Partners in crime

Jessica Barden talks The End of the F***ing World as the hit show returns
By Alex James Taylor | Film+TV | 10 October 2019
Photography Fabien Kruszelnicki

Getaway schemes invariably have complications. Take Alyssa for example, Jessica Barden’s character in last year’s hit series, The End of the Fucking World. On the face of it, escaping the mundanities of rural suburbia with her runaway partner-in-crime James sounds like bliss. However, what she didn’t see coming was: A) James hiding a fat knife down his sock that he planned to kill her with and; B) They’d end up on a wild adventure of Bonnie and Clyde proportions – only swap the 30s Ford Deluxe for an Opel Monza with The Spencer Davis Group on repeat.

Barden’s own story begins in a similarly small-town setting, yet so far – touch wood – has been a much smoother ride. Growing up in Wetherby, West Yorkshire, the 26-year-old forged her own escape through a love of acting. Having picked up the craft while taking part in an after-school class at the local working men’s club, a series of bit-part TV roles followed before The End of the Fucking World came along and changed everything. Marking the announcement that season two is returning next month (can’t wait!), here we revisit our HEROINE 10 interview with Barden.


Alex James Taylor: I’m from just down the road from where you grew up in Wetherby, Yorkshire, so I know the landscape and mentality of the county: that small-town sense of adventure; it’s much like the setting your character Alyssa is fleeing in The End of the Fucking World. What was your experience growing up there?
Jessica Barden: Absolutely. I grew up in Wetherby, which is a really small town. The main thing I remember about growing up there was that it was definitely a place where you played out, I’d spend all my time outside. I’m the oldest but have two brothers, so we were always messing around and exploring. There’s also an old railway line that runs all the way through Wetherby that doesn’t have a track on it anymore, so you can walk down it and we’d always make dens there. There was always a rope swing or something that someone had made that we’d play with. I don’t really remember ever being bored, but I definitely knew that I didn’t want to stay because it’s the sort of place people get sucked into. I moved away at sixteen because I just couldn’t pursue my work there.

Alex: It’s one of those places where, as a kid, you just wander in the fields and make your own fun.
Jessica: Exactly, the town is so tiny, you know someone on every single street – like, all my family lives there. We used to go swimming in the river and do all those kinds of outdoor games.

Alex: It’s like Swiss Family Robinson.
Jessica: [both laugh] Until I was like fourteen, we’d go and make fires. It wasn’t like I was a tomboy or anything, it was just normal to do things like that. I feel like I grew up completely differently to all my friends from London, even the ones who grew up in South West, in Teddington or Richmond, because they didn’t play out the same way we did, and they’d go to school on the tube, whereas I walked miles to school every day – it instils a sense of adventure in you. I also didn’t realise until I moved to London that I had an accent, or anything really about the class system because in a small town like Wetherby everyone is very similar.

Alex: That’s true, you’re sort of in this little bubble where everyone is on the same level so you aren’t as exposed to all the different measures of society. What were you like in school?
Jessica: I didn’t really like school. I liked learning and I still do, but I didn’t ever really want to go with the regimented side of school. I always knew what I wanted to do, so my focus was on acting from an early age and there were things I had to do at school that I just wasn’t interested in. I was already acting in little plays outside of school and was an extra in kids’ TV shows. I was doing that from about eight-years-old, so school sort of faded into the background of my mind. I was a very determined child, I knew that I wanted to do something different and nobody was going to get in the way of that.

Alex: When you have that focus everything else comes second.
Jessica: Exactly, I don’t think people really believed that I was going to become an actor, but my parents were great, they never did that whole, “You have to have a back- up plan” thing, they were like, “OK cool, it’s what you want to do so you’ll go do it and we’ll support you all the way.” I did my GCSE’s but I was also schooled on sets from about twelve onwards, I’d go into school every now and again but I had my tutor and got a really good education. Whenever I work with younger actors who are deciding between acting and education I’m the worst person because I’ll always be like, “If it’s what you want to do you have to keep going, forget everything else.” I think the education system can sometimes urge you down routes that you may not want to go down, I suppose it’s just what has become the norm. I think it can actually be detrimental to young people who really don’t want to go in that direction.

