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Jessie Buckley Is Ready to Tell Her Own Story

Harper’s BAZAAR — There’s a moment at the end of the first episode of Fargo’s fourth season, in which the camera focuses on Jessie Buckley as Nurse Oraetta Mayflower. In her starched white nurse’s apron and cap, her red hair in a prim perm, she stares blankly out the window, hands fidgeting as she mumbles unintelligibly to herself, drowned out by a swell of classical music. It’s an eerily quiet scene given the preceding hour of gory gang fighting. As Mayflower, Buckley’s physicality is exacting; her movements are stilted, considered, but they never take you out of the moment. She has an uncanny ability to wholly embody her character, making such distinct physical choices —a hunched back, a shuffled walk—that make the viewer, in real time, recognize the genius of her craft. Without saying a word, she sends a chill up your spine.

Buckley more than holds her own opposite Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman in this latest installment of the Emmy Award–winning FX anthology, this season set in 1950 in Kansas City, Missouri. (The season finale airs this month.) She offs her patients in myriad creative and sadistic ways, including baking pies laced with lethal doses of poison. Mayflower makes Ken Kesey’s Mildred Ratched look positively demure. “My first initial instinct was, Is this a female Grim Reaper?” she says of her character. “I found it really playful to walk on that knife edge, because it’s not an overt darkness. But the thing is, we all have a darkness, you know?” The 30-year-old Buckley grew up the eldest of five in Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland, the daughter of a harpist mother and a father who ran a guesthouse. Her family deeply valued creativity. “They were invested in you being wild and filling your soul up with that,” she says. Through her father’s love of poetry and her mother’s singing in church, Buckley realized early on the infinite ways in which one could tell a story. Her family took in local productions together, fostering a love of theater. “I went to see Jesus Christ Superstar and was so completely in pieces that I thought, ‘Jesus, this man has actually been crucified in the Killarney town hall, and now he’s dead,’ ” she says with a laugh. “But that’s the magic of it.

The impact was so profound, at 18, Buckley decided to pursue acting in London. A drama school rejection, however, set her up for a very modern entrée into Hollywood: reality television. The day after she was rejected from school, she went to an open call for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s I’d Do Anything, a BBC One competition show looking to cast unknown leads in a West End revival of Oliver!. Figuring it would be a great opportunity to practice singing, she stood in line, auditioned, and just kept … making it through each round. “I was so ignorant of the rigmarole of the whole thing, which was probably the best place to be,” she says. “I was more delighted that I was getting to sing and be part of a community that I thought would take a lifetime to even get a toe inside.

She came in second, signed with an agent, and took a four-week Shakespeare course at the U.K.’s famed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Turns out she didn’t need the reality show after all: Following her brief stint at RADA, she made her West End debut in a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. She sang at jazz clubs and consistently booked small acting gigs. “It was a magical time,” recalls Buckley. “I had no expectations and just went with whatever was in front of me that I felt drawn to.” Eventually it was drama school that she was drawn back to, and she was accepted to RADA full-time. “It was good to learn and try out things and fail,” Buckley says of the experience. “You take what you need to take. You can’t be precious. You have to soak it all in and leave whatever is useless to you. Then it becomes your own story.

In the past few years, Buckley has racked up a series of memorable roles, starting in 2017 as Moll in Michael Pearce’s Beast, followed by parts in Judy, Wild Rose, and HBO’s Chernobyl. She starred in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which premiered in September on Netflix, and is currently in Greece shooting Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter.

There’s a common thread while watching Buckley in these diverse roles: her unwavering passion for the work, and an intense commitment to the characters she plays. She lights up as she reflects on her journey, and for a moment it’s quite easy to imagine her as a young, wide-eyed theatergoer. “If your heart’s in the right place and you find something that you really love, then that’s half of it,” she says. “That’s sometimes enough.

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Photoshoots and Portraits > 2020 > Harper’s BAZAAR [November]