Former Coronation Street star JESSICA BARDEN has carved out a career for herself playing tearaway teenagers – much to the consternation of her grandparents. And her new TV series is as edgy as it gets, she tells Kerry Potter.
Jessica Barden would make excellent company in the pub. She’s a straight-talking livewire, loves a whisky cocktail and is unable even to visit the loos without dancing her way across the room. The problem would be getting into the pub in the first place. With her heart-shaped face, wide blue eyes and delicate 5ft 2in frame, you could easily mistake the 25-year-old veteran child actor for an impish teen. A lot of people do – ‘Yes I am 25’ is her wry Instagram bio.
In fairness, it’s an easy mistake to make. In new Netflix/Channel 4 drama The End Of The F***ing World (TEOTFW), she’s utterly convincing as 17-year-old runaway Alyssa. Ditto playing the vibrant but helpless titular tearaway in Ellen, last year’s acclaimed, brutal Channel 4 drama about grooming. Back when she actually was a teen growing up in Wetherby, West Yorkshire, she earned her Coronation Street spurs playing naughty Kayleigh Morton. ‘I am always ID-ed at bars or when buying cigarettes and alcohol. I have to carry my passport around with me,’ she says. ‘People look at my ID and then me and go, “Whaaat?” They can’t believe I’m 25. I’m, like, “Yeah, I have no idea why I look like this either!”’
But underestimate or patronise Jessica at your peril. She’s whip-smart, ultra-ambitious and brutally honest. ‘I have no work lined up whatsoever,’ she declares when I ask about future projects, with the breezy confidence of someone who knows she won’t be twiddling her thumbs for long. She co-starred opposite Carey Mulligan in the 2015 film version of Far From the Madding Crowd, playing Bathsheba’s mischievous (there’s a theme here) servant Liddy. She encourages her lady to send a joke Valentine’s card, an act that has disastrous consequences. So is she a Thomas Hardy fan? ‘No! I read the book and found it boring,’ she giggles. ‘I can’t lie – I have one of those faces where you can tell. It’s expressive and lends itself to being cheeky. I always tell the truth even when I should probably tell a white lie.’
Based on Charles Forsman’s graphic novels, TEOTFW sees wild-child Alyssa, who has been pushed aside by her mum and stepdad in favour of their baby twins, embarking on a gloriously chaotic and criminal road trip in search of her absent father. In tow is her sort-of boyfriend James, a deeply awkward boy who thinks he may be a psychopath. It manages to be both cartoonishly violent and poignant; hyperreal but relatable.
Jessica understands where Alyssa is coming from. Her mother, who works in an accounts department, and her prison-officer father split up when she was 15. ‘I enjoy the fact that I’m representing something that I went through. Alyssa thinks she doesn’t fit into her family any more. So many people’s parents separate and for my generation it is very normal. But I remember feeling as though nobody ever spoke about it. You were never allowed to say, “It’s so hard, my dad is living in a different house now.” But as a kid you take it very personally when your parents divorce.’
Jessica’s father later remarried and these days she’s very close to her parents. She credits her love of performing and ‘showing off’ to her gregarious, movie- and music-obsessed father, a man who would randomly perform scenes from comedies in the supermarket (‘I didn’t find it embarrassing, I loved it’). Meanwhile, her mother deftly guided Jessica through the tricky early years of her career when she was working while her friends were living it up on holidays in Ibiza: ‘She told me I’d have to make sacrifices to pursue the thing I loved.’
Her TEOTFW love interest James is played by Alex Lawther, 22, who starred as the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and Tibby Schlegel in the recent BBC adaptation of Howard’s End ‘Alex and I are like brother and sister. We would bicker a lot because we spent so much time together, but there was an appreciation for each other,’ she says. ‘Alex keeps himself to himself, while I mess around with everyone. But the chemistry worked.’ Has she ever fallen in love at work? ‘Yeah, of course. I’m an actress!’ she laughs. ‘You fall in love with everybody. When you’re younger, you have a love interest and think, “This would be an amazing story. I hope we get married!” But it doesn’t work out. I have so much respect for actors who end up together because it’s so hard.’
The notion of trying to make a relationship work when you’re both working for long stretches on different film sets in different countries doesn’t appeal. For Jessica, work always comes first. ‘I’m obsessed with my career. I’m 25 – it shouldn’t really be any other way. I’ve had boyfriends in the past who haven’t understood that, but I didn’t lose any sleep over it. If a man has a problem with the fact I work 20 hours a day, I don’t have to explain myself.’ Jess is a proper old-school grafter, which, she says, put her at odds with some of her fellow millennials. ‘The problem with our generation is that we were raised in a world where you can get everything you want instantly, and our parents gave us everything. So people freak out about not having enough money and not owning houses. But you have to work really hard for it.’
