DQ asks some of the people who make TV around the world which actors they believe are delivering the most mesmerising performances in contemporary drama series.
Since her breakout performances in UK dramas Thirteen and Doctor Foster, British actor Comer has been dominating the small screen with her seductive, often comedic but always killer performance as the linguistically agile assassin Villanelle in BBC America’s Killing Eve (pictured). Bafta and Emmy glory was richly deserved.
“I think the whole world wishes they could be Sandra Oh,” says Don Carmody Television exec David Cormican of Comer’s Killing Eve co-star. “Comer has arrived and has clearly made her mark as a full-on tour-de-force in her tête à tête opposite Oh’s good-cop spy Eve in Killing Eve.”
Tetra Media’s Emmanuel Daucé adds: “No one could play a loveable psychopath as she does.”
With a celebrated film career including starring roles in Blue Velvet and Jurassic Park, Dern has recently made her mark on the small screen in shows such as Twin Peaks: The Return and, most impressively, HBO’s Big Little Lies (pictured), in which for two seasons she was among an all-star ensemble that also boasted Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Zoë Kravitz, Shailene Woodley and Meryl Streep.
“Despite heavyweight actress competition from her fellow cast members, it’s Laura Dern’s character that burns brightest in the second season,” Walter Presents curator Walter Iuzzolino says of the show. “She may not have the most lines, but she delivers the ones she has with memorable aplomb – ‘I shall not not be rich!’ is a real highlight.”
To fans of the BBC’s Sherlock, Irishman Scott is know the world over as the great detective’s arch nemesis Moriarty. But to a certain group of viewers, he now goes by the moniker ‘Hot Priest.’ It was his role in Fleabag (above) that got viewers hot under the (dog) collar as he stole the show in the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Emmy-winning comedy.
“It’s Andrew Scott’s time at the moment,” says The Lighthouse’s Hilary Salmon. “A character actor to date, Fleabag has put him on the map as a leading actor. He deserves his success, every bit of it.”
Quizzical Pictures’ Nimrod Geva adds: “As the Hot Priest in Fleabag, he proved that empathy is the new sexy.”
Lange’s might not be the most recognisable name among television actors, but with excellent recent performances in Showtime’s prison-break series Escape at Dannemora and Netflix’s breakout true crime drama Unbelievable, he has certainly appeared in some of the most watched television of the past couple of years.
Melissa Williamson, president of Pier 21 Films, notes: “There is a lot of incredible new on-screen talent out there, and I know Eric Lange has been around for a while but, between Escape at Dannemora and Unbelievable, I’ve absolutely come to love this performer. His portrayal of Lyle Mitchell in Escape at Dannemora topped the charts for me this year.”
British actor West crossed the pond at the start of the 2000s to star in David Simon’s seminal crime drama The Wire and recently took on the role of Jean Valjean in the BBC and PBS’s adaptation of Les Misérables. Since 2014, he has also been known Stateside as Noah Solloway, one quarter of a leading ensemble that fronts Showtime series The Affair.
“I watched the entire first season of The Affair and had no idea Dominic West was British,” jokes Paramount’s head of worldwide television distribution Dan Cohen. “He completely convinced me he was both an American and a total weasel, which demonstrates that what he really is is a fabulous actor – I love to hate him!”
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.
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.”
As Killing Eve’s second season launches in the UK, star Jodie Comer and exec producer Sally Woodward Gentle extol the contribution of head writer Emerald Fennell, discuss the show’s female perspective and tease the changing relationship between the main characters.
With TV drama occupying an increasingly lofty position in the minds of viewers and talent alike, it’s not uncommon these days for big new shows to be given premieres comparable to those usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters.
Indeed, an esteemed London location complete with free-flowing wine and delicately assembled canapés is par for the course when it comes to providing the first glimpse of any drama series a major broadcaster gives two hoots about.
So it’s indicative of the reverence in which Killing Eve is held that the UK premiere for the spy thriller’s second season felt like a notch above, even in this landscape. At a preposterously packed Curzon cinema in Soho, the red carpet was quite literally rolled out for the stars of the BBC America hit, with DQ barely able to squeeze through the throng to grab a well-deserved glass of said wine.
