Film

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley: 'Why the hell are we still judging someone on how they look?'

Wicked Little Letters is a new British comedy features some of the most brilliantly inventive swearing seen on screen

European Premiere of WICKED LITTLE LETTERS

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley are quite the duo. On screen or off screen, they are like firecrackers in each other’s presence. When they get together with The Big Issue, to be in their presence – even on a video call from different parts of the country in advance of their new film, Wicked Little Letters – is to witness a friendship full of energy and love. 

The friendship was sealed when they shot The Lost Daughter for Netflix, for which they each received Oscar nominations – Best Actress (Colman) and Best Supporting Actress (Buckley). Because they played the same character at different times in her life, they didn’t share any scenes, but that didn’t stop them connecting.

Colman in The Lost Daughter (2021). Image: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

“It was a joy,” recalls Buckley, “we were in Greece together for about a week with each other and immediately hit it off. We were like, what is the naughtiest thing we could do? 

“We didn’t get to work together, but we would drive home together then have chips and wine outside our little huts.”

Many a strong bond has been formed over chips and wine. And this one seems special. “We spend New Year’s together, don’t we?” Colman says. 

The Lost Daughter (2021). Image: BFA / Alamy Stock Photo

Their characters spend most of Wicked Little Letters at loggerheads. The film contains some of the most brilliantly inventive swearing seen on screen. And the wild thing is that it is all based on real events that took place in a 1920s seaside town when anonymous poison-pen letters, crafted with a
seriously foul-mouthed flourish, caused a sensation.

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In the film, conservative, unhappy, put-upon Edith (Colman) is swift to point the finger at her next-door neighbour – rowdy, hard-living, Irish single mother Rose (Buckley) – when she starts to receive a barrage of imaginatively abusive post.

There is a delightful playfulness in the language of Jonny Sweet’s script. Rose is described as someone who “curses like a fish, has straggly hair all the time, and walks round on the Sabbath with feet as bare as goose eggs” or “turning up at women’s whist with the general attitude of Ireland”. 

No wonder Buckley and Colman responded to the script for Wicked Little Letters with such glee.

Sony Pictures Classics/StudioCanal. Image: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

Olivia Colman: Shall I go first? Well, I remember reading Jonny’s script and loving that it’s a real story and it had these two women in the 1920s swearing at each other like this. A lot of it is taken from the real letters. And I wanted to work with Jessie. Because we adore each other – well, I’ll say that, she might say something else! But to have this much fun and swear at each other – you can get too serious about work. Every now and then you need to do something where you just know you’re going to have a good time.

Jessie Buckley: Should I speak now? That’s quite enough of you! Yes, all of that. Col texted me and, to be honest, she could have said do you want to read Baa, Baa, Black Sheep with me and I’d have been there like a shot. Then I read the script and was crying with laughter. 

OC: They’ve taken these old-fashioned insults and made it even more ludicrous. We giggled a lot. 

JB: I have sworn all my life. Being an Irish woman, you are kind of born swearing and it’s so enjoyable. So to actually get to give it a good go, to be able to swear for Ireland and for Britain was just brilliant! I felt I was representing Ireland. 

OC: I loved “fuck you up the noseholes!” I really enjoyed that. And my character’s final one, where she drops a C-bomb. 

JB: When we were filming on the street, young kids would be there. Col was always, like, can we just make sure the kids are a bit further away?

OC: We’d be shouting “facking hell” and you would see all these sweet little faces looking over at us. 

JB: But all the lovely, old, quiet little ladies around the town, I was like, bring them in. This is what they really want to say! 

Wicked Little Letters is not just a celebration of filthy language. It also shows the frustrations of women thwarted. The town is full of smart women whose intellect was not respected or allowed to flourish. No wonder one of them resorts to creating the letters that set all the local tongues wagging. 

Sony Pictures Classics/StudioCanal. Image: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

OC: Even years after this film is set, my mum wasn’t expected to have an education while her brothers were. She was really bright but was told you will be a secretary or a nurse and you’ll get married. She had wanted to be a doctor but she wasn’t allowed. It was a waste of money to educate a woman. 

