Breakout star Jessica Barden digs into her surprising Netflix series, why she’s thrilled Alyssa stole that underwear, and what she hopes to see if there’s a second season.
Six years ago, Jessica Barden sauntered into a dance studio to audition for The End of the F***king World, a short film adapted from Charles Forsman’s graphic novel about two high-school oddballs who steal a car and get the hell out of their humdrum hometown. Barden was after the female lead, Alyssa, all outward confidence and bravado concealing a cache of confusion and vulnerability.
“I shaved my hair off the year before for another job, and I was in the process of growing it out. I had what I now lovingly refer to as a mullet,” Barden, now 25, tells Vanity Fair matter-of-factly by phone. Upon entering the room, she spotted a pole and broke out into impromptu dance in front of her potential employers. (“What else was I supposed to do? It felt very natural.“) She also shared an idea she’d been mulling for a movie, about a girl who grows up in a brothel and becomes a country music star. Of all the actresses director Jonathan Entwistle and producer Dominic Buchanan saw that day, Barden was the only to dance and discuss a feel-good movie involving prostitution during her audition.
“Obviously I’d gone a few years, at that point, with people saying things about me like, ‘Oh yeah, she’s pretty eccentric,’” says the English actress, who has had roles in Hanna, Far from the Madding Crowd, and The Lobster. “That was my first introduction to the people who were going to make the show, and they embraced the way I was. They saw a lot of Alyssa in me that I wasn’t even really aware of.”
Six years later, The End of the F***king World has further been adapted into a delightful Netflix dark comedy—eight bingeable episodes running roughly 20 minutes each. The series has great music cues (Buzzcocks, Ricky Nelson, Tullycraft), striking dialogue (“The world is fucking bleak. I guess I try to do things to forget that it is”), hormone spikes, and all the emotional in-betweens. Forsman has said that his favorite movie, Badlands (about two young murderous runaways), partly inspired his graphic novel, and that he was initially going to tell the story entirely from the P.O.V. of James, the male lead. He realized, though, that he wanted to include Alyssa’s perspective as well—and explore why she brashly kept the world at such a distance.
Alyssa is the gives-no-fucks antidote to decades’ worth of pretty teen girl heroines whose single focus is attracting the attention of a crush. She unapologetically calls most of the shots, sexual or otherwise, with her runaway partner (and possible psychopath) James, played by Alex Lawther. When the car she and James have stolen erupts into flames, she shrugs her shoulders, and walks away—onto the next challenge.
In the graphic novel, Forsman quickly sketched his protagonists, freeing them of any gender-defining details. In the series, the character wears loose-fitting T-shirts, hoodie sweatshirts, and a jacket. “When I first read the comics, I liked how Alyssa and James looked the same,” says Barden. “The way he chose to illustrate, there was no dramatic difference between who Alyssa was and who James was. They kind of had the same hair and the same face. . . . She wasn’t drawn as really pretty and cute, and I didn’t look like a stereotypical young actress with long hair. I knew that I was auditioning for something that wasn’t a stereotypical portrayal of a young girl, and that gave me a lot of confidence.”
One of Barden’s favorite scenes of the series, she says—aside from the Pulp Fictiondance homage inside the house of a serial killer—is the one in which Alyssa picks a stranger to hook up with.
“You usually see the men being the ones who are thinking with their hormones,” says Barden. “I liked that I got to act that. I liked that I got to say the words.”
Barden says she, like Alyssa, was a bit of a loner growing up—choosing to get to know herself rather than others. She had a few off-beat tendencies, too, like reciting the monologue Joan Cusack’s black widow serial-killer Debbie gives in Addams Family Values, about turning evil when she was given the wrong Barbie growing up. “I loved that she was so sassy.”
Barden speaks with the nonchalance of someone cradling the phone between her ear and shoulder, catching a friend up on the day’s events while simultaneously doing a crossword puzzle. On screen, this conversational casualness contrasts her vulnerability, hidden except for in her eyes. During our interview, Barden volunteers that she is a bit of an old-movie junkie who spent hours studying the way films “from the 40s and the 50s always zoom in on like a really extreme close-up of the actors’ eyes. I remember watching Judy Garland in a film called The Clock, which was her only non-musical film that she did at MGM. That was the first time that I was like, ‘Oh whoa, you actually think about when you act.’ I really loved Bette Davis in All About Eve, too.”
She likes old movies for another reason, too: “The actresses were always actually playing very independent women. If you watch a movie with Cary Grant, like the Hitchcock films, the woman is always the main part. The men are always just kind of going along, doing whatever the woman wants to do.”
Though Barden sounds as though she is the same sort of plucky, stream-of-consciousness spitfire as Alyssa, the English actress notes that her teenage alter ego helped her embrace the personality traits she used to suppress.
“I always thought that people would think I’m really weird because I say whatever comes into my head,” says Barden. Through playing Alyssa and enacting a powerful friendship trajectory with James—who is a different kind of peculiar—Barden realized, “I should give more time to people who are the complete opposite of me. Like Alyssa, I am always looking to learn something new that will make life better. I shouldn’t think that the quietest person in the room is going to think I am a nightmare, because that’s what Alyssa thought of James.”
“Alyssa gives no fucks, she’s very confident, and doesn’t seem to care what people think, but beneath that, and not that far beneath that, she cares a lot about what people think,” explains writer Charlie Covell, who adapted the graphic novel for the screen. “She’s worried that she is different, and she’s worried that she doesn’t fit in.”
Though that sentiment is oft-expressed on screen, Alyssa is given unconventional leeway in the series. Covell points out one episode in which Alyssa gets her period while on the lam and shoplifts a new pair of underwear.
“I’m pleased we showed that because that is something that a teenage girl, on the run, might have to deal with. I loved writing this heightened world that was truthful to the human experience of being a teenager, especially a teenage girl,” says Covell, who adjusted the scene slightly from the graphic novel. (In the novel, Alyssa steals a pair of jeans.) “It would be very easy to gloss over that and be like, ‘Oh, it’s not the week she’s having her period.’ We decided it is the week she’s having her period, and we’re going to do that.”
“I remember being a teenager, spending a lot of time being scared of lots of things but not admitting you’re scared, and maybe not even to yourself,” says Covell. “There’s such a gap between how you present yourself and how you feel, which I think can be a delight and funny and, at the darker end, really distressing.”
Alyssa and The End of the F***king World have resonated with audiences who have catalogued her kaleidoscope of emotions in memes and expressed wishes for a second season—in spite of the show’s rather conclusive ending. When I mention that Alyssa is a bit of a spirit animal for the modern era, Barden immediately responds, “Thank you. I always wanted to create a character who was a spirit animal.”
As for Season 2? “The team has been talking a lot about it,” says Covell. “I think there are a number of stories we could tell—some of them are kind of surprising. . . . I’d love to write more. There’s some really interesting stuff we could go onto to discover about Alyssa in the second series but we’ll have to see.”
Barden, meanwhile, thinks that, “Alyssa and James should be famous in the second series from doing a murder.”
“Jess thinks that they should do something sort of RuPaul-related,” says Covell. “I think she wants to channel Liza Minnelli into Alyssa in Season 2, which could work very well. It’s a direction. I’m not sure it’s the direction. But yeah, she’s keen to bring that flavor to it.”