Despite mostly comprising journalists and those who worked on the show, the attendees’ excitement at being among the first in the country to see Killing Eve’s return was palpable, with a steady succession of people being told politely but firmly to ‘please wait for the announcement’ as they attempted to get into the auditorium early and secure the best seats.
High expectations are natural when a show’s debut season performs as well as Killing Eve’s, drawing both critical and audience acclaim and becoming one of VoD platform BBC iPlayer’s most popular shows ever.
For those in the dark, the series stars Sandra Oh as intelligence agent Eve Polastri, who becomes obsessed with the slippery, psychopathic assassin she is attempting to apprehend, Jodie Comer’s Villanelle.
The second season has just finished airing stateside on BBC America ahead of hitting UK screens on BBC1 this Saturday. It will air weekly on the linear network, while all episodes will again be made available simultaneously on iPlayer.
Based on Luke Jennings’ Codename Villanelle novella series, the first season saw Eve and Villanelle’s unique game of cat and mouse unfold across Europe, climaxing with Eve stabbing Villanelle during a tender moment in the trained killer’s Paris apartment. The supporting cast is led by Fiona Shaw as Eve’s boss, Carolyn Martens, and Kim Bodnia as Villanelle’s handler, Konstantin. One notable addition to this year’s cast is The Mighty Boosh star Julian Barratt, as a loner who encounters Villanelle in the first episode.
Off camera, the most significant change for season two is that head writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of the equally critic-pleasing Fleabag, has taken a back seat, remaining an executive producer while Emerald Fennell takes the writing reins.
An author and actor best known for playing nurse Patsy Mount in BBC period drama Call the Midwife and due to play Camilla Parker Bowles in the third season of Netflix’s The Crown, Fennell’s appointment as head writer on Killing Eve represents a significant step up. However, any fears that the switch would impact the show’s singular style evaporate in the opening scene – which takes place just seconds after the end of the first season – with the drama again smoothly combining laugh-out-loud moments with abrupt and sometimes brutal violence.
Exec producer Sally Woodward Gentle of producer Sid Gentle Films says: “We’d worked with Emerald before as an actor and also as a writer – we’ve optioned various books that she’s written. She’s also a very good friend of Phoebe, so it felt like a natural handing-on.
“She’s got an amazingly dark sense of humour and a fearlessness like Phoebe had. But at the same time, she didn’t just want to ‘do a Phoebe.’ She wanted to inhabit it herself, and I think she’s done that brilliantly.
“Emerald’s got a brilliant deadpan, dark sense of humour, and the more deadpan she plays it, the funnier it gets. They are really funny episodes, and Phoebe is just hilarious. So between the two of them, they’re a really good mix.”
Comer, who recently won the best actress Bafta for her performance in the show, adds: “The writing is absolutely different. Phoebe and Emerald are so similar but they’re genius writers in their own right. I feel like Emerald really captured the heart of the show and the characters. We’ve got a really strong star.”
With Woodward Gentle, Waller-Bridge and Fennell steering things off camera and Comer and Oh front and centre on screen, Killing Eve is very much a women-led project, despite being based on a property created by a man. “We read Luke’s books and really liked them and enjoyed this female assassin, enjoyed the fact there were two women [as the main characters],” Woodward Gentle says. “But to give that a female spin, and tell that story via a woman, we felt was a far more interesting way into it and something we hadn’t really seen before.
“We’ve seen female assassins actually behaving in quite a two-dimensional way [in other movies and series]. Having a woman write it and giving all those layers to the women in all of the roles was what excited us and made us think that this was not going to be La Femme Nikita or something else that we’ve seen.
“But we’ve also got some phenomenal men who work on the show, so it’s really a combination of some extraordinary women and some quite sweet, slightly capable men,” the exec producer jokes.
Comer says she feels “extremely lucky” that her past five parts have been written by women, with her recent roles coming in shows such as Starz period drama The White Princess, written by Emma Frost, and Marnie Dickens’ BBC series Thirteen.
“I feel as though a lot of the roles I’ve played have been complex and challenging, and Villanelle is the cherry on the cake,” she says. “As an actress and a human being, you want to be challenged and to push yourself into new depths that you may not have been to before. These scripts and this show definitely give me that.”