JB: [gasps]

OC: I know.

JB: And it is still like that now. My mother went back to university 10 years ago. She told me she saved £12.50 every week from her work to be able to afford, at some point, to go back to university. 

OC: Your mum’s amazing. She’s fucking ace.

JB: So is your mum!

If Wicked Little Letters has modern echoes, they can perhaps be found online, in the trolls and pile-ons that have become so ingrained in social media. As all of Littlehampton rounds on Rose, who ends up facing prison, it takes a band of brilliant women – led by ‘Woman Police Officer Moss’ (Anjana Vasan) to investigate. 

OC: I loved what it was saying about people’s perception of others. You make judgements on how someone looks or where they come from which are invariably wrong. It has always happened, it’s nothing new. But why the hell are we still doing it? Why haven’t we learned not to hurt each other and make judgements?

JB: I guess people act that way for a reason as well. In the film, you can’t judge these women for their actions because they’re just trying to find a way to be OK… oh someone’s given me a thumbs-up!?

OC: That’s cool. What does that mean?

JB: Do you ever get balloons out of nowhere on your screen during a Zoom call? I just got a thumbs-up. 

OC: Is that because you were saying such brilliant things?

JB: Can you put that in the piece that a thumbs-up appeared out of thin air when I said something really great?

OC: And can you lie and say I got loads of those as well?

JB: Women at that time were told they could only exist within a certain framework. Like they are only allowed to be in the parlour room reading books and praying… no wonder someone was writing fucking swear letters. 

OC: I totally agree. And women are still having to do that. There’s still always a comment about a woman who’s stepped out of line or done something different. Just shut up! There is that policing of behaviour and women feel bad when they’ve felt angry, or apologise for being human. So I love these women.

Jessie Buckley in Chernobyl (2019). Photo: HBO / Album

Prior to Wicked Little Letters, both actors have been scaling great heights for years. Buckley came to prominence in BBC talent show I’d Do Anything and in the West Endbefore heading to Rada. She graduated into roles in TV big hitters War & Peace, Chernobyl and Fargo, indie hit Beast, musical Wild Rose, starred in the hit West End revival of Cabaret, and also found time to make Mercury Prize-nominated LP For All Our Days That Tear The Heart with guitarist Bernard Butler. Next up, she’ll be reconvening with The Lost Daughter co-star Paul Mescal in a film adaptation of bestseller Hamnet.

Colman, from her breakthrough role in Channel 4’s Peep Show 20 years ago, has seen her career blossom. On television, she has been outstanding in a variety of roles from Rev and Fleabag to Broadchurch and The Night Manager, while in film she has shone on a global scale. Her Oscar for The Favourite in 2018 was followed by nominations for both The Father in 2020 and The Lost Daughter in 2021, while she has demonstrated vast range in films from Peter Mullan’s devastating Tyrannosaur to a recent, devilish turn in Wonka

Both actors have been enjoying the freedom to explore and grow that society tries to deny their characters in Wicked Little Letters

Broadchurch, (from left): Olivia Colman, David Tennant. Image: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

OC: It’s nice that you say we’re having a good run. Sometimes I go, Oh god, I don’t feel as if I’m working as much as I used to. 

JB: It’s still as scary as when you get your first job. You still have the same excitement when you get a job and then go, I’ve got to do it now. This was an awful idea. I’m gonna fuck it up. But then you get set and you are around the crew and the cast and it’s amazing. You try to do things where you get a gut reaction and it ignites something in you.

OC: I’ve always wanted to do stuff that felt right in my gut and my soul. You can lose sight of that along the way, with three kids and a mortgage. Sometimes you have to do the money job to be able to do all the other stuff. But I know I’m a much nicer friend, wife, mum, when I feel like I’m artistically or creatively fulfilled. Whatever form that takes. I had nine months off last year…

JB: I had a whole year off as well, which was kind of the first time in my life. And it was sometimes scary.

OC: A friend of mine was teaching me pottery. I started to go a bit dark inside when I wasn’t creating, so I did some painting and pottery – it really helped.

JB: She’s great. I’ve got two cups!

