Jessie Buckley interview: ‘Sometimes you need to step into environments that are going to destroy you’
The Irish actor and rising Hollywood star talks to Alexandra Pollard about her role in Sky Atlantic’s nuclear disaster drama ‘Chernobyl’, the strange prospect of fame, and being on a BBC talent show over a decade ago
Holy s**t,” says Jessie Buckley, shaking her head. “That young girl was really brave.”
The Irish actor is talking about herself. Eleven years ago – long before she became a bona fide movie star – Buckley competed on the BBC talent show I’d Do Anything. A talented, enthusiastic, nervy teenager from County Kerry, Ireland, the 18-year-old was vying to star in a West End production of Oliver!. Even then, she fizzed with potential. So much so that musical theatre legend Andrew Lloyd Webber declared her in possession of “the sacred flame of star quality”.
But she struggled. “You’ve become very self-conscious,” one judge told her after a particularly awkward dance routine. “Don’t lose your essence,” warned another. “Don’t lose Jessie.” Given that she was barely even an adult – and probably didn’t yet know who “Jessie” was – it must have been, well, a bit of a headf**k.
“Abso-f**king-lutely,” says Buckley. We’re in a hotel restaurant in central London. Buckley, here to talk about the new Sky drama series Chernobyl, is 29 now and far more self-assured. She’s wearing a tweed overcoat and orange flares, her hair dyed copper red – a remnant from her role in the country music film, Wild Rose. She barely slept last night but you wouldn’t know it to talk to her: she speaks zealously, and with such a seesawing melody that it feels a shame to flatten it onto a page. “I was so young and innocent,” she continues, of her 18-year-old self. “So raw. You become self-conscious and you realise you can’t dance and… nobody wants to make a tit of themselves.”
Still, it beat how she felt when she was younger. Growing up in Ireland at a time where the country was “driven by money”, Buckley struggled to figure out how to express herself. “There’s societal pressures,” she says, “telling you the safest and most concise routes that you should take as a young lady. Which is so dull. I remember feeling stressed and sad, and wanting to be myself, and not being able to be myself. You go from being fearless to teenage land: ‘Oh, better conform, don’t wanna stick out.’ But everyone is screaming, wanting to make an impression and rebel, you know, rebel against what we’ve been told is our terrain. And for me, it became a sadness that I didn’t know where to go, or how I was going to fit in the world.”
I’d Do Anything, then, was a blessing, even if Buckley didn’t win (Jodie Prenger pipped her to the post). It set her on the path towards acting. Afterwards, she starred in a different West End show – a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music – and then moved into television, earning rave reviews for her roles in BBC dramas War & Peace and Taboo. In 2017, she made her film debut in the beautifully creepy psychological thriller Beast, which won a Bafta for Best British Debut, and a year later starred as a fiery singer newly out of prison in Wild Rose. In each role, she kept that “sacred flame” alive.
Now, she stars in the gripping, disturbing, historical drama Chernobyl, an acclaimed five-part series, which sheds new light on the catastrophic nuclear disaster in Soviet Ukraine in 1986. The first episode begins with the explosion. During a late-night safety test, which should have been carried out years earlier, the entire core of the town’s nuclear power plant explodes. At first, no one grasps the significance, even the scientists responsible. Residents gather on a nearby bridge to gaze in wonder at the fire, which flickers purple, blue and white. “It’s beautiful,” one person proclaims as ash falls around them, soft as snow. They are all being poisoned. None of them will survive.
Buckley plays Lyudmilla Ignatenko, a woman whose firefighter husband is sent to battle the radioactive blaze. The role clearly made a mark on her. “It’s this historical thing,” she says, “everybody knows the word Chernobyl, and everybody has a kind of peripheral vision and feeling about it, but nobody really knows. I didn’t know. It happened so quickly and so viciously, and what that grief feels like, I can’t even begin to comprehend.”
She didn’t get to meet her real-life counterpart, but she did watch documentaries in which Lyudmilla appeared, and studied pictures of her. “There was always something about her neck,” she recalls, “where it was like she was being choked by grief.” What would she have wanted to ask Lyudmilla? “God, I don’t know what I would have said to her. If anything, I would have just given her a hug, and said, ‘I hope I’ve told your story as honestly as I can.’ I mean, she survived, you know? The survival instinct in humans is amazing.”
Buckley felt a tremendous sense of duty taking on the role. “When you’re playing a real character who's lived this horrific truth," she says, "that is terrifying.” Some might have hesitated to take on such a role, but Buckley relishes being out of her depth. “I guess I’m a glutton for punishment,” she laughs. “That’s the only way I’m gonna learn something new about myself, and continue to be surprised by the world, and by the things that I thought I couldn’t do. People are capable of so much, and our fear is the thing that stops us. Sometimes, you need to step into environments that are gonna just destroy you from the side, and you’ve got no other option but to rebuild yourself, and to find a way to come out on top.”
She turns to face me. “What are you afraid of?” she asks, gently. I’m so flummoxed to have the tables turned that all I can think to say is public speaking. She nods. “It’s crazy how fear can just come over you. I always get afraid before I do a job, I’m panicking, but sometimes on the morning I’m about to do it, I’m like, ‘Oh I’m really calm! Where’s all that fear gone?’ And then just before I have to do it, my palms are sweaty. ‘Oh there it is. It’s come back.’”
It’s not surprising – Buckley has some pretty daunting projects coming up. In Judy, she stars as Rosalyn Wilder, friend and colleague of Renée Zellweger’s Judy Garland. Then there’s The Voyage of Doctor Doolittle with Robert Downey Jr and Antonio Banderas; Ironbark with Benedict Cumberbatch; Misbehaviour with Keira Knightley and Lesley Manville, and Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things with Toni Collette and Jesse Plemons. Once those have been released, it seems unlikely that Buckley will be able to sit in a busy restaurant like this one and not be bombarded.
She seems ambivalent at the prospect. “It’s a conflicting feeling, because there’s part of you that wants to be seen and part of you that wants to be hidden,” she says. “I don’t have Instagram or Twitter, I’m not really interested in making myself seen like that, I have other ways that I want to be seen, and I prefer to nurture something that feeds my soul. I mean to be honest, my private life is pretty normal. Fame doesn’t impact my life; I got on the Tube this morning, I go running, I live with people who aren’t actors and we all cook and I do my washing, you know, I do normal things. I choose to live like that. I’m probably not gonna go to the Met Gala and wear a chandelier like, that’s just not gonna be me.”
A few times, she’s found herself momentarily swept up in that world. “There’s a lot of stuff that you can get drunk on, and drowned in,” she says, “and sometimes you come away and you feel lonely because you’re like, ‘I don’t know who I was in that moment.’”
For the most part, though, Buckley is grateful for the life she’s living. “I was thinking last night when I couldn’t sleep,” she says, “I’ve had amazing moments in my life, and all of them I’ve gone into quite ignorantly and innocently. I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been. When you’re 19 and you get to sing a song in the Royal Albert Hall on your birthday, like, holy s**t. Looking back, I don’t care that I made mistakes. I don’t care that I was awkward and that I looked like Hagrid’s love child, and that I was not perfect,” she laughs. “I’m really proud of that now.”
‘Chernobyl’ continues on Sky Atlantic tonight at 9pm