With Pink Skies Ahead and Holler, Jessica Barden explored two very different perspectives on what it’s like to come of age in America.
Written and directed by Kelly Oxford, the former dramedy centers on Winona, a young writer struggling with an anxiety disorder that drops out of school, and is left to figure out how to move forward in her life.
Holler, from writer-director Nicole Riegel, follows Ruth, a young woman who joins a dangerous and illegal scrap metal crew with her brother, to pay for her education, so that she can one day get out of her small, working-class Ohio town.
While the indies (from MTV Studios and IFC Films, respectively) are dissimilar on the surface, in terms of tone and subject matter, they actually have more in common than is immediately apparent.
Both were the first features from up-and-coming female filmmakers. And both allowed Barden—best known for her turn as Alyssa in Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World—to wrestle with elements of her own life (her anxiety, her working-class roots) that were once sources of privately-held shame.
Pink Skies Ahead is set for release on May 8, with Holler hitting select theaters on June 11.
In conversation with Deadline, Barden talks about the new sense of self-acceptance she found after making the films, the reason why Carrie Fisher is her hero, and launching into a new chapter of her career, as a producer, during Covid-19 lockdown.
DEADLINE: What drew you to your two latest films?
JESSICA BARDEN: With both of these movies, both of these characters were somewhat autobiographical for me, and Nicole and Kelly, as well. So, the experience that I had with both of these writer-directors was very close, and in completely different, very unique ways. One of my favorite things about being an actress is working with directors—completely—and because the three of us were all taking on these films and they were very personal to us, there was so much trust between us. And of course, I do believe that was because we’re all women, as well. But also, [both films] were very personal things.
Also, both of the subject matters are things that, within my life, I have felt ashamed of at some point and tried to keep private—with the anxiety, for understandable reasons. I think it takes you a while to really figure out what that even is. In the case of Holler, obviously I come from England, and I wasn’t working in the scrap metal trade. But I was working class, and I was trying to do a job and enter a world where there wasn’t anybody else like me. I didn’t try and go to college [like Holler’s Ruth], but I do think that the experiences somewhat overlap, when you’re trying to do something that other people around you have not done.
I went through a phase where I really didn’t want to share that. I just wanted to be like everybody else. It was like, why can’t my parents be in the industry? Why didn’t I go to a private school? What I gained from making these movies was so much acceptance, and I think it was working with Nicole and Kelly, and just the whole experience—getting to do something constructive with two parts of my life that I was not comfortable with. Getting to go out there and be proactive and just own it, and trying to do something good with the feeling. I loved making both of the movies because it helped me to understand myself.
DEADLINE: Ironically, Oxford approached you for Pink Skies Ahead specifically because you were so open about your mental health struggles on social media. Was there someone or something in your life that inspired this transparency?
BARDEN: Kelly. Also, my hero, really, is Carrie Fisher. She was my hero from before I had any idea that I had anxiety, from being 12 years old and being like, why does everybody stare at me when I’m in a room? Why do I speak louder than everybody else? All those weird anxiety things that are completely undiagnosed when you’re a preteen—for me, anyway—where you’re like, why do I have to talk the longest? Or why do I not always really listen to people? Why do I tell everybody that I love Liza Minnelli? Why am I doing this? Why did I tell their parents that my dad works in a prison? You’re just like, why do I word-vomit constantly?
Carrie Fisher was this person, and I was like, “Wow, I feel the same as that.” And I mean, it just really sucks that she’s no longer here because it would have been incredible to see how she handled everything with Trump and coronavirus. But the reason why I love her is just the bravery of being this icon, and being a sex symbol, and then being one of the first people to say, “Hi, I’m actually not sexy, and I’m actually not that cool because I have mental illness.” To me, I was like, that’s the best thing, because she broke down so many walls for other people, and she continuously struggled with it, openly, for the rest of her life. Everybody that is trying to figure out why you feel like the elephant in a room, she gave you laughter with it, as well. Like, you don’t have to be ashamed of it because it can be so funny at the same time.
DEADLINE: I hear that you were following Oxford on social media before you were approached for Pink Skies Ahead. Tell us about how you were exposed to her work as a writer, and your first impressions.
BARDEN: I read the book, When You Find Out the World is Against You, and there was a passage in the book where she went to camp, and she just couldn’t tell the girls not to give her a perm. She went to summer camp, and she really wanted to go, and then when she went there, she missed her family so much, she was like, What have I done? And I’ve asked to come here…She just desperately wanted to go home—which was me. I’d ask to go to people’s houses, and then as soon as I was there, I was like, “I don’t like the way that the towels look in the bathroom. I need to go home. Like, this is scary.” Which is all just childhood anxiety.
When she was at camp, she was the smallest person, so everybody is obsessed with you, which was my like my life, which is just the worst. Everybody wants to pick you up and you’re like, Why? Please kill me.
The girls wanted to give her a perm and she was like, “I don’t want to have a perm. Like, my hair is going to fall out,” but she didn’t know how to say no. So, she ended up with a perm and they destroyed her hair. Then, she was in a room at camp with all the girls that she was afraid of, and one of them did a flamethrower with hairspray. She just explains in this passage, she was going to sleep with fireballs being sprayed across the room, terrified, and I was like, “I have had that experience.”
I’ve gone away from home with school and been like, “Everybody is feral. I need to go home.” And I just was like, “I am the same as this person.”
DEADLINE: What kind of prep did you go through heading into production on your films?
BARDEN: [For] Pink Skies Ahead, me and Kelly spent as much time with each other as we could. We were really open with each other, that this was a very vulnerable thing for us to do.
