If you speak with Jessica Barden, the Yorkshire, England native will joke that after a couple years of living in California, she is now a bonafide Angeleno—but she wasn’t always this comfortable with the prospect of working in the United States. “I was afraid of America because I found it very overwhelming,” Barden admitted to W. “It’s very different than England—hugely different.”
Far away from Hollywood, the actress materialized on a Zoom screen from Sydney, Australia, where she is working on a Netflix series with Toni Collette, (and shivering through the Australian winter, she said). Before her trip down under, Barden had recently temporarily relocated to Los Angeles while making a movie, when she decided she would stay. “The soul of Los Angeles has an insane personality,” she joked.
The 28-year-old actress now finds herself reflecting on the two starring roles she landed in indie films released this year—Kelly Oxford’s dramedy Pink Skies Ahead and Nicole Riegel’s Holler. In the former, Barden plays Winona, a brooding college dropout moving back home to L.A. in the late ‘90s, only to discover she is suffering from an anxiety disorder. In Holler, Barden takes on the role of a wise-beyond-her-years Ohioan named Ruth, who, in an effort to pay for a college education that would be her ticket out, and to support her addict mother, takes a job working at a dangerous scrap metal factory in the rust belt. Both films are semi-autobiographical portraits of the directors’ experiences in their youth.
Barden’s casting in Pink Skies Ahead was serendipitous. She had followed Oxford on social media for years, and received a DM from the filmmaker—who had no idea Barden received critical acclaim for starring in Netflix’s dark comedy The End of the F***ing World—asking if she wanted to star in the project that would become Pink Skies Ahead. “All of the conversations Kelly and I had over DM were about personal things in our lives, our anxieties,” Barden explained. “Anxiety is a funny one because it is a complete part of being a person, and everyone has it—so it’s hard to recognize in yourself or in another person when they have a big problem with it. So much of my anxiety was masquerading as my personality, which is one of the most complicated things about mental health issues. If you leave them for a long time, you think it’s just the type of person that you are.”
The production of the film ended up changing Barden for the better, and providing the actress with relief from some of the anxiety issues she experienced until the point of filming with Oxford and the rest of the cast, which includes Henry Winkler, Mary J. Blige, and Marcia Gay Harden. “Through making the movie, I have a therapist now,” Barden said. “And through meeting people on the film who had a relationship with anxiety, I realized you don’t have to walk around afraid of things.”
While Pink Skies Ahead is emblematic of Oxford and Barden’s dark and dry sense of humor, Holler, the second film Barden stars in this summer, enters even darker terrain. “It was one of those roles where I was like, I know that I have to get this part. Maybe two or three times a year you get a role where you know you’re the best person for it, and it makes the audition process special because you believe in yourself,” the actress explained. “It unlocks a confidence that is so invaluable to the process.”
The work was difficult—the cast was not shooting in sunny Los Angeles or a trendy neighborhood in New York, and many of the smaller roles were occupied by Southern Ohio natives who had not acted before. “I loved Ohio,” she said. “This movie was very physically hard to make because it was so cold. There were no real comforts there because it was the middle of nowhere, but the people were amazing.”
Barden’s road to acting fame has been a funny one. “When I first started out I was a kid and there was no method,” she said with a laugh before adding, “I got hired because I was vaguely cute, and that was it.” As a teenager she starred in the British soap opera Coronation Street, which she did not enjoy, but chalked it up to being a learning experience. She attended school on set and had a lot of free time to read, which led her to discover the wonders of Classic Hollywood. The self-described “nerd” was obsessed with old films, watching them in her free time and even joining small communities of fellow fanatics on Tumblr.
“I have no idea why I wanted to read about Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland, but I remember finding out that Ava Gardner was just discovered in a cafe, and Lana Turner as well. They would take them into a room and tell them what their face looks like and how to act,” she explained. “So I would sit in the mirror and teach myself how to look sad or happy, and it was this window in my life where it opened me up to making a choice about wanting to act. I had new heroes.”
These days, however, after enough time offline and in the real world, Barden has found her people and discovered exactly the niche she wants to occupy as an actress. Roles about mental health, underprivileged people, and just about anything that is generally dark is attractive to her because of the prominence of those subjects in her own personal life. “I play people that are fucked up, but it’s not because I am,” she said. “People always want there to be a reason for these things in interviews and there isn’t one, it’s just the way that it is.”
Jessica Barden photographed by James Tolich and styled by Laura Jackson for W Magazine. Hair by Travis Balcke at Saunders & Co. Makeup by Liz Kelsh at 22. Production: David Wilton at Image Bureau. Sittings Editor: Michael Azzollini. Stylist Assistant: Alicia Feebrey. Photo Assistants: Alex Johnstone and Bianca Edwards.