The real joy of watching Jessica Barden on screen comes from her willingness to get dirty — both metaphorically and literally, in some cases.
The 26-year-old The End of the F***ing World star isn't afraid to explore the messy, gritty aspects of life that young women endure day in and day out, from getting their periods at the worst possible moment to sexual encounters that fall into a slippery gray area of consent. The latter aspect features heavily in Barden's new romantic comedy, The New Romantic, which isn't your average uplifting romance. In fact, its edgier undertones are exactly why Barden signed onto the film in the first place.
Instead of a heroine with a glamorous job in fashion and a sprawling big-city apartment, Barden plays Blake, a near-broke college senior whose sex column at the school's newspaper is so boring that it's on the cusp of cancellation. That all changes when she has a chance meeting with a fellow student, Morgan (Camila Mendes), who reveals that she pays for her luxe wardrobe and apartment by being a "sugar baby" — a young woman who receives gifts and money in exchange for spending time with (and sleeping with) a usually older man.
Frustrated with the lack of chivalrous men on her campus and intrigued by the prospect of spicing up her clips, Blake decides to try it out herself with a 30-something professor named Ian (Timm Sharp). The premise makes for an interesting reflection on the state of modern dating, sexuality, consent, and what it means to be a grown-up. As such, The New Romantic isn't just a good rom-com — it's a good film, period.
Ahead of the movie's release on Nov. 9, I hopped on the phone with Barden in between her performances in London's Pinter at the Pinter productions to discuss everything from the importance of the rom-com genre for women in film to a sex scene in the movie that she hopes will spark an important conversation.
Warning: spoilers for The New Romantic ahead.
POPSUGAR: Romantic comedies are having a moment right now, and this one especially is a little bit darker, a little edgier. Is that what drew you to the project in the first place?
Jessica Barden: I wanted to work with Carly Stone, the director, right from the beginning. I'd read about five different versions of this script before we actually got to shoot it. They were all essentially the same thing, but some of the characters had changed quite a lot. And Carly, from the second that I spoke to her, she really made it clear what her intentions were for the film. I always want to challenge myself as an actor, and Carly's vision, and the way she spoke about filmmaking, really seemed to sync with mine. Like you said, it's quite different than a typical romantic comedy. It was something that I was really interested in. Like everybody else, I will always go and watch a romantic comedy, but I feel like they're escapism in a different way than other movies. It's a much purer form of escapism. Everyone wants to fall in love. Everyone wants to have a crush, to be desirable. So romantic comedies are pure escapism in that way.
PS: Rom-coms haven't always been the most critically respected film genre, but lately they've been telling stories about women in a really incredible way, like in To All the Boys I've Loved Before and even Crazy Rich Asians. After I watched this movie, it immediately struck me that this was a story that could only have been in the hands of a female director.
JB: That's something I emphatically agree with. I think filmmakers like Carly, and actors such as myself, are trying to branch out in representing [those stories], which I feel is especially important now. Romantic comedy is the perfect setting to place that in. It's something which is immediately comfortable to cinema-goers, so you can represent these themes where certain people don't . . . not everyone wants to be out there thinking about these things, you know? And that's alright! You don't need to force it down people's throats. I think it's really great people are doing it in romantic comedies, because it should make audiences feel safe and still enjoy it, as opposed to being like, "These are all the things that are wrong with the world."
PS: Something I also appreciated was the way the film treats the two characters of Blake and Morgan, because even though Blake is obviously more conflicted about the sugar baby arrangement, Morgan's choice to be one isn't seen as shameful. Did you gain any new perspective yourself about those kind of relationships while playing Blake?
JB: I mean, I have lots of different friends from lots of different walks of life. I've always been really free of judgment of people, especially when it comes to your sexuality or how you wanna portray that or not, or how you wanna experiment. So it didn't alter my opinion towards people who want to do that kind of work, but what you said about Morgan's situation not being about shame, is something that I loved about the film from the start as well. The film places a lot of importance on female relationships. The main relationship, really, is the one between Blake and Hayley's . . . wait, what's her name in the film again?
