‘The End of the F***ing World’ 2: “This isn’t a fan-service in any way”

Welcome to REEL TALK – NME's brand new weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV.

As James and Alyssa reunite for another misanthropic, wise-cracking adventure, we meet 'The End Of The F***ing World' stars Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther to find out what makes them tick.

“It was totally disgusting. Honestly, you have no idea what that dress soaked up.”

Jessica Barden is frowning, her face screwed up in revulsion. She’s remembering a moment, during filming The End Of The F***ing World season two, in which she looked down at the mud-soaked wedding dress she’d worn for the whole series and thought, “I’m done”.

“It was such an inconvenience,” she says. “It was either really warm or really cold. I couldn’t go to the bathroom by myself. It soaked everything up. I mean no disrespect to Wales [where they filmed], but it does rain a lot there.”

Barden’s co-star, Alex Lawther, chuckles at this last remark. We’re down in the NME Basement and are recording a video interview about the return of their hugely popular teen drama. By the time you read this, season two will have aired its first couple of episodes on telly, with the rest now available to stream on All 4.

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Jessica Barden as Alyssa in ‘The End Of The F***ing World’ season two

Based on Charlie Forman’s graphic novel of the same name, The End Of The F***ing World attracted a cult following in 2017 for its dark humour and romantically nihilistic drama. But when it moved from Channel 4 to Netflix in early 2018, the show blew up suddenly, discovered by millions more fans online. James and Alyssa (played by Lawther and Barden) proved a hit with teenagers, who related strongly to the darkly comic road trip tale about two confused young outsiders. After breaking into a house, they accidentally murder the owner – a serial rapist, so it’s OK – before going in search of Alyssa’s absent father, with police in hot pursuit. Eventually, everyone converges on the beach, where James appears to bite the bullet. 

Dark, witty and boasting an initial 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, season one ended with the crack of a single gunshot, aimed at protagonist James, before cutting to black. For two long years since the series aired, we’ve waited on that cliffhanger. But how did Lawther and Barden get here in the first place?

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Fiercely committed to the profession from day dot, Yorkshire-born Barden made her debut as an extra in kids drama My Parents Are Aliens, which turns 20 this year. After she spent her early career doing bit part roles in indie movies (Hanna, Tamara Drewe) and recurring jobs in British television (Coronation Street, The Outcast), Jessica snagged the role of Alyssa and “everything changed”.

Lawther, meanwhile, was born in Hampshire to two lawyer parents. The youngest of three, he didn’t really get into acting until the age of 16, when his professional debut came as “a tiny version of Benedict Cumberbatch” in Oscar-winning Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. Later, an episode of sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror raised his profile, before TEOTFW took it stratospheric. Now, he’s been working with huge stars like Martin Freeman (Ghost Stories) and Hayley Atwell (Howard’s End).

Best buds (on-set and off it), Alex and Jess share a chemistry that’s rare in the acting world. When The End Of The F***ing World debuted, part of the attraction was its leads’ firecracker chemistry, which seemed to carry on off-screen. Alex and Jessica would mess about in interviews too, or post funny selfies on Instagram.

“The whole thing was really fun,” confirms Barden, before Alex adds, “We used to prank Veronica, our wonderful hair and make-up assistant, all the time.” Hesitant to elaborate, perhaps for fear of later reprisals from Veronica, Lawther instead details the “prosthetic ‘burned’ hand” – James stuck his fist into a deep fat fryer as a child – which she helped him prepare each morning.

“Once you’ve got the rubbery stuff on there’s a lot of painting and making it look nice,” he begins. “But after, I had to wear like a Tesco’s sandwich bag around my hand all day to protect it. It got all clammy and sweaty and probably smelled more than Alyssa’s dress.”

Somehow, we’re back on the dress again, and Jessica’s not done complaining. “It was an exercise in patience,” she starts. “There was a clean dress which I only wore for about two days and then…” Barden can’t bring herself to finish the sentence, so Lawther does instead.

“It was really hard on her,” he says. “The rest of us filmed mostly in order… But for Jess, she was shooting backwards, so she was being filmed running away from a wedding, but in real life Jess hadn’t met the actor who was playing her husband!”

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Luckily for Barden, Alyssa spends most of season two in the company of  James. So there wasn’t any need to build up a rapport with Josh Dylan (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), who plays her jilted husband Todd.

At first glance, Lawther and Barden look and act exactly like James and Alyssa. Alex – self-described as “less Skins, more Casualty on a Saturday night” – is shy and quiet. While Jessica is a chattier person with no filter. Boris Johnson? “A waste of time”. Marmite? “The only thing that gives me heartburn”. Blur? “I don’t know who they are.” But scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll soon find differences.

Take their arrivals, for example. Alex confidently bounds into the elevator, eager to get cracking. But Jessica asks to take the stairs – “I don’t like lifts,” she confides. Exactly the opposite to their in-world personas. Later, Barden talks of “anxiety” – and how she tackles it by binging “inspiring” interviews with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) on YouTube.

A sense of unease is only natural, given her newfound public profile. But neither Jessica nor Alex finds the increased attention too stressful to handle. In fact, they can’t get enough of the online interaction.

Connected via a WhatsApp group, they share memes that have been sent to them by viewers and discuss fan-art. Alex doesn’t have social media, but Jessica recently broke one million Instagram followers and loves Internet culture.

“I strongly believe that memes are the highest form of intelligent humour,” she declares. “I’m loving the meme life every single day.” Her faves mostly feature different versions of her face – ‘which Alyssa are you today?’ – but she also “genuinely values” the interaction with a younger generation (Barden is 27, eight years older than her character in season one). 

