Last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, the savvy indie distributor Neon picked up a little movie called Wild Rose, about a down-on-her-luck Scottish woman who yearns to make it big as a country singer in Nashville. I attended the festival, but amid a sea of high-profile awards hopefuls from major studios, the film wasn’t on my radar. Not even close. When I finally caught up with Wild Rose seven months later at CinemaCon, I had low expectations, as I’m not a big fan of country music and hadn’t heard of the film’s director, Tom Harper, who had until then been best known for The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death. Two hours later, I emerged from the Colosseum at Caesars Palace with tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat, and rising star Jessie Buckley on my mind.
Buckley isn’t a professional singer a la Lady Gaga in A Star is Born. Hell, she’s not even Scottish, she’s Irish. And yet, she absolutely blew me away, both as an actress and as a musician, since she does her own singing in Wild Rose — just like Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman, though she seems to have received a fraction of the credit. Like many actors, Buckley got her start doing musical theater in grade school. She even played Tony in West Side Story once upon a time. When Buckley was 19 years old, she finished in second-place on the BBC talent show I’d Do Anything. The judges actually voted for Buckley, but the public backed her competitor — a humiliating defeat, though she has surely enjoyed the last laugh. Before the end of the year, she’d made it all the way to the West End despite being rejected by two drama schools. Shortly after graduating from university, Buckley booked four BBC series before landing the lead role in the indie movie Beast, so she has been working her way up to this very moment — one that arrives on the heels of her heartbreaking turn in the HBO/Sky miniseries Chernobyl, which has impressed viewers across the globe.
And yet, as good as Buckley is in Chernobyl, she’s even better in Wild Rose, which is the kind of movie that makes you fall in love with a performer and want to follow the rest of their career. At the risk of hyperbole, I have to say that Buckley gives the single-best performance I’ve seen all year, in both film and television. She’s that good as an ex-con who finds herself torn between pursuing her dream, and giving it up to raise her two children — to which I imagine most young parents can relate.
I don’t mean to oversell Buckley, but the sky’s the limit for her career, which accordingly, has taken off. Days before CinemaCon, Buckley had signed on to star in Charlie Kaufman‘s Netflix thriller I’m Thinking of Ending Things, thus replacing Oscar winner Brie Larson. Initially, the recasting seemed like a blow for the project, but after seeing Wild Rose and Buckley’s limitless talent with my own eyes, I realized it was actually a boon. In addition to Kaufman’s next movie, Buckley will soon be seen as a key P.A. in Renee Zellweger‘s Judy Garland movie Judy. She also plays Benedict Cumberbatch‘s first wife in the spy movie Ironbark, and co-stars alongside Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the indie film Misbehaviour, about the Miss World pageant’s first black competitor. Elsewhere, Buckley has wrapped a live-action role opposite Robert Downey Jr. in Universal’s big-budget family film The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle.
Clearly, Hollywood has taken note of Buckley, who is as busy as any young actress in Hollywood. That’s why it was a no-brainer to name her as Collider’s Up-and-Comer of the Month. Wild Rose is a film about hope, and how sometimes, that’s all we need. Well, it’s my hope that you’ll enjoy this interview, and that Hollywood will continue casting Buckley in lead roles. Because based on this dynamite performance, she is a true star, and I can’t wait to see how her career unfolds. Get to know her below, and don’t sleep on Wild Rose. It’s a gem!
Collider: What sparked your passion for acting and made you want to get into this crazy business?
Jessie Buckley: Well, I suppose my first intro to this madhouse was musical theater, and just seeing different productions of things when I was back at home in Ireland. I thought I’d probably do more musical theater growing up, and then I moved to London and did a four-week Shakespeare course at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), and it opened up my whole world into acting. I never really thought it would be possible to be in films, that [dream] was just something that didn’t belong to a girl like me, who grew up in southern Ireland.
Since you didn’t think you’d ever be in movies, were you preparing to embark on a career as a singer?
Buckley: Not necessarily just as a singer. I loved doing theater in front of an audience, and I loved the characters in plays or musicals, so I never set out to be a singer.
Your mother was a vocal coach who encouraged you to sing and do all those school plays. What kind of influence did she have on your career?
