Killing Eve’s hair and make-up designer Lucy Cain provides insights into her role on the award-winning series and the practical challenges she faced along the way.
While Killing Eve has rightly been lauded for its razor-sharp dialogue, iconic costumes and award-winning performances, the contribution of the hair and make-up design to the overall storytelling should not be overlooked.
Although it might be more subtle than in a period drama, science-fiction series or blood-filled crime procedural, hair and make-up in a contemporary series can contain significant signposts to a character’s mood or arc through a story.
That was certainly the case for the BBC America series, which has become a global hit thanks to the chemistry between leading actors Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer and the work of its creator and season one head writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who handed over writing duties to Emerald Fennell for season two.
But before the stars had been cast, hair and make-up designer Lucy Cain – who has worked on both seasons – was already formulating ideas and concepts for both MI5 officer Eve Polastri (Oh) and globetrotting assassin Villanelle (Comer).
Eve, she thought, would have a style that suggests she has just rushed out of the door, while make-up wouldn’t be a high priority for the wannabe secret agent.
“Another thing I felt with Eve was even though she’s in a happy marriage, it’s probably a bit safe and easy,” Cain tells DQ. “There’s no effort there. With Eve, I always wanted her to have that look.” But as her relationship with – and fixation on – Villanelle develops through season one, her increasing consideration of her appearance and her experimental approach to trying on make-up or wearing her hair up or down would highlight her changing perception of herself.
On the other hand, “Villanelle was completely different. She’s a true chameleon,” Cain admits. “She has to blend into any environment or culture she’s placed in. I wanted from the very beginning of season one for the audience to not really know who she was. That’s why in the very opening scene, when we’re in Vienna, she’s got a dark wig on. Then the next time we see her, she’s on the train and she’s in the same clothes but she’s got her real blonde hair.
“That opening scene [pictured top] where she pushes the ice cream into the girl’s lap, smiles and leaves – of course you know it’s Villanelle, that’s our introduction to her. That was a really nice way of kicking off the difference between them.”
Villanelle’s unpredictability gave Cain lots of freedom to play with the character’s appearance, particularly when it came to the disguises she uses when the hired killer is targeting her next victim.
“Whenever you see her in a wig, it suggests to the audience there’s about to be a heinous murder,” she explains. “The wigs really helped in that respect. For me, I wanted all of those looks to be believable. Even if we know she’s wearing a wig, I want you to say she looks great and not that she’s wearing a wig.”
To create the wigs, Cain used ready-made, untouched hairpieces that the designer could then cut into a particular style, while Comer was in the make-up chair wearing them.
“Every wig I cut on her head,” she says. “That way it’s quicker. Sometimes when you’re getting a wig made from scratch, there’s a much longer process. But it was fun to do as well.”
In one scene from episode one, Villanelle kills her mark by stabbing him in the eye with a hairpin. It was an accessory that prompted much debate between Caine, costume designer Phoebe De Gaye, production designer Kristian Milsted, director Harry Bradbeer, executive producers Sally Woodward Gentle and Lee Morris, and producer Colin Wratten.
Was it going to be small, like a hair grip? But then it needed to be a certain size for Comer to hold in her hands. In the end, one pin was made for the kill, with a small tube of ‘poison’ seen to be released once it had been thrust into the victim. A smaller version was also created for when it could be seen in Comer’s hair.
Another challenge came when Villanelle, pretending to be a waitress, was called upon to kill a businesswoman with some perfume. “She’s just supposed to look like an ordinary girl that nobody would remember, so you try to think about what that would look like,” Cain says. “If you had to describe the girl, did she have brown hair? Did she have blonde hair? Did she have a fringe? There’s nothing about it that was particularly stylish or stood out.”
Unlike working on a genre series, where the hair and make-up styles come with parameters that limit designers to the style of a particular time or theme, a contemporary drama means “everyone has an opinion,” Cain jokes, adding that she always wants her work to enhance everything in the scene.
Working with De Gaye on season one meant the choice of costume would always inform the hair style. One example in episode three is when Villanelle is in Berlin, watching agents Eve and Bill (David Haig) arrive at the scene of her latest murder.
“Villanelle’s got a lovely high-necked top on, so I would chat with Phoebe about what she’s wearing and then say to my assistant that she needs her hair up because we don’t want to be fighting with the collar,” Cain says. “It’s a beautiful costume so we want to see that. When she’s in Bulgaria and she kills a guy in an office, she’s got a bomber jacket on and it’s like she’s gone on a mission, so we’re like, ‘Get the hair back’ and put it in a tight plait.”
Villanelle’s appearance in Berlin was also informed by a later action sequence in which she would ultimately kill Bill. “She wore a suit that was really androgynous. It had a really good shoulder structure and we’re in Germany, so we ended up just doing a plait that came right round the side of the head.
