I'm Thinking of Ending Things is Jessie Buckley's weirdest role yet
The Irish BAFTA nominee spent lockdown anticipating the release of her strangest, and most exciting role yet: in Charlie Kaufman’s twisted and anticipated new psycho-thriller.
Image courtesy of Netflix
“Today is fine”, Jessie Buckley says when we ask how she’s feeling. “That's what I feel like in the world at the moment,” she clarifies. “2020. The year of today.”
Soon, the actor, known for her performances in Chernobyl, Judy and the Scottish musical Wild Rose, will get back to work for the first time since March. She is Irish -- proudly so -- and based in London, but is answering our call from a hotel room in Chicago, where she’s back in town to wrap up her work on season four of Fargo before it airs later this month. Right now, she’s isolating for two weeks before things get started. She compares this return to a set like putting on a spacesuit. “You're making sure there's no tear in it,” she says in her distinct (and, on screen, underused) Irish accent, cautious of the complications of being launched back into a volatile situation surrounded by lots of people in the midst of a pandemic. “But yeah, I've missed the family of it. I'm excited to be working again and see people that I love.”
Though the past nine months must have been particularly unpredictable for Jessie — starting off the year with a Best Actress BAFTA nomination for her turn Wild Rose, followed by the release of a beauty queen comedy Misbehaviour, followed by, you know, a pandemic — everything hit at a particularly strange time. She’s spent months mulling over a film that could help her graduate into a new cinematic realm; one actors often dream of. Her next cinematic project is the central role in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the new film from America’s arthouse oddity, Charlie Kaufman.
In the film, which is based on a successful book of the same name, Jessie plays a character known only as Young Woman. We meet her midway through a car journey with a man named Jake (played by Jesse Plemons) who she is dating. They are going to meet his parents for the first time. It’s snowing heavily and the journey is being narrated by her internal monologue; parts of which Jake seems to be hearing. As per the title, she is thinking about calling their relationship off. “Jake is a nice guy but... it’s not going anywhere, I’ve known this for a while now,” she says, gazing out the passenger seat window. “Maybe it’s human nature to keep going in the face of this knowledge.”
Hostility and strangeness bleeds into every corner of Charlie Kaufman’s frames here. Bleakness and despondency looms over it. It’s purposely designed, in many ways, to disorient you. And that’s for good reason: as the film unfolds, we meet people — Jake’s parents (played by Toni Colette and David Thewlis), truck stop dessert store workers, janitors — that feel more like totems than real people. Everything feels off.
Jessie’s Young Woman encircles them, emotionally prodding them at points, trying to get to the heart of who they might really be. But there’s a fascinating distance always marked out in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Parts of it don’t make sense on first watch, which we think might be part of the point it’s making. Having read its script several times over and seen the finished product twice, Jessie is still putting together its many pieces.
When she was presented with the script and asked to self tape — at this point having gone home for Christmas to Ireland to “to get my Christmas jingle on”, she had 12 hours to get through it and send her audition tape back. She learned the opening monologue, and an exchange with a janitor later in the film. The day she recorded it, she woke up at six in the morning and paced up and down Dublin pier in preparation. The direction Charlie gave her was simple: her character was to be “molecular”. “It was one of the best and ethereal and unique pieces of direction I ever got,” she says. “I don't know what that fully means even now, but it was an essence of something, which was super interesting to try and unravel… but that was the whole experience. It was like abstract chaos atom bombs being thrown in [to see] whether it ignites something.”
“It's very rare that you get to paint with a different brush,” she adds. “It's like being a portrait artist all your life, and then being told that you can paint abstract if you want, and to go for it. I probably won't ever have an experience like that again.”
Having started out in theatre before pivoting to television in the mid 2010s, Jessie has spent much of her career flitting from dark indie dramas, like 2017’s throttling serial killer romance Beast, to big budget biopics, like last year’s Judy Garland film opposite Renee Zelwegger. She tends to take these roles in turns: one lighter, warmer fare before delving into a darker subject matter, and repeat. “I guess I get a bit bored, and don't want to settle,” she says of her desire to constantly cross that line. “There's too many things I want to explore and experience, and there are so many colours in a [character] that are exciting. And most of the time, anyway, you want to read something and get a shock.” Does she worry about the age old tradition of being a typecast woman working mainly in British film? She responds, thoroughly but hurriedly: “No, I don't really. I don't really bother myself thinking about that. Yeah. No, I don't. I don't.”
She doesn’t worry either about people’s tendency to frame her as British, despite her Irish heritage. It’s something that’s common for Celtic talent when they’re doing well. The media widely framed Paul Mescal’s Emmy nomination for Normal People as a success for British television despite the show -- and his -- proud Irish background. “I know in my heart, and I know in reality, that I am incredibly Irish!” she laughs. She’s even dyed her hair a brighter shade of red to signify it, jovially calling herself, with a French accent, a “_faux ginge_”.
It’s a common trait for Celtic folk the more time they spend away from home; traits of their heritage diluted by whatever culture they’re surrounded by. Jessie has, by now, shot enough projects Stateside, and traveled further afield, to feel that effect. But she’s grateful. “I just feel like a gypsy most of the time,” she says, “a kind of vagabond-y, gypsy kind of woman. But I love that part of it as well. It's fantastic to be able to dip your toes into different cultures and meet beautiful people from all over the world.” She takes a pause. “It's lonely sometimes, too. It's hard being away from family, or loved ones, but it's a joy, and I wouldn't change any of it for the world.”
For now, Jessie’s professional life is getting started again. Her summer was meant to be spent in London’s National Theatre, opposite God’s Own Country and The Crown star Josh O’Connor in a production of Romeo and Juliet, the idea of which sounded “really thrilling” to her. Of course, it’s off the cards now, “but who knows?” she says, “Maybe we'll do it again at some point, when the world opens up again.”
And that’s the stage at which Jessie Buckley is at now: ready and waiting, raring to go. Getting back out into an industry that’s blessed, and excited, to be in her tender presence.