You know, I was worried about doing the panic attack scenes because that’s a really, really vulnerable thing to show people about yourself. Because when you’re having an anxiety attack or a panic attack…and by the way, that looks different for everybody. The way that we’ve portrayed it in the movie was a mixture of mine and Kelly’s experiences. But you can have a panic attack that looks completely silent. Like, you can just be sat in a room, and no one’s going to know about it.
That stuff is so private. You feel insane. You feel like you need to be taken away in an ambulance, and you just feel so ashamed of yourself because you feel ill. You feel like you’re having a heart attack, and you’re like, “I’m going to die, but I know that I’m not ill”—and I was really worried about doing that.
I was like, “People are going to watch this and at least think that I’m crazy.” You know, when you’re a professional person in life, you don’t want people to know that you cry so much that you can be sick. That’s an embarrassing thing. So, we just spent a lot of time with each other, so that we would trust each other. Like, we ordered 25 hash browns from McDonald’s one day. We just did fun stuff.
With Nicole and Holler, it was very different. Nicole put us in the middle of nowhere in Ohio, in a house that was definitely haunted…
DEADLINE: In her hometown, right?
BARDEN: Yeah, in Chillicothe, Ohio. Me and Gus Halper, who played Blaze, had to live in the middle of nowhere, in a polar vortex, and we had to learn how to do scrap metal trading, and weigh metal. We went through cans and measured them, and put them in a baler. I found needles in the cans and had a full crash in dodging used needles.
It was very different. Me and Kelly were [in] L.A., being cozy, hanging out with her kids in the Valley, and me and Nicole were wading through trash in Ohio, literally. But both were as enjoyable.
DEADLINE: Let’s return for a moment to Pink Skies Ahead, which deconstructs stereotypes of people with anxiety, and tries to destigmatize mental illness. I’m sure it’s nice to think about the impact the film may have on young people like Winona.
BARDEN: Yeah. What I would like to achieve from this movie is, I would like to change the type of person that people think anxiety, especially, happens to. It’s not always the person that is quiet; there isn’t a person. Like, it’s everyone. Everybody will deal with this at some point in their life.
I would at least like to help remove that [generalization]. Like, “You don’t look like you would be anxious about things. You seem pretty confident to me,” which is never helpful to hear because it just makes you want to bury it even more.
And similar to what I was saying about what Carrie Fisher achieved, I would really like to help people with anxiety to learn…I don’t know, I want to say this carefully. But to find the humor in what they experience. Because it takes a lot of work to do that. You can’t just wake up one day and be like, “Okay, I’m going to laugh at everything that is wrong with me.” [Laughs] You have to do it after working with a therapist and really trying to understand yourself.
But your anxiety can be so funny. The bizarre things that I do, I have to laugh at. If not, my life is completely joyless, and that is just not how I’m going to live my life…I want people to see that you can actually have a really great time, having anxiety. It complicates my life, but also it makes it more interesting.
DEADLINE: What strides would you like to see made in the world at large, with regard to mental health? How well do you think the entertainment industry has dealt with it, both on screen and behind the scenes?
BARDEN: I think in real life…This is a very easy thing for me to say, and I’m aware of all the reasons why this doesn’t exist, and one day, I would love to be able to put my money where my mouth is, and contribute to this in some way. But I think that it should be in schools. I think that there should be therapy or counselors, something in school, because for me, in my experiences, and thinking about other people, all of this stuff starts in childhood. It does.
Whether or not it’s something that you were born with, or there’s an experience that you have when you’re a child that triggers it, if this was just immediately introduced into your life at nine or 10, or high school age, and it’s normal for some of us to need to speak to somebody, and it’s like a normal part of your life…how amazing would your life be? Just knowing, as a preteen or as a teen, that people are learning the right words, and they’re learning about these things, so that that person that can’t play in the football game because they’re having a panic attack, everybody’s like “Oh, cool. They’re just having a panic attack.” [I’d like to see anxiety] introduced as no different than, “Sometimes, you get a cold.” You know? Some people just get a cold more than other people.
But obviously, I totally understand that that costs a lot of money, and it goes into what is explored in Holler, because kids that come from lower-class backgrounds are more inclined to have mental health issues, and they will continuously go unchecked, and they will make horrific decisions in their life because there is no space at home.
They can’t go home and say, “I feel really nervous when I have to say my name in class” because the parents are trying to feed them. I think in lower-class families, mental illness is not accepted because it’s a very harsh look at life. Like, “You have to be strong and you have to do this, and there’s no time for you to be nervous.” Like, “What do you mean you’re nervous? Get on with it.”
In terms of film and TV, I want to put something positive out there: I think people are doing a lot. I think that they’re really trying. I think places like Netflix are doing amazing. I think that they try so hard, and they listen a lot to talent that work for them. I think that independent filmmakers have always given a sh*t about this stuff, and I think that people are trying really hard, and all that is left is for there to be more space for real people’s voices.
But that’s always been in the industry. You know, there’s always needed to be more space for independent writers and for real-life stories. But I think that it’s moved on a lot behind the scenes and in the stories that we see.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about the projects you have coming up next? I know you’re currently shooting the Netflix thriller series Pieces of Her with Toni Collette…
BARDEN: I’m in Australia doing Pieces of Her, and…I love working on this show. I get to actually be in the ’80s. Like, I’m doing something kind of period-y and I love that.
Then, actually, I have a lot of things that I am producing. I did that through coronavirus; I developed stuff. So, I have a lot of projects that I can’t really talk about. I have one that I’m extremely excited about with another writer, similar to Kelly, that is very successful right now. I have a project with her next year, but I definitely can’t talk about that. But oh my God, it’s like a dream job for me.
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