“It worked brilliantly with the suit. It had that Germanic feel, but also it worked because I knew later on she was going into a nightclub and there was going to be this frenzied kill with all these people around and we need to see her face. If she’s got her hair down, there’s a good chance when she’s jumping up and down, that hair’s going to cover her face and that could potentially ruin that shot. Maybe Jodie will also start thinking, ‘OK my hair’s going all over my face, maybe I shouldn’t move my head so much.’ So there’s lots of elements that go into a decision when you’re doing a look. That’s an example where it all worked perfectly – she’s in Germany, it’s an androgynous look, she’s wearing a suit, and she’s jumped in and she’s killing someone frenzied in a nightclub. There were ticks all the way down for that.”
Later in the season, Cain also had to turn Comer into a beaten and bruised Villanelle after a vicious bust-up with her handler Konstantin (Kim Bodnia), but the nature of the out-of-sequence filming schedule meant she had to have the injuries before the fight took place.
“Phoebe Waller-Bridge really wanted Villanelle to be absolutely battered by the end,” Cain reveals. “So I had to create the look, then show the stunt coordinator what I’d done so they could match the stunts with the look we’d established.
“It’s hard when you do make-up like that because you know it will run for two episodes and sometimes you wonder whether people forget why they’ve got those marks on their faces. Season two also starts 30 seconds after the end of season one, so she starts season two with those marks again!”
Oh and Comer weren’t the only cast members to spend an extensive amount of time in the make-up chair, with Owen McDonnell (playing Eve’s husband Niko) requiring a new moustache to be applied every shooting day. Instead of using a pre-made one, Cain took the decision to lay it on instead, applying glue to his lip and then pushing on a handful of hair, a blend of five different colours. She would then use scissors and tongs to shape the hair correctly.
“Phoebe really wanted Niko to have this big moustache and I think Owen looks brilliant with it. It really suits him,” Cain says. “When he was on set, it would be a super early call. We’d go in and listen to the farming news and be in on our own for about an hour before anyone else arrived. But it was definitely worth it for the overall look. He could just move normally, it never hinders his performance and I don’t have to touch it all day. Then he’d go off and I’d do Sandra and he’d come back in an hour once it’s settled and I’d brush it a bit more. It was a bit of a double process but it worked for us.”
Another character whose make-up tells a story through the series is Carolyn Martens, played by Bafta winner Fiona Shaw. At the start, she didn’t wear much make-up, but that changed when the story took the MI6 boss to Russia and the character started to put more on.
“When I watched the show, I really liked the way she looked at the end of season one, so at the beginning of season two in pre-prep, I’d meet up with all the female characters and we’d do some shopping and look for products and see what worked last year,” Cain reveals. “I was with Fiona and I said we should continue in that vein for season two and she was really receptive to it and it really works. She looks amazing in season two.”
Season two, which launched recently on BBC1 in the UK, sees Cain working alongside new costume designer Charlotte Mitchell and production designer Laurence Dorman, as well as writer Fennell. However, many of the challenges facing her remained, such as filming abroad and the logistics of travelling with huge amounts of kit – and hoping it arrives on time.
Cain also had to consider the role of prosthetics in the series, which comes from producer Sid Gentle Films and distributor Endeavor Content. When Eve stabs Villanelle at the climax of season one, the designer had a stab wound made, which she would then stitch up when it was applied to Comer. She also had the foresight to order a scar as well, which could be used as the wound heals.
“It’s not scripted that you see the scar but you have to be prepared, so if costume decide to put Jodie in something that shows it, or if she’s getting dressed,” Cain says. “So I got a scar made just because I thought we’d need it, and we did later on.”
Cain started her career in comedy, working on series such as The Office, The Kumars at No 42, Sensitive Skin and Friday Night Dinner. More recently, she contributed to dramas including The Passing Bells, Grantchester, Snatch and Fortitude.
But while the ambition for a series can often be greater than its budget, Cain notes that her beginnings in comedy taught her to work with fewer resources. “The bigger the drama, obviously the bigger the budget and the easier it is,” she says. “I did a lot of comedy when I was coming up and that’s when you get to make something out of nothing. You have to be very creative, you have to think on your feet and you just get used to working that way. It hones your skills.
“Now, on Killing Eve, if you need something and it’s going to enhance the show, I have never had a problem getting it.”
While Cain has decided not to return to Killing Eve for the already commissioned third season, she is now working on Us, the BBC adaptation of David Nicholl’s novel. The story follows a couple who go on a European tour in the hope of repairing their marriage.
“What’s lovely about Killing Eve is it’s a dream job, because there is a really creative side to it,” she adds. “It’s challenging but also you have some days that are really laid back and calm. There’s just the right balance. On some jobs, there is something to be anxious about every day and it’s not necessarily something creative. With Killing Eve it was the perfect job for all of those reasons.”