Alex: How did you get into acting in the first place?
Jessica: Somebody came into my school and they were putting on a performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Yorkshire Playhouse and needed to cast kids in it. So if you wanted a part you went and auditioned, I auditioned with my friends and ended up getting a role. I did a few more musicals for that company and then I was just an extra in kids’ TV shows and worked my way up.

Alex: I read that you got the script for The End of the Fucking World six years previous to the series coming out, why did it take so long?
Jessica: We first did a short film of it when I was like twenty, but that was never released. It was initially going to be a film, but then everybody stopped making films and it just took that many years for it to get going because of different complications. The short film was made to prove that we wanted to do something bigger with it. I actually had to re-audition each year.

Alex: When you have a script for that long, is it hard not to keep changing your idea of the character over time?
Jessica: Not really as I never really believed that it was ever going to get made. Also, when you read those scripts, especially because we only had one episode for so long – the short film was the same as the first episode of the series – we didn’t have anything else until about six months before we shot the actual series.

Alex: What did you think of the script when you got it – particularly Alyssa’s character?
Jessica: I definitely didn’t realise that it’d be this thing people find so relatable. I didn’t think that it’d be something where our generation was like, “Oh my god, this is what I feel like.” All the parts of the show that people have gone on to reference or take particular note of, we didn’t really notice while filming, to be honest. That’s only because of Charlie [Covell, the show’s writer], what she does with the scripts, how she writes and the tone and rhythm of it all, nothing stands out, it’s so continuous and flows perfectly. That’s the brilliance of it. After filming, when we watched it back, the biggest headfuck was the scene where she tells the guy she doesn’t want to have sex with him, because I was like, “Yo, why did that not feel like a thing when we were filming it?” I didn’t realise that nobody had really done this kind of thing on TV before. It’s the most obvious thing ever.

Alex: I guess that just shows how well written it is for this particular generation. It’s such a perfect series, when they announced a second season I was excited, but also a bit worried that it might not live up to the first one [laughs].
Jessica: It’s nothing at all like the first season, you don’t need to worry [laughs].

” I didn’t think that it’d be something where our generation was like, “Oh my god, this is what I feel like.”

Alex: I’ll trust you. Did you read Charles Forsman’s comic before filming?
Jessica: Yeah, we knew Chuck for years, he’s completely self-published and just made them himself without realising where it would end up. I think Jonathan [Entwistle, series creator] found the comic originally and emailed Chuck asking if he could adapt it into a short film but he didn’t finish writing it for a few years so they had to wait for that before adapting scripts from them. There’s a lot of stuff in the comics that isn’t in the show.

Alex: And the comic is set in the US, right? It’s a real skill to transfer a story like that to a UK setting along with the dry British humour that runs through the show.
Jessica: Yeah, Charlie did a really great job with it. But it transcends country, that feeling of being in the middle of nowhere and needing to escape – anybody can feel that.

Alex: It ties back to what you were saying about your own childhood and that need to go bigger.
Jessica: Yeah, that whole feeling of wanting to do something that changes your life.

Alex: How was it meeting Alex Lawther for the first time? You two have such a great on-screen relationship.
Jessica: We actually met each other in LA, we ended up having to do a screen test for the show there because we were both in town at the same time. We didn’t really know anybody else so we just hung out for a week. But again, we didn’t actually realise that it was going to turn into anything, the show was like a joke with people’s agents because it was going to be filmed and then it wasn’t, I don’t think anybody believed that it was going to be made. We’re really different people but I love and respect him so much as a person and actor, I love working with him.

Alex: A lot of these huge hit TV shows start out like that, just being something that might happen, might not, nothing major until it blows up. Stranger Things was a bit like that too.
Jessica: I think that if you set out to make something different and original, you have to have that attitude of, “It is what it is, I’ll make it this way and we’ll see how people react.” You can’t put too much pressure on it. We didn’t even know that anybody was going to watch it, or when it was even coming out.

Alex: So what was it like when people did start to watch it and you saw the reaction?
Jessica: That really only happened when it went on Netflix [the show was aired on Channel 4 before being picked up by Netflix] and then it was very quick. I mean, to me it felt like a 24-hour thing. It kind of went on Channel 4 and did exactly what we thought it’d do, it was reviewed well and people liked it but it wasn’t like, a ‘thing’. Then pretty much as soon as it went on Netflix it felt like it blew up within hours. It was weird because it was something that you obviously wanted for the show but also for your own career, but when it happened it ’s like, “Wait, what the fuck am I supposed to do with this?” Last year was fun, I enjoyed all of it. I got to travel a lot, read so many scripts I wouldn’t have been sent before, met so many new people, it completely changed my career and my life. That’s something I never thought I’d say, that my career changed my life, but it absolutely did.

