Jessie Buckley is thinking of starting something
After living through nearly four months of quarantine, she admits, “I’ve been worrying about talking at all. The less I talk, the better.” Unfortunately for the 30-year-old Irish actress, her rich lineup of new projects demands discussion. So here she is, sitting in her garden in London, trapped on a Zoom call with EW. “I’m much better at talking in somebody else’s shoes than my own,” she insists. “I need other people’s shoes.”
She’s got good taste in strange footwear. Coming on the heels of last year’s Emmy-winning HBO miniseries Chernobyl and Oscar-winning biopic Judy, the actress does standout work in two intense new films dropping this year that are sure to get people talking — even if she’s reluctant to do so herself.
The chatter began around Dominic Cooke’s Cold War drama The Courier in January when it premiered at Sundance (where it was titled Ironbark and earned a B+ from EW). Set to be released this fall, the film marked an opportunity for the actress “to step into a different temperature of a person,” she says. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Greville Wynne, a real-life British salesman who was recruited to carry messages between MI-6 and a Russian spy while his lonely, increasingly suspicious wife (Buckley), tries to keep a stiff upper lip at home. While Cumberbatch was “an absolute dream” to work with, “I actually found that one of the saddest things to play,” Buckley says of her prim 1960s housewife. “There was just no valve for expression.”
You might say her other new movie has the opposite problem. “It’s probably one of the most exposing things I’ve ever done,” Buckley says of Netflix’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Sept. 4), a psychological thriller from always mind-bending Charlie Kaufman. Here she takes the lead, playing a young woman going on a road trip with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to visit his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) on their farm. The plot defies description beyond that vague outline; within it, the characters are mutable, the details of their very reality a twisty riddle until the final frame.
“It’s a questions film. It’s an art piece. You don’t get those pieces,” Buckley says of her fortunate casting. “It’s such a thrill to be challenged like that. Immediately you feel like you’re creating.” Not that it was an easy process: She recalls working through dense chunks of the hyperliterate script with little room for error, getting very few takes of long stretches of dialogue incorporating cinematic analysis, philosophical debate, and poetry recitation. “It was a very stressful experience for everybody,” Kaufman admits of the wintry 24-day shoot. “In the midst of all that, Jessie was just present.”
Buckley likens the tough but rewarding shoot to being in love: “When you have that amount of emotional investment in something, instead of something that you’re just kind of doing a job on, it can cost.” The grand affair of I’m Thinking of Ending Things exhausted her, but it was worth it. “It’s not [too much of] a challenge when it’s something so rich,” she says. “There’s nothing finite about it; it has no answer, and I think people will find whatever they need to find in it wherever they are in themselves.”
It can feel like there’s nothing finite about the present moment, either. In quarantine, Kaufman’s dreamlike vision reads as truer than stark reality, and the strangely profound, profoundly strange movie might speak to viewers more after five months of confinement than it ever could have resonated before. “I guess none of us really know who we are, anyway. We go through different points in our life and we adopt what we think will be the best version of ourselves in that moment of our life to get us to the next part,” Buckley reflects. “An imagination can be a survival, in a way.” And thank God for that.
When quarantine began, the actress was busy shooting the Chris Rock-fronted fourth season of FX’s Fargo, which suspended production — with just two weeks to go — in March; the network recently announced that the delayed season would premiere Sept. 27, and shooting reportedly resumed in August. Buckley will appear as “nurse with a dark side” Oraetta Mayflower, whom she describes as “the perfect storm of darkness and sweetness.” Toward the end of this year, she’s slated to shoot Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, a starry adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. “I hope that will happen,” she says.
So many different pairs of shoes! “I hope they have nothing in common,” Buckley says, and she can offer no trend regarding how she chose them. “Sometimes it’s luck — sometimes it’s literally getting a Charlie [Kaufman] script on a Friday afternoon after you’ve landed in Dublin. Other times you’re kind of testing a different color that’s in yourself, and all of a sudden, when you’re looking to explore something, those things seem to reveal themselves in ways, in scripts. It’s more of just a feeling, I guess.”
She laughs at the suggestion of a dark undercurrent to her list of credits, and adds, “Everybody’s a bit dark. I like those things in life. I like the crunchy things in life.” Indeed, she’s giving us plenty to chew on.
Photographs by Charlotte Hadden