Jessica recently started a relationship with a man she met while filming The New Romantic in Canada (she plays a journalist who explores the murky world of sugar babies, ie, female students who strike up relationships with wealthy older men to pay for their education). She doesn’t want to talk about him much because it’s so new, but says they will shortly embark on a real-life road trip from California to Nashville. He was a crew member on the movie, she says.
‘Most of my friends are crew, costume designers, make-up artists and directors rather than other actors. They’re more normal! If I was with other actors all the time, where would the normality be in my life? How could I then read a script and relate to someone like Alyssa or Ellen?’ It’s easy to believe your own hype once your career takes off, she says. ‘You see it all the time. That’s not what I want. I do natural performances and I want to make characters that people can relate to. I can’t do that if my life is ridiculous and I’m going to parties with Ed Sheeran!’
At the age of six and mad for musicals, Jessica won a part in a local theatre production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Next came roles in ITV’s children’s dramas, filmed in nearby Leeds, before she graduated to Corrie. By 14, she’d left school, instead studying for her GCSEs on set between filming scenes with Helen Worth (who played Gail Platt) and the late Anne Kirkbride (Deirdre Barlow).
‘Those two stick out as being really wonderful and caring. They’d seen so many young people come through the show and move on to other things.’ It wasn’t easy growing up on screen, though. ‘I got recognised all the time and I didn’t like it. When I started acting, I had acne and my face was just a blob. When I finished the show at 16, I looked very different and people on the street would say, “Oh, you’re pretty.” I’d be out with my friends and want the ground to swallow me.’
Post-Corrie she moved to London, alone, after winning a role in the acclaimed Jerusalem at the Royal Court opposite Mark Rylance, playing Pea, the tearaway teen acolyte to his dodgy drug dealer Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron. Was she daunted? ‘No, because it was exactly what I wanted to do. I was excited. On my first day with Mark we had to improvise and everyone was really shocked that I was giving as good as I got, saying cheeky things to him. But I don’t think it works when you’re acting with someone and you’re in awe of them.’
In 2010, she played a bawdy schoolgirl in Stephen Frears’ Brit-flick Tamara Drewe, alongside Gemma Arterton: ‘It was a hard time in my life. I was depressed and really struggling with my parents’ divorce. But I loved making that film – it was my escape from reality and it made me decide I really wanted to be an actress.’ She has also popped up in Hollywood adventure thriller Hanna, surreal indie The Lobster and TV horror drama Penny Dreadful.
Whatever Jessica is working on, it always has her total focus. For all her cheekiness, she takes her job very seriously. ‘As an actor, you’re treated like a child. You get picked up by a car, put in a room and people bring you food. You spend the entire day doing what you’re told, then there’s a car waiting to take you home. You don’t have to think about anything. But I made a decision a few years ago that I didn’t just want to show up [to work].
‘I get obsessed with something when I’m doing it. I think of myself as a filmmaker as well as an actor – I like to understand every part of the process. And I want to do this for the rest of my life. I want to be in films, plays and TV shows that actually affect people’s lives.’ Her grandparents, she says, sometimes find it hard to watch her grittier roles. ‘They get upset and say, “Why can’t you make a movie with a dog or be in a Christmas film?”’
Jessica prepares to head back to East London and the flat she shares with her two best friends from school. ‘I meet a lot of different people doing my job and I love having a wide group. I’m just glad to have any friends because I didn’t when I first moved to London. When I turned 18 I didn’t know enough people to have a party, so I just went out to dinner with my mum and grandma.’ Her friendship group is diverse in age, she says. ‘I’ve always been judged on my age so I don’t like to do it to other people. I have friends who are 60, 40 and 20.’ She pauses: ‘I’ve never made any sense really – I’ve always felt a lot older than I am, but looked a lot younger.’ Paradoxical maybe, but that old head/young shoulders combo will serve her very well.
The End Of The F***ing World will be on Netflix from 5 January
Styling: Holly Ounstead at Frank Agency. Hair: Fabio Noguiera at Frank Agency using Colorproof. Make-up: Marie Asadi using Lancome cosmetics and skincare. Producer: Ester Malloy