The day I meet Jessica Barden, the first image at the top of her Instagram is a black and white photograph of Harold Pinter captioned “Bae. Harold.” Beneath that, young fans tell her how much they love her Netflix series The End of The F***ing World (TEOTFW).
For Barden, this is actually ideal: with a forthright blend of youthful idealism and canny pragmatism, she explains how she’s hoping a season of Harold Pinter plays, Pinter at the Pinter, which she’s starring in, will have the same reach, and relevance, as the cult Channel 4 and Netflix show.
TEOTFW was the off-beat black comedy about two teenage runaways which catapulted Barden to fame; as Alyssa, she had the perfect blend of world-weary sarcasm and heart-squeezing tenderness. ‘
And social media was key to the show’s success, she points out. “Social media is actually feeding the industry in a really constructive way. People have real opinions on things, and that’s what everyone wants – to make something that inspires a conversation. “Also for what I want to eventually do – which is to produce my own stuff – it’s a great tool, to really see numbers, see how people respond,” she adds.
Producing may be a long-term goal, but right now, she’s hoping to attract a youthful new audience to Pinter. Barden stars in Night School, a TV drama from 1960 now being staged by Ed Stambollouian as part of Jamie Lloyd’s star-studded six-month Pinter season, which also features Martin Freeman, Mark Rylance, Tamsin Greig, and Danny Dyer.
Barden admits to being nervous about it: “I didn’t go to drama school, and I left school when I was 15, so I’ve never studied him or anything.” But she knew Pinter was a working-class playwright, which interested her as someone from a similar background.
As a child, Barden went to a drama club in a working men’s club in Wetherby. “The lady that ran it was just really ruthless, God bless her, and would try to get us all auditions,” she laughs. Barden kept getting parts. “I think it was just because I was quite an arrogant child, it definitely wasn’t because I was this amazingly talented kid.”
The roles she got were mostly on TV; when, 10 years ago, she was cast in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, she’d never actually seen a play. When the director Ian Rickson twigged, he started taking her to the theatre himself.
“The West End and theatre in general still feels like something which isn’t particularly accessible for a working-class audience. It feels like a very formal thing to do which a lot of people find intimidating – me included,” she says.
She fell in love with the artform, although her enthusiasm isn’t exactly expressed in the usual luvvie terms. “I thought: this is amazing, everyone is being quiet – someone could just shout ‘tits’ really loud and ruin the entire thing, but nobody does.”
Barden is still, however, much more comfortable filming, and hasn’t worked in the theatre for some years due to a claustrophobic anxiety about being trapped onstage. “I do struggle with anxiety a lot and being onstage can be terrible. I can’t get in lifts – I climbed 23 flights of stairs the other day. But working on this has reminded me [doing a play is] supposed to be fun – and I’m not actually trapped.”
In Night School, she plays Sally, a lodger with two eccentric old ladies; when their nephew gets out of prison, he’s disgruntled to find a stranger in his room. Although little-known – indeed, the playwright once rather ominously described it as “the worst thing I have written” – it shows various classic Pinter hallmarks: a mysterious intruder, sexual power play, a darkly absurd humour.
Barden also thinks that the play is “massively important’ in the current climate. “And I’m not just saying that as a soundbite,” she warns me, making the case that Pinter was probing problems of masculinity in exactly the way the rest of society finally is today.
Barden says that she sees her two younger brothers, and her boyfriend, struggle with the expectations put on men. “I don’t envy them. It’s all stuff they learnt for years and years, but had no control over it. It’s very easy to go ‘look at how horrible men are’ but it actually does leave a lot of men in a situation where they feel like a piece of shit.”
She was attracted to the character of Sally as a smart, and therefore powerful, young woman. “Her understanding of men and how the world works, and her intelligence in navigating that is really interesting. There’s nothing vulnerable about her. I often play characters that are vulnerable and I think it’s because physically I’m quite small. This has been great, because it feels more like me.”
Barden may be 26, but she’s petite and babyfaced enough that she’ll probably get cast as a teenager for some years yet. In person you’d hardly deem her vulnerable: she’s got an assertive, no-nonsense directness. Not that that has always sat well in her chosen profession.
“I used to be really annoyed about people being really fake, all that bullshit, but I just don’t care anymore. I don’t have to tell them I don’t like the kind of person they are…” she laughs. “That really took some learning.”
Her partner works in the industry too, in crew rather than in front of the camera; given they both travel so much, the relationship can be tricky. “It’s not very easy at all. But I do actually really like him and he is actually quite a nice man, so it’s kind of worth it,” she sighs and mutters, with self-protective understatement. Barden is not, it’s clear, much given to gushing.
Her schedule this year has been intense: filming Jungleland, a movie about boxing brothers starring Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell, in the US followed by a TV show, Lambs of God, in Australia. The latter project, in which she plays a nun, sounds pleasingly barmy.
“This priest turns up on this island, and there’s these feral nuns there. And we have all these sheep that are our reincarnated dead sisters…” Fans of Alyssa will be pleased to hear Barden is absolutely as deadpan in real life as in her most famous part.
“I’ve always wanted to play a nun – I’m being serious,” she adds. “Nuns are genuinely incredible. Modern life has not affected them. They’re the only thing the internet hasn’t been able to destroy.”
Anyone hoping for news on a second series of TEOTFW may be disappointed, however. “There is a second series but we don’t know whether we’re in it or not,” is all Barden has to say. But they surely will be; Barden and her co-star Alex Lawther are why the show works, having a chemistry that’s both funny and fragile.
“The chemistry is real because we are like Alyssa and James. We were completely exploited on that show, in the most constructive way possible,” she laughs. “I learnt a lot from Alex as a person, he’s very calm and everything is very considered, he doesn’t speak unless he’s really thought about it.
“Whereas I say exactly what comes into my mouth.”
‘Pinter Four’ is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London until 8 December (0844 871 7622)