Jessica Barden was raised a long way from Massachusetts, where her new film Jungleland is set. The Yorkshire-born actor doesn’t share the same accent as her American character Sky, or the same profession either (Sky makes her money dancing in a shady bar), but they do have a lot in common.
“She’s got the hustle in her,” says the 28-year-old over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “She reminds me of one of those girls who has posters of Marilyn Monroe on her wall. It sounds cheesy, but they want the American dream. From the outside everyone makes fun of those girls, because they seem like a hot mess. But when you get to know them, they’re actually so strong.”
To confirm, Barden isn’t a hot mess. Her strength is palpable, even with the stream of self-deprecating humour that courses through our conversation. That strength is on full display in her most prolific role, as the stoic, po-faced Alyssa in treacle-black teen thriller The End of the F***ing World. Barden earned global recognition for her wayward and chaotic runaway in the show’s first instalment, but in season two we met Alyssa the survivor, who in a brave final act managed to take charge of her story.
For many, Jungleland is the first time that Barden will appear back on their screens since the show wrapped up in 2019. She stars opposite fellow Brits Jack O’Connell and Charlie Hunnam, who play low-rung criminal brothers assigned to deliver Sky to a feared local gangster and human trafficker. “From an artistic point of view I was having to play four or five characters at the same time, because you don’t know when she’s being truthful,” Barden says.
She was already enamoured with her co-stars before coming on board. Back home, in Wetherby, west Yorkshire, she’d grown up watching O’Connell as the hot-headed Cook in Skins (“It was a rite of passage”) and knew Hunnam from Queer as Folk, the boundary-breaking drama about gay life in ‘90s Manchester. That they all hailed from similar backgrounds only made their bond on-set stronger.
“All three of us grew up working class, which is also what these characters are,” she explains. “We knew the area of life that they’re from, and that meant we could just enjoy being on set together.”
“Guys are just as fucked up as girls. They want to cry but they can’t”
Barden has developed a careful eye for the parts that she chooses. In Sky, she saw a chance to play a character from a specific area of America that she’d wanted to tackle. She has brothers, and liked that the boys’ tumultuous relationship on screen would be something that they would enjoy.
She especially liked the film’s positive messages about masculinity that are carried in her co-stars’ vulnerable performances. “This is such an obvious thing to say about masculinity, but men are so emotional. It’s rare to find a guy who is really sure of themselves,” she says. “Instead they mask it all with bravado. Guys are just as fucked up as girls. They want to cry as well but they can’t really do it.”
Barden has been quietly building her career for over 20 years, since she first popped up fleetingly in the after-school children’s sitcom My Parents Are Aliens. Over that time she appeared in more than 70 episodes of Coronation Street, landed scene-stealing secondary parts in TV thriller Hanna alongside Saoirse Ronan and cult comedy Tamara Drewe. Later, she slow-danced with Colin Farrell in Yorgos Lanthimos’ oddball romcom The Lobster.
Post-breakout, Barden has upped sticks to LA and is storming the indie film scene, working on projects with John Malkovich and Jason Isaacs. Sky feels like the next part of Barden’s grand plan, but despite racking up 14 credits since TEOTFW, Alyssa is still who she’s best known as. The last thing she wants is to become predictable. “I don’t like to do the same thing twice or have people think of me as a certain type of person,” she says. “My goal is for no one to think about what I’m going to do next and be able to call it.” Big things are happening, even in a year as damning and debilitating as 2020.
“If I ever have a child, I’ll probably give birth to Oasis”
“Because this year’s been shit, there are a lot of days where I’m like, “Fuck, I haven’t done anything,” Barden continues. She speaks often and openly about her ongoing experiences with anxiety and depression. “But I’m just telling myself that [if] this year is not great, [then] next year is probably going to be great.”
On better days, Barden is developing a passion for boxing and trains three times a week. “I mean, I’m obviously never going to be a professional boxer, but it makes me feel like I’ve achieved something.”
She also listens to music. All the time. She opens her laptop and cites bluegrass singer Bella White, ’80s pop powerhouse Christopher Cross and Dolly Parton as currently on heavy rotation – and confirms Bruce Springsteen is a constant presence in her life. She’s also got into the habit of blasting Oasis’ Champagne Supernova at maximum volume while walking around the reservoir by her house, to the dismay of fellow hikers.
“You know when you’re playing music so loudly that other people can fully hear the song and they’re like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And I’m like, ‘This is the level that I need to hear Oasis at right now’,” she says unapologetically. “If I ever have a child, I’ll probably give birth to Oasis.”
Barden says that music has influenced her career even more than movies: “I think of acting, in a way, as a song,” she explains. “When you’re in a scene, you have to layer it in the same way that a song would be layered. Like, there’s the part where the song reaches the peak, and that’s exactly how I think about the scene.”
This year, her love of acting and music collided when she starred in her first video: a “mini movie” that accompanies ‘Under the Graveyard’, Ozzy Osbourne’s bare-all rocker about his battle with addiction and eventual path to sobriety. In the video, Barden plays a young Sharon Osbourne, complete with saucer-sized glasses and a coiffed wig.
“It was one of the best days of my life,” she says of the shoot. “Sharon had watched TEOFTW and really loved it. She said that if there was ever going to be someone to play her, it would be me.” They connected through a mutual friend, and Barden was sent the track to check out. “Next thing I’m on the set playing Sharon Osbourne, and I got to meet Sharon and Ozzy,” she says. “Sharon is so nice, exactly what she’s like on TV. That’s not bullshit, that’s actually what she’s like. And I loved meeting Ozzy so much, because I’d grown up watching him in The Osbournes on television.”
“I was smoking a Juul [e-cigarette] and Ozzy Osbourne pulled it out of my hand: ‘This is the one thing that I’d never do'”
Though no wisdom was bestowed by the most prolific and longstanding couple in rock, the Prince of Darkness did tell her one thing: “I was smoking a Juul [e-cigarette] and Ozzy pulled it out of my hand and was like: “This is the one thing that I’d never do”. I thought: ‘This is iconic. This is a day that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life’.”
This might be Barden’s life now – mixing with rock royalty and riding the Tinseltown merry-go-round, but she won’t turn her back on the past that shaped her. TEOTFW was her ticket to stardom, and it’d be a real shame if fans don’t get to revisit that world at least one more time.
“There is a world where we do it in a few years’ time,” she says when asked if we can expect a third season of the show, “But Charlie [Covell, the show’s writer] totally, rightfully, is taking the space to write other stuff, like she’s working on Kaos, this new show for Netflix now. So there are no immediate plans. I think that everyone just has to go and do their own thing now.”
At the TV BAFTA awards in July, Covell herself said that another season would be unlikely. “Obviously you can never say never,” she told the press, “but I think it’s good to quit while you’re ahead.”
“There is a world where we do ‘TEOTFW’ season three in a few years’ time”
Having spent most of her life on film and TV sets, you wonder if Barden has ever been tempted to step behind the camera herself. “I wouldn’t be a director because I love the relationship that I have with directors,” she says. “Sometimes I think that I’d like to write something. I have a lot of stories – oh my God, that is the lamest line – I just don’t know when I want to do it, or what body I want to put the story into. At this point in my career, I’m just so happy to be an actress. Other stuff can happen when it happens.”
‘Jungleland’ is now available on digital platforms
Photography: Jenn Five