The Irish actress Jessie Buckley grew up in County Kerry and lives in London but she’s lately been traveling so much that she gives her present address as Heathrow Airport and New York’s JFK. But regardless of her physical location, her mental state is much the same.
“I live in a lot of disbelief at the moment,” says Buckley, chuckling.
The 29-year-old, Killarney-born, bright red-haired actress has quickly found herself among the prominent rising stars in film and television thanks to a string of performances that have culminated in a breakthrough. In Wild Rose, Buckley stars as a fiery, working-class Glasgow single mother, just out of prison, who dreams of becoming a country music star. The character, Rose-Lynn, and Buckley, have the pipes to back it up.
“Honestly, I can’t believe it,” Buckley said in an interview on her most recent trans-Atlantic trip, to tape an appearance on “The Colbert Report.” “I never in a million years thought I would make a movie. That didn’t belong to a girl in Kerry. That was something else.”
Wild Rose, which opens in select theaters Friday (June 21), is a star-making film about wanting to be a star that both dovetails and diverts from Buckley’s own story. Rose-Lynn is coarse and hardscrabble but when she sings — the soundtrack is littered with renditions of Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and John Prine — it’s transcendent. After overhearing her singing while vacuuming, her employer (Sophie Okonedo) wants to help her get to Nashville. But Wild Rose has its own twists on the A Star Is Born myth; it’s about balancing a dream with the responsibilities of life and family.
In her quest for fame, Rose-Lynn derides trying out for a talent show (“That’s for folk who have a curry on a Saturday night,” she says), yet one played a major role in Buckley’s life. In 2008, at age 18, Buckley walked into an audition for the BBC’s I’d Do Anything, right after she had been rejected by a drama school. The winner would get a role in a West End production of Oliver! Buckley didn’t win, but her performances captivated the judges. Andrew Lloyd Webber said she possessed “the sacred flame of star quality.”
“I look back on the girl who did that,” Buckley recalls. “I was so ignorant and innocent and just completely raw in that experience. I was just so excited and hungry to be part of a world that I thought would take at least, like, 30 years of hard auditions and people telling you ‘You’re not good enough’ or ‘You’re hair’s too curly’ or ‘You look like Hagrid’s love child.’”
After the show, the theater producer Cameron Mackintosh invited Buckley to a Shakespeare workshop. She continued studying classical acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Words came to the fore; music receded. “I kind of lost my nerve with singing quite a lot while I was there,” says Buckley, whose mother is a harpist and singer. “I didn’t really know what singing was to me until this film came my way.”
Several of Buckley’s first big roles came on the stage: The Tempest at the Globe; Kenneth Branaugh’s The Winter’s Tale; opposite Jude Law in Henry V; A Little Night Music in the West End. She co-starred in the 2016 BBC series War and Peace, which Tom Harper directed. When Harper later came across Nicole Taylor’s script for Wild Rose, he sent it straight to Buckley.
The actress immediately responded to it, envisioning Rose-Lynn’s battle as a kind of prison break film. “She was just so enigmatic and tenacious and foibled and feckless and passionate and terrified of herself and terrified of the power of what she was feeling,” she says. “It was like this tornado inside of her and the only place she knew where to put it was in song.”
Taylor was channeling some of herself in the film. The screenwriter had been a country music fan in Glasgow (which boasts its own, boozier Grand Ole Opry) since she, at 13, was bowled over by a CMA performance by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Yet finding someone who could sing country and do a believable Scottish accent could have proved impossible. But when Taylor first met Buckley, she says she was “radiating something.”
“The first line I ever wrote about this character is that ‘She’s thrilling alive, more alive than you.’ When I sat down in this cafe, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s her.’ She just has this electricity humming through her,” Taylor said by phone from London.
For someone legitimately shape-shifting, Buckley is remarkably herself in person. She speaks liltingly and eloquently out of the side of her mouth and is rarely more than a minute away from a hearty guffaw, often at her own expense. The star quality Webber recognized a decade ago is abundantly evident, but such stars rarely come so down-to-earth and natural.
“What you see is what you get,” said Taylor. “As unbelievably talented as she is, there’s nothing intimidating about her because she’s so real and such a laugh.”
Filmmakers have noticed. Buckley, who last year starred in the acclaimed psychological thriller Beast, co-stars opposite Renee Zellweger in the upcoming Judy Garland drama Judy; she’s part of Stephen Gaghan’s The Voyage of Doctor Doolittle, with Robert Downey Jr.; in the spy thriller Ironark, she co-stars with Benedict Cumberbatch; and she recently finished shooting Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking About Ending Things.
“Someone’s going to find me out one of these days and send me on my merry way,” she says. Buckley is also in HBO’s Chernobyl, playing Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of a firefighter exposed to radiation. The success of the show — like that of her own — has caught Buckley off guard. “In a world where we live in sensationalism and Marvel-land and escapist film, it’s amazing that people will also respond to a tragic, realistic drama,” she says.
Wild Rose has had its own second life. Even though Buckley was previously no country listener (“I thought it was a bit hick, to be honest,” she says), she’s become an ardent fan. She and musicians from the film have off-and-on been touring the film’s music, including a song co-written by Mary Steenburgen: “Glasgow (No Place Like Home).” She’s opened for Kris Kristofferson; next week, she’s performing at the Glastonbury Festival.
Like Buckley, Rose-Lynn has found an audience.
“She learns to fall in love with who she is and falls in love with the people in her life and, in turn, the love for her passion for her music and for her storytelling in song becomes bigger and more powerful,” says Buckley. “Maybe you need to pierce the size of yourself in order to figure that out.”