Jessica Barden began her professional career at a young age, shooting an episode of “My Parents Are Aliens” when she was only 7. At the time, she was just having fun. “I was just a showoff, I wasn’t good at acting in any way,” the British actor reveals. It wasn’t until she was 17 and had a role in Stephen Frears’ 2010 film “Tamara Drewe” that she knew she was hooked. “He’s a director for actors, through and through. I don’t know a single person that has worked for him that didn’t have the best time with him,’ she notes. “He didn’t speak to me like I was a child. He spoke to me like I was an adult, he asked me what I thought about the scenes as we were shooting. And I realized I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”
Perhaps best known for her role on the British comedy-drama “The End of the F***ing World,” Barden has recently made a splash in two American indies that showcase her range. “Pink Skies Ahead,” released in May, cast her as an L.A. teen grappling with an anxiety disorder. And her latest film, “Holler,” finds her playing Ruth, a young woman in an industrial Ohio town who turn to selling scrap metal in hopes of affording college. The acclaimed movie from writer-director Nicole Riegel will be released by IFC Films on June 11.
Barden spoke to Variety about how her “Holler” character is a real-life superhero, the future of “The End of the F***ing World” and how Mario Kart helped keep her sane during a difficult shoot. (She also offered some helpful playing tips, which include that you should always use the bike and avoid playing as Mario.)
How was “Holler” sold to you or did you just read the script? It’s such a special movie but I feel like if I try to explain it to someone, I don’t do it justice.
I struggled with that as well, because I don’t want to tell people it’s about a girl who does scrap metal trades to get to college. Because if you describe it wrong, it just sounds completely irredeemably depressing and it’s not! It’s not like that at all. It’s actually a coming-of-age story that is really uplifting. The movie was sold to me by Nicole’s agent, basically saying to me, “This is gonna be the hardest job that you’ve ever done. Are you ready to work with somebody like this?” And I was like, “Is that a challenge? Because I’ll rise to it.”
I think of it as the real-life version of a superhero movie. Ruth is a real-life version of Wonder Woman with a grinder in a factory. Maybe that’s a more appropriate way of describing it?
“Holler” is set in a small town in Ohio and you’re obviously British. What, if anything, did you know about this world before taking the role?
I didn’t know this world at all. But I myself come from the middle of nowhere in England so I understand that thing where if you’re from a very specific place. You can go anywhere in the world, you can do any job, but where you’re from stays with you forever. That’s what I knew I had in common with Nicole and that’s what I wanted to get across to her because it was a fairly conventional audition. But I wanted her to understand that I know what it’s like coming from a small place, trying to work to get out of it. Not because you hate it or you resent it, not because of anger just because you want something more.
I have a friend from Ohio who was very complimentary of your accent.
That makes my day. Because I have an accent in England and I’m picky about it and everyone generalizes like all the accents are the same. So I wanted to nail it, I didn’t want to mess it up. Especially because there’s real people from the area in the film and I didn’t want to look like this British girl that came in and just butchered that accent.
Did you work with someone or were you entirely self-taught?
I worked with an amazing woman named Wendy Overly who I worked with on “Jungleland” as well. She sadly passed away and didn’t get to see the movie. She was a really, really beautiful person. Every movie you’ve seen out of Boston, all of the Ben Affleck movies, she did them. She was this invisible woman who did all these specific accents and I miss her so much.
You were warned this would be a hard shoot. Was it?
It was, but I like things to be hard and challenging. For one thing, the first seven days were shot during the polar vortex at the start of 2019 and we were filming outside and it was cold and strenuous. Gus Harper, who plays my brother in the film, and I got there 10 days early and we lived in a house in the middle of nowhere that was completely terrifying. We went and worked in a real scrap yard during that time and it could be scary. I found a few needles in bottles and cans and I was terrified of the grinder at first. But we were safe and really, I am so proud of the film.
You faced so many challenges making this movie, how were you able to decompress at the end of the day?
We played Mario Kart. I bought a Nintendo Switch and we would play Mario Kart and hold tournaments with the hair and makeup team. This truly iconic duo called Ann and Scott, they were in their 60s, and they would make limoncello in their bathtub and she would bring limoncello and we would have Mario Kart nights. This movie was through and through why you make an indie movie. It’s physically grueling, and every single day you’re like, “Oh my god, like why am I here? Why am I getting changed on the side of the road behind a tree?” But then you have the best time, you get to play Mario Kart and drink limoncello from a bathtub.
If anyone wants to make a live-action Mario Kart movie, I’m in. That would be so sick!
I have to ask about “The End of the F***ing World” because Season Two was so successful but there’s been no word on a Season Three. Have you heard anything? Do you know what’s going on?
I don’t know. We were never cancelled — I started reading things where people were asking why it was cancelled and I was like, “Excuse me, the show’s not cancelled!” You know, Charlie Covell is writing another show for Netflix called “Chaos” and like with our show, she’s writing every single episode. But I would love to do a third season and I have no doubt that at some point in the future, we will. It’s a show with no rules to it and Charlie is a genius and we just need to let her do other jobs for now.