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Alex Lawther & Jessica Barden, The End of the Fucking World
Alex Lawther & Jessica Barden, The End of the Fucking WorldNetflix

Meet the stars of the best new Netflix show, The End of the Fucking World

Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden are about to be really fucking famous

The End of the Fucking World, which originally aired on Channel 4 in late 2017 and is now available on Netflix, starts out pretty much like every innocuous road trip movie ever. A 17-year-old couple decide to run away from their nondescript English town together, the day after they meet each other. But these teenagers are anti-heroes: one of them, James (portrayed by 22-year-old Alex Lawther), is a self-declared psychopath who plans to kill the other. Meanwhile, Alyssa (played by 25-year-old Jessica Barden), his apparent target, is a pressure cooker of teenage anger from a broken and abusive home. With her icy glare and Yorkshire accent, Alyssa sets the screen ablaze even before the pair start literally blowing things up on their carnage-filled road trip — she crushes her smartphone and hurls a torrent of “fuck”s and “cunt”s at a diner waitress within the first 10 minutes of the show.

The relatively unheard-of directors, Jonathan Entwhistle and Lucy Tcherniak, adapted the show with writer Charlie Covell from an equally niche comic book series by U.S. graphic novelist Charles S. Forsman. (The crew initially made a short film in 2014, before expanding it into this eight-part series.) Forsman’s monochromatic illustrations give the show a deadpan, stylised, and curiously retro aesthetic, even when things get particularly gory. By moving the Americanised action to rural England, though, the show creates a tone all of its own: somewhere between scathing British black comedy, mid-00s mumblecore, and classic, sprawling Hollywood movies about road trips across the U.S. Imagine True Romance, remade in the countryside and directed by Richard Ayoade: a surreal, slightly grey, and very tongue-in-cheek take on high-stakes drama.

For all its stylistic appeal, though, what really carries the show are its two central performances. Lawther and Barden, appearing together in most scenes, consistently manage to sell a twisted will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic with several possible outcomes (Will they have sex? Will they die? Will they get away with this?). Lawther, with his deadpan stare and twitchy demeanour, has been seen before most notably in Shut Up And Dance, one of the eeriest ever episodes of Black Mirror; meanwhile Barden played “Nosebleed Woman” in the dystopian 2015 movie The Lobster.

We spoke to both actors on the phone about how they got into the disaffected mindset of their fucked-up, middle England Bonnie and Clyde.

Did you read the graphic novel before you got involved in this project? What did you think?

Jessica Barden: I first heard about The End of the Fucking World about six years ago, when I was involved in the short film. I stayed involved with it – we kind of had to wait for Chuck to finish (the comics). It's amazing how it's evolved, because if this project had (happened) when I was like 19 or 20, I don't think I would have been able to relate to Alyssa in the same way. It's really funny because Alyssa is 17, she's so much younger than me, but I feel like age has made me able to relate to her more.

Alex Lawther: I had a chemistry reading with Jess, and then I didn't hear anything. So I thought, 'Alright, (they) obviously didn't like me.' A year later, I got a call. By that time, I had read the graphic novel by Charles Forsman. It was really lovely to see what Charlie, the writer, had done with it. It's very much in honour of Forsman's visual novel, but it almost takes place in a parallel universe. It was a real joy to see where Charlie had stuck to Forsman's story and where she had gone off on her own brilliant imagination. I'd never worked on something that's been developed from a comic book before, and there's something about the way that Jonathan and Lucy wanted to shoot that made it feel like it transposed quite naturally.

What were you first attracted to, or what did you identify with about your character?

Lawther: At first, the lack of identification was what was interesting for me. I was like 'Oh, okay cool, it's a psychopath. I’ve never done that before.' And then (later in the script) I started seeing that this boy was cracking, and Alyssa was too. Their covers and fronts give way. They first seem to be cold and severe and violent, and they end up pretty warm and human. At first, yeah, the lack of me identifying with James, that was fascinating, but then I was really moved by how very normal at the same time James is too. To many extents and purposes, he’s just a young person trying to sort things out.