As Russian Villanelle, Liverpudlian Comer uses practically every accent other than her own to play the deceptive globe-trotting assassin, effortlessly slipping from native-sounding French to posh English southerner. But rather than any formal training, Comer puts her vocal authenticity down to her childhood. “Growing up, me and my dad, if there was an advert on the telly with someone with a silly voice, we’d always impersonate it around the house, joking around. And I think, through doing that, I’ve now got an ear for it.
“Some are a lot harder than others, don’t get me wrong – I do have to concentrate and work. For me it helps because, when I’m doing my own accent, I find it harder to separate myself from the character for some. But also you don’t see a lot of Scousers on the telly, so maybe we need to change that up a little bit!”
Season two begins with a badly wounded Villanelle fleeing her apartment and evading the authorities on the way to seeking urgently needed medical treatment. Eve, shaken up from the pair’s encounter and unsure of Villanelle’s fate, hurriedly returns to London, where she soon begins working with Carolyn again despite ostensibly being sacked in season one.
Comer clearly relished returning to the character that has made her a star on both sides of the Atlantic. Discussing the appeal of playing Villanelle, she says: “She’s so free; she has no sense of consequence or fear.”
Turning to Woodward Gentle, the actor adds: “I remember you saying, Sally, ‘What would it be like to wake up and have no fear?’ To be able to play that, it is literally playing. You get to do all this crazy stuff and express all these emotions, or lack of emotions. It’s so much fun to play.”
A large amount of that fun can apparently be found in the scenes where Villanelle kills people. “What I really enjoy about the murders in the show,” says Comer, pausing at the absurdity of her statement, “is that they’re not always what you expect. Honestly, the murders are the best days on set, purely because most of the time they’re outrageous. Nothing’s ever quite what you think. It’s just so much fun.”
The actor admits to being surprised by the direction the story takes in the second run. While Villanelle found herself reciprocating her pursuer’s infatuation with her throughout the first season, it’s reasonable to assume being stabbed would puncture those feelings, with the actor expecting her character to think, “It’s payback time.” But in fact, the opposite is true: in Villanelle’s eyes, Eve – to whom she now refers as her “girlfriend” – stabbed her “to show me that she loves me.”
That seemingly bizarre conclusion is typical of the complex and contradictory relationship that drives the series. Woodward Gentle offers some insight: “We actually talked to a psychologist who is used to working with psychopaths and asked, ‘What would that stabbing mean?’ He said that it could actually mean several things: it could just raise fury and a sense of revenge, or it could confirm everything that [Villanelle] thought, which is that there is this great intimacy between them; that now they’ve bonded and it’s confirmed that they have a very special relationship. We play off both those possibilities as we run through the series.”
Despite their characters’ connection being central to the show, Comer didn’t share a great deal of screen time with Grey’s Anatomy star Oh – whom she beat to the best actress Bafta last month after Oh triumphed at the Golden Globes last year – in season one. “We’re like passing ships really, or we were in season one,” Comer says. “Whenever Sandra was in, I wasn’t, which actually kind of added to the tension when we did get together. It felt so charged.”
However, she teases more interaction between the central duo this time around. “Within season two, they do come into contact a little bit more – under what circumstances that is, I cannot say. Whenever we get together on set, we find another piece of the puzzle. We still don’t have a lot of the answers, which I don’t mind. I find it quite exciting.”
Comer’s sentiment will likely be shared by UK viewers ahead of Killing Eve’s return, after its airing across the pond drew acclaim equal to that for the first season. With a third run already confirmed, it won’t be long before that red carpet has to be rolled out again – hopefully in a more spacious venue this time.
Killing Eve and Patrick Melrose claimed the major drama prizes at the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2019. DQ was backstage to hear from the winners.
Once the ceremony had concluded and the final prizes of the night had been handed out, the winners of the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2019 – or Baftas, as they are better known – returned to the stage at London’s Royal Festival Hall for a final group photograph.
As they huddled together, each clutching their own gleaming statuette, all eyes were on the two actors standing at the front of the crowd. For Benedict Cumberbatch, his triumph in the Leading Actor category for his role in Patrick Melrose marked his first win in eight Bafta nominations across film and television.
