Jessie Buckley’s spring breakout


Jessie Buckley’s spring breakout


Actress Jessie Buckley. Photo: David Conachy
Actress Jessie Buckley. Photo: David Conachy
Jessie Buckley. Photo: David Conachy
As Lyudmilla Ignatenko in Chernobyl
As Marian in the BBC’s ‘The Woman in White’
Denise Gough
Kerry Condon
Seana Kerslake

Jessie Buckley shifts uncomfortably in her seat. The dress. The hair and make-up. The Presidential Suite at the Westbury. None of it is really her. “To be quite honest with you I feel like a fucking tit looking like this,” she tells me. “Even getting my make-up done. I must start doing my own because I feel like I don’t look like me.” She slyly regards the salubrious surrounds: “I could handle the room, though.”

The room is presidential because Buckley is about to be everywhere. She has no less than five projects in the immediate pipeline: a film, Wild Rose, for which she recently won a Dublin Film Festival award, has just hit cinemas. While that’s playing, she’ll star in the much-anticipated, big-budget Sky drama, Chernobyl, which dramatises events around the 1986 tragedy.

She’s also about to perform a few live music concerts in England, where she will sing the songs from her imminent drama, Wild Rose. Jessie was recently selected by Screen International as one of its Stars of Tomorrow (previous selectees include Benedict Cumberbatch and Carey Mulligan). Forbes also just named her one of its ‘thirty under thirty’. She’s not sure what ‘a moment’ means exactly, but it does appear she is having one.

And yet it feels like she, and we, will be will ready for our Jessie-themed spring. She is ready because, in fact, this apparent overnight success is really the result of a decade of showbiz Cinderella-dom and hard slog. And we are ready because she’s a gifted, gutsy performer who seems just a bit more authentic in interviews than most of our other acting superstars.

As Lyudmilla Ignatenko in ChernobylAs Lyudmilla Ignatenko in Chernobyl

As Lyudmilla Ignatenko in Chernobyl

Whether on- or off-screen, Jessie doesn’t seemed “sheened”, as she puts it. Her Kerry lilt is still intact. She has a kind of raw quality – over the course of a 45-minute chat she veers from salty self-deprecation – “Forbes were feeling sorry for me because I have only one year of my 20s left” – to brief tears, when her sisters are mentioned. It sounds too tremulous, too actress-y to be true, but she clearly means every moment. She seeks out characters whose “skin you can see through” and, in particular moments, she seems to offer a glimpse through hers.

Choir girl

Jessie Buckley grew up in Killarney, the eldest of five sisters, and divided her childhood between school plays, choir practice, the orchestra and helping out in the family business – her father ran a guesthouse, while her mother sang and played the harp. She went to the Ursuline Secondary School, an all-girls boarding school in Tipperary, where her mother later worked as a voice coach.

“Every kid has to rebel a bit against parents”, she recalls of those years. “I probably did that a bit as well probably by breaking away so young in blind ignorance. The other girls in school used to call me the Lone Ranger because I was off in my own little world.”

She dreamed of moving to London, “a place of awe”, and applied to a drama school there. While waiting to hear back from it, Andrew Lloyd Webber began auditioning for his new BBC reality show, I’d Do Anything, through which he tried to find cast members for a new production of Oliver! She decided to give the TV series a go. The day before filming began, she found out that she’d actually been turned down by the drama school, and it gave everything that followed an added frisson of urgency.

Vulnerable place

“They put me up in Hammersmith with all the other budding Nancys,” she recalls. “I was so ignorant to what it really was. I didn’t have any training or understanding of the industry, so I was running on pure passion and want and need to be part of that. It was a vulnerable place to be in. Sometimes you feel like you’re sinking, but what are you going to do? Are you going to walk away or look hard at the lessons the whole thing is teaching you and try to swim to the top with them? I feel proud of myself, especially because I was so ignorant, boundary-less and hungry.”

She was up against some veterans of the industry, including Rachel Tucker who took the starring role in Come From Away at the Abbey earlier this year, but, despite this, Jessie found herself to be a particular favourite of Lloyd Webber. She ended up being runner-up in the series and her prize was to be the understudy Nancy in a West End revival of Oliver!, but she passed on it to play Anne Egerman in Trevor Nunn’s production of the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music.

