[Editor’s note: The following interview contains spoilers for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”]
If nothing else, talking to the star of Charlie Kaufman’s trippy “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is the chance to establish some hard and fast facts about a movie that avoids definitive answers. Something like, “Well, what name did you call your character?” Fortunately, Jessie Buckley gets it.
“I think Charlie kind of just looked at me, and I presumed he was talking to me when he was looking at me,” the actress said with a laugh. “I don’t even know if he called me ‘Young Woman,’ but that’s how it’s written in the script. I don’t think Charlie was going, ‘You. Young Woman, you. Come here.’ I think he just called me Jessie!”
In the film based on the Iain Reid novel, the “Young Woman” cycles through various names through the ever-twisting plot. She’s Lucy, and then Louisa, and Lucia, and even Ames at one point. Further complicating matters, Jessie Buckley stars alongside Jesse Plemons as the Young Woman’s boyfriend (who, at least, is definitely named Jake). As the Irish actress puts it, “It’s all very meta!”
That’s putting it mildly. In the most basic terms, Kaufman’s film is about a young man (Plemons) who takes his new girlfriend (Buckley) home to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Over the course of a single snowbound evening, the film and its characters dip between time and place, emotional headspace, and physical being, bolstered by a generous dose of pop culture and a final act that somehow involves a mashup of both “Oklahoma!” and “A Beautiful Mind.” You just have to see it.
Before Netflix released the film, Buckley was reticent to share much in interviews. (“The less I talk, the better,” she said in an August interview with Entertainment Weekly.) Now that the film is out in the world, she’s loosened up. A bit.
“I think I probably still feel the same,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything finite about the film. I think it just poses all the questions. It’s hard to describe what it is to you or to anybody who watched it, because it’s your experience. It’s not something that’s finite for me either, and it never was. It was something that transcended and shifted and moved from when I read it to when I was playing it, to afterwards when I watched it. It’s not that I find it hard to describe, I just don’t think that’s what it’s asking us to do.”
That doesn’t mean she’s opposed to people unpacking its many mysteries (Kaufman himself did that, sort of, with IndieWire earlier this month.) Buckley isn’t spoiler-phobic; she’s just more interested in the thoughts and feelings about the film.
“Everybody looks at everything in life from their own perspective, so it’s never going to be a prescriptive, exact observation for every single person,” she said. “You can’t please everybody. And anyway, art’s not meant to be appealing. It’s meant to provoke.”
Buckley’s role was originally meant for Brie Larson, who had to bow out due to Marvel commitments, leaving the production in need of a leading lady fast. “It was a shock,” Buckley said, receiving a Charlie Kaufman script in her email one evening. Even more surprising: She had to read it, prepare an audition, and put herself on tape in just 12 hours.
“It was something that really injected me with a feeling, and those moments are kind of lovely and precious, when you have an intimate, personal feeling like that,” she said. “Just before I went to do the audition, I got a note from Charlie that said, ‘This woman is molecular.’ I didn’t know what that meant! I was awful at chemistry, but I kind of loved that note. It could be anything to you. It kind of meant there was nothing solid, it was something that moved and broke apart and joined other atoms.”
For Buckley, that “anything” meant, well, everything. While Kaufman’s film diverges from Reid’s book, Buckley read the novel to prepare. “I take in everything,” Buckley said. “I’m like, ‘What else have you got from me?’ I’m like somebody who puts too much chili on my food when I cook, because I just think, ‘Just whack it all in.’ I take all the bits and I try and throw away all the bits as well, once we get to shoot.”
Buckley and Kaufman traded all sorts of art and ephemera as they crafted the Young Woman, but Buckley said what she found most helpful were works of visual art — which also pop up in the film — including photographs from Francesca Woodman and Gregory Crewdson and paintings from Alex Kanevsky.
“I was drawn to them, and when Charlie would send these photographs and paintings, I kind of understood,” Buckley said. “I don’t know what I understood of it, but I kind of just got a sense of something, that I’d go, ‘That’s an interesting texture in a person who doesn’t actually exist.'”
