'We definitely thought we had something special': Killing Eve's Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh on their perfect pairing
As the BBC's darkly funny Killing Eve returns for a second season, what do the show's two female leads make of its immediate success?
So fast was the turnaround on season two of Killing Eve, that filming was well under way before the actors had any idea the first season was a hit. “We didn’t know!” says Sandra Oh, looking delightedly across the table at Jodie Comer, her co-star. “We went into the second season in July just wanting to get back to these characters.”
By September, however, the show had become so popular – both in the UK and the US – that, “it started getting tricky for us to shoot on the streets,” adds Oh.
Six months later and the out-of-the-park success of Killing Eve received official confirmation: 14 Bafta nominations, more than any other show, resulting in five wins, including Best Actress for Comer (who was up against her on-screen nemesis in the category), Best Supporting Actress for Fiona Shaw and best drama. When the actors and I meet in a hotel room in New York, the awards ceremony is yet to take place and Oh and Comer are over the moon just to have been nominated.
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With its over-the-top violence and implausible premise, Killing Eve seems an unlikely candidate for such plaudits. But the first season’s scripts, co-written by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, were so funny and human that in between the ludicrous murders and pan-European chase scenes it felt as accessible and relatable as a sitcom.
The pairing of Oh – born in Ottawa, Canada, to Korean immigrant parents and best known for playing Cristina Yang in the US hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy – with Comer, a rising star most recently seen as Kate Parks in the hit BBC1 drama Doctor Foster, also worked beyond the producers’ wildest imaginings.
The pair exhibit in person the chemistry that’s key to Killing Eve’s success: Oh, 47, is full of gesticulations and wild laughter, while Comer, 26, is her quieter foil. On screen, they share very few scenes together, yet the combination of Oh’s Eve Polastri, a schlubby MI6 operative with whom any woman who has ever tried to hide a hangover in a meeting identifies, and Comer’s sleek contract killer Villanelle is so compelling that it already feels like one of TV’s great double acts.
“We thought we definitely had something special,” says Oh, “but you can never predict.” Comer laughs at the suggestion that they expected a hit. “I didn’t even think about that,” she says.
As Villanelle, Comer’s accent moves fluidly between Russian, Italian, French and posh English, concealing her strong, native Liverpudlian. In the quiet of the hotel room she sounds mild and unthreatening compared to her character’s psychopathic deadpan delivery.
Accepting the part of Villanelle wasn’t a foregone conclusion, she says. In fact, when she read the first page of the pilot, her heart sank. “I read ‘Russian assassin’ and I went, ‘Yuch’. I thought, first of all, how naked is she going to be? I’m going to be chasing around in heels and there won’t be any realism.”
While many female assassin films play like male fantasies in which perfectly styled women run around the world bumping off people in impractical clothing, Killing Eve is different. “Why would any woman scale a wall in six-inch heels?” says Comer. “She’d have sensible shoes on that she could kick someone in the face with. Phoebe went against all those tropes and stereotypes.”
Which isn’t to say that Killing Eve’s not a supremely stylish show. Villanelle’s wardrobe is a thing of wonder, but it is context-appropriate. Eve, meanwhile, ballasts the action with a sardonic realism that stops the whole thing becoming too cartoonish. The cat-and-mouse dynamic between the two characters is familiar, but it feels unusual to see both played by women.
The second season isn’t written by Waller-Bridge but has a similar vibe to season one. The new writer, Emerald Fennell, best known for playing Patsy in Call the Midwife, has nailed the combination of shock, thrill and humour that made season one such a hit. “Oh no! Phoebe’s leaving!” says Comer of her reaction to the staff change. “And this is where we birthed it from! But it has exactly the same energy.”
For a start, says Oh, “the focus is unabashedly about the relationship and the psyche of these two female characters. There are plenty of shows where there are two women running around doing things. But the focus of this show – how much our characters are involved with each other in a deeply psychological way – is what’s different. We’ve been investigating and living in the white, male psyche, and suddenly, when something else pops up, you think, ‘Wait, that feels more like me!’”
The murderous Villanelle isn’t a character many viewers will readily identify with, and yet the strange dance between her and Eve is fascinating. “Villanelle is childlike in many ways,” says Comer. “There’s that vulnerability.” It’s a generous interpretation perhaps, but one Oh sympathises with: “Come on! How many people do you know like that? We’re dealing with people like that all the time. Everyone has had a bad relationship, everyone has dealt with someone with whom you really think you’ve connected, and then they will throw you under the bus.”
Waller-Bridge has said that there is something liberating in seeing a woman on screen perpetrate the kind of physical violence that we’re used to seeing being doled out by men. This strikes me as slightly dodgy reasoning. Women aping bad male behaviour doesn’t advance anyone’s cause, although there is something to be said for the novelty of a spy show in which women aren’t only there as love interests or to be carved up as victims.
