Jessica Barden Goes Big on "Every Single Emotion"
Despite just starting to recover from a cold that left her voice completely shot, Jessica Barden logs onto our Zoom call right at 9 am local time in Australia in good spirits, water bottle in hand, dressed in a purple and white tie-dye sweatshirt.
The 28-year-old English actress is currently braving the Australian winter (June and July are the coldest months down under, with temperatures dropping to high 40s Fahrenheit) to film Netflix's upcoming series Pieces of Her alongside Toni Collette, a project that sees her playing a concert pianist.
"I'm not a concert pianist," she deadpans after telling me about the lessons she has scheduled after our chat. "I film this next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Then, I'm going to cry with relief. I need it to be over. It consumes my every waking moment. I think it's possibly why I'm sick, honestly, because of the stress. I would walk outside and people would be like, 'Jess, you need a coat, it's raining.' And I'm like, [dramatically] 'I'm doing Bach in my head. Please leave me.' And now I'm sick."
"I've suffered for my art," she adds dryly.
Barden is immediately disarming and familiar, the kind of person who makes you feel like you've known her for years, even through a laptop screen. She speaks in refreshingly unapologetic paragraphs - upon being told her answers didn't actually have to be "quick fire" in response to our quick fire "small talk" questions, she quips, "they never are."
Barden's sense of humor and ability to make fun of herself won't come as any surprise to fans of The End of the F***ing World, in which an audience of millions discovered just how well she's cornered the market on playing complicated, sometimes abrasive young women. It's a career throughline she's aware of - the fact that many of her characters appear initially "unlikable," though she prefers to define them as "interesting."
She's also aware of the fact that, thanks to her youthful looks, she often plays characters who are younger than she is, though she doesn't see it as a drawback or an advantage.
"I don't think about it anymore in my life, I imagine that you're probably the same," she says as we bond over being petite women in our late 20s who often look younger than we are. (Barden and I are both 5'1".) "I don't really consider a character's age when I'm reading it. I get it, I do look very young. I mean, I'm 28 now, so I've just established that this is what I look like, so I don't think about it."
Something she does consider when it comes to roles, however, is the impact they may have on an audience, especially audiences she can relate to. In two of her most recent films, Holler and Pink Skies Ahead, Barden explores elements of her own life: her working class roots and her anxiety, respectively. She speaks passionately about wanting to inspire fellow working class people as well as those who have anxiety: "I want people to look at me and be like, 'Oh, she says she has an anxiety disorder,' but I want them to see all the things that I do, and I don't let it hold me back."
And acting isn't the only arena she's using to inspire - amid the pandemic lockdown last year, she began developing projects as a producer, a position she hopes to use to support other actors who may feel gatekept from the industry due to not having privileged upbringings and industry connections.
Read on as Barden discusses the vulnerability of portraying anxiety onscreen, the worst audition she's ever had, and why she's calling bullshit on the idea of "toughening up" to be an actress.
I saw you had written on Instagram in reference to your new movie, Holler, that your biggest passion is to inspire fellow working class people. Can you talk a little more about that?
I've been an actress for a long time and I don't meet a lot of people that have the same background as me. This is a generalization, but I think it's a fair one: In my opinion, and what I see from my friends and family, with a lot of working class people, you just stay where you grew up. There isn't really a huge amount of opportunities to go beyond what the place that you're born into. For working class people in England and in America, I don't think there's a huge difference. There's no encouragement for us to further our education, the world just doesn't seem as accessible.
It's complicated, and it's way more complicated than I can sum up in an interview. You are held back based on where you're born into, but you can overcome that, and that's what I want to advocate for.
Your character Ruth's path revolves around her going to college, which is something no one around her has done. Is that journey something you could relate to?
Yeah, because for a lot of working class people, you're the first person in your family to do anything. You have to be really brave, and that's a lot easier said than done. Being the first person in your family to do something is scary, because you can't relate to your family all of a sudden. That's what we see with Ruth in Holler. It's also what millions of people around the world have to do, but there's no movie for them. It's so important that we see ourselves in movies, everybody deserves to see their path, or what they want in a movie. It's how we have dreams, everybody needs to be inspired.
Your other recent film, Pink Skies Ahead, is about someone coming to understand her anxiety disorder. You've been outspoken about going through anxiety yourself, but was there a part of you that was nervous to portray that on screen?
