Monday 19 February 2018

The Fame game: Kerry actress Jessie Buckley on starring opposite Tom Hardy

From a teen on reality TV to red carpets, a high-profile romance and squaring up to Tom Hardy, it has been quite a journey for Kerry's Jessie Buckley

Leading lady: Jessie Buckley on the Olivier Awards red carpet
Leading lady: Jessie Buckley on the Olivier Awards red carpet
Jessie with boyfriend James Norton

Stephen Milton

There's a growing distance between Jessie Buckley and myself. Figuratively and physically. Three years ago, I first sat alone with the apple-cheeked ingénue backstage at the Noel Coward Theatre off London's St Martin's Lane in a room so petite and slender, our knees periodically grazed.

Enjoying her first significant, yet small, role opposite Jude Law in Henry V, she giddily reflected on a previous incarnation as runner-up of BBC talent show, I'd Do Anything - Andrew Lloyd Webber's search for a new Nancy in a stage revival of musical Oliver - back in 2008. "I was 18 and it was the end of the world, like when a boy you like first dumps you."

We chatted and chuckled and when asked if fame and ensuing celebrity is a worry, she snorted: "It's not the worst thing in the world. It's not a massive sacrifice. It's not like I'm cutting off both my legs."

When we met again last year in a marbled hotel lobby in central London, there was a new agent - powerhouse Lindy King, who also manages Keira Knightley and James McAvoy - and a diminutive publicist in tow who sat within earshot of our conversation.

Despite the observance, Jessie laughed, calling herself "a professional dress-upper, who doesn't take herself seriously," and infectiously mumbled through sweet anecdotes of her then, latest West End co-stars Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench, this time in The Winter's Tale. "My Aunty Mary wrote Judi an invitation to Killarney when she came to see the play. A few days later, Judi says to me, 'Splendid! When are we planning this trip to Kerry?' I sort of dream of us down in the family caravan in Ballinskelligs."

For our third and latest encounter however, the actress is miles away, both in body and spirit. At my desk in Dublin, I strain to hear her all the way in Cape Town over a patchy phone line. The call is being monitored by another publicist in London.

The 27-year-old is there to shoot a BBC drama, The Last Post, based on the experiences of British soldiers and their families despatched to 1960s war-torn Yemen. Doing our interview by phone is unavoidable given her busy, soaring success, which has also carved recent starring roles in two other BBC productions - War & Peace and Tom Hardy's decadent mini-series, Taboo.

The big budget series, which began last weekend to favourable reviews, is a first effort from Hardy's own production company, Hardy, Son and Baker. Tom and his scriptwriter father, Chips Hardy, co-created the eight-episode series, with executive production by Ridley Scott.

In it, Tom Hardy plays James Keziah Delaney, a menacing, nihilistic adventurer and colonist, long believed dead, who returns from Africa to the duplicitous dealings of 1800s London, intent on bringing down vengeance on the notorious East India Trading Company and those who crossed and deceived his recently deceased father. Jessie plays opportunistic young widow, Lorna Bow.

Unfortunately, when Jessie and I talk this time our once smooth easy banter has been traded for the celebrity's commonly regurgitated platitude of choice; "I really value my anonymity and privacy."

It's a disappointingly robotic response but, in fairness, I had steered the conversation towards her boyfriend, Grantchester actor and rumoured Bond replacement, James Norton.

They met while shooting War & Peace in St Petersburg. Rather than pushing for details of their romance, I ask if Jessie was bothered by their inclusion in the gossip columns. "I don't want to talk about it. I'm quite… Yeah," she trails off.

Changing tack, I ask if it's difficult for successful actors to maintain a relationship with so much travel involved. "If it's OK, I don't want to… Well you know… Yeah, it's fine, we're all fine and getting on with life," she stammers.

There's an awkward thump of silence over the crackling line. Attempting to jiggle the mood, I ask if Jessie is a naturally shy person when it comes to matters of love or is this all part of 'fame-training' by her representation. It's a genuine query.

