She first came to public attention as an effervescent 17-year-old with a big voice and a brilliant smile in I’d Do Anything, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for a musical star, finishing an emotional runner-up after the public vote, despite the judges’ support for her raw talent.
Since then, Jessie Buckley has slowly built a reputation as one of acting’s rising stars, with a series of eye-catching performances in productions including The Winter’s Tale and War and Peace. Now she’s set for her most stellar period yet with leading roles in two major BBC series: Peter Moffat’s military period piece The Last Post, which startson Sunday on BBC1, and an upcoming adaptation of The Woman in White, as well as a much-praised big-screen turn in an atmospheric crime thriller, Beast, which will screen at the London Film Festival’s First Feature Competitionin October.
“It is kind of mad,” admits Buckley, now 27, on the phone from the US, where she is frantically packing for a flight back to the UK. A hectic schedule has seen her combine promoting Beast at the Toronto International Film Festival with filming Country Music, the tale of a young Scottish singer trying to make it in Nashville, with War and Peace director Tom Harper. She plays the lead, naturally. “I’ve just kind of gone along with everything that’s come up and now it’s all coming out at once … I know I’m really, really lucky and, honestly, long may it last.”
In truth, the relaxed, talkative Buckley, who grew up the oldest of five children in Kerry, south-west Ireland, “the sort of place that’s never quiet, where you have people playing instruments in the toilet”, has been anything but lucky.
As an actress, she is a naturally warm performer with the ability to show you both the emotional needs of her characters and, more rarely, their intelligence. She was the best thing in the BBC’s big-budget adaptation of War and Peace, making the fragile, thoughtful Marya Bolkonsky a still, calm centre amid the feverish goings on. (She also met her boyfriend James Norton on set; he played Marya’s tortured and heroic brother, Andrei.)
In BBC1’s drama Taboo, set in the 1800s, she successfully went toe-to-toe with a gloriously over-the-top Tom Hardy, imbuing witty widow Lorna Bow with both sense and sensibility. “I absolutely loved playing that character because she had her own ambition and gave as good as she got. She was so alive with wit, charm, intelligence and fun.”
Buckley auditioned for I’d Do Anything on a whim, having been rejected from the Guildhall School of Drama that weekend. “It was mad but amazing. I never thought this was going to be my big break and I think that helped.” When the cameras stopped rolling, she took stock and decided to stay in London and see what happened next. “There was a lot to take in. I was living in a completely new city in a flat by myself… it was pretty challenging but also really exciting. I met a lot of lovely people and was lucky to have a good network.”
Did her family really not worry at all? She sounds genuinely amused. “Oh Jesus, they were delighted – there are five of us after all, so it was more thank God one’s left the home. No, they were incredibly supportive. They always told all of us not to be afraid because even if you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, at least you’re experiencing something.”
A variety of hand-to-mouth jobs followed, including time as a jazz singer at Annabel’s club in Mayfair, working as a shop assistant and “selling cereal at Borough Market” before she decided to audition once again, this time for Rada. “I’d had to grow up pretty quickly and going back to drama school gave me a chance to be with people my own age and do normal things, like going to a pub on a Friday night and just hanging out.”
The Last Post marks yet another change of direction: her character, Honor Martin, is an elegant but naive army wife newly posted to the Yemeni city of Aden in the mid-1960s. “It did take me a few weeks to get used to the idea that I was playing someone who wore pink nail varnish. It’s not the sort of part I usually get to play,” she admits. “In her head, she’s going on this adventure to an exotic land. Then she has to face the reality.”
The dark Channel Islands-set Beast, which follows the relationship between two outcasts – a young woman trying to “atone for a crime she committed when she was 13” and the mysterious stranger (Johnny Flynn) with whom she forms a potentially dangerous bond – was more obviously in her ballpark.
“The description of my character said she’s the type of girl who ate worms at school, so I was immediately like, ‘oh, hello’. I read the rest of the script and loved it. I wanted to do it. They said the thing is they want a name. I said, ‘I don’t care: just get me in the room. I’ll convince them’.”
She laughs. “Not that I’m actually a girl who ate worms at school but I love playing those sort of parts, the outcasts and unsung heroes. Part of it is why can’t those people be leading roles? The most interesting storylines are the ones that say they can. The film grabbed me because it’s about the danger of love and so open and raw.”
Her real-life relationship with Norton is, by contrast, “very low key: it’s nice to have some things that are just your own”, although it’s hard to avoid paparazzi shots entirely. “Yeah, it is a little weird seeing photographs from parties where you didn’t even know a photographer was there.”
She’ll be back on the BBC soon as Marian Halcombe in The Woman In White – “a brilliant novel and a cracking part; she really challenges the ideals of the time” – but, before that, she’s looking forward to returning to London and catching up with her family. “My dad’s coming over to see Beast – he likes the girls who eat worms best, so it will be fun to share that with him.”