Barden: I like the way that she's just like, 'No'. I would say the biggest example of it is in episode one, when we see her in the diner. She’s just acting out in front of somebody that she likes, because she's afraid of being misunderstood, and so she's immediately giving somebody the worst case scenario of her. I think most people are like this, especially when we’re younger. Like, you actually just feel really insecure, and then everything comes out too loud. This is why age makes it easier to relate to Alyssa, because when I was younger I wouldn't really have been able to see things like that.

"There’s just something pleasing about two oddballs in a car together on the run. There’s something American, sort of other (about it) – getting a chance to do that in South of England was a rare treat" – Alex Lawther

Both of you have a really deadpan, understated style of acting in this series, in the face of really outlandish situations. Was that a new challenge?

Lawther: Yeah - sometimes, I would spend an entire week shooting, and James would have only have said five words. And four of those words would have been “okay”. So, it was a challenge in the sense of trying to find a sort of throughline or a journey for James, and not getting tempted to fill all of those silences. I think that was something, that Jonathan Entwhistle wanted from the very beginning: that although the world around them is just really fucking weird – cars are blowing up, and we’re breaking into rapists' houses – we have to undercut that with a deadpan sense of humour. The moment that you start playing up to the strange world they're in, it will just become too strange, and maybe not funny anymore.

Barden: It actually reminded me of the way that Yorgos (Lanthimos) directed us in The Lobster. We were pulled back from acting, because there's already so much thought gone into the way the dialogue is written and the rhythm of it. It’s very true to being a young person, where you're not quick to connect to everything, because you don't want anybody to know what's going on inside your head.

Did you feel like Alyssa is quite different to teenage girls we typically see on TV?

Barden: The only way that (Alyssa) is different is like, the volatileness in her. She is very vulgar, she says very crude things and swears a lot and she talks about sex when she doesn't even know what she's talking about. I guess you still don't see a lot of younger females doing that. Another thing that I really love about Alyssa is how quickly her mind changes all the time, which I think is so true. That’s something you don't see all the time – like, one second she's really confident, and the next she's holding back crying.

Which scene did you have the most fun shooting?

Lawther: Dancing with Jess to 'Setting the Woods on Fire'. It was the end of the day, we’d had no rehearsal time and they were like, 'Okay, we're just gonna set the cameras up and you guys start'. We just had a go and it was brilliant. It was like, “shall we just keep that?” We were really chuffed with that, because most of the way that the story worked was very precise and detailed and strict in its structure. It was nice to just goof around a bit with Jess and pretend to be drunk.

Were there any particularly difficult scenes to shoot?

Barden: All the scenes around the murder. It's just such a weird line to find in your head, because obviously, as a real life person, you're like, “We just murdered somebody, we have to call the police and explain it”. It was one of those weird moments when you're acting something, and then there's a moment in the story where you're in a suspended reality. Like the world in the story is taking over. That’s a challenge to act.

Did you draw on any U.S. road trip movies for inspiration?

Lawther: I really loved Badlands, which is maybe quite an obvious reference. Thelma and Louise, Bonnie and Clyde – I think that's what appealed to me about this particular job, there’s just something pleasing about two oddballs in a car together on the run. There’s something American, sort of other (about it) – getting a chance to do that in South of England was a rare treat.

How do you feel about where the story ended? Will there be a second season?

Lawther: The story ends where Charles Forsman's comic book does. It's a really lovely, self-contained story. But then, on the other hand, I would love to see where Charlie Covell would go next.

Barden: I have no idea what’s happening with the show. I think the way that (the story) has ended, I don’t see it as the end of the world. It was kind of the end of the world at the beginning of the story, for them. They didn’t like themselves. So by the end of it, you see that they have already gained so much. I think that’s why people have had such an emotional reaction to it. But I have no idea. I’m just as shocked as everybody else.