“I have had a massive meander in my life,” Jessie Buckley says. The Irish actress, 28, is sitting in a booth at the Ace Hotel here, preparing to head to the set of “Judy,” which she’s shooting alongside Renée Zellweger. “I quite enjoy the meander,” she adds. “There’s so much that’s there to explore and have an adventure with.”
Buckley got her start in theater, doing everything from musicals to Shakespeare, and had a jazz singing career for several years in London before being cast as Marya Bolkonskaya in the 2016 miniseries “War & Peace.” Since then, the actress appeared in FX’s “Taboo” and shot several upcoming TV series and films, including a BBC adaptation of “The Woman In White” and “The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle” (in which she portrays Queen Victoria opposite Robert Downey Jr. as the title character).
In the midst of all that, Buckley spent five weeks shooting a small indie film called “Beast,” written and directed by first-time filmmaker Michael Pearce. The picture had its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and is now playing in limited release. It was Buckley’s first feature as well, and she immersed herself whole-heartedly into the story, which follows a troubled girl who lives on the island of Jersey.
“I got the script and got 20 pages in and I was like ‘Oh, my God,’” Buckley recounts. “I just had a really big gut reaction to her. I felt a massive connection to her within 20 pages. There was something really fresh. I’d never really quite read anything like that before.”
Pearce, who spent seven years developing the script, grew up on Jersey, a secluded British island in the English Channel. He wanted to create a story that explored the landscape of Jersey and reflected on the isolation of its small community. “Beast” is both about Buckley’s Moll, a character trapped by the circumstances of her oppressive home life, and about a serial killer who has been murdering young women across the island. Moll’s love affair with Pascal (Johnny Flynn) awakens something inside her, even as she knows he might be the killer.
“The perspective [in crime films] is always either the killer or it’s the detective — or both,” Pearce says. “What you don’t see as much is the people who are on the periphery of these stories. A woman that might be involved with one of these guys. That’s actually quite an epic emotional journey. I had this sense early on that it had the template of a fairy tale — this seemingly innocent girl trapped in a family who goes out into the woods and meets a character who might be Prince Charming or who might be the Big Bad Wolf.”
The film is gritty, visceral and emotionally commanding, led by Buckley’s evocative performance. Pearce cast the actress after a large search and was deeply struck by her audition. The director felt like Buckley was “the type of person Moll could have been under different circumstances,” a sense that underlies her scenes throughout the movie.
“It was intense, but it wasn’t heavy,” Buckley shrugs. “It’s an intense and heavy topic and context, but you get so much energy from doing that. Especially to play Moll, who starts numb. She’s in a weird purgatory place in the beginning of the film, but you feel there’s something simmering underneath. From that, you know she’s never going to go back to where she is at the beginning. It’s kind of a coming of womanhood, in a weird, feral, animalistic way.” She adds, “When you get a chance to play someone like that, it’s so much fun. And she really is empowering. I felt really enlivened by her.”
Although “Beast” was shot two years ago, there is something distinctly relevant about a film that showcases a woman coming into her own and who refuses to be tampered down by male violence. She’s not a victim, even when she’s at the mercy of those around her. Buckley found Moll truly inspiring, particularly as she is a complex, immensely flawed female character, one unlike those we typically see on-screen.
“I loved her bravery to live a life — or at least fight for a life — that was removed from a sheen and expectation,” the actress notes. “She dances with the fire. You feel like, at the end, that she’s never going to be that numb ever again. Something has been awoken in her that is incredibly powerful. I think we should have more of that in storytelling. For women — and for men as well.
“The archetype of male hero is so boring. And the pretty, boobed woman is so … boring.” She laughs. “Thank God I will never play that. I’m quite glad about having a few craggy edges to myself.”
Next up, Buckley has “Judy,” in which Zellweger plays Hollywood legend Judy Garland and Buckley is Garland’s assistant Rosalyn Wilder, a very different type of complex woman. The actress, who says making “Beast” was how she “always dreamt it would feel” to craft a movie, wants to investigate the inner workings of characters who aren’t totally glossed over.
“You can play women who have a face on or who zip something up, but you have to dig deeper to actually find the humanity and real aspects,” she says. “The things people are ashamed of come through in whatever their outerwear is. I suppose I am always looking for that, even if it’s somebody who on the outside seems to be perfect.” She grins and adds, “But I hate perfection.”