Jessie Buckley. Photo: David ConachyJessie Buckley. Photo: David Conachy

Jessie Buckley. Photo: David Conachy

“There was kind of a comedown feeling after the series,” she remembers. “I had a sense I was embarking on a great journey. I was 17 and in this new city and I had to be grown up all of a sudden. Definitely there were moments were I thought, ‘I can’t do this’.”


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In fact she began suffering from depression during that period. Counselling helped her cope, she explains. “I’ve had therapy and I think it’s really fantastic and everyone should do it,” she says. “I don’t understand why there aren’t classes on emotion in schools. It’s a beautiful part of being a person. The hard emotions are the one we try to avoid, but I’ve learnt to value those. I’m learning to accept the hardships, they are part of my humanity, my story.”

Comfort from the pain of homesickness came from unlikely quarters. “There was an incredible man called Tony Bernstein, who had nothing to do with the industry but he loved musicals and he said, ‘I really want to help you and support you,'” she explains. “He paid for my training at Rada [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts] and he helped with my rent when I couldn’t pay it. I really wouldn’t be here without him.”

The actress Maureen Lipman also became a sort of surrogate Jewish mother to Jessie during this period. “She would invite me up to her house to read plays, she was amazing and such a rogue as well,” Jessie recalls. “I felt so fortunate to have this sort of adopted family.”

Her career continued to climb during those years. She starred as Perdita in Kenneth Branagh’s The Winter’s Tale; Marya Bolkonskaya in the BBC’s War & Peace and Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White. In 2017 she also won plaudits for her portrayal of a feisty actress, Lorna Bow, opposite Tom Hardy’s enigmatic James Delaney in Taboo, also for the BBC.

Love life

It was on War and Peace that she met the actor James Norton, who played Andrei Bolkonsky in the series. They dated for a year, but in mid 2017, Norton was pictured in the British press kissing another co-star, the actress Imogen Poots. Jessie tried to be “diplomatic” after the fact, but later admitted the break-up was “acrimonious”. It called to mind her performance for Lloyd Webber of The Man Who Got Away. Was Norton that? “I’m not telling you that!” she squeals. “I have to keep some things for myself. Love life comes under that. Being known doesn’t make you more difficult to date, though.”

Jessie is also protective of her authenticity. As her star began to rise in the London theatre scene, she was approached by several agents, including one who sticks in the memory.

“He said to me, ‘Dahling, the very first thing you must do is not speak Irish’. And I was like, ‘I’m not speaking Irish, see ya later’.”

There were other more sinister moments – without feeling the need to be too specific, she says the spate of MeToo allegations in the industry weren’t hugely surprising. “I have encountered abuse of power in acting situations but, when I have, I don’t want to be involved with those people, anyway,” she says. “I walk away. If people are choosing or not choosing me for a film for some other reason than the work, I don’t want that. What’s meant for you doesn’t pass you by. I think you can bring dignity to whatever you do.”

Her male equivalent as Ireland’s brightest acting starlet du jour is probably Barry Keoghan, and Buckley will star alongside him in Chernobyl, which is part of a co-production deal between Sky and HBO. It will air in May. In the series, Jessie plays Lyudmilla Ignatenko – a young woman whose husband was one of the firefighters during the 1986 nuclear accident.

“When I was growing up, I remember the children of Chernobyl coming over and spending times in our homes and schools,” Jessie says. “Those memories were a starting point, but I wanted to do as much research on the subject as I could, and tell the story as provocatively and as well as I could. The production team created a website where they posted all of the research that they had done on the film and the cast could dip in and out of that.”

Former presidential candidate Adi Roche was also a help, allowing Jessie to tap into her vast knowledge of Chernobyl and its far-reaching consequences.

Jessie’s other big project this spring is the aforementioned film, Wild Rose, in which she plays a young Scottish mother, Rose, who, after getting out of prison, tries to embark on a career as a country music singer. It’s an incredibly warm and funny film – miles ahead of Lady Gaga’s similar effort in A Star Is Born – and Buckley’s musical background shines through on the score, which she sang herself.

“The film is everything I could have wished for,” she tells me. “We are going to be doing gigs and writing the album. There has to be half of you and half of them in a character and it was that way with me and Rose. It’s never all me, though, because otherwise the film would be called Wild Jessie, which might be quite good, actually, but she’s got a kind of tenacious courage and I think I have a streak of that.”

