Jessie Buckley was still a teenager when she made it to the finals of I’d Do Anything, the 2008 BBC reality TV competition to find a Nancy for the West End revival of Oliver! She didn’t get the role but went on to other musical gigs before taking time off to re-train as a classical performer. That explains why the 24-year-old Irish actress is currently charming audiences as French princess Katherine opposite Jude Law in Henry V at London’s Noel Coward Theatre. (Her director, Michael Grandage, spoke to Broadway.com of the “winning smile and immediate warmth” that helped her land the part.) The charming Buckley took time one recent evening to talk about the shift from singing to Shakespeare, and what it’s like to be wooed by an international movie star eight times a week.
Your role in Henry V is comparatively small, but your rapport with Jude Law makes a big impact.
Thank you! I auditioned for the part last summer while I was doing The Tempest at the Globe, and I got the call the next day that I had it. Because Jude was in the room during the audition, I got a sense right away of how our onstage relationship might work; there was a great sense of fun from the get-go.
You’re Irish, playing a young French royal. That’s quite a leap in terms of accents!
[Laughs] I know, especially since I’d only done a bit of A-level [high school] French. But once I got the part, I recorded some French people saying my lines, and I met a waitress in Brixton [south London] who was very helpful. I also watched a lot of Marion Cotillard on YouTube—interviews and the like—to see how the French hold themselves and how they speak.
How would you describe the wooing scene, which brings a bit of femininity to a very testosterone-charged play?
What’s lovely is that Katherine is being used as a political pawn; she has heard a lot about this guy she hasn’t met, and when they come together she discovers a real longing for love and connection. I think what's amazing, too, is that Shakespeare doesn't just give you one set play about one thing. You never know which way the play might turn.
Your scene brings a burst of romance into a play about heroism—or the lack thereof.
Very much so: Katherine and Henry begin by playing games, or what I call a sort of verbal ping-pong, and fall in love by the end of the scene.
And you get to snog Jude Law eight times a week. That in itself must make you the envy of all your girlfriends.
[Laughs.] Um, yes, I think there are quite a few who are wishing they were in my shoes!
Kidding aside, how valuable is it to work with someone who has combined film and theater, contemporary and classic roles?
Jude is absolutely an inspiration, and I can’t say enough about how great and approachable he has been from day one. He’s a real leader—a true leading man—and that in itself has been fantastic to watch. I remember hearing that when Judi Dench was starting out at the Old Vic, she used to stand by the side of the stage watching the actors around her, and I can see why: That is where you really learn!
Have you gone to Jude for career advice?
Not really. I don’t think I would want to take up too much of his time with that sort of talk. The thing is, everyone’s journey [as an actor] is different, and so much of it has to do with people’s desires. And luck.
You’ve helped make your own luck by getting off the musicals treadmill to study at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Yes, I’d been busy after I’d Do Anything working at the Menier [in A Little Night Music], and I’d even been a jazz singer for a year, but something in me said, “Sod the lot” [to hell with it]. It was time to go back and properly train. So I ended up on the three-year course at RADA pretty clear as to what I wanted to get out of my training and streetwise as to what I wanted to achieve. I knew it was a risk, but I also knew it was something I had to do.
You didn’t picture yourself hopping from one West End musical to another?
No, and I don’t think there’s anything on [in London musicals] at the moment that I feel terribly drawn to. That’s not to say I wouldn’t do a musical again. For me, it’s about the work itself, whether it’s interesting and who it happens to be with. I still can’t believe I came out of RADA early in order to play Miranda in The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe with Roger Allam as my dad. That was just bloody brilliant!
Does your musical experience come in handy in performing Shakespeare?
I suppose it does help me to the extent that the two [disciplines] don’t feel all that different. If anything, there is something quite musical in Shakespeare’s heightened use of language and the way he shapes his speech.
Do you come from a family where language was valued?
Very much so. My mum is a musician, so language has always been there for her, and my dad is a fantastic poet —not a professional one, but the way he uses language is really exciting. Language is so important to the Irish almost regardless of education. It’s amazing to think that Sean O’Casey didn’t learn to read until he was 12, but it’s as if it’s in your blood! [Laughs.]
So, does the prime-time TV hoo-ha and buzz of I'd Do Anything feel like a lifetime ago?
Totally! The show was amazing in that it got me to London and gave me experience, but it really does feel like a completely different me. What's the same, I suppose, is that I know I have a lot to learn, and I'm going to make a lot of mistakes along the way. But that's okay, isn't it?