"Sorry Stephen," the listening publicist defensively chimes, "you'll have to blame me for this but can we move away from these questions." Suddenly, my jovial first meeting with Jessie in a tiny backstage room feels like a hundred years ago as fame, and all its heavy baggage, now appear to be the worst thing in the world.

We move on, instead, to the other loves of Jessie's life - her family. The eldest of five from Muckross, near to Killarney in Co Kerry, she enjoyed an artistic, carefree upbringing with harpist musician mum, Marina and hotelier father, Tim.

"All of us kids, they've encouraged us to be unique and I owe a lot to them," she says, eventually easing into a flow after our uncomfortable exchange. "They're why I do what I do, really. They've always encouraged me to experience life to the fullest and not be afraid of being my full self."

Musically talented from a young age, Jessie battled with her confidence. "I did it all, singing, the harp, piano. But I was so shy, I'd wake up at six to practice piano because I didn't want anyone to hear me play. But then I'd do a big show in school where everyone would see me, and that was actually alright.

"Maybe one on one was something quite intimate and scary, whereas in front of an audience, you can almost escape into a bigger space. You can put those things that you're afraid of out there."

Shelving plans to study classical singing at DIT to help at home with the arrival of youngest sister, Lily, now 10, she eventually took a gamble at 18 and made for London's bright lights.

Though rejected by two drama schools, the gamble inadvertently paid off when Jessie found herself auditioning for I'd Do Anything and consequently centre stage in the live finals as a hot favourite. Lloyd Webber was infatuated with the bubbly singer. But she was pipped at the post by Jodie Prenger.

"Of course I was sad," she says of finishing in second place, "but looking back at it, what's gone on before has instigated what's happening now. It's part of my history. I've been incredibly fortunate to have so many people believe in me. People like Andrew, I'm incredibly grateful. After I'd Do Anything, he opened a lot of doors. None of this would have been possible".

With direction from the great maestro, a career in musical theatre was Buckley's anticipated progression. "And that was 100pc my plan."

But after a production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music and a brief existence as a jazz singer at upscale London nightspot Annabel's, where she claims, "no one listened to me, you could make so many mistakes," came a change of heart.

Turning her back on music, she embarked on a three-year stint gorging on Shakespeare and the classics at RADA which ultimately led to a series of fortuitously shrewd stage performances opposite Law, Branagh and Dench and a tear-stained turn as tortured Marya in BBC's reported €2million per episode adaptation of War and Peace.

Critics heaped praise on Buckley, branding her a scene stealer over stars Lily James and Gillian Anderson. "People have been very kind to me," she quietly acknowledges.

Will they be saying the same of her performance alongside intense powerhouse Tom Hardy in Taboo? The actress is sceptical. "Working with Tom is like riding a tidal wave," she laughs. "You just have to paddle really fast or you'll f****** fall off. But the pay-off is a rush.

"If you're brave enough to come up and challenge him and meet him there, it's amazing."

In the series, Jessie's character is a calculating enigmatic survivor who clashes with Hardy's by laying claim to his family inheritance.

"She has a lot of punk rock in there. She comes in and gives the men as good as she got. She's kind of a bit of a chess player," Jessie says.

"She's driven by a kind of escape of some sort. She's a survivor, she doesn't rely on batting her eyelashes, she doesn't need to do that, she's clever. She uses her mind, not her body.

"This is not your generic costume drama, where they're drinking cups of tea; 'how do you do?' Forget that," she hastenly adds.

Jessie will soon begin work on another BBC adaptation of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. And to top all that, she just signed with a Hollywood agency.

But despite her upward trajectory, she's wisely wary of complacency.

"You can never feel certain in this job. The minute you do, you switch off. I want to keep learning, I want to stay in this game for a long time. Because the moment you become blasé and believe you're always going to be consistently in work, that's when the trouble starts."

Taboo airs Saturdays on BBC 1 at 9.15pm

Irish Independent

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