Yeah, because it's a vulnerable thing and it's a weird thing to put out there. I mean, a panic attack is very personal. Also, everybody has a different kind of panic attack. No one should look at that, like, "Oh, that's not what mine looks like." Everybody's anxiety manifests in a different way. You're saying to people, "I have irrational fears." Which, who wants to have an irrational fear? It's okay to be like, "I'm afraid of spiders, or I'm afraid of fire." But if you're like, "I'm afraid of talking to people," it's a different thing. Especially doing this job and being in this industry, I don't want people to misconstrue that, because I can still do my job very well. In fact, it's never affected my job. I don't know why, but I think it's because I'm playing a different person.
At the beginning of your journey with a mental condition, it appears as a weakness, and you're so self-conscious of it looking like a weakness to other people. In time, you realize it's not, thankfully, but in my journey making this movie, I feel very comfortable being somebody that has anxiety. I'm not self-conscious about it, I don't feel sorry for myself about it. I feel very comfortable, and actually quite confident talking about it.
I want to be a good example to people that have anxiety. I want people to look at me and be like, "Oh, she says she has an anxiety disorder," but I want them to see all the things that I do, and I don't let it hold me back. I don't want to do interviews telling people about how much I struggle, because in time it's not a negative part of your life. That's the message that I want to put out. I think the movie does that as well.
Do you think you learned anything about your own anxiety while you were filming this?
Yeah, definitely. I learned that I don't have to go through it. At the start of making this movie, I was definitely like [my character] Winona, I just thought my anxiety was my personality, which is what anxiety does. It masquerades as a personality, and you think that that's the type of person that you are. Through working with [writer-director] Kelly [Oxford] and all the actors, because everybody had a connection to anxiety, I realized that, "Oh, you find a therapist and you work it out, and that's what you deserve to do."
Nobody deserves to live with an undiagnosed and an untreated mental health condition, because they're all extremely treatable. There's no version of anything where you're going to go to somebody, and they're going to be like, "Wow, that's just so bad. You're doomed for the rest of your life." It's normal, everybody will have an experience with anxiety or depression at some point in their life. And it's just another interesting part of being a person, our brains do insane things to us.
When The End Of The F***ing World came out, it was a huge phenomenon. You had millions of new followers overnight. Did that public exposure ever trigger your anxiety in any way?
I mean, I'm sure, but for me, when I look back, that experience was only positive. It really opened so many doors for me. That's such a new experience, not just famous, but becoming suddenly anything in your life, for anybody, is going to trigger some kind of anxiety, but that's life. Also, I'm very aware and I accept that my job makes me very emotionally sensitive to things.
There's a huge part of this industry where you're supposed to be tough, and you're supposed to have this tough skin. And you're told by people all the time that to be an actor, you have to have thick skin. I've never really bought into that, I've never accepted it and I don't want to have a tough skin. I want to be sensitive and I want to feel things. That's how I do my job. When something is happening to me for the first time, I feel every single emotion involved in it. That's why I do my job.
I don't want to be like an elephant. When your mum is like, "You have to have skin like an elephant," I'm like, "I'm not an elephant, I'm a person, I'm a woman, I want to be sensitive and I want to talk about my feelings, and I want to share them with people. I'm definitely not toughening up to be an actress." Do you know what I mean? I'm not doing that, no way. I would never change any part of the way that I am to do this job.
I've followed your career since Penny Dreadful, which I loved-
Oh, thank you, I loved that show as well. I was a fan of the show before I was in it. I was nervous going to set, I felt like a fangirl going in the first day.
Since then, I know you've said you enjoy playing unlikable characters, but I was wondering if you thought "unlikable" is a fair assessment of your characters, or if you think it's just what people tend to label complicated women?
I don't think that I am unlikable. [Laughs] That's not why I choose these people, it's exactly that, you've summed it up really well. That's what we call interesting people: complicated or messy or unlikeable. Look, I'm just the same as everyone else. I'm trying to play the most interesting role that I can find. I've just been lucky that I've been able to play them.
Yeah, likability is such a loaded term when it comes to women.
Well, I would love to play a role like that, but do you know, my immediate answer to somebody being very likable, to somebody being like, "I'm a likable person," is, "Psychopath." Or a narcissist. I would love to play a narcissistic character. I would love to play somebody who's like, "I'm extremely likable," because they sound like a lot of fun. I like to explore the parts of being a person that you don't want in yourself.
I've also read that you've gotten into producing recently. Are you starting a production company?
I don't have a production company, I never understand things like that. Basically through the pandemic, people were sending me books to read, and I was reading them and I was like, "Yeah, I like it." When I went into the development side of it, I really did it with no expectations. I'm very happy being an actress. I also enjoy the downtime that comes with being an actress. I figured it out and I don't have any demons about not doing anything. I'm happy with the way that my career is.