Standing next to him was Jodie Comer, winning at the second opportunity for her standout role as assassin Villanelle in Killing Eve, having seen off competition from co-star Sandra Oh, who was nominated in the same category. Oh won a Golden Globe earlier this year for her performance as Eve Polastri, the intelligence agent simultaneously on the hunt for and infatuated with Villanelle.
Killing Eve proved to be the big winner of the evening, taking home two more awards on top of Comer’s gong: best supporting actress for Fiona Shaw, who plays MI6 bigwig Carolyn Martens, and best drama series, arguably the night’s most prestigious accolade.
Similarly, Patrick Melrose’s recognition extended beyond its star, with the fiver-parter kicking off the annual ceremony, which recognised programmes that aired in 2018, by claiming best miniseries.
The Sky Atlantic and Showtime drama is based on the semi-autobiographical novels by Edward St Aubyn that chart upper-class Melrose’s attempts to overcome his addictions and demons, which are rooted in a childhood overshadowed by an abusive father and negligent mother.
“You win when you get to work on a project like this. You win when you get to work with the people you get to work with and the TV family we created. This is just an embarrassment of riches but it’s elating, it’s fantastic,” said Cumberbatch after claiming his award (pictured top).
Describing his time playing Melrose as “a proper experience and one that I will take with me for the rest of my life,” he added: “It’s something that touched on a lot of incredibly powerful themes. It asks a lot of you as an actor. That’s a great thing. But my chiefest joy, as well as the family I made on the project, is the friendship I’ve made with the man who lived it [St Aubyn].
“He’s an incredible man who, under the pressure cooker of trauma, managed to create this jewel of art in these amazing series of novels that are painfully, brilliantly, funnily, wittily, rawly close to his life and look at what damage, self-abuse, abuse and salvation – in the end, because that is what it ends on – can be. He’s a survivor. That’s my greatest reward.”
The actor went on to describe director Edward Berger (The Terror, Deutschland 83) as “a genius,” noting that everyone on the production team – Cumberbatch was an exec producer – was keen to do justice to St Auybyn’s acclaimed novels. “We thought, ‘We cannot fuck this up. This has to be good.’ You want to do your best.”
After winning the Best Director: Drama award for his work on A Very English Scandal at the Bafta Television Craft Awards a fortnight ago, Stephen Frears was back on stage to collect the award for supporting actor on behalf of Ben Whishaw. In the series, Hugh Grant plays disgraced MP Jeremy Thorpe, who in 1979 was tried but acquitted of conspiring to murder his ex-lover, Norman Scott (Whishaw).
“I’m sorry I’m not Ben,” the director quipped, revealing the actor’s commitments on Broadway prevented him from attending. “He’s a very, very good actor and it was a pleasure and an honour to direct him.”
In a year when Netflix series Black Mirror broke new ground with its interactive episode Bandersnatch, it was the dramatisation of a real-life story that took the Single Drama award. Killed By My Debt, produced by BBC Studios for BBC3, told how 20-year-old motorcycle courier Jerome Rogers took his own life in 2017 when he was unable to pay traffic fines worth £130 (US$167), which spiralled to more than £1,000 with interest. His family have since been campaigning for greater regulation against the bailiff industry in the UK.
Writer Tahsin Guner admitted he found it very difficult to pen the script. “When I first heard what had happened with the news articles, it made me really angry and really upset,” he said. “I knew that was how I wanted the audience to feel. From the feedback I’ve had, it’s a devastating experience to watch, and it was upsetting watching it and making it and writing it.”
Rather than being a complete dramatisation, Killed By My Debt is very much focused on the facts surrounding Jerome’s death. Lines of dialogue were based on his work contract or taken verbatim from a bailiff’s body cam. “You don’t really have to fictionalise anything. Everything you see that happens in the drama happened. Really, nothing is fictionalised,” Guner said. “We had access to phone calls, we had access to all of his payslips. So we really constructed the story from all of those things, from all those factual documentary elements.”