JB: Yes, Nikki! Sorry, I'm doing a play and my brain is just [frazzled noise]. But there's a lot in the film about their friendship.
PS: The friendship comes off as so genuine, too. Nikki doesn't judge Blake for a second.
JB: Yeah, it's just not constructive to show women now slut shaming each other. It's not really a thing. I do actually have friends who've been sugar babies, and I've had friends who've done escort work. I do have friends who have legit done this, and I don't know anybody who would ever shame them for it. I don't really know any women who'd do that! Maybe I've just been really lucky or maybe I've just had quite a sheltered life, but I've never experienced that in real life. Women actually support each other quite a lot, I think.
PS: Did you and Hayley [Law] bond on set?
JB: We kind of became friends instantly, really. Hayley's really funny and has an amazing sense of humor and she's so smart — how could you not be friends with someone like that? [laughs] You know, it really was a very friendly set. Within your life, your most important friendships really are the female friendships you have. Even if you have a really great [romantic] relationship, or a really great partner, it's different . . . Hayley now is one of my closest friends.
PS: So I want to switch gears and talk about the sex scene between Blake and Ian towards the end of the movie, because that scene in particular affected me quite a bit. It's gutting to see your character crying as it's happening, and it's also sadly a situation that a lot of women find themselves in, trapped in that gray area of sex and consent. What was that like to film?
JB: That scene was always in the script, and it was one of the biggest things that attracted me to the film. Like you said, it's something that's really very real. There is a real gray area in sex sometimes, for whatever reason. I can't answer why that is. But it's something I found massively interesting to explore on screen, and for people to talk about. That is something that really happens to people. It's incredibly normal. It's not like this horrible rape scene or a really graphic sex scene. That is just a very realistic situation that people find themselves in. I think people, especially in their 20s, are like, "Oh, I've pushed to the edge of my comfort zone, but I don't really feel completely unsafe." What the whole movie really explores is how in your 20s, you're just constantly exploring what your comfort zone is. Sometimes you go too far, and then how do you feel at the end of it?
I mean, wow, it's such a big conversation, really. It all comes down to how we, as both men and women, have been misinformed about a lot of stuff. We come from a generation where we were told that sex is supposed to be something you do when you're married, and it's not something you're necessarily supposed to enjoy. You have to go and explore your life, and what you find comfortable in a sexual partner. So a lot of your 20s is figuring that out. I didn't want the scene to be one that looked overly horrible — I wanted it to look very real. It's something that is confusing, and then you don't really know how to talk about it afterwards.
PS: Yeah, and it's not like there's some screaming match between Blake and Ian afterwards, or a specific confrontation about how the sex was for her. She responds to it how I think a lot of young women would, and do.
JB: Exactly. We didn't want it to be a scene where there's an answer to it. We wanted it to be something that sparks a discussion. You're not supposed to answer questions in films, or tell people how they're supposed to feel. I think this is where my and Carly's ideas about what we were making was the same. I would rather make films that start a discussion as opposed to telling people how to feel about a situation. In a way, it's a theme that's in every project I've done so far. I like being in projects that make people question things, and that's exactly what I hope this sex scene does.
PS: Not long after that sex scene, Blake runs into Brett Dier's character and they end up falling in love by the end of the film. I have to admit, part of me wanted Blake to end up by herself as opposed to in another relationship, but the scene of them on the bleachers is still really sweet. Did they always end up together in every version of the script you saw?
JB: I think they did, yeah! That was Carly's way of nodding to the tone of what people expect from romantic comedies, which is really great. I think that was her experimenting with the tone a little, which I really support. To take all the risks that she does inside the movie, she had to create an overall foundation of the film that's a tried-and-true formula for a romantic comedy. Also, I mean, Brett is hilarious in that role, and I think it's right to show Blake not being completely harmed by her experience [with Ian]. I think it actually shows that she's stronger, in a way, because she hasn't been affected by her experience. She realizes that, you know, her experience doesn't mean you have to never trust men again. That there are more good guys out there than bad guys.
The New Romantic is now in theaters.