Jessica Barden: ‘In America, they’re obsessed with ways to look younger. I’m grateful I have something other people want’
For the rest of my life, I will always remember being in my mid-twenties and people asking me if James is alive – which is surreal,” says Jessica Barden in a slightly twangy voice.
The British star, who plays Alyssa in the dark comedy-drama The End of the F***ing World, is referring to the cliffhanger finale of season one: a single gunshot and the screen fades to black as her lover, James (Alex Lawther), is gunned down.
“But everything is temporary and one day it will just be really funny that this happened to me. And if I have kids one day, I can tell them that I was famous on Instagram, which is really funny, and they will think that I’m really lame. Everything is temporary,” she says wisely.
Dressed in a tweed jacket and jeans, with a tattoo of her name on her wrist, the 27-year-old is sitting with her knee up against the table in an office at Channel 4, having just arrived from LA, where the Yorkshire-born actor now lives.
She’s otherwise known for landing the regular role of Kayleigh Morton in Coronation Street, aged 15, as well as for stealing the show in Tamara Drewe, playing the cunning teenager Jody. She also stood out as the English girl Sophie in Joe Wright’s Hanna, opposite Saoirse Ronan. Yet since Netflix snapped up TEOTFW in 2018 – after it went largely unnoticed on Channel 4 in 2017 – the role of the Alyssa has catapulted Barden to stardom.
Rumours that Channel 4 were reclaiming the show for its second series were confirmed in March when Barden posted a photo of the script for season two to her 1.2 million Instagram followers. This was followed earlier this month with more posts: a picture of her as Alyssa in a wedding dress (does that mean James returns?) and another in character looking like she is tearing her hair out, with the words: “me after waiting almost a year for season 2”.
But as confident as Barden seems in person, she tells me she suffers from terrible anxiety. “I have stage fright really badly,” she says. In September at the premiere of her film Jungleland at the Toronto Film Festival, in which she plays a runaway teenager who ends up on a road trip with two brothers, played by Jack O’Connell and Charlie Hunnam, she couldn’t get on stage to do the Q&A.
“I just couldn’t do it… I have a fear of people… Some days you just don’t really want the attention of everybody looking at you. And it makes you feel insecure,” she says. “It’s like a panic attack. And I do a job that is unfortunately not the best situation for that. But it doesn’t mean that I have to stop doing it.
“Creating boundaries for yourself is healthy. A lot of panic attacks, in my experience, can be stopped by actually saying to somebody, ‘Sorry I can’t actually do this because I feel uncomfortable.’ The way that I deal with it is talking about it. I talk about it on my Instagram.”
In fact, Barden was cast in the role of a young girl struggling with an anxiety disorder in the forthcoming film, Pink Skies Ahead, after The New York Times best-selling author and the film’s director Kelly Oxford saw her posting about her own anxiety issues online.
Another issue close to Barden’s heart at the moment is sexism: “It’s in my life, not just in the industry,” she says. “I’m just some woman from Yorkshire. I am constantly underestimated. I’m 27 and I look like I’m 20. I’m 5ft 1 and I’m not educated. I’ve only received compulsory education. And I’m a working-class female. I’m underestimated all the time.”
Last year, she had a bust-up on a film set of an American movie over sexism. “I worked with a male actor who told me that I was just the girl in the movie,” she says. “He said that I wasn’t allowed to be part of the conversation with the director. I told him that he was a misogynist and then we had to pause filming for about three hours while there was a great discussion that I would not back down on.”
Barden grew up in Wetherby, West Yorkshire, and as a child, she went to a drama club in a local working men’s club. Her prison officer dad and accountant mum were encouraging parents. Her acting debut, aged seven, came in 1999 with a role as an extra in an episode of the television series My Parents Are Aliens. In 2007, she made her film debut in the comedy-drama, Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution, which starred Catherine Tate, and went on to play the role of Liddy in a film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd, in 2015, which starred Carey Mulligan.
When she landed a role in The Lobster the same year, as “nosebleed woman”, it was after she had pretended to choke on a peanut in the audition for the director Yorgos Lanthimos. “I wasn’t the age that they wanted to cast – my real age or the way that I looked. I was too young. But with a filmmaker like Yorgos, he was like, ‘Actually who cares?’ The movie isn’t like real life anyway. I was 21.”
Mostly it works the other way around and she plays younger characters than her actual age. “I spend a lot of time in America now and they are obsessed with ways to look younger so I’m really very grateful that I have something that other people want and I didn’t have to pay for it,” she says.
It has been refreshing though for Barden to play a nun, in the much-hyped thriller Lambs of God, an Australian television drama series, that also stars Ann Dowd and is due to air on HBO in the US, before making its way to the UK. “The reason I took this was to explore what it is like to be a woman who is also a nun,” she says. “My character has never met a man before, as I have only been raised in the convent. What is a woman who has never met a man? And how do they respond when a man turns up?” she says.
I ask Barden if she agrees with Scarlett Johansson that actors should be able to play anything – even a tree? “For me, I like to emotionally relate to my roles. I like going natural in things. But you can’t presume you can play everything. Also, this is a great big industry and not a lot of people have a lot of work. If I don’t think I’m right for a role, then I step away from it.”
As a child, Barden had no role models around her who were actors. “I couldn’t see a path that I could follow or somebody I could be like, which makes you feel quite isolated,” she says.
She had never been to the theatre before landing a role in Jerusalem at the Royal Court in 2009. But a significant moment in her life was watching Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz at her “nan and grandad’s” aged five, when she was captivated by the star’s performance. Her ability to be “emotionally intelligent” and “in the moment” are attributes Barden tries to copy. While at home in Yorkshire, she even has a Cairn terrier called Judy, who is the same breed as Toto in The Wizard of Oz.
Barden listened to a lot of The Mamas and the Papas, Jefferson Starship and Abba while filming season two of TEOTFW, because she is more influenced by music than watching movies. “There is always a moment in a song, where it’s like ‘oh this is it’,” she says. “It’s in the chorus or a note that they hit and you need to find that in a scene as well.”
Naturally, she has to keep her cards to her chest plot-wise about the new season of TEOTFW. But she reveals that Alyssa shows a “darker side” in the new series. “I play the same person at the beginning so that the audience will be able to recognise the character, but as the series goes on, I think that you do see a darker side to her, which is something that I was really excited about when I read [Charlie Covell’s] script,” she says. “Obviously the Alyssa that we know from the first series is a very outgoing person that always has something to say, and seemingly can articulate her feelings very well and was very resilient to the trauma she’s had ... of James being potentially removed from her life forever. How does this person that you think can survive anything come back from that? You know those people – it doesn’t mean they can survive everything.”
I wonder how similar she feels she is to her character of Alyssa in real life. “I’m outspoken and I process things in a similar way to her, but I’m not as rebellious,” she says. “I wouldn’t call somebody the C-word in a diner,” she says.
Whether she will ever escape the character of Alyssa is yet to be seen – but at least she knows that, right now, her fans are sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting to find out if Alyssa and James go on another road trip together.
The End of the F***ing World season two starts with a double bill on 4 November at 10pm on Channel 4
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