Buckley: I think both my parents… we always had a lot of music in our house. She never taught me singing or anything, but they’ve always given us the gift that life needs to be experienced, whatever that is. I have four siblings, and the five of us all do completely different things, so whether that be swimming lessons or piano lessons or the harp, we were taught that life is much more fruitful through those things than materialistic things. They taught me you can bring dignity to whatever it is that you do if you’re passionate about something, and not to limit yourself by what you think you’re capable of, because there’s a lot you don’t know about yourself yet. They just always gave us amazing opportunities like that.
So tell me about the audition process for Wild Rose. How’d you land this incredible part?
Buckley: I’d worked with Tom Harper on War and Peace, and one evening in London, he said, ‘I just got sent this script and I want to send it to you, so have a read, because I only want to do it if you want to do it.’ So I read the script, and to be honest, Tom could’ve told me lie down on a train track, and I’d be like ‘yeah, sure, no problem. When are we going?’ I just loved working with him so much. But when I read the script, it blew me away. I’d never really met a female character like that, who’s just a ferocious tornado of feeling and courage and foible that was just not sheened in any shape or form. And then when I met Nicole Taylor, who wrote the script, we hit it off. That’s how it happened.
So you didn’t have to beat out a bunch of other actresses, because you were always Tom’s first choice?
Buckley: It was a script that was 10 years in the making. Nicole had been writing away at it for 10 years, and I think there were different points when the film was maybe meant to go with a different actress or a different director, but for some reason, it didn’t happen. So Faye Ward, the producer, and Nicole, had been sitting on it, waiting for the right person to try and go again. They sent it to Tom, so it’s not like it was written for me. I was just lucky things came together.
How did you celebrate when you found out you won the role?
Buckley: I don’t know. I think, probably, with fear and excitement.
Are there any actors who you admire or whose career you’d like to emulate?
Buckley: I admire lots of people and I’m inspired by lots of people. I don’t know, I think everybody’s got their own journey with this. There’s not somebody who I’m like, ‘oh, I want to do exactly what she did.’ There are value systems and choices that people make, and you have to respect that. People like Frances McDormand and Joaquin Phoenix and Olivia Colman just seem like people who are in it for the right reasons, and choose pretty interesting, provoking work. But I think everybody has their own story.
Are there any directors you’re eager to work with?
Buckley: Lynne Ramsey’s work I just absolutely love. Paul Thomas Anderson, I love. Sebastian Lelio. There are lots of people. Lots of new filmmakers. I just like collaborating with people, so I’m excited to work with the people who I don’t know yet.
Let’s talk about Wild Rose. How immersed were you in the country music scene beforehand? Were you a big fan?
Buckley: Oh no, I really had no relationship with it before I started filming, but through Nicole’s incredible playlists and the incredible musicians I worked with, I was introduced to the most amazing country songs and lyrics, and fell head over heels for it.
Were there any artists who Nicole told you to listen to or perhaps take inspiration from?
Buckley: For me, one of the first intros behind the curtain was Emmylou Harris, and “To Daddy” was one of the first country songs I sang. And then somebody like Bonnie Raitt became a big reference for me, just because I love her voice and her womanhood, and the songs that she sings and how she sings them, and the way she tells those stories. And then there were people like John Prine and Chris Stapleton. Lots of people. It’s such a massive treasure chest, and once you start digging in, it’s never-ending.
Did you view Rose-Lynn as a bad mother, or was she just doing what she had to do to provide a better life for her kids and placate that voice inside of her, telling her to pursue her dream? How did you view the character, or was the trick not to judge her?
Buckley: I didn’t judge her. I don’t think I can. I just have to experience her. I think those questions and the complexity of what it means to be a mother, and to want something for yourself, and to want something more for yourself, is a very honest, human feeling. Whether you’re a man or a woman, everybody has those moments in life where you have crossroads, and you make choices. For me, none of those moments came without a consequence for her. Even at the outset, when it looks like she’s acting selfishly, she just doesn’t know what else to do, or how to break out the four walls of the prison she’s been told that she’s allowed to dream in. For me, it wasn’t black-and-white like that. I had to find the nuances within each moment to paint the full picture. So I can’t judge her, but other people can, if they want.
Talk to me about working with a legend like Julie Walters. What was that experience like for you?
Buckley: She’s just everything and more you dreamed she’s gonna be. She’s just so honest and available, and in it with you, and down-to-earth. She’s incredible. I look at her and go, ‘I want to be like you when I grow up.’
