Irish actress Jessie Buckley has been a superstar in waiting for quite some time now, and her latest effort, the musical drama Wild Rose (which opens in Toronto this weekend and expands across Canada in the following weeks) should hopefully be the performance that catapults her to such lofty heights.
In Wild Rose, Buckley plays 23 year old Glaswegian Rose-Lynn Harlan. A mother of two, Rose-Lynn has just been released after serving a year in prison, and is eager to put her dreams of becoming a country singer-songwriter back on the proper track. She moves back in with her highly skeptical mother (Julie Walters) and takes a job as a housekeeper, but her focus remains on her passion for country music. Although Rose-Lynn remains focused and defiant against anyone who might stand in the way of her dreams of heading off to Nashville and hitting the big time, she still has the responsibilities of being a parent (to an 8-year old and a 5-year old who keep their distance so they never get let down again) and a parolee with a 7pm curfew, which makes performing at night almost impossible. Against all odds, Rose-Lynn defies the expectations placed upon her and starts to break through as a singer, but her quest for success could cost her everything she holds dear in her personal life.
Although Buckley’s life hasn’t been as tumultuous or troublesome as Rose-Lynn’s, the emerging star certainly knows how hard it can be to break into the entertainment industry. Buckley got her first major break on I’d Do Anything, a 2008 BBC competition show designed to cast the lead female role in a London West End revival of the musical Oliver. On I’d Do Anything, Buckley finished in a close second place, winning over the majority of the show’s judges (including Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber), but losing the popular vote with the show’s viewers. Despite finishing as the first runner-up, the show kicked open the door to a world of stage and screen opportunities.
After a plethora of high profile and prestigious stage appearances, eventual Wild Rose director Tom Harper would cast Buckley in his epic miniseries adaptation of War and Peace in 2016. One year later, Buckley would make waves by appearing in the cult favourite Tom Hardy television series Taboo and as the maladjusted lead in first time writer-director Michael Pearce’s criminally underrated psychological thriller Beast. Wild Rose, which debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, started a groundswell of critical and audience praise for Buckley’s performance, but in the time between the film’s premiere and its eventual release, the actress also found herself a high profile role on the limited HBO series, Chernobyl, which would become one of the network’s most successful shows in years.
“The first thing that came to my mind after I read it was that this was almost like a prison break film,” Buckley says about Wild Rose and her first impressions of the character during a chat conducted at TIFF last September, shortly before the film was due to make its world premiere. “It was about these women – mothers and daughters – who were trying to break out of these corners of their lives that they were told they could only exist within. Rose-Lynn had this tenacious, bold, louty sort of courage, which I just felt immediately electrified by. I just wanted to be with her, go to the pub with her, and learn from her. I had done War and Peace with Tom Harper, and he’s the type of person who if someone asked me to lie down on a train track for them, I probably would. He brought it to me and suggested that I read it, and he said that he didn’t want to do it unless I did it.”
The screenwriter behind Wild Rose, Nicole Taylor, also agrees that Jessie was perfect for the role and that the young actress tapped into everything she envisioned the character to be. It was particularly meaningful to have someone as skilled as Buckley on board, since Wild Rose is a major passion project for Taylor, a Glasgow native and self-professed country music enthusiast.
“I’ve had this character knocking about in my head for years, and I had to get it out,” Taylor says about her drive to write the script in a separate interview. “I wrote this for a range of reasons, but fundamentally it was because I love country music. It’s everything to me. I just couldn’t live without it. It’s a suppository for the emotionally constipated,” she quips. “When I was writing the script, I would take a deep dive into Spotify to try to find the country song that best fit my mood that day. I just wrote those songs into the film because this is an emotionally complicated, strong woman who can express herself best through music, whether it was her’s or someone else’s. It’s a story that’s always in the moment because the character is always in the moment.”
While Wild Rose is a film about a complicated, sometimes obstinate and ornery protagonist fighting to achieve their dreams – a formula that has worked well with audiences for decades – it provided a fair number of challenges for Buckley when it came time to get into character. Rose-Lynn has a very specific sort of swagger to her that’s closely tied to her roots in Glasgow. On weekends and whatever downtime she had while working on other projects, Buckley would travel to Glasgow and immerse herself in the city’s thriving country music scene and working class vibe. While Rose-Lynn’s confidence and accent weren’t too much trouble for Buckley, the actress discovered that she had a lot to learn about the music she would be asked to perform and the emotional weight behind it.
“It’s a complete journey of identity that’s so particular to Rose-Lynn, to Glasgow, to country music, to young mothers, and to older daughters, but yet, the story itself could take place almost anywhere, and that’s kind of the beauty in it,” Buckley says about finding Rose-Lynn’s dramatic voice. “With any character, you have to take all of those bits that are in their closet and pull everything out. I love prepping quite far in advance, and the first thing for me was to get into the music. That was her passion and what was driving her. I’ll admit that I had no previous relationship to country music before. I thought it was a bit hick, honestly. But when I got into it, you can immediately see that the stories being told in country music are so simple, human, and raw. The best stuff can get into your soul without you even noticing it. I would go back and forth on weekends to prepare and rehearse with the musicians that would become my band in the film, and even the accent was something I had to work on for month. Her voice and the way she speaks has its own sort of attitude to it. I went to Glasgow about a month before I started shooting and stayed there. The people there are so open and unique.”
