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The End of the F***ing World Star Jessica Barden on Paying Homage to the Pulp Fiction Dance

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Spoilers ahead for The End of the F***ing World.

Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World, which first aired in the U.K. last fall, tells the story of two teens: James (Alex Lawther), a 17-year-old misanthrope who’s convinced himself he’s a psychopath, and Alyssa (Jessica Barden), the classmate that he plans to kill. Given that premise, James would seem the more compelling character — that is, until he and Alyssa meet for a diner date and she unloads an obscene tirade on their waitress, getting them both banned. For their second date, Alyssa pressures James to leave town with her and never look back.

Alyssa is no submissive victim, but rather a challenging spitfire with her own neuroses at work, and she quickly proves the inner workings of her mind — which we hear thanks to the show’s voice-over monologues — to be more fraught than James’s. No one strikes more fear than this teenage girl, not even a presumed killer. Their doomed Bonnie and Clyde story, based on Charles Forsman’s graphic novel, further derails when James fatally stabs a serial predator while the man attempts to rape Alyssa. Earlier this week, Vulture spoke to Barden about TEOTFW, paying homage to Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction, the perils of fake blood, and the show’s bleak ending.

Can you walk me through the origins of The End of the Fucking World? There’s the comic, but you also appeared in the 2014 short-film adaptation, so it’s been gestating for quite a while.
Firstly, I think it’s really great that you guys are all saying The End of the Fucking World without being embarrassed by it. I used to tell people I was working on a show called The End of the Fucking World and their faces would just be so shocked. People didn’t think it was going to be legit, like, [sarcastic tone] “Yeah, when that’s gonna be out?” And now it’s a really good series.

I made a short film of it six years ago with the majority of the people who are still involved — Jonathan Entwistle, who directed the film [and some of the series], and Dominic Buchanan, who’s a producer. At that point, Charlie hadn’t actually finished the comic, so I along with everyone else who was a fan of it, waited for them all to come out. I followed him on Instagram for years. We all became friends and constantly spoke about being able to do it again one day, so we’ve kind of grown up with it in our lives and our careers.

Six years is a long time to stay committed to this character. What makes Alyssa so special to you?
She represents women well, for all of our flaws and all of our assets. One second, she’s so confident that she’s almost arrogant; she can show off and swear at a waitress in a restaurant because she’s so indestructible. And then the next second, she’s scared and doesn’t think that anybody likes her. She doesn’t think that she’s ever going to fall in love and she’s really vulnerable. There’s a tendency to still show women as being one way or the other — you’re either soft and shy or you’re really ballsy and funny, but I think that we’re everything.

I could see such an opportunity with what was already on the page that Charlie had written to make a whole person. She’s also so expressive in the way she reacts to things. When I watched it, I had no idea what to expect and I was so surprised by how many eye-rolls I did. But that’s also why I wanted to play her. I see her as someone who doesn’t realize how expressive she is and how much trouble she’s gonna get herself in. She doesn’t understand how James actually views her for the first few episodes; she’s trying to repel him, but not in the way that she’s coming across. That’s so perfect for a 17-year-old.

Alyssa is very much an example of a woman who mutes her vulnerabilities so the men in her life get to be weak. She has to pick up the pieces left by her absentee dad and James, which leaves her with no room to care for her own feelings.
I liked how the series explores what happens when a young girl doesn’t have a stable home or a father. There’s always this tendency to portray women who have daddy issues, and although you can definitely put that [trope] on Alyssa, she doesn’t stick to that. It isn’t a typical story where she is vulnerable to James because she doesn’t have a father or a stable home.

I know lots of friends who grew up without fathers and it actually makes you stronger. You have more to prove, you have to protect yourself. I like that because when she eventually does find her dad, she’s the strongest person. That doesn’t even break her. She’s the one who gets them out and tries to keep fighting. That is what it’s like for these young women. They’re always fighters and protectors, and they’re not always trying to lean on a guy. They lean on each other.

