From the second we first see Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) emerge from her prison cell in her white cowboy boots and fringed white leather jacket, her fist raised in a salute to the inmates and guards as she exits towards freedom, we’re hooked. Rose Lynn — and Buckley, who plays her in Tom Harper’s upcoming Wild Rose — have that kind of magnetic star power, an inimitable quality that makes you care about them instantly.
Set in Glasgow, Scotland, the movie tracks Rose-Lynn as she leaves prison (where she’s spent 12 months on a drug charge) to pursue her dream of becoming a bonafide Nashville country music star, all while grappling with her responsibilities as a young mother of two. It’s a fresh take on the classic star-is-born myth, a story that the 29-year-old Buckley is more than familiar with. In 2008, the Irish-born singer and actress competed on the BBC TV talent show I'd Do Anything, coming in second in the contest to star in the West End revival of Oliver!. But she made an impression on the judges, including Andrew Lloyd Webber, who said she possessed “the sacred flame of star quality.”
It’s that same power source that has carried her from a London revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, to critically acclaimed roles in BBC dramas like War & Peace (where she first met Harper) and FX’s Taboo (alongside Tom Hardy), to her 2017 film debut in Michael Pearce’s Beast, which won a BAFTA for Best Debut by A British Writer/Director/Producer.
Now, Buckley is poised for a major break. Wild Rose is about to hit American cinemas after being lauded with praise on the festival circuit and here in the U.K.. That, combined with her role in HBO’s latest must-see mini-series Chernobyl, in which she portrayed the tragic real-life figure of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, promises to carry Jessie Buckley further on the path towards the kind of stardom Lloyd Weber recognised 11 years ago.
On a recent June afternoon before a New York screening of Wild Rose, where Buckley would take the stage to perform original music from the film, she sat down with Refinery29 in the sunny back garden of New York City's PUBLIC Hotel. Ahead, Buckley talks about the film’s approach to fame and motherhood, and whether she’s been in touch the woman she portrays on Chernobyl.
Refinery29: On I’d Do Anything, you sang "The Man that Got Away,” Judy Garland’s big song from 1954’s A Star Is Born. Did you ever imagine that you would get to live your own version of that story?
Jessie Buckley: I certainly didn't predict that I would be making a movie when I sang that song. I was just trying to, you know, not be bad. It's been an amazing time, really feeling like an adventure so far. My day-to-day life is normal. Back in London, or back in Kerry I just cycle, swim, cook food, do my washing, pay my taxes too late, or sometimes on time. You know, get spots, get moody, get happy, you know have a dance, everything.
Wild Rose been getting a lot of buzz, and it's about to come out in the U.S. Do you ever worry that might change your life in a really drastic way?
I think you can invite it to change your life drastically if you want it to. You can make choices to also just keep your feet on the ground. I don't know, is the answer. And, I won't know until it happens, or if it happens. I think I'll still want the same things. Just try and do work that I really believe in, that challenges me, and also just have a normal life.
What was it about this particular film that sealed the deal for you?
Tom Harper, who I worked with on War & Peace. I just love him, and to get a creative relationship like that is something that you only wish for. When I read the script, I was blown away by the dynamite, and humanity, and rawness and realness of this woman. There's no shame; she's rusty and alive. It's very rare that you get female characters like that front and centre.
It’s rare to see a woman’s story and arc develop completely unrelated to a man.
She just purely has a shag just cause she needs to have a shag. When she comes out of prison she's like, ‘Okay that's out of the way, see you later.’ It was so great to be able to work on something where you could focus on the dynamic of mother and daughter, and woman to woman. That's complex and fat, and full in itself. You're looking at yourself in so many ways, and the parts of yourself that you are afraid of.
In another movie there would be this separate arc about Rose-Lynn trying to get back together with her children’s dad or something.
Self-acceptance and self-love is the journey, and it's not relying on anybody but yourself. When Nicole wrote the script I think it was like a love letter to Glasgow, because she ran as far away from that town as she could. It was [also] a love letter to her mum, and it was a love letter to country music.
Motherhood is a huge part of this movie. One of my favourite scenes is when Rose-Lynn lies about having kids because she just wants to be to feel like herself for a bit; not someone's mum. People see you very differently if you've had children, especially if like her, you had them young.
