‘Women Talking’ star Jessie Buckley: ‘You don’t realize how vulnerable you are when you’re filming a scene’

·7 min read

Jessie Buckley, born in Killarney, Ireland, trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, an Oscar nominee for her performance in the excellent Maggie Gyllenhaal-directed Netflix drama “The Lost Daughter,” has in a few short years gone from “Who’s she? She’s good!” to simply and reliably being among the very best screen performers working today.

She brings an air of clean, piercing curiosity and resolve to every complicated woman she takes on, and when they’re relatively simple on the page, she makes them complicated and interesting on screen. The feverish accolades for a recent West End stage revival of “Cabaret,” in which Buckley co-starred with Eddie Redmayne, asserted her theatrical chops as well as her excellent taste in collaborators.

“Women Talking” is one of those collaborative gems, screen division. Now in theaters, director-adapter Sarah Polley’s beautifully finessed version of the 2018 Miriam Toews novel was born out of a galling real-life account, that of the “ghost rapes” victimizing the women of a Bolivian Mennonite community. Those committing the serial sexual assaults were, in fact, the men, preying on the women, then blaming their memories on the influence of demonic spirits.

The film version of “Women Talking” presents a kind of symphonic disquisition and life-or-death debate among nine women in a fictionalized reimagining of what happened in Bolivia. Buckley plays Mariche, a fiercely protective mother as well as a victim of the institutionalized sexual violence that has led these women to a crucial meeting. Do they stay and forgive their rapists? Do they fight? Or leave? In disarmingly spacious widescreen compositions, director Polley gives a splendid ensemble its due, Buckley high among the performance rewards.

Her character, she told me recently by phone, has “learned to survive in hope that in the next life, there’ll be something better. It’s a lot scarier to hope for something in this life. Because then you have to seize it.” The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Buckley: I was in Chicago not long ago, when we were shooting Season 4 of “Fargo.” (She played the very, very bad do-gooder, Nurse Mayflower.) Just before the pandemic. We were just about to finish, two weeks to go, the pandemic hit and we all flew home. And then we came back in the summer. So. How long ago was that? Can’t remember.

Phillips: Time is gone now. The concept of time is gone. Anyway, this has been a remarkable few years for you.

Buckley: Thank you for that.

Phillips: I wonder in what ways did the filming of “Women Talking” feel like rehearsing a play, and in what ways was it utterly not like that?

Buckley: Hmmm. Well, from the beginning we were all so committed to and conscious of the people we played, their stories and how this hayloft (debate) becomes the most important thing in their lives. As actors, I can tell you, once we were in, we were all the way in.

This was still COVID time. We were up in Toronto and started with a week of rehearsals on Zoom, which was not fun. But we got to know each other, and talk about each of our characters, our relationships. And then the second week, we were completely masked up on set, wearing visors — we didn’t see anybody’s face until we started shooting. We didn’t see the crew’s face at all, really. Ever. A weird experience.

But as an acting experience, it was unlike anything. There were nine different perspectives these women represented, all based on one fear, one hope, and that meant 150 takes of one scene over three days, more or less. You kind of just … let go. It didn’t feel like acting. In real-time, you were being changed as an actor.

Phillips: I read about producer Dede Gardner urging Sarah Polley to budget for an on-set therapist. For material like this, it only makes sense. In that Vogue interview you say: “In some ways (Mariche) is the least palatable, and that’s got to come from somewhere. We’ve been told to be physically and emotionally palatable as women in the world, and she’s the antithesis of that.” I wonder at what point did you make use of the on-set therapist?

Buckley: You don’t realize how vulnerable you are when you’re filming a scene. It could be for lots of reasons, especially with this material, which could and did trigger a lot of things for lots of people in different ways.

I don’t consciously take my work home with me; I think I’d go mad if I did. But sometimes the work just gets inside you, you know. But I didn’t really realize until the women (they were portraying) were actually leaving the hayloft, after the vote, that I was … I don’t know, it all kind of exploded inside of me. I needed somebody to talk to. And having a therapist on call to just talk things out, to ask questions about how people deal with trauma — that was nothing to take for granted. Sometimes the work just gets inside you, you know. And when that happens, it’s good to go have pizza and a margarita and talk about everything but the work.

Phillips: It’s stern material but Polley and the cast give it such a humane, easy-breathing touch.

Buckley: She is an extraordinary leader, and she leads from a beautiful, egalitarian place. She has such intense curiosity to understand every character, everything about the story. Have you seen her documentary “Stories We Tell”? Oh my god. I just feel lucky to know her.

Mariche, I feel I know that woman. I’ve felt that pain at times in my life, and I know many other people who have as well. As an actor, you don’t want to judge the person you’re playing. I needed to understand the source of that wound in a person. Not judge her. Learn to love her.

The thing I was asking myself was: What are the stories we’ve always been told as women? And how much of that is still being handed down, right now? It happened in the witch hunts in the 17th century. It happened in the first wave of feminism, and the second wave. I think this story has come before and will come again, in a different form.

This is not a sensational film. It’s a slow burner. It’s something different. I hope people respond to it. And start their own conversations. The conversations I used to have with myself, when I was 16 or 17 — at that age, I never thought I could feel the way I feel now. About everything, and what motivates me. There will always be people who tell you to stay in a box, you know. And it’s up to you to either go through it or around it. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to be that kind of stay-in-your-box woman, actually (laughs). Any boxes I’ve been told to stand in, they didn’t suit me. Or last very long.

Phillips: Is it easier to not bring your work home with you when you’re doing theater?

Buckley: Em, no (laughs). With theater, and with film, to be honest, anytime I get an opportunity to work (on material) I feel enough curiosity and motivation about to go and just figure it out — that’s something you can’t really leave behind you. The right kind of work changes your perspective of the world. In theater, when I go home, I make tea; I love to cook; I cycle around London; I read a book. Normal things. You may still be thinking about the work but in the best way.

It’s not a hardship. It’s a real pleasure to get to know the world that way.


“Women Talking” is now in theaters.