When we first meet the high schooler Alyssa, played by Jessica Barden, on The End of the F*ing World, she walks up to James, the Netflix show's wannabe sociopath, and tells him, "I've seen you skating. You're pretty sh-t." Spoiler alert: That calculated neg doesn't stop the 17-year-old pair from forming a friendship that leads to them running away after killing someone. Throughout the wild eight-episode ride, Alyssa's character only enhances her self-styled spitfire rep, taking to task her flawed family members, sexual abusers, and, of course, James (Alex Lawther). All the while, she's never reduced to one emotion—a rarity considering how narrowly women are often portrayed on TV. She has so many feelings, in fact, that they inspired the meme "Which one of Alyssa's moods are you today?"
If Alyssa and all of her complexities feel real, that's because she is. "I’m a quite dramatic person. I’m like Alyssa in that way," Barden told me over the phone. There are plenty of real moments in the series, too, like when Alyssa shuts down a sexual encounter mid-way, reminding the man she picked up off the street, Topher, that consent can change at any point. I spoke to the 25-year-old English actress about how she approached that scene, what makes Alyssa so special, and how, in her own opinion, the British series based on Charles Forsman’s graphic novel can continue after that season 1 ending.
How much did you have to do to inhabit Alyssa’s character?
When I went to meet [director and writer] Jonathan Entwistle and [producer] Dominic Buchanan for the first time six years ago, the auditions were in a fitness center in a pole-dancing [studio]. I walked into the room and danced on the pole, which was quite natural to me. Jonathan has always said that’s one of the reasons he gave me the part. He was like, "There was a pole and you were the only one who jumped on it, and that’s what Alyssa would do." So Jonathan always had the utmost confidence in me that I was Alyssa.
That’s amazing. So you had a few years to sit with the character. How did Alyssa change for you during that time between the short film and the series?
The main reason why she changed for me is because I moved out of being the same person as Alyssa. The first time I read it, I was around the same age as her. As I’ve gotten older, I can look back on the things Alyssa is going through—the whole insecurity and complete nightmare of being 17. Now I’ve moved out of that phase of my life so I can actually relate and understand more of her life, which I wouldn’t have had the ability to do when I was younger.
How difficult was it to get back into that teenage mindset?
I’m 25, but I look like I’m 16 so I don’t really don’t consider age personally. I’m friends with people that are in their 70s. I’m friends with people who are 17. So I don’t consciously do anything different because of an age.
One of the hallmarks of being a teenager is that every feeling is a strong one, often because you’re experiencing many of them for the first time—and there are some scenes in TEOTFW that contain a lot of big emotions. How did you approach them, for instance the ones with Alyssa’s dad or Clive Koch?
I don’t think time or age has dulled my emotions. I’m a quite dramatic person. I’m like Alyssa in that way. The scenes with Barry [Ward] who plays Leslie or Jonathan [Aris] who plays Clive, I really enjoyed doing. I like doing stuff that is sad or angry. It’s a challenge, because you’re doing a mix of scenes and you’re making a person. And they were really great actors to work with. I like to work instinctively because you never know what the vibe is going to be until you get on set.
One of the things people are responding so strongly to about Alyssa’s character is that her complexities are represented in a way that you don’t usually see women on screen. Did you become aware of that in the process?
It’s the reason why Alyssa was always so special to me. There’s so much more to us as women than what has previously been displayed. I really like being a woman. I think we’re great. I like the fact that sometimes I wake up and I can be really awful. This is me. Sorry, I have a period. Deal with it. I like it that my guy friends or brothers come to me for advice because I’m a woman and it’s natural for me to be caring and nurture people. But at the same time, I’m more protective because I’m a woman. There are all these different things that I think we all enjoy massively in ourselves, friends, and family. And that definitely shows in Alyssa.
The consent scene—where Alyssa explains to Topher that she’s allowed to change her mind mid-sexual encounter—is something that hasn’t been shown much before. It also feels very timely. Are you aware of the positive reaction that scene has gotten on social media?
