Jessie Buckley: I'd Do Anything was an amazing experience... and what's meant for you won't pass you by
Ten years ago Jessie Buckley was dealt a blow on a talent show, but now she's starring in acclaimed new film Beast. The actress tells Hilary A White how she put the disappointment behind her and built a TV and film career
In 2008, a girl from the Republic of Ireland made it to the grand final of I'd Do Anything, a TV contest to find a bright young hopeful to play the part of Nancy in a big West End production of Oliver!
Leading the panel of judges was Andrew Lloyd Webber, who said the 18-year-old with the unruly red curls, riotous grin and jaw-dropping voice had "the sacred flame of star quality".
She was the judges' favourite but, in yet another example of why popular votes should be scrapped, the spoils went to someone else.
The young Kerry woman was sidelined by presenter Graham Norton, while most of the judges clapped awkwardly. Ten years later, Jessie Buckley is well able to laugh.
"When I look back, I go, 'Holy Mother of God!'," she says. "I was 17 when I auditioned for that show. I'd just been turned down for drama school. I had no boundaries and I was running off raw instinct and excitement to be part of it. I had no expectations and no idea that I could even get anywhere near it.
"It was an amazing experience and I always say that what's meant for you won't pass you by."
There might have been tears that night, but the disappointment would ultimately turn out to be the making of Buckley, whose star has ascended steadily ever since. She has since shown that, if anything, Lloyd Webber was understating things in his praise.
Buckley is now starring in acclaimed film Beast, a mystery that wears the clothing of a Gothic fairytale set on modern-day Jersey. She plays Moll, a disturbed girl who takes up with a disreputable local lad (Johnny Flynn) and stands by him when he becomes linked with a series of murders.
It builds on a remarkable run for Buckley, who came to acting after a four-week Shakespeare course in RADA on the back of I'd Do Anything. She paid the bills by covering jazz standards in the exclusive London club Annabel's. By then a hunger to act had bedded in, one that perhaps might have been delayed had she won the hearts of millions of viewers on I'd Do Anything. "It brought me to London and introduced me to incredible agents and amazing friends and opened me up into a world I really love and have always wanted to be part of," she says modestly.
We only have time for a quick chat because she is super-busy filming opposite Renee Zellweger ("I'm totally in awe. One of the most generous, incredible souls I've ever met") in a biopic of Judy Garland. The following months will see her appear in the films Country Music and The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle.
Like her singing prowess, it was on the small screen that Buckley first displayed her considerable acting chops, with roles in top-end productions such as the BBC's lavish War & Peace (2016) and vintage crime saga Taboo, where her Lorna Bow was more than a match for Tom Hardy's grizzled ruffian. An uncanny talent had been unearthed.
She's drawn to messiness and complexity, she explains.
"The story provoked me in lots of ways," she says of Beast.
"I felt thrilled and unnerved by Moll's journey. It was an anti-hero I hadn't seen before.
"I was at a certain point in my life where I had a relationship with it and where I felt I could bring something to it.
"I love the flaws and foibles of people - I'm much more interested in that than perfections. And I love chaos! I get huge solace from chaos, especially if someone else is doing it too, like, 'Thank God it's not just me'."
Very little of what Buckley says goes without a burst of laughter and a bit of sing-song Kerry bounce to her voice.
Her unpolished demeanour and the brightness of her attitude have probably allowed her to stand out in an industry where studied poise and adherence to stylistic convention are rife.
For example, when I mention Kerry's other great screen export, Michael Fassbender, she hoots down the phone about a doolally collaboration - "I've never actually met him. I must see if he'd like to start a Kerry theatre group or something... a film studio in Killarney! It'd be mad!"
At the heart of this is her Killarney upbringing as the eldest of five in a musical and expressive household that valued life experience over material possession (her mother is the renowned harpist and singer Marina Cassidy while her father is a poetry-writing bar manager). Among her siblings, one is a nurse, one an engineer and one a mountaineer.
"Sometimes, I struggle with that sheen in this industry, that mad pressure of perfection," she says. "I want film stories to provoke a question in people about what's going on emotionally around them, and empower them in some way or ask them about themselves. I don't just want to turn up and look nice. I want to learn something for myself. Some of the most outwardly vulnerable women I've played, like Marya in War & Peace or Moll, have been strong women that I've learned a lot from.
"It's not about putting on a suit and seeming aggressively strong, it's about something else."
Between that talent contest and her rising film and TV profile, Buckley has come to attract Press attention, particularly after she was stepping out with her War & Peace co-star James Norton.
She is determined, however, to try her best to lead as normal a life as possible, and you can't blame her. "I try not to let it affect my day-to-day life," she says. "I live in a house with other people who aren't actors. I take the Tube and get on with my day."
There is still much of the girl down the road about Buckley, the tomboy who was "a bit here, there and everywhere" and was nicknamed 'the lone ranger' by the other girls at secondary school for the way she'd exist in her own world. She was always going to break out in search of an adventure, and London was it. All these years later, she sees what home gave her.
"What I miss and what I probably took for granted growing up was just the complete beauty of the country and the people and the openness and unaffectedness that we have in us," she says, as if spelling out the secret of her success.
Beast is showing in cinemas now, Cert 15A