A lot can change in three years, just ask Jessica Barden. Since we last spoke in 2020, the Yorkshire-born star of The End Of The F***ing World has settled into a new life in Los Angeles, entered her thirties and become a mum. She’s even founded new traditions – hosting breakfast for friends and family on Sundays to watch the football. Father-in-law Henry Winkler is a frequent guest. Yes, that Henry Winkler.
Despite the major changes, Barden remains unfazed. “The funniest thing is that Los Angeles doesn’t feel that different to growing up in Leeds,” she says. “A lot of people in LA have grown up here and never left, which feels like Leeds. And it’s definitely a suburb. There’s a five mile radius around West Hollywood, but the rest is where people live really quiet lives. It can be quite boring.”
When we speak, Barden is actually in the UK, chatting via Zoom from her publicist’s office in Soho, London. She’s promoting new romantic drama You & Me, which was filmed in the city. Executive produced by acclaimed TV writer Russell T. Davies (It’s A Sin, Queer As Folk), the three-part ITVX series sees Barden play Emma, a young actress trying to move forward after personal tragedy strikes.
Told over two separate timelines across the three episodes, You & Me slowly reveals the terrible events that have shaped Emma and the other characters’ lives. Eventually, a chance emerges to move on from the devastating trauma and to learn to love again. “I was blown away when I read it,” says Barden, remembering her first encounter with the script. “This was a dream job working on a Russell T. Davies show, on ITV where people will actually watch it – and I’d get to work with other English people the same age as me whose careers I admire.”
With Harry Lawtey in ‘You & Me’. CREDIT: ITV
On-set, Barden became fast friends with co-stars Sophia Brown (who gives a standout performance) and Harry Lawtey, who tells us from a quiet pub in south London how “talented and experienced” Barden is – and how she “brings so much of herself to her work, which is just as well with such a great, unique personality.”
Earlier the same day, NME watches this “unique personality” in full flow as Barden films a scene at nearby Brockwell Lido, jumping into the freezing pool and demanding her team “GET SWIMMING, LADS”. Barden’s main skill lies in, as Lawtey puts it, “living off the relationships of the people” around her. There’s a buzz to her that’s infectious, but by her own admission that level of excitement has been tested in the past.
“When I first moved to London, I couldn’t change a light bulb”
When Barden first moved to London to pursue acting in 2009, alone, at the age of 16, she struggled. She lived all over town – including a stint in somebody’s shed in Richmond – and had more than a few run-ins at local supermarkets. “I remember I couldn’t change a light bulb, and I went to Sainsbury’s and was like, ‘Hi, is there anybody in here that can change my lightbulb?’ It’s a wonder I didn’t get killed!”
Barden says she’s done “a lot of therapy” to process that time, which was defined by loneliness. “I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t have any friends because how does a 16-year-old make new friends?” she says. “I don’t know how I survived it. I think it is a theme within the entertainment industry: you get put in crazy situations that you shouldn’t be in.”
Barden spent the following years earning her stripes in British indie films like Tamara Drewe and In The Dark Half. Then, in 2017, everything changed. She was cast in the black comedy series The End Of The F***ing World, which became an overnight, transatlantic hit on Netflix.
Created by Jonathan Entwistle, the show’s two seasons so far see her play Alyssa, a teenager who goes on the run with self-diagnosed psychopath James (Alex Lawther) after they accidentally murder someone. Barden and Lawther were instantly propelled to fame – and the rest is history. She’s moved on since then – playing Barbra Streisand in a TV series; working with the Osbournes on Ozzy’s music video for ‘Under The Graveyard’ – but the fans remain hopeful Barden (and Lawther) will eventually return for a final fling in between big movie jobs.
Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther in ‘The End Of The F***ing World’. CREDIT: Alamy
It was on one of those big movie jobs, 2019 boxing drama Jungleland, that Barden met the person who would change the next chapter of her life. She fell in love with director Max Winkler, who later became her husband in 2021. Everything fell into place from there: Los Angeles beckoned, and a quieter life in a “suburb”. Soon she was hanging out with the likes of Henry Winkler (Max’s dad) and Jonah Hill (Max’s best mate) on the weekends.
What’s it like to have an extended family filled with Hollywood royalty? “Jonah’s exactly what you want him to be like,” Barden says of Hill. “He’s hilarious – I love being around him because he’s been in the industry for so, so long.” And what about her “so cute” father-in-law, Happy Days legend Henry Winkler? “He’ll call us on the weekend on Sunday morning and go, ‘Is there going to be a soccer match this weekend?’” she says, beaming. “When he was young, [Henry] was the most famous person in the world. It was him, The Beatles and Wonder Woman. So he wasn’t watching sports with his friends. He loves hanging out with the guys now, just eating a bagel.”
“You can be alone in LA and no one asks you questions about it”
After a few months of A-listers turning up in her kitchen, Barden quickly became accustomed to it. One famous face still holds the power to shock her though – and it’s not who you’d expect. “If I saw Phillip Schofield I’d be like, Oh my God, it’s Phillip Schofield.” Really?! “Yes! If I met Meryl Streep, I would just be like, ‘Well, she’s just trying to do her job.’ Whereas Phillip Schofield is on This Morning. He’s in your house every day. I think if somebody’s an actor and you’re in the industry with them, I want them to think that I get it. I want them to be like, ‘I’m one of them.’ I don’t need Phillip Schofield thinking I’m the same as him. I’m not bothered with [Schofield’s This Morning co-presenter] Holly [Willoughby] and Phil thinking I’m cool, but I would want Meryl Streep to think I’m cool. I just want to be able to be peers.”
There are still moments where Barden craves solitude, away from her starry friends and family – and Phillip Schofield. Ironically, living in the world’s most celeb-packed place has helped her to find it. “You can be alone in LA and no one asks you questions about it,” she says. “That was the reason I originally just stayed there for a bit, because I was at a point in my life in 2019 where I was dealing with really bad anxiety. And I was very tired. LA is a place where you can be very private. [In London], if I just wanted to be by myself for like a week, or even just a few days, you’d see someone at the shop and be like, ‘Where have you been, what’s going on?’ It’s the blessing and the curse of LA, you can go days without seeing someone and it just depends on whether that’s what you want.”
In terms of where her career might take her next, Barden finds herself in a position where she can pick and choose. Now, she wants to prioritise independent film, looking for the chance to show thanks for where her career really started. “I’m always trying to make something where it doesn’t just feel like a payday for someone,” she says. “This part of the industry deserves actors to give a shit about it: I feel like everybody abandoned independent film. I want to go back to doing something and having no idea if someone’s going to watch it.”
She’s serious, even though you often wonder if you’re supposed to laugh with Barden. She’s become well-known for her trademark deadpan delivery, though comedy wasn’t the plan. “I’ve never tried to make anything funny. I can’t make a line 10 different ways funny, because that’s what comedy actors do. I try and say stuff in a serious way.” And crucially, she’s aware of the cost of the alternative. “I feel like the people who are funny are really fucked up. There’s a fine line between being funny and a cry for help. When people say I’m funny, I’m just like, ‘Oh God, what did I reveal about myself today?” Nothing bad, she’ll be glad to hear. Just a very down-to-earth, talented actor, living in LA, by way of London and Leeds.
‘You & Me’ launches on ITVX on February 23
Featured image by Lindsey Byrnes
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