Fiona Shaw, who is best known for her role as Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films, was already a familiar face before Killing Eve launched last year. But she revealed her life has dramatically changed since the BBC America spy saga, which airs on BBC1 in the UK, rolled out to critical and popular acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Often people come up to me and talk about Harry Potter or [1990 comedy] Three Men & a Little Lady or something from the theatre,” she said. “But people came to stop bicycles for Killing Eve. Floods of bicycles going to work would just stop. That’s unusual. That’s never happened before.”
Shaw first read the Killing Eve script while in bed one morning with a cup of tea. As she turned each page, “I wasn’t sure if it was something that might be amazing under the radar, and like five people in London would enjoy it, or whether it was really funny. But I was laughing and I couldn’t wait to turn the page. Then I said, ‘I’m not doing this unless I have lunch with [creator and season one head writer] Phoebe Waller-Bridge,’ and I had the most delightful lunch with her. I’d never met her, but of course I knew [writer and star Waller-Bridge’s BBC3 stage play-turned BBC3 comedy] Fleabag. At the end, I was hers for life and still am.”
Shaw went on to make a cameo in season two of Fleabag, playing a therapist, although she initially rejected the opportunity. “I said, ‘I don’t think I’ve got time, I’m doing so much Killing Eve.’ But [filming on] Fleabag ran on a bit later than they thought and Phoebe asked me to play this psychotherapist,” the actor recalls. “So we just did it one morning and she was spinning plates in that she was rewriting it, I was relearning it; she was just changing things and acting in it. It was an astonishing morning for this tiny sequence.”
As the event headed towards its conclusion, Cumberbatch was back on stage to accept the leading actor award for Patrick Melrose, before stating backstage that he had never been prouder of a piece of work for which he had been nominated. “To win for this really means the most. It’s a dream come true. I’m very happy,” he said, admitting that he thought Hugh Grant would win for his A Very English Scandal performance.
To play a drug addict, Cumberbatch sought advice from people who were familiar with the substances that appear in the show about how to accurately portray their physical and mental impact. “So whether it was depression in the aftermath or getting high on shooting cocaine or being doped on quaaludes or just being a little bit drunk, I sought out the expert help of people who educate people within institutions, within the entertainment industry, within all forms and walks of life about the perils of drug abuse and the powers of addiction, what addiction really is and that anyone can be an addict. They were very helpful and gave me a lot of thumbs ups and also corrected me. That’s how I got there.”
Melrose’s journey across the miniseries runs from drug addict to sobriety and midlife crisis to a confrontation with his mother about the abuse he suffered during his childhood. Cumberbatch said there was constant support on set from director Berger and director of photography James Friend. David Nicholls, he noted, wasn’t precious about his award-winning scripts either.
“It was an amazing experience to work with them,” Cumberbatch continued. “They were great friends and easy and fun, and it had to be fun because of how dark it got and how demanding. Best of all was Edward St Aubyn coming on set and seeing me in some spiral of madness after injecting cocaine. He was incredibly generous and sincere about what I needed to consider to get there and about sharing the truth of his life. I couldn’t think of better people to work with.”
The final award of the night went to a tearful Comer, coming after Killing Eve had also bee named best drama series.
“It’s the best,” the actor said of the series’ impact. “You can’t anticipate how something’s going to go down with an audience, and to see it grow and grow each week and for us to be able to bask in it and celebrate it has been really special. I’ve never had this before, definitely, so it’s been really wonderful.”
Waller-Bridge revealed the anxiousness of writers at the outset of a project when she spoke of asking people to join her on the series when it was still in its infancy. “When you start with something, it always feels like such a big deal to ask people to come on board something that isn’t in existence yet. There’s so much trust and risk and to get this amazing team together; it just feels like the biggest journey. I’m so proud of everyone. I feel so, so lucky.”
The Fleabag star stepped away from writing duties on Killing Eve’s second season, with Emerald Fennell, who stars as Camilla Parker Bowles in Netflix period drama The Crown, taking over as lead writer. And Waller-Bridge believes the change has been “a wonderful thing.”
“Emerald is such a bad ass,” she laughed. “It was painful and hard because I’m moving away from a family and a project, but I’m still there and around [as an exec producer], and seeing Emerald take it and run with it was cool. It’s cool to hand things on and have other people’s input. It can only make things grow.