One thing most readers of Reid’s book and viewers of Kaufman’s film can agree on: the Young Woman doesn’t really exist beyond being a figment of Jake’s imagination. It’s a realization that strikes the Young Woman toward the end of the family visit, as everyone and everything around her shifts and changes in every possible direction (Thewlis and Colette age up and down and back again). Suddenly she’s faced with the reality of the milieu she’s been thrust inside, which isn’t real at all.
“In the scene, I couldn’t play that,” she said. “You don’t play ‘I don’t exist,’ because you’re trying to find a way to exist in the life that you’re in, in that moment,” she said. “And beyond the moment, you don’t know. I never played the thought that I didn’t exist, because I did exist. It was more your observations are shifting around you as well, so you’re constantly trying to grasp what elements have moved or was what before, what is now.”
While those scenes are the most overt expression of the film’s slipstream nature, Buckley found the entire outing quite surreal. “It felt like the scenes took you over, you were trying to constantly catch a wave which is crashing in a different way,” she said. “I really enjoyed playing all of them, even though there were reams of dialogue and you kind of get a bit trippy after a while.”
There was one standout, she said. After the Young Woman and Jake arrive on his family’s farm, they settle in for a truly surreal dinner with his mom and dad, one that zips between meet-the-parents awkwardness and something far more sinister.
“There’s such an absurd energy in that scene,” Buckley said. “It’s not the like perfect dinner scene that we imagined. We did that scene for a full day, and [each time] we would crack the scene into a whole other, different shape. There was one take where none of us could literally say a word because we were just laughing so much, and then the next take it would be like as if somebody had just died. You were constantly trying to pick up on or tune into what each take was offering you. It was probably the scariest thing I’ve done because of that, because you just feel, ‘Oh my God, there’s so much richness.'”
The version that makes it into the film features Buckley’s character doing a fair bit of “business” in the middle of all that dialogue and emotion. That was Buckley’s choice: The Young Woman starts clearing the table, still laden with platters of food that no one has touched, as the scene hustles toward its conclusion. She said it was inspired by something else in the film, more references folding in on each other, as Kaufman had just shown her the fake Robert Zemeckis film (with her Irish accent, it sounds a bit like “Zemecky”) that appears in the film’s first act.
It’s set in a diner, and that gave Buckley an idea. “We hadn’t decided this, but I was like, ‘What if I become the server after the dinner?,'” she said. “So I gave myself the task of removing the whole of the dinner in about three minutes. That was probably the scariest thing, because the dishes were quite heavy and David Thewlis was laughing at me. I was kind of like a clown. There was just sweat pouring off me, and I was like, ‘Please don’t drop any of this.’ I was just trying to carry this huge ham around the place!”
Buckley adapts quickly. Earlier this year, she was in the middle of shooting “Fargo” when production on the series shut down due to coronavirus concerns. Five months later, the cast and crew returned to finish the FX series’ fourth season, which entailed a two-week lockdown before shooting could start. Buckley is already back in quarantine to prepare for some other new projects, and she’s looking for amusement.
Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP
Right now, she’s really into the BBC One show “The Repair Shop,” which she likens to “‘The Great British Bake Off’ for repairs.” Buckley said, “It’s the most heartbreaking, beautiful thing you’ll ever watch. People come in and bring in their old heirlooms that have been damaged, and there’s this story behind these different items and they ask these people if they can repair them. If you want something cozy, it’s a real find, I can tell you. My boyfriend was crying his eyes out the other night watching it.”
What she’s not doing is basking in the sense that she’s made it. While the last few years have been life changing between her breakout role in “Wild Rose” to her lauded turn in “Chernobyl” to, hell, starring in a Charlie Kaufman film, she maintains that whatever sense of “It Girl” others might have of her, that’s not her experience.
“I still feel the same as when I felt like when, I don’t know, did ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in the Killarney Town Hall,” she said. “I’ve always worked. I left home when I was 17, and I’ve done lots of different kinds of jobs. Sold cereal in a food market. I’ve sang jazz around London. I’m glad I had real-life experiences. Otherwise, how would I be able to tell human stories if I hadn’t had that?”
She turns more introspective, finding her way to a kind of cheery philosophy that echoes the most optimistic takeaway of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”: that you can shape your own existence how you see fit. “You never know what’s going to happen,” Buckley said. “Like if I went back and sold cereal again, I’m sure I’d find a way to be happy.”
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is currently streaming on Netflix.