“I worked my ass off get that accent!” says Jessie Buckley, laughing, when asked if it was hard for her to pull off the Glaswegian accent for her character in the new musical drama Wild Rose.
“It was so crucial to the whole story of her identity and her running away from who she was, only to realize that who she was and where’s she from were the most powerful things about what she wanted to sing.”
You wouldn’t know it from watching her film work, but Buckley is—as she claims people sometimes say to her—“really bloody Irish.” Born in southwest Ireland (County Kerry) and the oldest of five children, Buckley has been singing and acting her whole life. She even finished second in the 2008 BBC talent show I’d Do Anything (which was judged by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber), where contestants competed for a role in a West End revival of the musical Oliver! A flurry of British TV and stage work followed, and it’s all culminating now with lauded starring roles in two films that have earned raves on the festival circuit.
First came Michael Pearce’s acclaimed thriller Beast, which premiered in the Toronto International Film Festival’s prestigious Platform competition in 2017. In what Variety called a “remarkable lead performance,” Buckley played Moll, an emotionally troubled young woman sheltered on the small island of Jersey by her overbearing mother. That is, until she falls madly in love with a new rebel in town—someone the towns-folk believe may actually be a serial killer. It was a role about as far removed from the grandly performative traditions of musical theater as possible, relying instead on a painfully quiet and internalized longing.
But just as Buckley’s history as a singer probably didn’t prepare anyone for her tensely reserved turn in Beast, those who only know her from that film certainly won’t be ready for her explosive, show-stopping performance in Tom Harper’s new film Wild Rose. There Buckley plays Rose-Lynn, a young woman in Glasgow trying to overcome her history of bad choices—and a recent prison stint—and get to Nashville to live her dream of being a country singer.
Buckley confesses she “really had no relationship to country music whatsoever before jumping into this film. I hadn’t heard the good stuff.” Don’t worry, though; Wild Rose is filled with the good stuff, and it was all recorded live on set. Included are covers of well-known songs made famous by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt, and striking original songs written for the film (such as the climactic track “Glasgow,” which sounds right at home amid the other classics). In the film, Rose-Lynn has a tattoo on her forearm that says “Three chords and the truth,” which describes her relationship to the music that sustains her. “At the core of country music are the stories and the lyrics,” says Buckley. “And you kind of have to let yourself alone. Once you find the characters within the lyrics, the music speaks for itself.”
Buckley’s taste in film is as diverse as the roles she’s taking. She adores Judy Garland and her earliest movie memory is her dad showing her the Vincente Minnelli classic, Meet Me in St. Louis. That film introduction will come full circle later this year when Buckley co-stars in the upcoming Judy, a Judy Garland biopic starring Renée Zellweger in the titular role. Meanwhile, Buckley enjoys learning more about film history. Her favorite recent discovery is the legendary 1954 Federico Fellini film, La Strada, which she was introduced to by Wild Rose cinematographer George Steel and has already watched several times. In a way, these past and present favorites perfectly describe and account for the stunning performance Buckley gives in Wild Rose, which balances the immediate, a-star-is-born talent of classic Judy Garland with the internalized world-weary melancholy of Giulietta Masina in her Fellini collaborations of the 1950s. But Buckley also loves contemporary cinema. When asked about the most recent time another actor really blew her away, she immediately cited Joaquin Phoenix’s visceral turn in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, and she also named Ramsay as the director she’d most like to work with.
Beast and Wild Rose have started a trend in Buckley playing emotionally beaten-down characters that have a burning passion inside of them just begging for an outlet. But does that describe Buckley herself? “When I’m reading a script, I never really look at a character and go, ‘Oh great, thank God, that’s me,’ ” she says. “I’m always considering the way a character looks at the world differently. I like the ordinary people and the outcasts and the ones whose stories aren’t often told. But I always want to come away with half the character, and I hope the character comes away with half of me.” MM
Wild Rose opened in theaters June 14, 2019, courtesy of NEON. Featured image: Picking A Rose: Playing guitar-pickin’ country singer Rose-Lynn in Wild Rose is one of star Jessie Buckley’s many strong early career choices. Courtesy of NEON. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2019 issue.