“I have [watched it]. It’s absolutely fantastic. It’s so brilliant because Emerald’s voice is so unique. There was no sense in getting her to do what we’d done before. There was a real sense, from the whole company, of ‘come and bring your talent to it.’ It really does have her voice, which is very evident in it and does give it this amazing energy, and then [the cast] bring the same kind of glory as they did before.”
With a third season of Killing Eve already confirmed, Waller-Bridge also teased a potential cameo, having not yet appeared on screen in the series. “I would loved to be murdered by Jodie,” she added.
Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer engage in a game of cat and mouse in spy thriller Killing Eve, from Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. DQ visits the windswept English countryside to see them in action.
Sandra Oh is staring out of the window of a production trailer lodged on an exposed hillside overlooking miles of beautiful English countryside. It’s a typical British autumnal day as grey clouds jostle with blue skies. “Look at this location,” she says while wrapped up amid the blustery conditions. “It’s like the most beautiful, fantastic location. And it’s raining – it’s so romantic.”
More used to the never-ending sunshine enjoyed in LA, it’s here at Ivinghoe Beacon, which stands tall among the Chiltern Hills, that Oh chats to DQ as she prepares to film scenes from BBC America spy thriller Killing Eve.
Oh plays the eponymous Eve, a bored MI5 security officer whose desk job does not fulfil her fantasies of being a spy. When she is tasked with tracking down fearsome Russian assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer), working on behalf of a shadowy organisation, the two women are thrown into a cat-and-mouse game set over eight episodes and several stunning European locations, including Tuscany, Berlin, London and Russia.
Based on the Villanelle novellas by Luke Jennings, the series was created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer and star of BBC comedy Fleabag, who is the head writer and executive producer. It is produced by Sid Gentle, with Sally Woodward Gentle and Lee Morris also exec producing and Colin Wratten as producer. Endeavor Content distributes the show, which debuted in the US this month and has already been sold to the BBC in the UK. Other buyers include France’s Canal+, HBO Europe, HOT in Israel and TVNZ in New Zealand.
“When we meet her, the surface of her life is that it is a happy and complete one,” Oh says of her character. “But she’s unfulfilled in ways that are mysterious to her. Her relationship with this assassin really awakens something deep in her that she’s willing to sacrifice many things for.”
Later on set, the crew is fully exposed to the elements as firearms experts prepare a number of weapons between takes. One is then handed over to Comer, who runs through a rehearsal before filming a scene from episode four, in which Villanelle, gun raised, approaches a battered and broken 4×4 that has been brought to a stop along a dirt track by what appears to have been a tremendous volley of bullets.
Liverpudlian Comer – who sports a Russian accent in the series – agrees Villanelle is a complicated character. “When you first meet her, she’s mystical in the sense that you don’t really know much about her. She lives in Paris, she has this very luxurious lifestyle but seems to have nobody around her. The only real relationship she has is with Konstantin [her handler, played by The Bridge’s Kim Bodnia]. She very much wants to be in control of every aspect of her life – and when Eve comes into the picture, things start to slip up.”
But is she also a psychopath? “Essentially she is, yes. She kills people. She enjoys it. Killing is like an art to her,” Comer explains. “She really thinks about how she’s going to execute it. She takes on personas to do that, whether it be dressing up as a different person, [speaking a] different language… all these different things she goes at with full speed. She’s not to be trusted but I think she’s very likeable, in a weird way. I hope she is, anyway.”
Comer has risen to fame on the back of starring roles in BBC dramas Thirteen and Doctor Foster. And after heading the cast of Starz period drama The White Princess, the actor was looking for something more contemporary when Killing Eve came along. “Phoebe’s script was probably the only one that came through and I was like, ‘I’ve got to do this,’” she recalls. “You get scripts that you love but this was so much fun to read on the page. Also, [I had to take] the chance to work with Phoebe, because I loved Fleabag and I thought with episode one, where is this story going to go?
“As for Villanelle as a character, I feel like assassins can be so one-dimensional and unrelatable. They can be very cold. But I felt that people would relate to her in some way. It’s quite original what Phoebe has done – going from quite a dark moment to laughter is the perfect balance.”
