Jungleland may be viewed through the lens of a boxing film or a film about young love, but at its heart it’s the story of two brothers with a very complicated dynamic. The movie, with is now out VOD a year after its initial TIFF premiere, revolves around bare-knuckle boxer Lion (Jack O’Connell) and his manager brother Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) whose relationship is tested in the face of difficult circumstances.
One of the biggest wrenches in said relationship comes in the form of Sky, played by Jessica Barden. As a surprise companion on the brothers’ adventure, and the object of Lion’s affection, she slowly helps the chasm between them widen. Barden spoke to Screen Rant about the layers of her character and the unique collaboration process with writer-director Max Winkler.
Can you tell me a little bit about Sky and how she finds herself traveling with the Kaminski brothers?
Jessica Barden: Sky enters Stanley and Lion’s life because they have a job to do – this is so hard to describe without giving the movie away. But what they don’t understand is that she also has a whole set of her own agendas and things that she needs to get from this trip and from this experience in her life, at this moment in time.
She enters their life and proceeds to do everything to get exactly what she wants from this experience. Everybody has their own thing that they’re trying to get from this moment in their lives, and Skye has many that she is trying to get.
Jungleland has two love stories at its core: the familial love between the brothers, and the story of love between Sky and Lion. What about each of these makes Jungleland unique?
Jessica Barden: The biggest reason that I wanted to make this movie was the love between Stanley and Lion; I don’t think it’s something that we see a lot. I have brothers myself, and I really believed this was a movie that they should watch. I think it really explores a lot about masculinity that we’re not really doing at the moment. There’s a lot of emphasis on women’s experience of masculinity, which is great and correct, and I do those movies as well. But I really believe that it’s equally as important to show the flip side of it.
To me, Sky is a completely unsympathetic character for a lot of it in these two guys’ lives, and I wanted to play this character that really is trying to manipulate both these guys. Is her love real for Lion? Is Stanley’s love real for Lion? Because everybody can relate to that. I don’t really know if I would get in trouble for saying this, but this is what women do. A lot of women can do this. The only way in is to push other people out.
Obviously, a lot of guys do that as well in relationships, but women do as well. I didn’t feel shy about portraying that. Men can be really hurt when it comes to women as well. It’s just like, who is using who within this trio? Who has got the most lose? Who has got the most to gain? Everybody can relate to this.
Sky is one of the most interesting characters, because every single time you’re peeling a layer of that onion back. Sky seems to be in over her head when you first meet her, and her problems only get more dramatic as you follow along. How is that as an actor being able to peel those layers back?
Jessica Barden: This was a really great experience for me as an actor, because I knew it from the first time that I read the script. And then when I first spoke to Max Winkler, the director, I knew that’s what it was going to be like to work in the movie. I knew that I was going to be receiving direction where I wasn’t going to be sure why I was playing that in a scene. There was gonna be multiple ways of playing this character, and I was gonna have to trust what the director was telling me to do for what he needed in post-production, putting the movie together.
It was a really great exercise in – of course, me doing what I usually do and making a character and getting that set and knowing what I want to get from this character and what I want people to see. But it was a really great exercise in completely letting go and the director giving you a note, and you being like, “I don’t really think that makes any sense,” then playing and being like, “Oh my God, that scene felt so great.”
It was really rewarding, doing my job in terms of learning things, and also having the experience of watching yourself in a movie at the end and being like, “Whoa, I had no idea that this was what this was going to come across like,” which I love. There are movies where you should know exactly what it’s going to be like, and you are more in control of it. And then there are movies like this, where you should watch and be like, “Whoa, I had no idea that I was going to be like this in this movie.”
When you read the script, was there any scene that stood out for you? Or that you connected with immediately?
Jessica Barden: Oh, yeah. The scene where she goes home to her family, and you actually realize that this person has no idea what they’re doing. She doesn’t have the tenacity that she [pretends she] has; she is absolutely making it up as she goes along. She is so afraid of being like everyone else; so afraid of being ordinary. She’s so afraid of being somebody that gets to 50 years old and is like, “What have I actually done with my life? What impact have I really made on the world?”
Sure, she loses her way with that, definitely. That’s what you see this movie, she’s really lost her way. She’s somebody that was really trying to do something inspiring with her life, and so far life has really chewed her up. That’s not how I feel, but the feeling of being like, “Oh my God, I don’t want to be somebody that is middle-aged one day and is like, ‘Well, what have I done? What impact am I having on the world?'” That was what I related to in that scene.
The love story hinges on the chemistry between your Sky and Jack O’Connell’s character, Lion. In what ways do you think people are going to be able to relate to their romance?
Jessica Barden: Your family involved in things so much, how much your own personal dreams can get in the way of a relationship – it’s so much more complicated than just having a connection with somebody. You have to be in the right place in life; you have to be in the same place in life. I don’t know, a lot of movies are responsible for this whole idea that we have, where you just meet somebody and you fall in love with them, and nothing else really matters.
