Jessie Buckley has a vivid childhood memory of going to one of her very first musical performances and ending up in tears because she thought the story was real.
It was a local performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in Killarney’s Áras Pádraig hall and in the scene where the lead actor died on the cross, the young Buckley started to cry.
“I was so convinced that the man who was playing Jesus had actually died on the cross at the end of this show!” she smiles at the memory. “I was inconsolable, my mum had to bring me back and tell me that Paddy from down the road was alive and well. I just thought it was magic. I actually couldn’t quite believe that it was not real. For me there was not much of a line between both of those worlds.”
It wasn’t long before Buckley was taking to the very same stage and making some magic of her own. She joined Killarney Musical Society, where she honed her passion for music and song. At 18, she applied to continue her studies in London, only to be disappointed to be turned down. In the city for the weekend, she decided to audition for I’d Do Anything, a reality-TV search for a production of Oliver hosted by Andrew Lloyd Webber. She’d no idea then, but she was about to become a star and finished runner up in the hit series.
“I had another drama school audition coming up in a few days' time. So I kind of went just to practice and then things happened,” the 30-year-old says with glorious understatement. “I hadn’t a clue, which was probably my saving grace.
“I had no motive apart from just to experience it and try and do my best and I was so young and raw. But that was the beauty of it you know. I guess it gave me just the sheer courage to get out and do it. And despite your fear, you still manage to do it. You know, fear is just another thought.”
Her success, and an impressed Lloyd Webber, led to her making London her base and she forged a successful stage career. That would have been more than enough for Buckley, which makes recent successes all the more precious to her.
She landed TV roles in War & Peace and Taboo, then the film offers started to come in. A strong performance in English thriller Beast and a beguiling and funny turn in 2018’s Wild Rose, a charming drama about a feisty Glaswegian who wants to become a country star, was drawing the attention of international producers and casting agents. In the past couple of years, she has become one of our most in-demand stars.
“When I was young, I didn’t even think it would be an inch of a possibility that I would end up doing a film, that just existed in another land for me. Movie stars were in movies, not the one at the bottom of the road.
“My peripheral vision growing up was theatre. That’s what I knew. It will always be a part of what I still want to experience. I don't really care what medium it is. I just like people, I like humans. I like their madnesses, I like their strengths. I like telling their stories, whether that’s in a play or in film or singing a song.
“I feel like all these people that have crossed my paths in whatever medium it is have taught me something about myself and taught me something about the world that I didn’t know.” There have been very special performances, like playing the real-life wife of a first responder in the powerful series, Chernobyl. Wild Rose gave her the opportunity to tour with her own country music band, opening for legends such as Kris Kristofferson. Having co-written many of the songs in Wild Rose, she has kept up the songwriting since.
“Any time we finished a tour or finished the album, we’d be like: ‘Oh, please don’t say that’s it’. I think there was a time when I thought if I want to do acting, I can’t do that. But I don’t feel like that anymore. I feel like if you’re just being creative in whatever way, then that’s a good thing.” She’s currently getting rave reviews for her role in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things on Netflix.
“I had to audition and I hadn't met Charlie or talked to him yet. I just read it in one go. I was so invigorated - it was like I had been gifted something that was so rich and unknowable at that point. It just felt like I’d never read anything like that. I’d never read somebody who wrote like that. I’d seen his films but it’s a different experience when you don’t know also where the story is going.”
Buckley is to be the recipient of this year’s Maureen O’Hara award from the Kerry International Film Festival. The award is presented to women who have excelled in film and while it will be done remotely this year, she’s chuffed at the presentation from her home county.
“When your own people and your own country get behind you and say: ‘You’re doing alright kid’ that means a lot. “She (O’Hara) epitomises the emotional strength and beauty of what womanhood is, and what a woman from Ireland is. Whatever I’ve watched her in I’ve always loved her.”
Another woman who inspired her was her mum, harpist Marina Cassidy, while her father, who’s always written poetry and told stories, helped form in her a sense of play. “I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a house where both my parents have just the most utter respect and admiration for art, whatever it is.
“My mum’s a singer and a harpist, and I have really strong memories of recognising the power of what she was doing, even in our small community, and when she sang, or when she told stories with song, it had a really profound effect. People would come up and have belonged to whatever she was singing to. Looking back, that was probably my first time I felt: ‘God, I want to be able to do what she does for people in some shape or form’.
She’s just finished her first project post-lockdown, as “a nurse with quite a sweet exterior and dark interior” in TV series Fargo. “I was in Chicago filming it when the world closed. I flew straight home to Ireland, and I spent six weeks in Killarney. We live at the bottom of Mangerton Mountain. It was nice to be back in nature. And it was nice to be back with my family.”
Like many actors and crew getting back to work, she isolated in Chicago for a fortnight before filming resumed. Now she’s doing the same in Greece in advance of filming Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter, with Olivia Colman and Paul Mescal.
“I’m very lucky to be able to be back working and do something that I love. What production companies have managed to achieve and actually get things going again is amazing.
There’s a lot of people who are still out of work. There’s an uncertainty of what’s going to happen on the other side of this, and what will survive this hard time. But it’s encouraging to feel that things are starting again, and that there is possibility.”