It doesn’t seem long ago that the 18-year-old Jessie Buckley was confidently strutting her stuff on Saturday night TV in the talent show I’d Do Anything, belting out The Man That Got Away as if Judy Garland had never existed.
Actually it was seven years ago and so much has happened to the girl from Killarney in the intervening years that she scarcely seems like the same person.
She is about to open in The Winter’s Tale, the second play in Kenneth Branagh’s year-long Garrick season in London, playing Perdita, the foundling, raised by a shepherd, blithely unaware of her royal heritage. It is not her first Shakespeare either. In 2013 she played Princess Katherine to Jude Law’s Henry V, and Miranda in The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe.
It all seems a long way from competing for the role of Nancy in Oliver! in front of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the viewing masses.
“I’d actually come to London to do some stage school auditions,” recalls Buckley. “I’d just been rejected by Guildford School of Acting and someone told me about auditions for this TV talent show. I was 17 when it started and I had no idea what I was getting into. It was a total whirlwind. Ignorance was definitely bliss because I loved every minute of it.”
Nobody who watched the series will forget Buckley singing The Man That Got Away with extraordinary assurance and maturity – watch it on YouTube if you missed it – and Lloyd Webber’s look of astonishment and delight.
“Those old songs are magic,” she says. “I knew about Judy Garland because I used to watch all her old films with my dad, but I didn’t know the song. Some songs just resonate with you.”
Growing up in Killarney, County Kerry, Buckley is the oldest of five siblings (the youngest is just nine) and says she was one of those kids who did everything – music, swimming, amateur theatre. “My mum is a singer and harpist, and my dad writes fantastic poetry, so we’ve grown up around a lot of words and music. There were always concerts and musical theatre.”
Was she upset when she came in second to Jodie Prenger in I’d Do Anything?
“Of course I was initially. It was hard. I’d lived in that world for so long, the dream seemed touchable. You’re surrounded by people who believe in you. But I’m a great believer in fate and I think it all happened for the right reasons. If I’d have won I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. Letting go of it was an important lesson for me.”
She has kept in touch with Lloyd Webber. “He’s the loveliest man. He has always given me lots of support, quietly and unobtrusively.”
Truth be told, there wasn’t much time for regrets. No sooner had I’d Do Anything finished than she was whisked off to do an intensive four-week Shakespeare course at RADA – “I didn’t realise it was possible to be so excited by Shakespeare” – followed by 13 months in A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London.
The taster course at RADA prompted Buckley to enrol in the three-year acting course, but not before she had completed a six-month residency at Annabel’s, singing jazz – “nobody listened, so I was able to try out a huge repertoire and make lots of mistakes” – followed by touring with her own band.
Because she had already achieved such a lot, some people close to her were surprised she opted for formal training, but she says it was the best decision she ever made. “I knew it was a risk but acting is something I want to do for the rest of my life. It was a way of gaining confidence, finding my voice and being stretched. When you’re surrounded by brilliant actors, and teachers who challenge you to go beyond what you thought you were capable of, that’s got to be good for you.
“I absolutely adore singing, and I hope I’ll always be able to sing, but you can grow more and challenge yourself more as an actor. I’m someone who needs to find ways of being out of my depth.”
Buckley is immensely charming and likeable, but as with many 20-somethings the pendulum swings between wild ambition and even wilder insecurity. She admits to being “hopelessly nervous” – even of being interviewed by The Stage – and intimidated by the whole London theatre scene. “I’ve met the most amazing people and made some wonderful friends, but there are lots of things that can tilt you away from who you really are. I’ve always been happy in my own company, but I do miss my family in Ireland. They keep me honest and grounded.”
Playing opposite Jude Law in Henry V was both terrifying and inspirational, she recalls. “The night before we started rehearsals I hardly slept for worrying that they’d find me out and say I was much too pikey to be Jude Law’s love interest. I kept thinking, how will I ever get to the point where I can stop shaking and make him fall in love with my character? But he was wonderful, a hard worker and a true leader. I really admire the way he has managed to stay grounded and true to who he is despite everything that’s happened to him.”
As well as being another great opportunity, she “absolutely loved” the role of Constance in Jonathan Church’s revival of Amadeus in Chichester last year. “One of the great things about this job is you get to learn new stuff all the time. All of a sudden I was surrounded by the music of Mozart for five months of my life, which was just amazing.”
Working with Kenneth Branagh’s company has been another steep learning curve for Buckley and she is clearly thriving in the family-like environment Branagh manages to create out of his ensembles. As well as Perdita, she will also be appearing in Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, in the role of Muriel.
There should also be a significant raising, or reinvention, of the Jessie Buckley TV profile next year when she appears as Princess Marya Bolkonskaya in a lavish new BBC adaptation of War and Peace, opposite Jim Broadbent as her overbearing father. She describes her character as “really gentle, like a little porcelain vase, not at all like me”.
The future certainly looks bright for the multi-talented Buckley. “I want to do it all – drama, films, musicals, cabaret,” she says, adding the rider, “going to LA for the sake of it doesn’t interest me unless I get an offer I can’t refuse. I’m not afraid of hard work. I know I still have a lot to learn but I just want to keep doing work that pushes me to the limits.”
The Winter’s Tale begins previews at the Garrick Theatre, London, on October 17