That tenacity has stood to Jessie. It would seem that the years of loneliness when she moved to London were worth it – she is about to go stratospheric.

At times, however, she says, the increasing public recognition can feel overwhelming.

“It’s a scary thing when you become publicly known,” she says. “Ego and fear can take over. There’s a lot of stuff in our industry that can make you drunk on the buzz of it all, and take you away from what you really want from your life. I still swim in the Lido; I go for runs along the canal with my flatmates, who are not actors. And when all’s said and done, I can always go home to Kerry where nobody cares how well I’m doing or not doing.”

She comes across as a woman’s woman. It was clear from her Late Late Show appearance in March what a close bond she has with her sisters. “I love those girls so much,” she says. “I’m so proud of the women that they are. They’re so assured. My 12-year-old sister is captain of the debating team, she’s like Little Miss Sunshine…” She begins welling up at the mention. I wonder if there’s something upsetting her. “It’s not that,” she says, now smiling again. “I’m very emotional. I’ve been known to cry fairly often. I love a good cry.”

Her whole life, she says, has been “a dilemma of identity”, working out “what’s my purpose? What makes me happy?” And that, she now realises, is the struggle itself. “That was a hard thing to realise,” Jessie Buckley says, “but it’s helped me as a person and as an actor. Sometimes you can end up going down wrong paths and making bold choices where you fall on your face and you have to deal with the shame and failure, but it’s better to deal with all of that than to just coast in life. I sometimes feel like I’m in a bobsled with 20 wolves, kind of running down this mad path, and one wolf goes off and does a job for a bit, and the other wolves have to let some steam off. I’m sitting back and enjoying the ride.”

‘Chernobyl’, Tuesday, May 7, on Sky Atlantic and Now TV

Photograph by David Conachy


Three Irish actresses making waves abroad

Seana Kerslake

Seana Kerslake


Acting industry bible Variety recently declared; ‘Seana Kerslake is a star’ and, on the back of her acclaimed performance in Irish horror flick A Hole In The Ground, there can be little argument with that assessment. Kerslake’s career momentum has been building for a while. After making her mark in Kirsten Sheridan’s film Dollhouse (2012) – which she completed while she was still a third-year student of English and Music at NUI Maynooth – the 25-year-old Tallaght actress was properly bitten by the acting bug. Her turn as the titular protagonist in A Date For Mad Mary (2016) seemed to find its way into the hearts of critics and audiences alike. Not long after Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, the RTE comedy written by Stefanie Preissner, was another triumph. Like Jessie Buckley, Kerslake has a salty authenticity and big things are expected of her.

Denise Gough

Denise Gough


When it was announced earlier this year that this Clare woman would be taking one of the lead roles in the new Game Of Thrones prequel, few observers were surprised. At 39, Gough is no starlet but has built her career the old-fashioned way, learning her craft on the stage and gradually building into bigger television and film parts. In 2015 she beat off competition from Nicole Kidman to win an Olivier Award for her starring role as an addict in People, Places and Things. The performance “changed my life,” she admitted, and propelled her to greater things: There was the stage revival of Angels in America (for which she was nominated for a Tony) and the lead in the Gothic BBC thriller Paula. Last year she caused a minor stir for playing a trans character alongside Keira Knightley in Colette and, while she recently said she would be fine with never making another movie, she is about to appear alongside Jamie Bell in The Chain, an adaptation of a Tobias Wolff novel. She’s a sister of Kelly Gough, who recently appeared in Call The Midwife.

Kerry Condon

Kerry Condon


Some actresses burst onto the scene and some are more of a slow burn. With a career dating back to bit parts in Angela’s Ashes (1999) and Intermission (2003), it took this 36-year-old Tipperary-born star another decade to establish herself in Hollywood. She would go on to work with legends such as Sean Penn, Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte on This Must Be The Place and also scored roles in The Last Station, HBO’s big-budget drama Rome, and Luck, in which she caught the eye of Vince Gilligan. He cast her in the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, in which her performance as the gimlet-eyed Stacey won her comparisons with Jodie Foster. Since then she’s been in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) – the writer is an old friends of hers – and more recently she has starred in Sharon Horgan’ acclaimed series, Women On The Verge. With an upcoming starring role in Dreamland – alongside Margot Robbie – Condon looks finally to be on the verge of superstardom.

Sunday Independent


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