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End Of The F***ing World 2: Jessica Barden opens up about learning to manage her anxiety

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As The End Of The F***ing World returns to our screens, its star Jessica Barden talks about the growing up she’s had to do to get here. 

Jessica Barden makes adulting look easy. She’s successfully moved abroad for work, got good at doing “really boring adult stuff” like waking up early and not missing breakfast. But she still enjoys being a big kid.

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“Oh my god, I just burped and it completely fizzed down my nose,” the actor exclaims, taking a slurp of Coke Zero. “That was insane.” Jess, as everyone calls her, may be 27 but she plays a teenager to a tee in the Channel 4 series The End Of The F***ing World, switching between wide-eyed excitement and major eye-rolls. The show is the reason we meet in the broadcaster’s boardroom, where Barden is crouched in an executive chair, her Gucci trainers dangling off the edge. She looks like a young person brought in to tell the adults what kids watch these days. 

That show might well be The End Of The F***ing World, the coolest thing on television right now. It stars Barden as 17-year-old Alyssa, who escapes suburban ennui and a handsy stepdad by running away with James, played by Alex Lawther, a boy who might just want to kill her. But the pair of misfits – him, a scrawny, soft southerner; her, a freckly, northern powerhouse – find the roads populated by more bad adults loitering in crap caffs. One man is so despicable, they kill him. En route, they fall in love.

Jessica Barden as Alyssa with Alex Lawther as James in The End of the F***ing World.
Jessica Barden as Alyssa with Alex Lawther as James in The End of the F***ing World.

Based on a graphic novel and stylistically indebted to Fargo and Twin Peaks, the show is a brilliantly offbeat comedy, written by Charlie Covell and delivered in deadpan style by its star-crossed lovers. It was a hit for Channel 4 when it aired in 2017, found a global following on Netflix and is back next week for a second short, sharp series that explores the trauma of growing up in a toxic adult world.

While other teen shows tackling grown-up subjects have emerged since, none quite live in their own worlds as the The End…. “People compare it to things like Euphoria and Sex Education,” says Barden in her rich Yorkshire accent, “but I don’t think The End Of The F***ing World is like anything else.” 

There are not many like Barden on television right now either. Born in Wetherby, West Yorkshire, she started out acting in the local working men’s club at seven; got a part in Coronation Street at 14 and left school at 15 to pursue acting full-time. A working-class actor, she never felt like she belonged in the industry. When she landed a role in the West End show Jerusalem, she’d never seen a play before. She’s since been told her accent would limit her prospects. “Working-class actors have no identity,” she says. “Our identity is playing every single poor person on Game Of Thrones.”

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 So after her big break on The End…, for which she was Bafta nominated, Jess moved to LA. She’s made an Australian nun drama, Lambs Of God, with Ann Dowd. Next she’s in Jungleland, a boxing film with Jack O’Connell, and Pink Skies Ahead, with Mary J Blige, which tackles a young woman’s struggles with anxiety.

It’s a subject close to Barden’s heart and one which, despite her droll demeanour, she is comfortable to be vulnerable about. She also speaks plainly about the growing up she’s needed to do to get to adulthood. In the second series of The End…, set two years on from season one’s cliffhanger ending, Alyssa, now 19, is less ready to deal… 

Where is Alyssa when we meet her in series two?

I don’t think she really understands what is happening. So she gets married. Alyssa acts impulsively to fix the problem. She’s the type of person who changes the situation and hopes that changes her. She doesn’t understand that she’s dealing with trauma. 

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Her wedding dress is comically big…

I got fitted for it, for the show. I look a lot younger than my age, and people in the shop were like, what is going on? But I lived the Say Yes To The Dress experience. I tried on all the dresses in a shop in Westfield. Someone offered us champagne. I don’t think we told them it was for a TV show.

Does getting married appeal to you personally?

I don’t want to have a big wedding. I don’t crave that ritual of dress fittings, party planning and all eyes being on you. That’s quite a lot of my life anyway. So I would like my wedding day to be low-key. And maybe I would not wear a wedding dress but something chic and simple, like vintage Chanel.

Do you enjoy the spotlight?

The response to the show came so out of nowhere, I had to quickly adjust. Part of my job is getting dressed up and having my picture taken and the best way of dealing with that is finding a way of enjoying it. I [also] enjoy staying in and cooking with my friends; that’s how I balance it out. 

When did you realise the show had become so huge?

For three days after the show aired, my follow count was going up by 10,000 every time I refreshed my Instagram. There was a period of adjustment with social media. It’s hard to avoid people’s opinions online.

What do you put the appeal of the show down to?

It’s extremely relatable. Charlie [Covell]’s writing is honest and kids could see themselves in Alyssa and James. Alex and I didn’t look or act like a lot of the actors or characters in other young adult shows. We looked more like kids.

