There’s a trick to Killing Eve’s criminally fun to watch assassin Villanelle, played by the wickedly good Jodie Comer, and that trick is just how well the hit woman can fly under the radar. Before she pounces — or stabs, or throws ice cream on a child — on the brand new BBC thriller, Villanelle is the most well-behaved lady around. In fact, Villanelle can twist herself into a ridiculously socially acceptable woman… and Jodie Comer hates that phrase.
“What is a ‘socially acceptable woman?’” the 25-year-old Brit asked with the kind of genuine warmth her deadly BBC America character can only feign, sitting in the Refinery29 offices on a recent afternoon. The answer to Comer’s question is the kind of woman who plays by society’s rules so well, everyone is okay with her taking up space in the world. “Oh I hate that term. That’s an awful term,” Comer protested ahead of the premiere of Killing Eve, a cat-and-mouse thriller about her Russian-born assassin with shadowy benefactors and Eve Polastri (Grey’s Anatomy alum Sandra Oh), the MI5 agent obsessed with tracking Villanelle down.
It’s likely “psychopathic” international hit woman Villanelle would also hate that phrase, because the assassin bristles at any attempt to put her in a box. But, she does use the guise of feminine acceptability to its most subversive ends. During the Sunday night premiere of Killing Eve, created by dark wit extraordinaire Phoebe Waller-Bridge, alone, the contract killer uses that veneer to gain access to a locked-down hospital floor, get within a hair of a creepy Russian politician in the middle of a street, and waltz into the home of a powerful Tuscan man amid wall-to-wall security. Then, she quite literally goes in for the kill.
It is a true thrill to watch Villanelle rebel against what’s expected of her — i.e. not brutally murdering people — and Comer relishes the chance to bring the killer’s wilful liberation to the screen. “She is her own entity, totally,” the actress explained. “What I wanted to really capture was her freedom. I think [creator-showrunner-executive producer] Phoebe has that in immeasurable amounts. That inspired me to play in Villanelle because Phoebe is totally fearless.”
The undeniable spark of Waller-Bridge, who is the mind behind Amazon cult favourite Fleabag, also happens to be what drew Comer to the project. “I got sent the script for episode 1 through my agent,” Comer recalled. “And before I even read it was like, ‘Yeah.’ I wanted to work with Phoebe so much. She’s the coolest person ever.”
“I think there’s just an understanding of the female psyche. The characters are ... just so delicious.”
At this point, no one should be surprised Comer would jump to work with a powerful woman like Waller-Bridge on a drama with unstoppable, oftentimes impossible women. While the Liverpool native got her start in acting through school and a Manchester radio play, one of her first breakout roles was as Chloe Gemell in beloved British dramedy My Mad Fat Diary, where she played the best friend of a teen girl who recently attempted suicide. While Mad Fat is written by men, it’s a relentlessly female story.
Comer followed up that star-making turn with the drama Thirteen, written by Marnie Dickens, about a young woman who had been kidnapped for the past 13 years. Those gigs led to Comer’s greatest crowning achievement prior to Killing Eve, as the titular royal in Starz’s The White Princess, where she played the tricky, politically savvy Princess Elizabeth, a woman with absolutely no fear of punching a king right in the face. Every single White Princess episode was written by a woman, and three episodes were directed by female BAFTA nominee Alex Kalymnios.
While Comer wasn’t originally conscious of just how many women-led, women-produced series she had worked on, it is now a streak she’s specifically looking to continue in her burgeoning career. “I think there’s just an understanding of the female psyche,” she explained of her recent projects. “The characters are so much more complex, and they’ve got so many layers to them. They’re just so delicious.”
Villanelle definitely ranks as a delicious character; the kind who's almost dangerously compelling. Just ask Oh's Eve, who runs toward a gun-toting Villanelle during an upcoming Killing Eve episode. There’s a puckish wit to the assassin, along with the requisite predatory instincts necessary for her profession. Yet, unlike what we’re used to seeing with male contract killers, Villanelle isn’t a volatile mass of brute force and aggression. Rather, she’s catlike in her murderous ingenuity. So, you never know exactly when she’s going to strike.
“What we wanted of Villanelle is you could be sat on a bus with her and you would know nothing of what she is. Because the fact of the matter is, these people exist and we could have come in contact with them,” Comer explained. If we’re all being honest, Villanelle has the kind of quiet strength real-life international assassins likely possess, but are rarely given in whiz-bang pop culture.
Speaking of strength, please don’t bring up these three dreaded words to Comer: strong female character. “I hate that term of, ‘What’s it like to play a strong female character?’” the BBCA star said. “I can see what they’re trying to get at. But it’s [more] the fact these women are so very flawed. It’s having the freedom and the opportunity to play that as an actress that makes it so amazing.”
Thankfully for Killing Eve fans and Comer alike, she will have the opportunity to live in Villanelle’s world once again. BBC America is so bullish about the series, it renewed the spy thriller for a second season before Sunday night’s premiere, a fact that visibly excites Comer the moment it’s brought up. While the actress is thrilled to reveal even more of Villanelle’s twisted past — Phoebe Waller-Bridge figured out her entire history before filming even began — she’s most looking forward to getting back into her character’s closet of individually named wigs.
“I feel like it’s Narnia.”