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For the Stars of 'End of the F***ing World', Everything Has Changed

We spoke to Jess Barden and Alex Lawther ahead of the season two premiere.

by Michael Segalov; photos by Chris Bethell
05 November 2019, 10:21am

Jess Barden and Alex Lawther in the tunnels under the London Postal Museum.

"You know we're not actually a couple, right?" asks Jess Barden. "Because this feels like a couples counselling set-up, and I'm not sure we actually need it." Alex Lawther, who's sitting next to her on the sofa, bursts out laughing.

I'm perched on an armchair that – in fairness to the End of the F***ing World co-stars – does look like it belongs in a therapist's office.

"Maybe it could be useful, a lot has happened," says Alex, grinning at his on-screen partner in both crime and romance – a nod to the sex and violence of the love story that made the first season of their show so addictively deranged.

"I'm honestly really excited," says Jess of season two, which premiered last night on Channel 4. "I'm just really happy that people liked the first series. I thought it would be successful, in a way... we had such a great time doing it – it felt special. But I don't think we thought people would respond the way they did."

Earlier this morning, Alex was running late and Jess was running later. Jess had only had three hours sleep, and is claustrophobic, she'd told us, as she walked into the dark tunnels underneath the London Postal Museum for the photo shoot. Stylists, groomers and publicists followed closely behind the photographer and his assistant, as Jess and Alex's whispers were punctuated by shrieks of laughter which echoed around the walls.

The whole thing was hardly inconspicuous, despite the fact we'd been told to keep a low profile. Until the first two episodes of season two were released, nobody was allowed to know that Alex's character – James, who was shot in the season one finale – isn't actually dead.

Since the first season premiered on Channel 4 in October of 2017, the programme has amassed a cult-like following, helped by Netflix releasing it internationally the following January. However, the show didn't have the smoothest of take-offs. "It was always touch and go if we were even going to do the first season," says Alex. "We certainly never knew we'd be doing a second."

alex lawther

"I thought people would look at [our characters] looking straight ahead, not at each other, particularly in the first few episodes, and feel hesitant," he continues. "It takes a while to break out of those quite strict confines, and I thought people might have felt it got in the way of the story – but in fact it's something people seem to have really responded to: the mad comic book nature at the beginning, which becomes more human towards the end. I remember turning to Jonathan [Entwistle, the director] and being like, 'Is this is… errr…'"

Jess jumps in to finish Alex's sentence, not for the last time: "I honestly thought people would watch and think, 'She's terrible at acting. She needs to go in the bin.'"

"We knew the show was weird," she continues, "and remember, we made the first season a long time ago. You see a lot of TV shows now – especially coming out of the UK – which aren't 'normal'. The show doesn't seem as weird anymore – the first series doesn't stand out as much."

"That's in a wonderful way," adds Alex. "TV is really testing its own limits with lots of weird and brilliant stuff coming out."

"Yes, and that was all our influence," says Jess. The two of them laugh.

jess barden alex lawther

It's hard to describe the show to people who haven't seen it. A dark comedy? A coming-of-age drama? A tragic love story? A paean to the hidden charm of murderous psychopaths? And with series two about to drop, we're all conscious of giving too much away.

When I ask for their take, Jess and Alex talk about how both seasons are defined by grief and how we process it; about how people remembering the same situations differently can cause chaos. "It means when you need people for answers, which both our characters do, you just end up with more questions," says Jess. They also both speak about the challenges of returning to play these parts now that fans have their own set beliefs about who those characters are. They're both being purposefully vague.

Still, I don't think it gives too much away to say, in season two, James and Jess's character Alyssa have grown older. So rather than dwelling on the storyline, conversation turns to what the pair have learned from playing these now career-defining parts, and how their characters have changed since we first met them.

"By the time we've met James again in series two, he's learnt to walk again and lost his dad," says Alex. "He's also had to come to terms with a lot of what happened on the day we left him at the end of series one." James hasn't become a fully rounded person, Alex is quick to point out, but he has worked on himself and made changes. "By the end of season one, James realises he loves Alyssa. In season two, he needs to work out where that love should go."

"The change in Alyssa is more of her situation becoming increasingly apparent," says Jess. "The stubbornness which was so funny in the first series ends up being her downfall. She seems like a very strong person initially, but it's usually that person who isn't really that strong. She's not as well connected with herself now as she was in the first series, because she actually had something and lost it, whereas in season one she didn't have anything to lose."

jess barden alex lawther

The success of End of the F***ing World has opened as many doors for its two stars as you might expect. Jess – who turned 27 over the summer – has moved Los Angeles and is enjoying the weather, the opportunities to learn about the industry and the freedom she's found there. Alex, 24, has been filming in France, embracing the chance to act elsewhere with fresh challenges (he's now fluent in French) and fewer hangs-up and nerves than the first time around. Does that mean as much has changed for Jess and Alex as it has for Alyssa and James?

"I think so. I don't give people my self-esteem as readily anymore," says Jess. "I've learned to be more careful – I don't hang off people's opinions. The experience of the show being as successful as it was makes you realise certain things very quickly. People have opinions on you now – I had to decide whether I'd care. And I decided not to."

Jess speaks of growing in confidence, feeling more secure in herself, labelling it a "myth" that your teenage years and early twenties are the happiest time of your life. "For me, that time was devastating," she says. "I felt truly hopeless until I was 25."

jess barden

"There are things James has to learn which I hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about before," says Alex. "Like his love for Alyssa that became quite obsessive. He pinned all his hopes for answers on her. I felt it was interesting to sit with that."

I ask if he's been through something similar, and his response is ambiguous: "You get an opportunity to sit with these ideas for a long time. I think the big idea of James was about learning to give someone enough space. And I think that's a good thing to learn in any relationship."

"He's madly in love with me," jokes Jess. "Totally infatuated."

For her part, Jess says she has learned "loads" from Alyssa, a character who's been a presence in her life since 2014, when she filmed the End of the F***ing World short that preceded the series (James was played by Craig Roberts, of Submarine).

Filming season one, she says, she realised "how there are other types of people than me in this world, and you have to let them get on with it. It's not for me to correct anything, because if I do, I'm an asshole." From series two, she has learned "a lot about my anxiety and my relationship with it. In this series, Alyssa starts to deal with what happened in the past: PTSD from a number of things, her relationship with depression, stuff like that."

For Jess, shooting all this provided a chance for some self-reflection: "It was mainly the anxiety thing for me that was big. That whole thing of nobody else knowing that it's even going on. You think that if you feel something as strongly as anxiety or a panic attack, or an extreme disconnect in your own brain, that something is going to read on your face. You're waiting for someone to notice that something is going on with you, but no one does."

Both Jess and Alyssa, she says, are people who present as confident and always have something to say, but that doesn’t mean they don't struggle with sadness.

"You don't need to be a quiet person to be a sad person," says Jess. "My realisation, what you see in the series, was that nobody is going to find you and intervene because nobody really knows it's even going on. You have to deal with it yourself. That's what I learned this time."

Maybe, I think, our chat was a little therapeutic after all.

@MikeSegalov / @christopherbethell

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