The violence in Killing Eve is often more implied than explicit, for example relying on the suggestion rather than enactment of someone being stabbed in the eye which, as Comer says sweetly, plays on the fact “that stuff that goes on in your mind can be so much worse than what you actually see. When it cuts off in that moment, it leaves you reeling.”
“What’s so violent about Bill’s death,” adds Oh, referring to the shocking murder of Eve’s boss, played by David Haig in season one, “is you don’t see blood. What’s violent is the speed with which she does it; and then her smile.”
It’s true, Comer does a lovely psychopath. And she flits between languages so seamlessly I assume that she was dubbed. “No,” says Comer, “that was me. The French, Russian and Italian was all me – French was the hardest.” She’s laughing now. “I did French and Spanish for four years at school and I can’t say a word, so I had to learn it all phonetically. Although accents are something me and my dad have always done, off a silly advert or impersonations. So in a weird way it’s trained my brain.”
Part of the appeal of the show, apart from the snap and razzle of all those glamorous locations, is the not-very-subtle lesbian undertones of the piece, hammed up to the maximum in early promos for the show. The women are obsessed with each other to a pitch that can only be described as sexual, but not in the conventional sense. Each represents some kind of wish fulfilment in the other, a specifically female set of fantasies that Oh thinks could only have been written by a woman.
“The gift of the dress from Villanelle to Eve,” she says, referring to the creepy moment in season one when Comer’s character returns Eve’s luggage to her with some extra items in the bag. “I thought only a woman would understand the complexity of what it is to give a beautiful piece of clothing to another woman.”
“And for it to fit!” adds Comer.
“Yes, that was one of the most complicated, genius presents ever,” continues Oh.
Is the sexual tension between the characters explicitly referred to in the script or direction? “I mean it is and it isn’t,” says Comer.
Oh is in agreement. “It’s not like we have conversations about it,” she says.
“It’s just present and sometimes more [in some scenes] than others,” says Comer.
The intention, both women say, was not to titillate or cheapen the drama. A good example of this is the final episode of season one, in Villanelle’s flat in Paris, when the women end up on a bed together.
“Do you remember how much work we did on that?” says Comer. “It was written as much closer between them than they were. We were rehearsing it, and it was like, ‘This is too much, it’s wrong.’ So there was pull-back. The audience might want it, but you can’t always give them what they want.”
You could imagine the show tipping into B-movie hell? “Exactly,” says Oh. “So we were like, ‘Oh my God, it’s two women on a bed.’ And I think that [the director] was concerned about it. But then watch how Eve gets on the bed. She gets on the bed like an extremely tired middle-aged lady. She’s like, ‘I’m so tired’. It’s not erotic at all. Definitely Villanelle is thinking it’s going to be one thing, and Eve is implying it’s going to be that, but that’s how she can get her guard down for two seconds.”
The eroticism is a surprising source of comedy, too. Villanelle’s reaction to being stabbed by Eve is one of swooning admiration that Eve out-psychopathed her. “Isn’t that great?” says Oh. “It’s the way that Villanelle takes that stabbing as something extremely intimate.”
In the wrong hands, this could have gone very wrong, too: a continuation of the slasher movie fetishisation of violence as intimacy. “But we’re not seeing that thing that we’ve classically seen,” says Oh. “I’m trying to think of a really crappy movie, something like Nine 1/2 Weeks, where it’s like a psycho-sexual drama and she has to do all these degrading things. That’s not what’s happening here. You don’t see her revelling in it in that kind of way. She feels connected. She’s a part of her. It’s like something that is on her for ever.”
“Like, ‘You’ve scarred me!’ ” says Comer.
The other great lift to the show is Fiona Shaw as Carolyn Martens, head of Russia Section at MI6, as steely and satisfying a spy chief as Judi Dench’s M. “Legend!” says Oh. “She’s everything you think she would be,” sighs Comer.
“And immediately accessible, I gotta tell you,” adds Oh. “She’s a big liver of life. The first time I met Fiona was at our read-through and I was like, I can’t handle it and I went at her like a crazy girl fan. I told her I’d seen her in Medea on Broadway many years ago. And then I acted out her last lines from Medea. Crazy.”
The following week, when I bump into Shaw at the theatre in New York, I mention Killing Eve and she looks mildly surprised at all the interest it has generated. The Bafta haul is so large, meanwhile, as to be almost embarrassing, something I suggest to Comer and Oh and which makes the latter laugh hysterically. “That was very English. Almost embarrassing! Hahaha, I’m so embarrassed! It’s amazing!”
In even highly successful careers, a hit of this size is unusual and Oh, with 20 years on Comer, knows this better than most, and is determined to enjoy every moment of it. “I’m so pleased for everyone!”
Killing Eve series two air on Saturdays from 8th June at 9.15pm on BBC1, with all episodes available immediately on BBC iPlayer