Also, a huge part of why I wanted to be a producer and why I responded to it so much, was because I realized that with everything I was saying about wanting to be this person that is going to inspire other working class actors, if I were a producer, I can make sure they get roles and auditions. So, as much as I want to have the best career I can have, I really do love the idea that I can find new talent and support that.
What did your childhood bedroom look like?
Tiny. It was called the "box room." It was purple. It had a bed in it, and it had a shelf and it honestly was the size of a cardboard box. I think that's why I'm small, because like a goldfish, I couldn't grow out of the tank that I was in.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Oh, Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. I was a '90s kid.
What was your last binge-watch?
Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Kim needs to be protected, I could cry watching her. I don't know if it's because I was sick, but I have never wanted to reach out and hug someone more than Kim Richards. She's just so vulnerable and I really want to meet her. She's so pure, she tries so hard, she's so open with her addictions and she's just such a special person.
What is your favorite item of clothing that you own?
My favorite item of clothing that I own is actually a Rachel Antonoff jacket I just got this spring. She's got a new collection out, and she does these designs where every single time you look at it, you'll see something else. It's covered in flowers, all different drawings on it, and it's multi-colored, you can just wear it with anything, and you get so many compliments on it.
Do you have a "worst audition" story you're comfortable with sharing?
I do, and I'm so comfortable with sharing it, because I lost the role to somebody who is really lovely. I'm not going to tell you what it is though, because I think people will make a big deal out of it. It was one of those processes - and every [actor] has a story like this - where you've auditioned a lot, and you keep being told that you're doing a really great job. Then I went to the final audition, and I heard the person before me, and they offered her the job in the room and I still had to go in and audition.
Of course, I walked in with the driest mouth ever, because I was like, "Why am I here?" I felt so just stupid. I wanted to call my mom and be like, "Can you come pick me up, please?" I had to do this audition with a reader who I had worked with before, this really nice man - I'd done a play with him. He was looking at me like, "I feel so sorry for you." And it made me want to cry more. They were also being so nice to me, but I just wanted to be like, "I know that you've just offered the role to somebody else." I left and immediately burst into tears. But that's the way it goes. That was a really bad day for me in my career. It was not great.
Did you ever watch the project after?
Yeah, and it went on for so many seasons and it was not right for me. It was an English show on ITV. The person they cast is so lovely and so well cast in it. I know for a fact if she knew there was an actress outside [while she was cast], she would have been mortified. Auditioning is soul destroying. Everybody has a story like that if you stay in it long enough, she will have a story like that as well. It's never about the other actor. You go through that when you're younger, where you hate the other person, and then you realize that it's not them. You're all in the same position.
Which role do people recognize you for most often?
Alyssa from The End Of The F***ing World. People will hear my voice and ask me if it's me. One time I was at the movies, watching a film, which is embarrassing, because I'm supposed to be quiet, and they still turned around and asked if I was Alyssa. I was like, [sheepishly] "Yeah, I'm sorry, I am."
If you weren't an actor, what would you see yourself doing?
I would like to be a therapist.
What do you wish more people knew about you?
That I'm really small. I don't know why I want that to be something that people know. Well, I think it's because when people then meet me, they comment on it, and I'm like, "Yeah, why don't you know that?" And also Alex [Lawther from The End of the F***ing World] is actually small as well. People think Alex is really tall, and he's not. Because he's so skinny and proportioned, he's got this lovely lithe body, people think he's six feet tall. He is absolutely not. He's 5'7".
I'm 5'1". When people meet me, they're like, "Whoa, you don't seem how I thought you would seem." I'm like, "What? Did you think that I was going to beat you up and swear at you?" Like, "No, I'm on this plane. I can't reach to put my bag up. Please, can you help me put my case in the stowaway? And then we can take a picture, just help me first?"
I love that you're blowing up Alex's spot as well.
Yeah, because people think that he's this model and I don't know, they're like, "Whoa, model Alex," and like, "No, he's not. He's 5'7"." Alex is just going to be like, [deep voice] "Why did you say that about me, Jess?" No, he won't, he won't even care. Also, it's weird though, because I don't walk around thinking that I'm small. My brothers are so tall, one of them is 6'4", and growing up with two brothers that are very tall, you can't have the mentality that you're a small person - you can't survive. So when people point it out to me, I'm like, "Yeah, don't go on about it. I'm trying to live like everyone else."
Photographs by Corrie Bond. Style by Samantha Sutton, assisted by Michael Azzollini. Hair Styling by Travis Balcke. Makeup by Liz Kelsh. Beauty Direction by Erin Lukas. Booking by Isabel Jones. Creative direction and production by Kelly Chiello.