Even when she says those things, it doesn't come without a consequence for her. It does hurt her that she has to say that. But she also doesn't know how else to get out of her pegged system. I'm the eldest of five, and my mum is an amazing woman. She's a harpist and singer, and she grew up in a time where you did have to sacrifice. She could have been an opera singer. She told me that when she was young she was brought over to Nashville to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. Watching this film was really quite emotional for her. We've all just left home this year, and she's gone back to study music psychotherapy in college. She's always been curious about what else is there out in the world for her to grow.
Life isn't black and white like that, you don't have to box yourself off just because you're a mum, or because you're a dad, or because you've decided at one point in life you're going to become a lawyer. Everybody's got such potential in their life, and we limit ourselves purely based on our fear and judgment of what other people think we're capable of. We've got so much more to explore and to give.
In the climax of the film, Rose-Lynn does have a choice, and it’s one that’s faced by so many women: She can take care of her sick child, or she can go and have her big moment.
It's still is something that we need to keep being conscious about. For both men and women, you have to support each other, respect each other. But I'm not a mother, and I can't know [what I’d do] in that moment. It's a very honest, scary, painful place to have to choose from.
Were you always a country fan?
No, I didn't really have a relationship to it. When I started listening, I found the amazing lyrics in it and the stories of these people. It's so characterful, country music — each song is like a three-minute movie. They've got these amazing scenes of people doing very simple things in their life. When you listen to Bonnie Raitt or Dewey Howard sing these stories, they just come through you and leaves you in a complete mess in the corner, or you're like ‘Woo!’ telling your ex-boyfriend to never text you again.
Did you have a playlist that you listened to on set?
Nicole Taylor sent me a big, fat playlist, when I first came on board. I was shooting in Belfast at the time, and every second weekend, I came back to this shed up in North London where the music supervisor Jack Arnold and some of the musicians worked on the film. We all just started playing and figuring out where this was coming from, within roles. I think the first country song I sang was, ‘To Daddy’ by Emmylou Harris, which is an amazing song. It's really moving. We did part of the album before we shot the film, then all the stuff that we did in the film was live. We did the rest of the album afterwards. I just drowned my ears in country music.
This movie's also very much about class inequality, and how some people, like her boss Susannah, can make things happen with three emails when Rose-Lynn’s been hustling for years.
She says, ‘I've been writing to that wee-bastard, and all I've been getting back is BBC pens!’ That is the truth. I work in Ireland with this rehabilitation community. It's so hard to remove the stigma of chucking heroin over the fence, and being a mother at a young age. People judge that, you become just that thing. Those stories are important.
And rarely told.
To be honest, they are much more interesting. I don't care about the woman who can drink bottled water. I want to hear about the person who is sitting at her kitchen table wondering how she ended up not existing in her own life because she was told she wasn't allowed to dream.
Was it difficult to nail the Glaswegian accent?
I was definitely scared, because I knew if I didn't get it right they would chase me with pitchforks and never let me allowed back into the city. Where [Rose-Lynn] is from is rough, and we actually had to modify [the accent]. Especially [in the U.S.] because nobody understood what I was saying!
I love doing accents. For me it's a way into character. I look at it like music. It's so crucial to Rose-Lynn's character because it's defiant and direct. It's emotional and it's passionate, and Glasgow as a city is made up by the people that are like that. They'll open up their arms to you, but if you bloody do anything, within five minutes you’re in a fist-fight. I totally fell in love with Glasgow and they really opened up their hearts to me.
Did you get to keep the amazing white cowboy boots?
Yeah I've kept everything. I've got my leather jacket upstairs.
Let’s pivot quickly to another project of yours that’s recently taken off: Chernobyl. It’s become such a thing. Were you surprised?
It's a political tragic drama! I genuinely am really surprised. When you're filming it you don't ever expect anything of that ever. You’re just trying to be good and be true. I knew the quality of the scripts were amazing. Craig Mazin is incredible. It's exciting that a story like that can have such resonance with people. I always knew the word Chernobyl, like I knew what happened — the impact that man isn't bigger than nature. The kind of pride and the lies that cost thousands of lives and continue to cost lives. There's grandchildren of Chernobyl being born with deformities and with illnesses because of what happened. I was scared at the responsibility of taking on a story like that.
Especially since your character is based on a real person.
Yeah, and she's still alive.
Has she reached out to you?
No, and I get it, it's sensitive. She's got a son. I can only try and comprehend what it must have been like. There's no kind of grief like that, it's horrific. Your husband dies like that in 14 days; something’s just taken, stolen from you. It's like a silent war, and nobody understands. There was no Dummies’ Guide to Survive Chernobyl.