‘Killing Eve’s’ Jodie Comer on her bewitching killer Villanelle — and Bruce Springsteen

LA TIMES

 

Actress Jodie Comer, who plays the sociopathic assassin trying to hunt down British intelligence agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) in the BBC America drama “Killing Eve.” (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

 

Most internet searches are pretty forgettable. But for Jodie Comer, tapping her manicured fingers across her phone screen on a recent day, the results for this one needed to be shared.

“I mean, come on,” she says, holding out the phone to reveal a collection of photos of a shirtless Bruce Springsteen on the beach.

It’s the sort of sly bait maneuver that, were this a scene playing out in “Killing Eve,” would end in the death of the credulous victim distracted by the American icon at the hands of the ruthless assassin that Comer wickedly plays.

Comer’s performance as Villanelle in the BBC America series is hard to shake — her lethal smile alone can be a source of obsession. But in person Comer is chatty and friendly, a world away from the brutal and enigmatic Villanelle.

The 26-year-old English actress likes to talk about her ultimate fast food mashup while in Los Angeles (an In-N-Out burger and fries from McDonald’s) and her enduring admiration for The Boss. She’ll tell you that “If I Should Fall Behind,” “Red Headed Woman” and “Secret Garden” are her favorite Springsteen songs and the back story to the beach photos discovery that originated at a house party.

“I woke up the next day with a hangover and I went onto Google,” she begins. “Do you ever do that when you’ve been on a night out? Like, go to your phone and are like, oh my God, what was I searching last night? Or you go on your Spotify and you’re like, OK, the Okie Cokie came out last night? Don’t remember that one.”


Going into Season 2, there’s a bit of comfort because you know that you have something that resonates with people and something people like.

There’s no cold, emotionless turns with Comer. No worry that she’ll smile at you one moment and knock over your ice cream the next. Or, you know, stab your eye with a hair pin as she did to one helpless victim in Season 1 of “Killing Eve.”

Cloaked in black with her hair slicked back and swapping out her strappy heels for frumpy slippers, the actress is sitting in a Pasadena hotel room still trying to process the previous year. Comer had appeared in a string of British television shows before this, but her captivating performance as the unhinged assassin with a killer wardrobe in “Killing Eve” has thrust her into the spotlight — the kind where admiration is immortalized in GIFs, memes and Halloween costumes.

Adapted by Phoebe Waller-Bridge from Luke Jennings’ “Codename Villanelle” novellas, “Killing Eve” follows Villanelle (Comer) and the British intelligence agent, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), trying to stop her. After a breakout debut season last year helmed by Waller-Bridge that landed on many TV critics’ best lists, the darkly comic espionage thriller returns for its sophomore outing on Sunday.

Fans of the show are eager to find out what’s happened to their favorite psychopath after she was stabbed by Eve in the Season 1 finale.

“Going into Season 2, there’s a bit of comfort because you know that you have something that resonates with people and something people like,” Comer says. “But then it definitely adds the pressure of just the expectations.”

An early start

Expectations aren’t all that familiar to Comer. Her parents, whom she still lives with in Liverpool, work far outside the entertainment business: Her father is a sports massage therapist and her mother works for a public transportation company. It was in Liverpool, at a local weekend drama workshop, that she developed an affinity for performing — but the thought of making a career out of it seemed far-fetched.

 

Actress Jodie Comer who plays ruthless assasin, Villanelle, in BBC America’s “Killing Eve.” (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

 

By the time she was a teenager, she had landed her first professional acting gig and would go on to star in a number of TV projects back home, including “Thirteen,” “The White Princess” and “Doctor Foster.”

Before “Killing Eve” came along, Comer had grown restless during a seven-month slump in roles. But as the story goes, she met Waller-Bridge at a BAFTA afterparty in 2017 — Waller-Bridge was recognized for “Fleabag” and Comer was nominated for her role as a kidnapped teenager in “Thirteen.” An impromptu gathering later in Comer’s hotel room led to their first introduction.

