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Hair to die for

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.

Lucy Cain

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.

Cain decided Sandra Oh should have a ‘just rushed out of the door’ look as Eve

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.

The choice of jacket in this S1 scene prompted Cain to change Comer’s hair style

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.”

Comer’s ‘androgynous’ look again informed her hair style in the Berlin sequence

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.

Cain developed Fiona Shaw’s make-up as her character travelled to Moscow

“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.

Owen McDonnell plays Eve’s husband Niko with a hand-built moustache

“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.”

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Killing time

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.

Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh as Eve

“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?

Oh comes up against Jodie Comer’s Villanelle

“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.”

Killing Eve launched in the US last weekend

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.”

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