Jessie Buckley on War and Peace, Judi Dench and competitive karaoke

Published in Evening Standard on December 16, 2015

“It’s always good dinner chat: ‘Have you read War and Peace?’” says Jessie Buckley, star of the new BBC six-part adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel, pealing into laughter at the thought of showing off such a highbrow reading appetite. While many viewers will no doubt tune in thinking the telly version will save them at the occasion of such dinner-party chat, it should also inspire people to pick up Tolstoy’s doorstopper.

For Andrew Davies’s fresh, confident and sexy adaptation — co-produced by Harvey Weinstein’s company — is almost soapily addictive. “War and Peace is about relationships: family relationships, loving relationships, relationships at war… it’s a really young story as well,” says Buckley, part of a cast that reads like a British ones-to-watch list: Lily James, James Norton, Tuppence Middleton, Callum Turner, Jack Lowden, Aisling Loftus.

Hollywood’s Paul Dano also stars, while Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea provide grown-up weight to the story of 19th-century Russian aristocrats.

But the 25-year-old Buckley is right that the series focuses on the loves and flaws, ideals and crises of an interconnected group of young people. She plays Marya Bolkonskaya. “She’s in quite an oppressive relationship with her father — her faith is her survival. She has a real beautiful delicacy about her, like a porcelain vase.”

The production, naturally, is wrapped in sumptuous period packaging. The gorgeous cast twirl through gilt-spangled ballrooms in acres of satin, and ride across sweeping battlefields in miles of gold braid.

The shoot took place over nearly six months in Russia and Lithuania. “It was a really special job. We became a family: the whole cast and crew became really tight.” She tells of acquiring a taste for Russian vodka and of ending up in a competitive karaoke battle with the locals, resulting in a full-cast rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

Buckley has mostly done theatre, and filming this most lavish of dramas was at times overwhelming. “The first day in St Petersburg we shot a ballroom scene in Catherine the Great’s palace with an orchestra… I just sat at the side crying.”

Such emotional reactions won’t surprise anyone who remembers Buckley’s first brush with fame. A wide-eyed 17-year-old, her powerful voice knocked Andrew Lloyd Webber sideways on I’d Do Anything, the telly competition to find a Nancy for the musical Oliver! She came second but is still in contact with Lloyd Webber, who’s been “a really lovely support”.

She’s since put a lot of clear blue water between herself and the reality contest, studying at Rada and forging a career performing Shakespeare. Buckley is intellectually and creatively ambitious, on the quiet.

When she got the part of Marya she holed up with Tolstoy’s tome in her family’s caravan by the sea in Ireland. She feels the urge to escape there sometimes, and also tells stories of running away to Cornwall last year: “I just got on the overnight sleeper, hadn’t booked anywhere — but I found a shepherd’s hut on the edge of a cliff and stayed for a week.”

Buckley grew up “at the foot of a mountain” near Killarney in County Kerry, and although she’s enthusiastically adopted London as her home she still yearns for the countryside. “I love London but I miss air, I miss space. My dream is to find a mountain where I can live.”

Buckley will be back in Ireland for Christmas — between performances of The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade, the Kenneth Branagh double-bill she’s starring in at the Garrick. “I’m doing a matinee on Christmas Eve so my flight’s at 10pm — I’m flying home for Christmas.”

Family is important to Buckley. She is the oldest of five siblings and speaks to her parents every day. She grew up in an incredibly creative environment — her father, as well as managing a bar, is a poet, while her mother, Marina Cassidy, is a singer and harpist. Buckley also used to play, going to “harp camp” as a teenager, “which is basically social suicide… but I loved it”.

So are they one of those families where everyone gets together around the piano? “Like the Von Trapps? A little bit. Christmas in the Buckley household is hilarious — at the family dinner we all have to do a song, no matter if you can sing in tune.”

Buckley doesn’t get back as often as she’d like. She is currently filming (she can’t tell me what) as well as appearing eight times a week at the Garrick. She was hand-picked for the role of Perdita in The Winter’s Tale by Branagh — who she considers “one of the greats”.

And what of her co-star, Judi Dench? “Judi’s an absolute minx,” Buckley laughs. “And she’s so lovely. She’s just got simple values in life — I definitely look up to her. And I want to tell her but I really don’t know how…”

She shakes her head with shyness, before giving two-thumbs up to an imaginary Dench. “And she’s eighty-bloody-one. You have to keep up with her! You definitely don’t want to be the bad egg in a company beside Judi Dench.”

That’s not likely — Buckley only got positive notices, giving a stand-out performance as a sprightly, shining, open-hearted Perdita alongside Tom Bateman as Florizel. The Winter’s Tale is also the play that first saw Buckley fall hard for the Bard — she studied Shakespeare at Rada on a three-week course at the suggestion of producer Cameron Mackintosh after I’d Do Anything. It fuelled her decision not to just keep taking parts in musicals — she had been rapidly cast in a Sondheim production, A Little Night Music — but to do a full BA at Rada. A lot of people questioned the choice but Buckley is nothing if not committed.

“I loved singing but I just didn’t think I was being challenged enough. I like to be out of my depth — that’s when I learn the most. There was nothing in musicals at the time where I thought I could learn.”

It could sound arrogant to write off an entire genre when still a teenager, but it doesn’t read like that with Buckley. All quick grins and cheery enthusiasm, she just seems hungry for challenging work.

And in Shakespeare she’s found it. She played a rough-and-tumble Miranda in The Tempest at the Globe, and Lady Katharine to Jude Law’s Henry V at the Noël Coward Theatre. How was he? “He was awful,” she deadpans. “He wasn’t, he wasn’t — he was great. He’s a true leader, a real gent.”

In the future could she be tempted to seek her fortune in Los Angeles? “LA scares me,” she says sheepishly. “I don’t have any ambitions for the sake of it. I’d only go to LA if there was work I wanted to do. And I don’t think I’d want to live there… I want a shepherd’s hut at the foot of a mountain!”

War and Peace begins on BBC1 on Jan 3. The Winter’s Tale/Harlequinade are at the Garrick Theatre, WC2 (0330 333 4811, until Jan 16

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