“I was trying not to freak out,” Comer says, “because I just think she is such a talent.” A few months later, the call came about “Killing Eve.”

Sally Woodward Gentle, who is an executive producer on the series and helped cast Comer, recollected in a phone interview how impressively the actress leaned into the show’s goal of reversing the expectations of an assassin — pointing to Comer’s chemistry with Oh in moments like the shepherd’s pie scene that would play out in Episode 5.

“We didn’t want someone who, when they walk down the street, you think, ‘Oh, they could kill somebody,’” Gentle says. “We wanted someone who you could sit beside on the tube and not give it a second thought. Jodie brings layers to this role that are so extraordinary to watch.

“In that shepherd’s pie reading, she just could move with extraordinary elasticity in terms of tone. She could play it dark and she could play it so you completely bought into this sub story she was giving you. She cried one moment, she was vicious and cruel in the next, and can be funny too. She knew all of those beats and hit them all perfectly — with no direction.”

To prepare for the role, Comer did research into the characteristics of a psychopath and their relationships with other people. What struck her about Villanelle, she points out, is her humor.

“She’s got a wit about her that I did not expect,” Comer says. “I do remember when I saw the word ‘assassin’ I was like, ‘oh, hell.’ I thought of femme fatale and leather catsuits and a chaise lounge — really overtly sexual and I was like, ‘I just don’t know. How much nudity will this girl have in this series?’ I should have known better.”

Comer admits part of what fuels her performance is the fear of Villanelle becoming a caricature.

“What I love about playing her is I am always encouraged to take risks,” she says. “You don’t want people to underestimate her or not believe her danger, but ultimately, people should have fun with her, they should live through her mischief and naughtiness and her, this may sound weird, but her kind of honesty. That’s what I admire about her anyway. I think she’s extremely honest, maybe too much sometimes.”

“I do remember when I saw the word ‘assassin’ I was like, ‘oh, hell.’ I thought of femme fatale and leather catsuits …

Oh describes Comer as a “dance partner who knows a couple of moves you don’t.”

“Villanelle is a very unpredictable character,” Oh says by phone. “And I think Jodie has been able to find freedom in acting in playing someone like that. It makes for wonderful spontaneity.”

It gets Oh talking — cryptically, of course — about what’s to come of this cat-and-mouse dynamic, or rather, cat-and-cat dynamic, in Season 2.

“It’s like you see them in a box together,” she says. “There’s a scene at the end of the season that is extremely physical. It was tough to shoot because we had to do it in tiny pieces. But at the end of it, something happened quite spontaneously; it was not scripted, which I think changed a lot of the meaning in the scene between us. And it’s in some ways a way that Villanelle expresses her care for me. I’ll leave it at that.”

The show’s success, and Comer’s performance, certainly has Hollywood taking notice. She’ll star opposite “Wonder Woman’s” Gal Gadot in the remake of Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile,” and she begins production next month on the sci-fi action film “Free Guy,” in which she plays a video game programmer and an avatar in the game she created.

“I started hearing about this actress on this show who was a revelation,” said Shawn Levy, who will direct “Free Guy,” which costars Ryan Reynolds. “Then I sat down and watched for myself. We auditioned at least 60 or 70 different actresses, but she was on a shortlist on my mind. She has this transformative ability. And I needed an actress who could play two very different-feeling women. There aren’t many actors of any gender or age who are able to transform that radically and remain authentic.”

It’s a welcome development for Comer, who has always wanted to do film. And she gives all the credit to her on-screen alter ego for the way it’s enabled people to see her versatility.

“What I am really appreciating is that people now want to meet me and have conversations with me and see what I want to do and what films interest me,” she says. “I’ve never been in that position. It’s just nice that people are like, I don’t know, maybe taking me seriously.”

And, yes: “It’s kind of fun when they’re scared of me too.”

————

‘Killing Eve’

Where: AMC and BBC America

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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