The role also afforded Comer the chance to do some stunts. “But I’m so uncoordinated,” she admits. “There will be a close-up of me flicking a knife and I’m, like, butterfingers, so we have to do it eight times. I’m so bad at this. But it’s fun and it’s something I’ve never done before.”
However, the actor adds: “Villanelle gets so close to the people she kills that not an awful lot of it is super physical. It’s very interesting how she gets so close to these people and how comfortable people feel around her. She can so easily be the girl next door. She can do all these different things and I think that’s what she enjoys the most.”
By contrast, what makes Eve stand out is that when she enters the spy game, she doesn’t suddenly know her way around a machine gun or become an expert at going undercover. “She’s not being an idiot, but everything is new,” Oh says. “She’s just a middle-aged lady who works at MI5 and makes sure everyone’s security is in order. There’s a difference between someone who picks up a gun that is believable and someone who is really picking up a gun for the first time.
“I remember one time I was going to do a movie where I had to shoot a big gun. I went into training and I looked at myself and thought, ‘I just look like a middle-aged Korean lady holding a big gun. This is not believable.’ I feel like in a lot of shows and movies, people seem to know how to do shit and that’s just not true.”
Sid Gentle had picked up the Villanelle novellas for adaptation when founder Woodward Gentle first met with Waller-Bridge. The latter was then still relatively unknown, as Fleabag, based on her play of the same name, had yet to air. “I’d read the play and I just loved the idea of putting her voice with that material,” Woodward Gentle says. “She really liked [the Villanelle IP] as well and was really excited by it. We actually developed it for another broadcaster, but BBC America took the script away and completely loved it even before Fleabag had gone out, so they totally got the tone and the ambition of it and weren’t just jumping on the Fleabag bandwagon. When it was greenlit, they asked if there could be one American character, so at least there would be some access point for an American audience.”
Eve was cast first, with the producers seeking a 40-something American to play the part. Canadian-born Oh, whose parents are Korean, fitted the bill. “She’s an extraordinary, serious, compelling, compassionate actor,” Woodward Gentle says. “You also believe her to be married to a Brit and to have been here [in the UK] for a while.”
For Villanelle, “we didn’t want a kick-ass sexy female,” she continues. “We wanted somebody who feels real, who feels like you could sit next to her on the Tube and she would just mix in. She needs to be a chameleon.
“Jodie’s an extraordinary actress. She chemistry-read with Sandra and that was amazing. She can have many different looks, she’s got amazing intensity and she’s also really naughty and spontaneous, so that worked well.”
Oh says she was drawn to the project by the mixture of wit and drama in Waller-Bridge’s scripts – and early trailers for the series suggest there will be large doses of humour throughout the drama.
“I thought it was unique and I really hope that’s what comes across,” says the actor, best known for her long-running role in US medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. “The English do dark detective series very well but it’s not just that, and it’s not just a character piece or thriller piece. It’s unique and it absolutely has to do with Phoebe’s voice as a writer and her choices.
“I really appreciate the way the show handles its wit specifically to each character. It’s not just like everyone’s funny – I can’t stand that, when everyone has the same type of humour. That’s just not true in life.”
The show’s comedic elements are never cartoony, however, with Woodward Gentle highlighting the production team’s extensive research aimed at bringing realism to the scripts and the world in which the series is set. “We’ve done a lot of research into who this organisation [that controls Villanelle] could be, who they might be killing off and what their ultimate ends might be,” she says.
“As you go further on with the show, you realise they’re actually mad and their scheme is quite terrifying, but that won’t get revealed until we’re into later seasons. We’re trying to ground it as much as we possibly can – it’s not James Bond, it should feel more grounded than that. But there is this black wit that you get in real life anyway.”
For Oh, meanwhile, the chance to lead a series has been a “30-year wait” – but she believes there is still plenty to be done to increase diversity in the industry. “You have a face like mine who is the face of the show and it’s two lead women, it’s produced and created by a woman. But I still feel there’s a lot of work for us to do to encourage women and actors of colour and crew of colour both in front of and behind the camera.”
“When was the last time you saw an Asian woman as the lead of a show? It’s very important to me and that is not lost on me at all. Having said that, it is 30 years in the making. But I’m happy to be here to do it.”