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Both relative unknowns when they started shooting, TEOTFW catapulted its stars into the limelight. Now, each gets stopped in the street and accosted by fans. Not for the reasons you’d expect, though.

“Sometimes people come up to me and say: ‘I loved your concert last night you were so great’,” says Lawther. “They think I’m Declan McKenna.” Luckily, McKenna gets mistaken for Lawther too, and they bonded over their aesthetic similarities when they met recently. But apart from getting confused with budding indie heartthrobs, has newfound celebrity actually changed anything?

“I don’t always really feel it to be honest because I’m usually doing something weird anyway,” explains Barden. “I’m a fairly bizarre person, so there’s any number of reasons why somebody might be looking at me.” Whether that’s because she’s got “food on her face”, is sporting “gigantic sunglasses” or just “talks really loud”, the lifelong thespian doesn’t always clock until a selfie-hunter is pushing their phone into her face (food-filled or not). Alex, on the other hand, tries “not to think about it too much”. 

Season two, you’d expect, will only make them more famous. Especially as they’ll be starring alongside Naomi Ackie, whose star is rising even faster than theirs. Recently cast in Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker as well as a now-axed Game Of Thrones prequel, the London-born actor is quite the coup for a low-budget indie series. 

Her character, Bonnie, is an awkward, psychopathic ex-student and lover of the man James and Alyssa killed in season one. Distraught after returning from prison to find him dead, Bonnie discovers a clue that kick-starts her mission to hunt Alyssa down and avenge her beloved’s death. Naturally, James gets caught up in the chase too.

“She’s the twist,” describes Lawther. “A sort of spanner in the works.” But as the season pans out, Bonnie proves to be more than just a simple plot device. Distant after so much time away from each other – months pass between the events of seasons one and two – Alyssa and James end up using their pursuer to help communicate with each other instead. Struggling to reconnect, other parts of their relationship come into focus as well. Like the fact that they haven’t been intimate sexually.

“They’re soulmates, which is better than boyfriend and girlfriend,” says Barden. But did the lack of shagging not seem weird, especially when compared to sex-stuffed genre rivals like Euphoria or 13 Reasons Why?

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“No, I loved that,” Barden assures. “I enjoy being in a show that isn’t giving kids a super-sexualised version of being a teenager.” Open and surprisingly honest, the Yorkshire-born star doesn’t shy away from revealing intimate parts of her private life. “I was kind of crippled by the thought of enjoying sex until I was about 25. That’s the reality for most women,” she says, before going on to lament the current crop of teen dramas that are filled with “sophisticated, ridiculously good-looking” 16-year-olds who spend all their time “having sex with each other or having sex with somebody’s dad.” 

“There’s loads of kids out there,” adds Jessica, “And I’m really glad that they can see characters that are not all delivering slick blowjobs to each other.” 

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James and Alyssa might not have sex this series, but they’re still one of TV’s best on-screen couples. The show can’t go on forever, though, and Lawther and Barden will need to make other character relationships believable too.

They’ve done a good job already, with Barden recently earning plaudits for her role in Jungeland alongside Hollywood megastar Charlie Hunnam. She plays Sky, an unexpected travel companion for a bare-knuckle boxer and his manager.

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Lawther, meanwhile, has bagged a role in Wes Anderson’s upcoming comedy-drama The French Dispatch

“I might be on the cutting room floor though,” elaborates Alex. But even if his “teeny-tiny” part doesn’t make it to cinemas, the experience was “amazing”. Thrilled to be on the same set as Oscar-winners Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton, the newbie fell in love with Anderson’s way of doing things. 

“Wes likes to keep the spirit of a short film,” explains Lawther. “All of the actors would eat with him every evening and discuss how the day went. I was only there for two days but I wish I could have been there longer.”

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It’s clear that neither he nor Jessica has a problem getting a gig at the moment. But what about working together again?

“I really wanna play a female Joker,” declares Barden, deadly serious. “I wanna play a psychopath.” But what about her co-star, what’s in it for him? “I could play Harley Quinn and you can play the Joker!” is Alex’s solution.

This is all very well, of course, but the most likely place they’ll reunite is in The End Of The F***ing World season three, right?

“It’s very early to be discussing that,” comes Lawther’s typically diplomatic response. “Anything can happen,” agrees Barden. “I might not even be an actress by season three.” Really? Surely it’s not quitting time yet? “That’s going to be one of those videos they play years later,” predicts Alex, before Jessica interjects. “Yeah, she cured verrucas. Here she is declaring her way out!” Eventually, both agree they’d love to work together again, regardless of the project.

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For their first collaboration, The End Of The F***ing World has gone remarkably well so far. But imagine if it had ended after only one series. What would season two have looked like if James had been killed off? 

“I was worried that James would be a ghost or in flashbacks,” is Lawther’s response. “Like in A Christmas Carol.” It wouldn’t have worked, obviously. James and Alyssa are the lifeblood of the show. The critical mass at which this story operates. Without one or the other, the magic is gone. 

Right now, though, TV’s latest boy-girl duo is firmly coupled up. They might not get a shot at season three – it took Covell two years to come up with a second chapter – but there’s hope for more Lawther-Barden action in the future. We can’t wait.

‘The End of the F***ing World’ season two airs November 4-7 on Channel 4, with two new episodes double-billed every night across the week from 10pm. The entire eight-part series will be available to stream on All 4 from 11pm on November 4. It comes to Netflix globally on November 5.

Photos by Jenn Five.