When she runs way with James, she’s using him for his car, not because she’s wholly invested in him yet.
She’s using him for the story. I played it as if Alyssa thought, “Yeah, we’re gonna get caught.” Even when they get to the house, I played it with her thinking, “Okay, when is this gonna end? I didn’t think it was gonna get to this point.” She just wanted to scare her mom and [stepdad] for two days. She thought it would be a great story to tell everybody at school and then the whole thing escalated. She’s just using him for fun and then they end up falling in love over murder.

Alyssa presents herself as emotionally impulsive, but her interior thoughts are a touch more logical. Do you think she picked up on James’s psychopathic fixation before he killed Dr. Koch?
She did see that there was something unhinged in him. At that age, you want to find things that are wrong with you because then it can be used as an excuse for how ridiculous you are at times. She probably fantasizes about being a psychopath. I played it as that being the reason she likes him: “That guy looks like a psychopath.” It’s all part of the boredom of her life; her imagination just runs away with her. Also, the audience sees James sharpening the knife, but she doesn’t. She just thinks he’s weird. She definitely knows there’s something wrong with him, and if he happens to be a psychopath, she probably views that as a plus. It’s all part of the drama of her life.

The best scene of the season is your dance to Hank Williams in Dr. Koch’s house. It’s a well-played Pulp Fiction homage, and I love Alyssa’s line about feeling most like herself when she’s lost in shameless dance. Was that choreographed or improvised?
I’m so you glad you asked this. We did that in like an hour and a half. I asked Jonathan, “What do I do?” and he said, “Just get really hyper and we’ll film it.” Then I had this feeling I waited my entire my life to do that dance and film it. I was always a show-off with my friends; we used to have interpretive dance nights to Christina Milian and Sean Paul where we’d film it. I was being really coy on set about it, and then Jonathan said, “Jess, just do it.” We only shot it once and that was it. I just channeled Liza Minnelli and had the time of my life. And luckily we were able to use “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” in the show, which is what I danced to on set. I love the voice-over where I say, “We should do this naked!” Even that is probably something I would say in real life. I was in my element.

I ended up going with a Pulp Fiction-y vibe for the actual dance moves because that feels timeless. I also tried to think of what Rihanna would do. I wanted to show that she feels older than she is — she has older interests, as well as being this 17-year-old girl that’s just really trying to make this guy fancy her.

What was it like to film an episode where you’re almost entirely covered in blood?
Those were the two hardest days of filming, and I think they were in the same week [as the dance]. It was this stereotypical corn syrup and it dries really hard. I had it on for two full days, even when I was eating. It’s really uncomfortable and an exercise in patience. I’m so glad I persevered with it because to get the blood actually dripping from his neck, there was just blood thrown on me. I loved it. It was going in my mouth, my eyes, I was spitting it out.

For a short dark comedy, TEOTFW engages with the legal and ethical intricacies of self-defense and trying minors as adults. What do you think of what James and Alyssa did? Some could call it self-defense, others might see it as vigilante justice in hindsight, or maybe it was the physical impulse of James’s murderous thoughts all along.
That story line is important because it shows that they’re both right and they’re both wrong, which is constantly topical. It’s self-defense, but they have no proof. The only way I can answer that is that I think it’s important that it raises a conflict in who you agree with. I would have to side with Eunice [the police officer played by Game of Thrones’ Gemma Whelan] — I think you have to talk to people about these things because there’s always a reason. I’m one of those people when I see a homeless person on the street, I want to know their story. There’s a reason they got there. TV is a good way to have social conversations. It’s going to make young people talk about it. It’s also important to remember that some people are just bad, like Clive Koch.

Would you be satisfied with the show ending with this one season, if it’s not renewed?
I was just as sad and shocked as the audience will be when I got to the end. I cried when I read the script. But I liked that it almost doesn’t end. It isn’t the end of the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How The End of the F***ing World Paid Homage to Pulp Fiction