Yeah, the reaction to it is brilliant. Obviously, at 25, that is a situation I have been in many times. That’s what you do when you’re experimenting. You have to figure things out. You decide the type of people you want to be with and what situations make you uncomfortable and what situations you’re comfortable in. That is an example of Alyssa doing it. She goes down the wrong path and she catches herself. At the time when I was doing it, it didn’t feel like this really loaded scene because it was something I have done a lot as a person. It made me laugh because I didn’t even realize it at the time. I didn’t realize that the reaction would be “we’d never seen a scene like this before” because, having common sense, it was a very natural scene to do. That’s something that happens in life, and there should be a scene about it.
What was your reaction when you realized you had first become a meme, not just with the consent scene but also with the many moods of Alyssa?
It’s maddening because I just love memes. I’ve had Instagram for three years—I don’t have any other social media—and the thing I’ve always loved about Instagram is the humor in it. The internet can be really dark but the way things grow on there and the humor is amazing. I think it actually shows a lot of intelligence. My brothers have enjoyed the [Alyssa] memes the most. My friends love it because a meme of Alyssa is a meme of my face. I didn’t actually realize how much I rolled my eyes. I didn’t realize it was such a natural facial expression to me.
Were you asked to do it or did it just come out?
It just came out. I didn’t know annoyance was something that could come across so hard on my face. It’s really funny, though.
Do you have a favorite meme from the show?
Maybe the one where I have a burger with my mouth open and I’m like, “You have to eat like a lady.”
How much input did you have on Alyssa’s incognito transformation?
[Makeup designer] Helen Speyer and [costume designer] Emma Rees was massively collaborative. Emma took me shopping; at one point I was originally supposed to wear dungarees. The hair was a big one because we wanted it to be slightly iconic but we didn’t want it to be something that had been done before. Helen got a wig made and Joanna [Dzierzanowska], who did my personal makeup on the show, and I had fun with it. We started with a blonde wig that was longer and we kept cutting until we thought that it was right. Everything was natural with the show—the hair, the costume, the makeup all came naturally.
Were there any references in the looks that people might not have picked up on?
I wanted Alyssa’s outfit to look like Ms. Honey in Matilda. I don’t know why. It just came to me.
You’ve talked about referencing Pulp Fiction in the dancing scene. How long did you think about what you’d be doing?
I just did it. [Laughs.] Jonathan Entwistle, who directed that episode, I’ve known him for a long time and we’re actually from the same area. So we kind of have a natural [connection] with each other. I was like, "Jonathan, I don’t know how to do the dance." He was like, "Yeah, you do Jess." Then we just became really hyper and I made it up as I went along. I don’t know how any of that came out.
Does Alyssa ever suspect that James is a psychopath?
No, god bless him. He’s just trying to connect with something. He’s trying to put a word on what his grief is because no one’s had a conversation with him. He doesn’t know how to talk to anyone about it. We always joked about how actually Alyssa could be the psychopath because she’s such a nightmare. Because we had the scripts, it was always quite apparent to us that it’s grief James is dealing with. Alex [Lawther] and I were briefed on where the story was going and that must have been hard for Alex because he had to play James like he was actually a psychopath, but he’s just really sad. I don’t think anyone on set wanted to push an opinion about how me and Alex were going to play it. They only encouraged us developing our own way of playing Alyssa and James, so that connection was natural.
That sounds very freeing.
Yeah, I mean the story hangs around either you believing that Alyssa and James would even want to spend so much time together because they’re so different. So it was really important for that [connection] to come naturally.
Who do you think is the more empathetic character, and does it switch throughout the show?Yeah, I think it switches all the time. I think [writer] Charlie [Covell] did a really good job of making you love them and hate them at the same time. I think that’s really cool because it represents being a teenager as well where you hate and like yourself all the time. The way adults look at teenagers—you find them to be really horrible but then you find out they’re actually just kids.
Do you want to do another season, or do you have closure in the show’s one season state?
The show is a dream job so I would love to do it again. But I’m just the actress so I read scripts, show up somewhere, and do what I’m told. It’s other people’s decisions. I am just the lowly actress.
If the show did continue, do you have ideas of how it could do so?
Maybe Alyssa and James could go on another road trip and find drag queens and then RuPaul could be in the show. That would be amazing. I’d love that.