Even though it’s dealing with heavy stuff?

Really heavy stuff. The humour makes it all work. It has a very British tendency to take traumas and undercut them with humour. We deal with things by being funny.

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Can you describe Alyssa?

She’s a woman who is flawed. We often see very flawed male characters. People love Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders because he makes mistakes and overcomes them. Alyssa makes bad decisions, ones we think only male characters make. Women are not perfect and I don’t want to play a perfect woman on a TV show. I make a lot of mistakes. It’s important that young people see women fail and be successful because that’s life.

A theme in both seasons is violence against young women. Is that integral to the show?

Yes, because the show asks what does a vulnerable woman look like? Alyssa doesn’t seem vulnerable. Yet Alyssa is the victim of a sexual assault. In the second series, another character is the victim of a predatory male. The show challenges the concept of what a woman who has been sexually abused looks like. Every woman is vulnerable and she doesn’t come in a neat package.

How does that vulnerability manifest in Alyssa?

Alyssa seems like somebody who can handle herself, and who would be able to articulate the way she feels. If she felt anxiety over what happened to her, then surely she would be able to tell somebody about it? But that’s an assumption. It doesn’t mean she’s going to be able to articulate a trauma. And that’s what people deal with every day. We don’t use the word rape in the series either. I think that was intentional. It shouldn’t really be about a word; it should be about feeling. You should get help for how a person made you feel. We don’t have that yet in the world still, and the show explores that. 

What were you like as a teenager?

I wasn’t like Alyssa. I don’t like to let people down; I don’t like to be rebellious. I would never run away from home. I wouldn’t even sleep at somebody else’s house. I was not a cool teenager whatsoever. I was also an actress but the only thing that I remember from being a teenager is being plagued with crippling insecurity.

And you left school to pursue acting?

I was acting already and I have been lucky that it worked out for me. It’s not something that I would recommend because it’s not easy to be an actor and I have insecurities about the fact that I only have compulsory education. I love learning but I didn’t like school.

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Why not?

I have anxiety and now I realise school was not great for me. Things like not being able to leave the classroom are frightening for kids who have anxiety. I was also insecure in the way I looked. I didn’t look like everybody else. I couldn’t wear the same jeans as everybody else because I was really small. Guys wanted to date my friends but not me. Everybody wants to fit in when they’re younger. If you don’t, it’s really distracting. 

How is your anxiety now?

It helps to talk about it. I talk about it on Instagram. If I’m about to have a panic attack in a work situation, I tell people because if not, it’s such a cycle. I have a feeling why I have them. But because I’m still in my own relationship with it, I don’t really know when I want to discuss that. It is obviously to do with work, but it’s finding a way of phrasing it so it doesn’t create a bigger problem. 

How do you manage it?

Meditation helps a lot and trying to remember not every single thing that goes through your head is the truth. I use Headspace. I make better decisions about the people I spend time with. You get to 26, 27 and realise some people are not the healthiest to hang around with. Also really boring adult stuff. I wake up at 7.30am, go for a walk, get a coffee then go home and have this quiet time at the beginning of the day. That helps me a lot.

So it’s important to get up early?

In my early 20s, I would go out drinking. I didn’t understand that I was making super normal but unhealthy decisions. So I would sleep in, skip breakfast then wonder why I felt bad. I’m based in LA now and that’s helped because it’s easier to have this new identity, to say I’m trying to be a mentally healthier person, when you’re somewhere new.

How is it working in the US?

They are less distracted by my voice than [in the UK]. So I do mainly American roles now. The End… is the only thing I do my accent in. I’ve only ever played one upper-class role. Being honest, if I had stayed here, I don’t know what my career would have been like. I was told that I wouldn’t lead a TV series because of my accent. It’s a huge problem. 

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Has it made you feel insecure?

One hundred per cent. It took me a long time to feel like I belonged in the industry. But that could also be just what happens with kids who don’t grow up in London. There’s that Caitlin Moran quote about having to work to get out of a postcode before you actually work to get a job.

You hadn’t been to a play before performing in the West End, was that a question of access?

If you don’t live in London, you’re not going to go to see plays in London. It’s a similar price to go to Greece for a week. If you happen to be an actress who at 16 finds herself in the West End, you don’t know what the safety curtain is. 

Why do you think you still made it?

I’m really lucky that without seeing all these things, I was still inspired enough to be an actress. I don’t know why. When I was younger, there were lots of schemes in Leeds, which was why I could go to auditions. That doesn’t exist any more. But I will always be so proud to have played a normal person in a TV show and have my own accent.

The End Of The F***ing World series 2 airs from 4 to 7 November on Channel 4 at 10pm, or stream the series on All4 after Monday night’s double bill

Photography: Lindsey Byrnes 

Additional images: Instagram

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