Jessie Buckley is having what is popularly known as A Moment, that cultural curiosity when an actor seems to appear from nowhere to star in all of the most interesting projects, all at once. In HBO’s “Chernobyl”, her performance as Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the pregnant housewife who must bear witness to the horrific radiation poisoning of her fireman husband, keeps being singled out for praise. Soon, those kudos will have to compete with the ones she received at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival premiere of “Wild Rose,” with Buckley in the title role of convict-turned-songbird Rose-Lynn Harlan.
In truth, none of this — not the acting, nor the singing, or even the outsized acclaim — is new. The Killarney-born actress-musician shot out of the gate at age 18 when she came in second on BBC talent show “I’d Do Anything” (belting out the Judy Garland ballad “The Man That Got Away”). “Jessie has the sacred flame of star quality,” declared judge Andrew Lloyd Webber. “I’m rough and ready,” she replied.
That win finally got her accepted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She’s been in demand ever since: Trevor Nunn’s West End revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” “The Tempest” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, to four 2016 BBC series including “War and Peace” and “Taboo.”
“My character was fun and sassy, breaking Tom Hardy’s balls,” she said on the phone. “I had a great time. London was gritty and dirty at a time when everybody had a chance, whether a street rat or a lord or whatever. Everyone was fighting to get out of the trenches and reach the promised land on the other side. Tom wanted to turn period drama on its head and provoke people, he wanted it to be something more bold and exciting. It was like boxing with a heavyweight champion, as you both get in the ring and see where this one goes.”
In “Wild Rose,” Buckley’s character exchanges one Scottish jail for another as her mother (Julie Walters) tries to rein her in and make her be responsible for her kids. “It’s like a prison-break movie,” said Buckley. “She has a tenacious courage to break down those walls and do something more with her life.” It goes to the dark side in a raw, rough-and-tumble ride.
Buckley has the pipes to nail the role, as well as the Glasgow accent (which she picked up hanging out in pubs). However, it’s what she calls the “cracks and foibles” that make her character come alive, which included recording the songs live on set.
“It’s when you scrape your knee and take your face up from the dirt and move forward,” she said of her character. “Rose-Lynn was crusty and alive and frictional and fractured and feckless, but caring and with the ability to love, and love country music, and learn to love the people in her life, even when she was afraid of them in the first place. She didn’t know who she was. In order to love herself, she had to go to the darkest part in herself. All of us wanted to go more and farther, and not be scared. I’m excited by that.”
Between director Tom Harper, writer Nicole Taylor, and the live musicians, Buckley found making “Wild Rose” intensely collaborative. “We’re all in it together, talking constantly, nattering away to each other about what each moment might be. You don’t know until you’re on set what the finally realized version is at that moment.”
1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All right
Now contrast that performance to her turn as Lyudmilla Ignatenko, wife of the Chernobyl first responder. Compared to Rose-Lynn, Buckley is unrecognizable — but the biggest surprise has been the explosive global reaction, from stateside critics to the Russian government.
“You never expect anything when you’re making it,” she said. “It’s so cool that a piece like that can have such a profound effect on people all over the world, and provoke questions. It’s hard to watch, but it’s honest and the story needed to be told. It’s a story of love and a story of survival, when your love is taken away from you so quickly, and there’s a thin wire you are willing to walk on with love in the face of something as dangerous as that. It’s about how dangerous love can be as well, and such a specific kind of grief and grieving. No one has ever experienced anything like that. There was no rule book on how to get over a nuclear explosion and losing your love. [Ignatenko] has survived, and has a son. She lives with what happened, but is living now, and that’s amazing.”
All of this positions Buckley as this moment’s It Girl, but she’s suffered the familiar downturns of being an actor. “I’ve drowned a few times and someone rescuciated me,” she said. “Everybody’s got little battles at certain points in their life. I like auditioning, but sometimes you fall in love with characters, when you get a script it punches you in the stomach and you work your ass off. With auditions, you get to taste a little bit of what it might be. It might not work out. Somebody has a different idea of what that might be. I don’t mind that. Different stories each find you at different times. It’s sad when I see a person going away from me, after I got to read something, and looked at myself or the world differently because of that transient love passing through my life for a few weeks.”
Next up: For Buckley, marketing for “Wild Rose” includes a bus tour with her band. “It’s really fun,” she said. “I love to get to sing.” She next stars opposite Renee Zellweger in “Judy,” portraying the production assistant who looked after Judy Garland during her final London concerts. With a September 27 release through Roadside Attractions, expect that to hit the fall festivals.
She just wrapped Charlie Kaufman’s latest book adaptation, Ian Reid’s philosophical novel “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Netflix), about a woman who explores the human psyche as she tries to break up with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons). Buckley also stars in Philippa Lowthorpe’s upcoming 1970 Miss World drama “Misbehaviour,” co-starring Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and joined the starry ensemble of Stephen Gaghan’s “The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle” (2020, Universal), including Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role. And Buckley co-stars with Benedict Cumberbatch in Dominic Cooke’s ’60s spy thriller “Ironbark.”
Watch out for this one.