Did you grab a drink prior to filming and discuss that mother-daughter relationship prior to filming, or did you just figure it out on set?
Buckley: We talked about it when we were on set, but there’s a lot that’s unsaid between them as well. They both have their own independent relationship with each other, and we don’t really share those moments, but it was something we explored when we were on set.
This is a film about hope, so tell me, how important has hope been in your own career?
Buckley: I think we all need hope. We all want to know that there’s some purpose or something more to your life, or that you’ve lived your life to the fullest it can be, or that you hope that you have. All those bumps in the road along the way that get you to different moments in your life are just as important, otherwise you’re not really existing. So you have to struggle sometimes, and you have to fail sometimes and learn from your failures, and be prepared to fail in the hope that it’ll work out. I don’t think that ever ends.
Let’s talk about the song “Glasgow,” which is prominently featured in the Wild Rose trailer. It’s an original song written for the film, right? Are there any plans for an Oscar campaign? What would it mean to you to be able to perform that song on stage in front of a global audience, if it were nominated?
Buckley: Oh, I have nothing to do with that. I just go and do what I’m told and perform when I’m meant to and want to. I don’t know how to answer, because I don’t want to wish something I have no control over. If it happens, it happens.
That’s okay. I’ll wish it for you. Let me ask you this. Are you nervous at all about genre fatigue? Last year we had A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, and meanwhile, Rocketman just came out and the Beatles movie Yesterday is coming out a week after Wild Rose, and then there’s a Bruce Springsteen movie Blinded by the Light that was at Sundance. So are you worried that audiences might be tired of going to the movies to watch people sing?
Buckley: I don’t know. Are you? For some reason, these things always seem to go in phases, and for some reason, at the moment, musical films are back in fashion. If I believe in something and the script makes me feel something, my job is to go to set and make it as real as possible. Anything outside of that, I can’t predict, but if the quality is good, and people have brought truth to it then regardless of how many music-driven films there are, audiences will react to that kind of honesty. But different audiences want different things.
Let’s flip the question then. What do you think audiences are keying in on with these music-driven films? What draws them in and makes them seek out these movies and support them? What is it about that type of story that people love?
Buckley: I suppose it’s about dreamers and dreaming and life outside the limits of the life that you’re living. People go to the cinema to experience something. Some go to feel something, some go to escape something, some go for all of those things, and if a film can make an audience feel something or inspire them or provoke them… then what more can you ask?
I saw you in Chernobyl, which was incredible. What do you make of Russia’s response that they want to make their own series because they didn’t like how the government was depicted?
Buckley: I didn’t know that and it’s not my place to talk about that. They can do what they want. If they want to do it, they can do it.
What was your experience like on that set, because everything felt so real. When you saw the production design, did it feel like you were actually there?
Buckley: Filming it in Lithuania and Ukraine was incredible, and the reality of what it was was coming to set, where family members who had been affected by it were extras, and there was such care and attention to the detail of the truth that we were trying to reveal, and think about openly. There’s a huge amount of respect and responsibility, and also provoking questions. I was nervous, because it is so real, and it is something that needed to be told. I didn’t even realize the truth behind it until I read the script, and seeing those horrific deaths, to think of what it must’ve been like in real life was terrifying and upsetting. I felt very responsible and humbled by the whole thing.
You just wrapped Charlie Kaufman’s new movie with Jesse Plemons. Can you say anything about that?
Buckley: It was great, and I love Charlie and Jesse so much. It was an incredible experience. I don’t know how much I can say about the production or the story, but it was one for a lifetime. Just an amazing experience.
It seems like a departure from his other work, and a bit darker, too.
Buckley: I think Charlie is very human and he feels a lot of different things, and he’s got something honest to say. I don’t know if it’s a departure, maybe it’s just the kind of story that speaks to him at this point in his life.
What’s next for you?
Buckley: At the moment, I’m just finishing this Wild Rose tour, and then I’m going to take a holiday and drink a large glass of rosé, see my friends and family, and just get hungry for the next thing.
What have you seen or read lately that you’d recommend?
Buckley: I watched Shoplifters on the flight over recently, which I absolutely loved. It was such a brilliant film. I’m reading Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, and an Anne Sexton poem book called Live or Die.