This wasn’t supposed to be Jessie Buckley’s life, you know.
It was supposed to be all-music. She would do concerts and musicals, just as she’d been doing since she was a kid in County Kerry.
Instead … she’s a noted Shakespearean. “I am as surprised as everyone else,” Buckley (shown here) – starring with Josh O’Connor in a beautifully crafted “Romeo and Juliet,” at 9 p.m. Friday (April 23) on PBS – told the Television Critics Association.
The PBS film sprang from two tragedies – Shakespeare’s fictional tale and the real pandemic that wiped out all live shows, including this one. “It was going to be one of the biggest shows of the year,” said Simon Godwin, head of the National Theatre in London.
He contacted David Horn, producer of PBS’ “Great Performances.” The goal, Horn said, was “to transform their canceled stage production … into a stylized film.”
Very stylized. The entire thing would be filmed inside the National’s building. Using only Shakespeare’s words, it would start by looking like an audition – casually dressed actors, sitting around on folding chairs – and would gradually add minimal sets and costumes.
This was a huge step for Godwin, who directs theater, not film. “I had a very, very sympathetic cinematographer (who) gave me what he called ‘film school.’ (And) the actors were very experienced acting on screen.”
VERY experienced. O’Connor is best known to PBS fans for playing the eccentric young writer in the four-season run of “The Durrells”; he’s known to everyone else for playing Prince Charles in the past two seasons of “The Crown,” winning a Golden Globe.
And Buckley has done lots of drama. She’s won eight awards for starring in movies (“Beast,” “Wild Rose,” “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”) and for playing a firefighter’s wife in “Chernobyl.”
And no, her life didn’t prepare her for any of that. “Obviously, it is a mess,” she said. “There’s been no kind of consistency or kind of planning.”
The plans involved music. In Killarney (an Irish town of 14,500), her mother was a vocal coach; Buckley played piano, clarinet and harp and sang often –in concerts and musicals. Since this was an all-girl school, she starred as Tony in “West Side Story.”
(That musical was inspired by Shakespeare’s play, so you could say Buckley is one of the few people to have played Romeo AND Juliet.)
She tried to study acting, but was rejected bv two drama schools. Instead, she did a reality show in which the prize was the female lead in “Oliver” on the West End (London’s equivalent of Broadway).
Buckley finished second, but reached the West End in “A Little Night Music.” She did lots of concerts and played some singers … but also went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and even did some Shakespeare. “I would just spend literally any time I wasn’t onstage, (standing) on the side of the stage, watching Judi Dench or Jude Law or whoever.”
The kid who was rejected by drama schools had become an actress. She drew praise as the killer nurse in the latest “Fargo”; then Godwin dared to cast Buckley, 31, and O’Connor, 30, as teen lovers.
This was a big change, O’Connor said, after “playing so much Charles, who is all constricted in the mouth and everything is through the teeth. And suddenly, your mouth is having to do acrobatics.”
And it was a change for Godwin, unaccustomed to directing for film. In rehearsals, he said, he would ask the actors to speak louder. “They said, ‘But Simon, we don’t need to, because the audience will hear that. There’s going to be these things called close-up microphones.’”