Alex: It’s funny how immediate something like that is, how quickly it can change everything. I also loved the show’s soundtrack, that scene where you walk out the store and Voilà by Françoise Hardy starts to play.
Jessica: Yeah, they worked really hard on the soundtrack. Charlie wrote all the songs into the script so you could listen to them as you read, but we couldn’t afford a lot of them so they actually had to find replacements.

Alex: I had Keep on Runnin’ in my head for weeks after watching the series [laughs]. You did a Harold Pinter play recently, how was that?
Jessica: It was made up of different one-act plays – some of them are collections of different monologues, but ours was play-interval-play. I was in Night School, which was originally a radio play and wasn’t actually meant to be performed on stage. It was challenging, I’m not sure that I really enjoyed being in it, but I did enjoy being a part of the production, I loved all the actors and working with the director and being in a Jamie Lloyd production. I just didn’t enjoy the script or the role, I found it really difficult because I feel like his plays are massively interesting for men to be in but… I’m so glad I did it, but I’m honest about it, I didn’t enjoy the play and I didn’t enjoy the character. I found it really hard being in something where, as a woman, I wasn’t proud of the character that I was playing. If he was alive I would’ve said that to him.

“…[TEOTFW] was like a joke with people’s agents because it was going to be filmed and then it wasn’t, I don’t think anybody believed that it was going to be made.”

Alex: Who was your character?
Jessica: I played a girl called Sally – you had no idea what her job was and she’s in this existential crisis all the time.

Alex: So no real background or depth.
Jessica: Yeah, and someone said to me that a lot of his characters aren’t whole characters, but that’s what I enjoy the most, making a person. Mainly I just found the role at times terrifically humiliating, as a woman. You’re kind of like a joke, I felt like my character was a joke. If you’re doing a play and it’s a comedy and people are laughing, after about five weeks you feel like you’re being laughed at, even though you’re not. I found it really hard not to turn to the audience and be like, “I don’t actually agree with any of this.” The director was amazing though and was extremely supportive, I’m purely talking about me and what I want from my career and the roles I want to play. I just wanted to speak to the audience and be like, “Let’s have a conversation about this.”

Alex: That’d actually be an amazing way of opening up a dialogue about the characters and storyline.
Jessica: Believe me, at times when people were really laughing I did really want to be like, “But do you actually understand that you’re laughing at my role right now and she hasn’t done anything wrong?”

Alex: It’s refreshing to hear an actor say that, you aren’t going to like every role or every character and it’s good to be open about these things.
Jessica: I was tremendously grateful for the opportunity, especially the experience of being in something where I was like, “I don’t really enjoy this,” and then having to go on- stage and do it. It taught me a lot.

jacket from Beyond Retro

Alex: And then you filmed Jungleland with Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell.
Jessica: I did that last summer, it was great. I loved working with the cast and the director Max Winkler, he’s wonderful. He’s very sensitive and great with actors.

Alex: It’s about a bare-knuckle boxer and his brother who pick you up on their way somewhere…
Jessica: I’m like their job, they have to get me somewhere but I’m not as easy as they think I’m going to be.

Alex: That seems to be a running theme with you [both laugh]. As your career starts to gather speed, do you ever take a moment to plan? I know it’s difficult when everything is so quick and spontaneous.
Jessica: Until last year I always used to think about that, but now it’s like, “Literally anything can happen” [laughs]. Although everything has changed, my goal is still to follow this career for the rest of my life and to just continue doing my own thing. At times last year, I really had to focus on that because I was being sent so many new opportunities that I wouldn’t have received before. For years I was just a working actor, auditioning for weeks on end and only getting roles because they thought I was genuinely right for them, not because I was famous or known in any way. Now I have to concentrate harder on whether certain roles and jobs are right for me. When I was younger, my dream was to have my handprint on the Hollywood Hall of Fame [laughs], I think it probably still is.

The End of the F***ing World season 2 is out 4th November via Netflix.

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