I think what this movie shows is that doesn’t really [happen]. It’s such an anti-love story; it’s not about that. People are so much more complicated, and these are two characters that have already lost so much in their life and are so much older than they really are because of what life has done to them. And they still have even more to lose. You would think that having a genuine connection with somebody would salvage something, but their lives are chaotic and messy. These are people that are really grifting in life, and are just trying to get through every single day. For people like that, falling in love with somebody is not easy, because you’re just trying to survive.
Jungleland is a blend of high drama and intense physicality. How intense was it to participate in, or even witness, both of those extremes?
Jessica Barden: The boxing was crazy to watch. I actually do boxing now. I have a boxing teacher, and I do boxing three times a week. When I was doing this movie, it wasn’t obviously important to my character to really have an opinion on boxing. If anything, there is a scene where it shows how kind of frightening it can be. And that was my opinion of it when I was making this movie.
We used to watch boxing matches on a weekend. Obviously, my brothers would sometimes watch it, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is so stressful. They’re just beating each other up.” People do this in real life, why would you want to pay people to do it? But when I was watching Jack, I was like, “Woah.” It’s physical, but it’s also extremely mental. Sure, you can punch somebody really hard, but it’s way more about resilience and what you can survive mentally. I was really taken aback by the mental strength that you [need] to do it, and actually the vulnerability that you have to be able to do it.
The most times when people will win a boxing match is more when they’re physically losing, the other person is being tired out – and then all you need is one punch. You just have to be able to survive all these blows, and then just find the moment when the person is tired and come back. I mean, that’s such a metaphor for the types of people that are in this movie. You just have to survive the little digs, and then just come back with something big.
But I loved watching it; it really changed my opinion of boxing to the point where I now actually do it. Obviously, I’m not going to be a professional boxer; it doesn’t really go hand-in-hand with being an actress. But I love the experience of learning it.
That’s something I really enjoyed about this film. In many ways, the fighting in the film is a metaphor for survival and seen as an escape. Can you explain to me how the fighting in the film transcends simple action scenes?
Jessica Barden: I mean, through the boxing matches is really where you get to the heart of how intricate this relationship is with these two brothers. Mark’s always described it to me and Jack and Charlie as, “Stanley is like a stage mother,” with Lion as his brother, but really as his child who he believes in so much. And you can really see this relationship in the scenes with the fights, where you’re like, “Is this guy the older brother? Or is he the parent? Or is he the manager?” They have this thing, which is supposedly going to be their American dream and it’s going to change their lives, but it’s also destroying their relationship as well. Because who is using who? Who is really going to get the most out of this thing in their lives? This job that they both share together, is it really at the expense of their relationship?
You see Lion at many points in the movie express how he doesn’t feel connected to being a boxer, but he is so good at it. The boxing in his movie is everything. It’s so much more than just that. It’s not really a boxing movie. The boxing is, as you said, 100% a metaphor for so many things in the movie. And just like the whole thing about how, for the men in this class, working class men, this is something that is universal.
It’s not just an American thing, that whole thing of like, “You’re 18 now.” Your dad is like, “Okay, let’s go outside and fight.” That’s a real thing. I don’t know why that’s never been in a movie, where the dad is like, “Okay, let’s go and fight. It’s your birthday, let’s see if you can really do it.” Fighting is such a big thing for men in these parts of the world, and my experience of them is that they’re actually really vulnerable. The contrast and the contradictions between the fighting side of them and the really vulnerable side of them is so fascinating.
I want to talk about your director, Max Winkler, because he also co-wrote this film. You can tell he really cared about all the characters, but can you talk to me about the collaboration process and how being a writer may have helped inform your character?
Jessica Barden: First of all, I auditioned for Max for Flower years ago. From speaking to him then, and then speaking to him again about Jungleland and working with him, the thing to me that stands out – the thing that he brings to a project as a director is – this guy is truly interested in people and has so much so much compassion for people.
The characters that he’s written, or the characters that he’s directing for the actors that he’s working with, they’re real people that he’s representing. His ability to try and relate to things, and the care that he takes with people – everything is just about the people and making sure that it’s authentic. He’s always taking care of the characters; it’s really a rare thing to experience from a director. Nobody else really stands out as having that same thing.
Truly, he’s fascinated just by people and in presenting pieces of life that he doesn’t personally have any experience of, but he’s just learning about people. That’s what he really brought to this movie. This is a group of people that, on paper, why would you ever have sympathy for any of them? They’re not characters, usually, where you’re trying to see the good in them. It’s so much easier to just paint the worst of these types of people. And what he brought to the movie was, “No, we actually have to care about this.” He cares about the underdogs, and that is always going to make a fantastic movie.
More: Jack O’Connell Interview for Jungleland
Jungleland is now playing in theaters and is available on VOD.
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