Céline Buckens isn’t loving the slightly overcast summer day in east London when we speak and is laughing about how it affects her mood. But despite the grey clouds she’s playful and engaging and getting stuck into a “road film” movie marathon for a project due to start later this year. “I’m very ‘research’ heavy,” she says. Given that watching films is her favourite thing to do, the lines between work and play can often become a bit “blurred”, says the 26-year-old. “I don’t think I’m that hard on myself,” she admits. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Do I know how to give myself a break?’ And then other times I’m like, ‘My whole life is a break, it’s great!’” She laughs again.
Despite having been in the industry for more than a decade, the British-Belgian actor’s career to date has been unconventional, to say the least. Born in Overijse, near Brussels, and raised in the UK, Buckens was plucked from the Sylvia Young Agency as a young teen to appear in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. Casual. “They were looking for a young girl who had a good grasp of English but who spoke French – and Sylvia Young’s just didn’t have that many people on their books that fit that profile, so I got an audition for something that was much bigger than what I was normally put forward for,” she tells me. “I got very, very lucky – right place, right time. I feel like luck plays such an important role, but then you’ve got to be ready when the luck hits.”
So what is a Spielberg set like? “It was totally awe- inspiring,” she says. “I kick myself that I didn’t appreciate it more at the time. It was a spectacle, and I wish I’d had a bit more experience to appreciate the craft of it. I thought it was normal, and it wasn’t.”
Despite her grand entrance into the film industry, Buckens wrapped up the showbiz for a while to focus on growing up pretty quietly. School led to university, and a history degree later she was back in the game full-time, playing the main character in the BBC’s highly addictive and acclaimed thriller Showtrial. There had been roles while completing her studies: in the Netflix drama Free Rein and more recently in the Cinemax action series Warrior. However, it was her turn as privileged student Talitha Campbell in that “did she or didn’t she?” BBC miniseries that earned her a Bafta nomination for best supporting actress and international recognition. And now she’s set to fiddle with our moral compasses yet again, as the main character in another twisty thriller: The Ex-Wife from Paramount+. “I think the main thing that I’m drawn to, and I don’t think it’s a surprise, is complexity,” Buckens says of how she chooses her projects. “I don’t think I’m particularly interested in stories with moral absolutes. I like the grey areas in characters because I don’t really believe that anyone’s all good or all bad.”
When asked about the increasing fame, as she’s pegged as a rising star by multiple sources, the actor isn’t fazed. “It’s not like I’m in a Marvel film and people are screaming when they see me,” she laughs. “The most crazy it got was when I was at a festival in Portugal where I didn’t expect anyone to recognise me and I got recognised two days in a row. And I was like, ‘Wow this really does have reach, that’s so weird.’ It’s not like I’m dealing with fame to an invasive degree. And it hasn’t made my ego soar because I’m aware that it could just go back down. This industry is full of ups and downs, and I’m aware of that, and I’m ready for it.”
Adamant that the weirdness of fame won’t “change” her, Buckens is both grounded and supported by an incredibly close group of friends and family members who have nothing to do with the film industry. They all live in a tangle of flats radiating out from Bethnal Green, and do all the normal things that twentysomethings in London do: music, clubs, food. “I love to cook,” Buckens says. “My go-to recipe is this Ottolenghi pasta with Kalamata olives and yoghurt.” And as the only one in her circle doing what she does, is there ever a deliberate or accidental name-drop at dinner? “It’s more the other way round,” she insists. “I was telling a story to someone who I was working with about my friend who ended up having a random afterparty at this famous guy’s house. So I told this story and it just didn’t land, and I was like, ‘Oh, I forget you know loads of famous people and have probably met that person,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, I have.’” She laughs. “Occasionally it will happen. I’m also involved in Rupert Everett’s upcoming film – I’ve got a supporting role in that – and I was having dinner with my friends the other day and told them I was having lunch with Rupert Everett and they were like, ‘Wait, what the fuck?!’”
And acting isn’t the only string to Buckens bow: she also writes and directs, and was recently nominated for best director at this year’s BFI Future Film Festival for her self-funded short Prangover, which she tells me she was very excited about because it got screened at the BFI Southbank – “which was fucking cool”. Does she think things are changing for women behind the camera? After all, you can’t talk about the film, or indeed any industry really, without wondering if some of the room at the top is finally being wrestled away from the men. “You know,” she begins, “the question isn’t can women get a crew together and make a short film? That’s already happening and that has been happening for a long time. The question is, when it gets to bigger-budget things, are women going to be given funds to make their own things? Creative control when money’s involved – that’s when women aren’t given as much of an opportunity.”
Speaking of opportunities, our conversation is briefly sidetracked, in the nicest possible way, by Buckens receiving the news that her friend has been nominated for the Booker Prize. “She wants me to go out and celebrate tonight,” she grins, radiating with excitement. What a circle indeed. These friendships are clearly incredibly important to the actor – she repeatedly states that she doesn’t know what she would do without them. For someone who spends so much time alone, watching films or studiously researching other people’s emotional maps, Buckens seems pretty sociable, to be honest. “I recently read something that François Truffaut said,” she confides, “which was something like, ‘People who work in film are the neurotics of life because they’re not able to actually live life, they can only live it through making film.’ And I thought, wow that is really sad and possibly quite true. Part of me is like, ‘Come on, live life, grab it by the balls,’ and then the other part of me is like, ‘Yeah but if I do that how am I going to watch all these films?’”
“It’s quite a solitary activity,” she continues. “And none of my friends, or anyone I’ve dated, wants to watch that much. So by necessity it’s a solitary thing.” So are you pretty at ease with your own company, I ask. “Who knows? Because I’m spending it with all these characters. So maybe not. Maybe that’s why I’m watching films.” Suddenly the sun is shining in through the window and Buckens has to go to a film screening of a short she’s in, which is quite meta if you think about it: out in public, but sitting silently in a dark room, watching yourself be someone else for a bit. But do you know what? She’s really good at it.
The Ex-Wife is available to watch as a box set on Paramount+ from October.