OC: See? Jessie is my friend. Because these are cups with no bottoms. They can’t hold anything. 

Wicked Little Letters

We return to their friendship – having established that it is real, not just something they say because they are actors promoting a film. I ask each in turn what they love about the other one. It gets emotional. 

OC: Oh god, I think this’ll make me cry. 

JB: I will go first. I can’t tell you how much I love Olivia – just every ounce of her and her unbelievable human heart. I think that’s why everybody loves you, because your heart is just so huge. And that’s why you’re so amazing at what you do. Your heart is bottomless. And you’re such an arsehole! Hahaha. 

OC: Oh my god Jessie. 

JB: But she is also one of the kindest people ever. A real human person. She is one of the best people. 

OC: Jessie, you’ve taken all the words out of my mouth. All the things I would want to say about you. A light goes on in your life when you meet Jessie. Her laugh is louder than anybody else’s. She’s more generous than anybody else. She means it. She gives everything to everybody… I genuinely adore Jessie Buckley. 

As a final request, we ask how Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar and Bafta-winner Colman and BIFA, IFTA and Olivier Award-winner Buckley would encourage people to read The Big Issue… in the style of one of the Wicked Little Letters

JB: You go first…

OC: Why don’t you just fucking buy it you pasty old crusty old foxy arsed old cunt!

JB: [gasps] Wow! OK, here goes. Why don’t you just go and buy the fucking magazine, with your fucking tweed suit?

Now for some quick-fire f*cking questions

Great Pottery Throwdown or The Bear?

Images: Channel 4/Disney+

OC: That’s like Sophie’s Choice. I mean, they are both great.

JB: What’s The Great Pottery Throwdown?

OC: Oh, it’s like, like The Great British Bake Off, but it’s pottery. I do love pottery. But I’d have to say The Bear for me. It was an incredible thing to be part of – and did really well last night at the Golden Globes. 

JB: Well, I’ve never seen The Great Pottery Throwdown. So it is The Bear for me too.

Suede or Pulp?

Images: Alamy

OC: Ooh, Pulp. My husband and I fell in love about the time of Different Class. He left his CD once in the student bar and it got nicked – I know. I met Jarvis Cocker once and told him we fell in love to that album and he went, ‘it’s not a very romantic album’. Well, that’s not the point! It was. We loved it. 

JB: I will have to say Suede because of Bernard.

Benedict Cumberbatch or David Tennant?

Images: Alamy

OC: You can’t ask that question. I mean, DT will always have my heart because we spent so many years together [on Broadchurch]. I haven’t worked with Benedict yet, but maybe when I do he’ll be equal in my heart.

JB: BC or DT? It sounds like before and after Jesus or something. Can I say both? I’ve never worked with David but they’re both really great.

Labour or Tory?

Images: Alamy

OC: Oh, it’s so easy. I almost want to, as a joke, say the other one but I can’t even say it as a joke. Labour. I’m a leftie. But also, does everyone need to know that? Actually, it’s probably quite obvious that I am.

JB: I think so, yeah! Labour for me too. 

OC: I heard Starmer speak at a charity called Tender, which I’m patron of. And I think he’s genuinely passionate about ending violence towards women and girls. He came from humble beginnings, he’s had a proper job and there’s a lot to be said for that. We need someone who knows what it’s like to actually work. You can get yourself tied up in knots and I’m going to get all sorts … but I’m excited about a potential change.

Oppenheimer or Barbie?

JB: I quite liked Oppenheimer. But they were so different. I mean, I love Cillian. 

OC: He is heaven. But All Of Us Strangers – that’s the one!

JB: Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal. That’s the kind of sausage fest we need… 

Red Wine or Guinness?

Images: Unsplash

OC: Red wine for me. Although I had my first Guinness in Ireland and it is a different beast.

JB: You can only really drink Guinness in Ireland. I would say I could drink red wine for longer – I can have a half a pint of Guinness, but only for my favourite pub in the world, which Foxy John’s in Dingle! Here’s a shout out for Foxy John’s! It is a hardware store during the day that turns into pub at night. And what an amazing pub. 

Wicked Little Letters is in cinemas now 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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