can, enjoying roaming with her beloved Cairn terrier Judy, the same breed as Toto in The Wizard of Oz, and Milo, a Collie Jack Russell cross named after the dog in Mask.
“I always say everybody in my family could do my job – they have a lot to say and are very funny – but they wouldn’t cos they’re a bit smarter than I am.”
Her father was an early influence, with his passion for Pulp Fiction, especially the soundtrack, and films like Shawshank Redemption.
“I remember thinking Uma Thurman was the coolest thing and wanted to be an actress because of her. And we used to watch a lot of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey and my dad would mimic them and make people laugh, so me and my brothers wanted to be show-offs like him. Then as I got older, I got into watching old films like Streetcar Named Desire and Gone With the Wind, and one day I watched Wizard of Oz.”
The Judy Garland musical had a striking effect on Barden and crystalised her ambition to become an actor. Watching Judy Garland, Barden was struck by the ability of a 16-year-old to play anywhere between 13 and 30, and began reading about the studio system and old school techniques.
“I started studying those films, where they used to push in so close you could see what they were thinking behind their eyes and I thought that was really cool acting. I became obsessed with not just wanting to be an actress because it’s fun and I like being around people and on set, but because I wanted to act like that and tell stories.”
Unusually for an actor at the start of her career, Barden is looking forward to doing her best work in her middle years, her forties and fifties.
“I wanna play women that are that age because I don’t think you see a lot of scripts about that. At that age women are dealing with things in their lives, but also facing choices.
“Every single year I get stronger as a woman so by the time I’m 40 or 50 I’ll be really great. And those are the roles I want to play.
“Women are fascinating, because they can have children or not, and are intricate. They do amazing things and I think there are a lot who are incredible, strong. My mum talks about this – she’s 49 now and she got me watching Big Little Lies and that’s amazing because shows like that teach you about life and what women go through, without saying ‘this is about what women in their forties are like’, they don’t push it down your throat.
“Like Ellen didn’t say it was about grooming, that was just what it’s like to be a poor young woman growing up in England today. You can be political if you do it in a subtle way and that means people don’t turn off,” she says.
“I’ve never looked back on a job and not thought I know what I would do differently now,” she continues. “Because I’ve grown up doing this, every year I can look back and know how to do it better. I’m proud of the way my career is unfolding and I’ve been given opportunities to learn every single time. Sorry, I can talk for England,” she says suddenly, coming to a halt.
One such talking for England moment came at the start of Barden’s career, when she was auditioning for Sofia Coppola in a roomful of film types and someone asked her why she wasn’t in any of the Harry Potter films. She laughs at the memory and repeats the story.
“Oh yeah, that. I was only 19 and I’d never been to America before by myself and was terrified. I had really bad acne and felt so scared in the interview that I just word vomited,“ she says. “They asked why I wasn’t in Harry Potter, and I SHOULD have said I was too young to audition, but I was defensive and just said ‘because I don’t know anyone else in the film industry!’. Then when I was leaving I thought ‘s**t, her entire family is in the industry!” But it was a good audition and she’s lovely, and I think it actually went over her head as well.”
Next up for Barden is a film called The New Romantic about the phenomenon of so called “sugar babies” where young women look for a benefactor to fund them in return for their attention.
“My role is a 23-year-old college student who is doing a journalism degree but doesn’t know what to write about. She bumps into a sugar baby and thinks that would be a good thing to write about. It’s big in America where girls do it to get them through college. I could see why it happens. It’s part of your twenties, isn’t it, doing things because your friend has told you to do it, or you think it’s going to be a good story? You think, yeah, I’m an adult, this is what I should be doing and then when it comes down to it, and you’re dealing with the repercussions, you’re suddenly the youngest person in the entire world and you have no idea. You feel so mature, and then you’re at some party you don’t want to be at and don’t know how to recharge your phone or how to get home. We do it all the time,” she says.
With filming about to start, Barden is busy for the next few months, happy to be on the road again and away from the flat in London she shares with other actors.
“I don’t mind travelling as long as I’m in a nice hotel – I love hotels!” she says. “Actors are always in different places all the time, we’re used to it.”
Barden is so often away from home that she and her flatmates don’t even have a television, ironic for a bunch of actors, or perhaps a sign of how we get our entertainment fix these days.
“I watch Netflix and Amazon all the time – I love Orange is the New Black and watch all my films on there.”
And this week, whichever hotel she finds herself in after a long day on set, she’ll be able to kick back, log on and tune into The End of the F***ing World.
The End of the F***ing World is on Channel 4 and All 4 on Tuesday, and on Netflix in January.