Buckley found a fount of inspiration in one of Wild Rose’s primary shooting locations, a replica of one country music’s holiest of institutions that just so happens to call Glasgow home.
“The Grand Ole Opry in Glasgow is so phenomenal,” Buckley says with transformative enthusiasm. “You just have to fuckin’ go there. It’s this morgue that used to be a cinema that’s now become the home of country music in Glasgow, and it’s just in the middle of the docks. You go out there and you see all these women who just came from their shifts at the bakers and the butchers showing up after work in full-on stetsons and boots. And you just see these characters, and it’s so lucky to see where people like Rose-Lynn come from. The script was so good, and you always go back to that, but it was something else entirely to see it in reality. This is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had working. It was so collaborative, and we were all sharing with each other. When we got together to finally shoot, we were ready to play and challenge each other.”
For her part, Taylor says that Glasgow’s home of all things country – where she says she saw the best concert of her life, performed by Nova Scotian band The Rankin Family, while flanked by a group of proud, raucous Canadian sailors – was a huge part of Rose-Lynn as a character.
“I’ve been going there since I was twelve,” Taylor says of her relationship to the music hall Rose-Lynn wants to headline again. “I think I understand the scene from the inside out. The roots of country music in Glasgow comes from a couple of interesting places. One, is that Glasgow is itself a somewhat emotionally repressed culture where people prefer to get on with things instead of living in the past. The other is that thanks to mass immigration between Scotland, America, and Canada, there’s a sense that the same music belongs to us. There’s a real longing and melancholy among those left behind in Scotland that I think one finds somewhat naturally in a lot of country and folk music. I put all of that into the script because that was my experience.”
But while there’s a specificity to everything that Rose-Lynn does and how the character uncompromisingly carries herself, there was something about her that Buckley loves to convey as a performer: a no bullshit demeanour.
“She’s just herself,” Buckley says when asked about how Wild Rose ties into her impressive, growing body of work. “With Beast or War and Peace, I was already used to playing characters who were on a mission to get something out of their life. With Rose-Lynn, it was about finding the courage to grab her dream, even if she doesn’t realize at first the consequences those actions will have on those around her. Rose-Lynn doesn’t totally comprehend – and sometimes doesn’t particularly care – that those actions can be destructive to herself and those around her. She thinks she has to go as far away from herself as possible to achieve her goals, but the film is about her realizing that you can’t do that. If you do that, you change who you are. Being yourself is the boldest part of anyone’s dream.”
While Rose-Lynn doesn’t particularly care what people think about her, Buckley is constantly and humbly questioning if she can play the parts that she’s given. The actress likens her performance in Wild Rose – where she performs all of Rose-Lynn’s songs, some of which she co-wrote with Taylor – as a rewarding and freeing leap of faith that allowed her to constantly stay in the moment.
“I’m always scared! I’m always terrified, but I also don’t like staying in my comfort zone,” Buckley says about performing both in the film and during a live performance of some of the songs for a public event at TIFF. “You can’t take anything for granted. A lot of people’s hearts have been poured into this, and we’re all trying to be as honest as possible. With a character as bold and brassy as Rose-Lynn, you can’t give just a version of that. You have to be it. You have to walk in those fuckin’ cowboy boots.”
Wild Rose means many things to Buckley on a personal level, especially when it comes to portraying music as an extension of one’s soul and character. Buckley had performing in her blood from an early age. Her mother is a musician and her dad was a bar manager who wrote poetry, so the powerful nature of spoken and sung words isn’t lost on Buckley. But while she wasn’t an expert on country music before starring in Wild Rose (which she says she’s a fan of now, thanks to the process), Buckley maintains that the experience allowed her to look back on the singers and songwriters she always admired and realized that the best songs come honestly and unambiguously from the heart, something she hopes the film will show audiences.
“The best thing about country music is the lyrics. They can be so badass and brave. It reminds me of when I saw Paul Simon a few weeks ago, which was a mind-blowing experience, and then I read an interview that he did. He doesn’t do many interviews, but you can tell from his songs and the moments where he does speak that he doesn’t take words for granted. He knows exactly what he wants to tell us and how he wants to tell us, and that’s what I found in so much of the country music that I was listening to. The best and most honest kinds of music can make you feel like you’re levitating. It’s one thing to be successful as a musician, but it’s another thing entirely to talk about feelings and hope and giving something to each other. That’s such a powerful feeling, and that’s what I want to be a part of with this. It was all driven by heart, never by ego. It’s for the people and about being a person. It’s not about being a star. It’s so much more rewarding and privileged to be a part of something like that.”
Wild Rose opens in Toronto on Friday, June 21, 2019. It’s slated to open in Montreal and Vancouver on Friday, July 5 and expand to additional Canadian cities on July 12.