'Wild Rose' Jessie Buckley on Her Star-Making Country Music Melodrama

Courtesy of TIFF
Jessie Buckley in 'Wild Rose'

The film — in which the rising Irish star plays a Scottish single mum and Nashville wannabe — is released on Friday by Neon.

In a story likely to be retold numerous times as her career continues its upward trajectory, in 2008 — then aged 18 — Jessie Buckley entered I’d Do Anything, a BBC talent show hoping to find a new, unknown lead to play Nancy in a West End revival of the musical Oliver!

Buckley reached the final after 10 weeks of competition and won over the majority of the judges — including one Andrew Lloyd Webber — with her performances. But when it was put to a public vote, the young girl from County Kerry ended up coming second.

All was not lost, however. Another judge on the show — West End legend Cameron Mackintosh —helped Buckley secure a place in at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. What started as a short, Shakespeare course would turn into a three-year spell at the acclaimed acting college.

Buckey graduated in 2013. Since then, she's barely had a chance to look back.

After a flurry of notable stage roles, followed by a head-turning performance in the BBC’s all-star adaptation of War and Peace and her feature debut in 2017’s psychological thriller Beast (which earned her a best actress nomination and most promising newcomer win at last year’s British Independent Film Awards) comes Wild Rose. The film, released on Friday in New York and L.A. by Neon before expanding across the U.S., could finally, a decade after that talent show, turn Buckley into an overnight success. 

Reuniting her with War and Peace director Tom Harper, Wild Rose sees the actress — now 29 — play Rose-Lynn, an all-singing, cowboy-booted Glaswegian single mum and country music obsessive, juggling both parenthood and jobs with her own dreams of becoming a Nashville star, much to the chagrin of her reality-checked mum (Julie Walters).

The film comes on the heels of her critically-acclaimed turn in HBO/Sky drama Chernobyl and kicks off what will be a busy few years for Buckley. Upcoming projects will see her co-starring alongside Renee Zellweger in the Judy Garland biopic Judy, playing next to Robert Downey Jr. in Universal's The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, and roles in Cold War thriller Ironbark with Benedict Cumberbatch and the Miss World comedy Misbehaviour with Keira Knightley. 

But Buckley's star turn in the toe-tapping Wild Rose — which first bowed in Toronto to outstanding reviews and has already had a stellar run in the U.K. — is where her impressive range of musical and acting skills have been given their greatest platform to date.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter after a promotional tour of New York, L.A. and, of course, Nashville (where she’s also been performing some songs from the film), Buckley discusses going back to her music roots, being struck by the “thunderbolt of lighting” that was her character Rose-Lynn and overcoming her initial distaste of country to become a hand-on-the-heart, fan of the music.

The response to Wild Rose has been fantastic. Were you ever expecting it to be received so well?

No, I don’t think you’re even are conscious of it. When you’re on set, you’re just hoping that you’re doing a good job. When I was making it, I had the best time and fell in love with this woman and fell in love with this story, and with working with Tom Harper. We really became like this family. It was really like an army of hearts were poured into this film. So when you bring it to an audience for the first time, it’s kind of like you’re pregnant and you’re just hoping people like your baby when it comes out! 

I was really nervous before we showed it, but to get that response blew me away. I still can’t believe it, to be honest. The whole thing is unbelievable, especially considering that it’s a small budget, independent British film. And it’s presenting a woman in a quite raw, human way, which is rare.

Is this the first project onscreen that has taken you back to you musical roots, so to speak?

Yeah, definitely. Country and blues and folk is an actor’s dream because it’s all about character and all about these foibled moments in a person’s life. It’s such humane storytelling. And the music is so simple — it just hugs the story. It was a dream. I feel like I’ve reignited a love and curiosity about what music is to me again because of this experience.

Was a film like this, where you could utilize your musical skills, something that you sought out?

Not really. Tom Harper and I were just having a drink together one evening, and he said he’d been sent this script called Country Music, which is what it was called at the time. So I read it and was shook by the thunderbolt of lightning that Rose-Lynn is and from there it snowballed.

Sometimes it’s scary when scripts comes to you that way because they put a lot of faith into your hands, especially with a part like that. And I’m like, ‘You haven’t actually seen me do anything, so how do you know?' But to get a creative partner in Tom and for him to push me and for me to push him, that’s the dream come true. I hope I can work with him for the rest of my life. It’s a special relationship.

I understand you didn’t actually like country music before. Was there anything that helped get you into it?

I think growing up I had just heard the bad stuff, and thought it was this kind of thing that was a bit chewing on straw. But when you start listening to songs written by John Prine and listening to singers like Bonnie Raitt — real honest women with power and humanity — it’s just changes everything. And working with people like Neill MacColl as well, who comes from a massive music background and encouraged me to let myself go with it.

So are you now a certifiable country music fan?

I can hand on my heart say yes I am. I said it, so shoot me!

Is it you singing throughout the film?

I bloody hope so! We did it all live, so if it’s somebody else I’d be very unnerved.

You give a great Glaswegian accent. Given that U.S. audiences have sometimes struggled with the Scottish twang — they famously subtitled Trainspotting — was there any concern about them not understanding what’s going on?

Oh, yeah, I ‘m sure there are many people who haven’t got a clue. But when it first got sold to Neon we spoke about that. And it’s important that they understand, so we did revisit it and clean up some bits, while also being true to the Glaswegian energy, which is really important for Rose-Lynn. Her life and blood is being from Glasgow, it’s her identity.

But I’m happy to sit beside everybody and whisper sweet nothings in their ears if they’re confused. I will personally make that possible.

You’ve been going from one major project to the next. Have you had a chance to sit back and reflect on what an incredible few years you’ve had?

I went over to Ireland last week and, first of all, I hadn’t driven manual since I passed my test, so I stopped traffic for about 20 minutes going through Macroom in this tiny little Toyota Yaris. I was going home to reflect and I’m just sweating with panic with the smell of brakes. Disaster!

But yeah, I don’t really think, ‘Oh I should go and think about everything that’s happened and get in a car and put Bob Dylan on.' I’m still myself, but it's sometimes overwhelming and incredibly exciting and surprising and I can only thank every single person who I’ve met along the way who’s helped that. I didn’t do it on my own and on every single journey there’s been someone by my side. It belongs to lots of people.

You’ve been promoting Wild Rose while much of it has been going on, but have you been able to keep track of the impact that Chernobyl has had?

I know, It’s extraordinary. The scripts were incredible when I read them. But it’s a political, tragic, realist drama and I didn’t expect something like that to have such a huge response and resonance. We hoped it would, but to have provoked such a reaction and feeling … it’s been amazing. And Craig Mazin, who wrote it, is incredible, as is Johan Renck, the director. Both of them were relentless in exposing the truth, whatever that was.

Chernobyl has certainly shown the sort of impact that high-quality drama can have …

Yeah, and in the era of Marvel and remakes and whatever, thank god for someone like Craig and Johan, who are brave enough and intelligent enough to go: ‘Oh, actually these are the stories we need to be telling.'

Finally, did you manage to keep any of your country outfits from Wild Rose?

Oh, yeah, I’ve got them all. I’ve brought my jacket with me. She’s not letting me go! And every so often my white cowboy boots stick their toes out of my wardrobe and I’m like, ‘No, I’ve done three jobs since then!’ And somehow they manage to slink back on. 

This interview was edited for space and clarity.