It was three days before Christmas when the actress Jessica Barden received an Instagram DM from Kelly Oxford, the New York Times best-selling author of When You Find Out the World Is Against You. This wasn’t out of the ordinary — the two had struck up a friendship online about five years ago after Barden discovered Oxford’s writing — but the content of the message certainly was. “Hey, I’ve written a script. It’s about one of the passages in my book,” it read. “We have to film it in Los Angeles in the summer because I have kids. Let me know if you want to do it.”
“I was like, this is the most iconic job offer I’ve ever gotten,” Barden says over Zoom from Sydney, Australia. The 28-year-old’s career has included standout performances in the dark comedy The End of the F***ing World and the edgy rom-com The New Romantic, and she is currently “living the best life ever” down under while filming the upcoming Netflix thriller series Pieces of Her alongside Toni Collette. “No one had ever straight offered me a movie before so I thought, I hope she thinks that she’s not making a mistake.”
The project was MTV Entertainment’s Pink Skies Ahead, an unapologetic and brutally honest coming-of-age story in which Barden stars as Winona, a 20-year-old writer whose world is turned upside-down when she moves back in with her parents after dropping out of college. She is subsequently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and in one pivotal scene, her attempts to ignore her mental health and “act normal” induce a tear-filled panic attack. Written and directed by Oxford, the film, which premieres Saturday (May 8), is based on her own experiences living with anxiety as a teen and was adapted from an essay titled “No Real Danger.”
Due in part to these heavier moments in the script, Barden felt equal parts thrilled and nervous when accepting the role. Despite her initial reservations, the actress related to Winona’s denial of her diagnosis and saw it as the perfect opportunity to “do something constructive” with a part of herself she was similarly avoiding: her own anxiety. “When I read the script, I felt so lucky that she wanted me to be a part of making people feel better,” she says. “I wish that this movie existed when I was younger.”
MTV News: Pink Skies Ahead is based on Oxford’s own experiences living with anxiety. Did the fact that Winona is based on a real person change your approach to the character?
Jessica Barden: I have this theory that every movie is slightly autobiographical for a director because I think that’s why they would want to make it. So this made it easier, actually knowing that this was a part of Kelly’s life. It felt like we were sharing the role together, especially with the panic attack scene. I felt like I was sharing the upset and also the embarrassment. Everyone’s panic attack is going to look different. That was a mixture of how Kelly and I feel ours manifest, but you can have a completely silent panic attack and it doesn’t mean that you have less anxiety than anybody else. Telling people that you throw up from anxiety is personal, but knowing that you’re doing this scene and you have this connection and friendship with the director makes everything so much easier.
MTV News: What was on your mind while filming that scene?
Barden: This was just definitely one of those schedules where you decide, OK, I just have to commit and do it. I just had to run into that fire and hope for the best, but I was so tired by the weekend. I had swollen eyes the whole shoot. It was only the second day that I met this crew and I thought, these people are going to think that I’ve really got a lot of pain inside of me to be able to do this all the time. But they were really supportive.
MTV News: From her hair to her wardrobe, everything about Winona is blue. We often describe mental health ailments as invisible illnesses, but this felt like a visual manifestation. Yet no one around Winona sees her struggling. Why do you think that is?
Barden: She’s not really connected with them. When I made this movie, I was the same. I knew that I had anxiety because I was afraid of things that some people weren’t. I thought, I don’t need to get help. This makes me interesting. I don’t care. That’s what anxiety does. It just works its way into your life. That’s what happened to Winona. You get used to your life feeling like it’s on fire all the time to the point where it’s really easy to suppress it. It can take you years to want to [get help]. Winona is the same as millions of people: You kind of know that there’s something wrong, but it’s such an effort to fix it.
MTV News: At times, Pink Skies Ahead felt reminiscent of the five stages of grief. Viewers watch Winona fight each step before ultimately accepting her anxiety disorder as part of herself. How has being part of this film altered, reinforced, or challenged your perspective on the importance of mental health?
Barden: I got a therapist after this movie. Many people that worked on this film, behind the cameras or in front of it, had their own relationship with anxiety. I have a therapist now because I realized from [speaking with] all these different people that I’m not supposed to swing from being afraid to feeling like I’m fine. That’s not a constructive way to live. It helped me grow up and realize that I could actually have a calm life. When I was watching the film after, I could remember the scenes where I was really having anxiety, and when you watch yourself doing that, you realize it doesn’t have to be like this. The whole experience from start to finish helped me make my life a lot healthier.
MTV News: Mary J. Blige plays Winona’s therapist, Doctor Monroe. What was it like working alongside her?
Barden: She was so nice! She’s literally one of the most famous people in the world. I didn’t know what it was going to be like because I’ve never really been starstruck before, but she felt like a superstar. And then when she came, she was this really sweet, quiet woman who was there to act. I realized that I needed to get it together because she was a regular person. Before the scene, we were talking to each other and saying that we were both nervous. It was so funny because everybody’s always the same.
MTV News: Winona has a strained relationship with her mom and dad; both sides seem to want to bridge the gap, but can’t quite get there. Where do you think the disconnect between them lies?
Barden: Around that age, you don’t ever want your mom to be right. You need everything they suggest to be wrong. It’s a devastating relationship you see in this film because they love her so much, and she thinks it’s so embarrassing. Like, how dare you love me? Her anxiety needs to be the main relationship in her life. It needs to be at the center of everything. It’s unmanageable and her parents have to watch their child be overtaken by it.
MTV News: While Winona externally can be blunt and unapologetic, she’s also incredibly vulnerable. How did you work to balance both parts of her personality?
Barden: I remember that we were really worried about that because it is so contrasting, but it’s also why I love the character. Parts of her are so aggressive and in your face, and then parts are so vulnerable. In truth, I tried not to think about it. I choose a lot of roles that have somebody who’s very strong but also very vulnerable at the same time, or in this case, somebody who is seemingly very confident and brash but on the inside is completely lost. Especially in a film like this, it just had to be as natural as possible because there’s nothing harder than being like, how do I act a mental health issue? I trusted Kelly, the script that she wrote, and her eye overseeing everything I was doing.
MTV News: At times, Winona’s brutal honesty reminded me of Alyssa from The End of the F***ing World. Is there something in particular about these stories that inspires you?
Barden: I saw someone made a meme about me on the internet and it said, “Jessica Barden being offered a role that isn’t completely unlikeable” and it was me slapping the phone from [Adele’s “Hello” video] closed. I couldn’t stop laughing because that’s so true — I love playing characters that are unlikeable. Not because I necessarily think that I am difficult, although everyone is, but I just love playing people that are complicated and messy because I don’t know anybody that’s not. I choose characters that remind me of myself.
MTV News: Winona dates Ben, whom she describes as a “less-funny Ross.” Which Friends character are you most like?
Barden: I’m definitely like Phoebe. One of my friends literally cried the other day because he was like: “I don’t know what you’re doing anymore.” I was like, “What do you mean? I’m in Australia filming a TV show.” Then he said: “I don’t know anything. One moment you can be in Africa making a movie and the next you’re somewhere else.” And I replied: “I don’t know. I just get on with it.” I feel that’s quite Phoebe-like, where you don’t know what I’m going to be doing from week to week. Also, my mom always sings “Smelly Cat” to me and I don’t know why!