Posted by admin on April 10, 2023

The actress often plays women defined by their mastery. In “Prima Facie,” she takes on her toughest role yet: a lawyer who defends men accused of sexual assault.
When the actress Jodie Comer first read the description of Villanelle—the assassin and antihero of the spy series “Killing Eve”—she responded with dismay: “How naked is she going to be?” She imagined catsuits and stiletto heels. Instead, she found herself in brocade Dries Van Noten suits and custom-dyed Chloé—a dandy psychopath, a huntress, who never sacrifices style for efficiency when dispatching her victims. She strangles one with a necktie, kills another with poisoned perfume, and sparks a very understandable erotic fixation in the M.I.6 agent (Sandra Oh) on her heels. Even as the script sagged in later seasons, Comer’s command remained absolute. She garnered a small shelf of awards and handled success with a total lack of pretense. “Our show doesn’t have a huge message to the world,” she said with cheerful bluntness. “That’s probably why people enjoy it so much.”

Comer has followed “Killing Eve” with “Prima Facie,” a one-woman show that is all message—and which features her most revealing role to date. Comer plays Tessa, a scrappy barrister who excels at defending clients accused of sexual assault, and who finds her faith in the law unravelling after being raped by a colleague. The script was written by Suzie Miller, an Australian playwright and former barrister, who felt that the system was rigged against victims of sexual violence. For almost two hours, Comer devours the stage, scarcely seeming to breathe. She brings to life every member of the court, as well as the innate kitsch of a trial and its rituals. She leaps on tables, zips through costume changes in front of us, and hauls around furniture to create her own makeshift sets: a pub, a police station, a room of horror. Following a sold-out, award-winning run in London, the play opens on Broadway this month.

On a recent Saturday, I met Comer at the Whitney Museum. Rain all morning. Outside, I watched a pigeon shake itself out like a dog. Comer, who had just celebrated her thirtieth birthday, arrived wearing a floor-skimming, belted black coat and trainers, hair tucked under a slouchy hat, a hotel umbrella under her arm. She was bluff, friendly, determined to enjoy the professional obligation. “Eight floors?” she said, looking at the museum map. “Impressive.” Waiting for the elevator, she let her hip bump gently into mine.

Where do we begin? I asked. What does she like to look at?

“People,” she said. “Women or their bodies.”

For two hours, Comer and I admired the women of the Whitney. Gaston Lachaise’s towering bronze nude. A portrait of the museum’s founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, reclining on a sofa in a blue blazer and sea-green trousers. Look, Comer said, calling me back to the nude. “Her foot.” The huge body was perched on improbably small, arched feet—all that power, banked in the rounded hips and thighs, suddenly so precarious. Later, again: look. “That color.” An Edward Hopper painting of a woman in a red dress and red hat. She was lovely, wary, curiously proportioned, her breasts painfully lopsided. “Well,” Comer said, “Y’know, sometimes that happens.” Then she showed me what I had missed: “Her arm is squashing that one.”

Comer is an avid, beady noticer, with a preternatural ability to block out the fact that she herself is being noticed, almost constantly. Fans approached in various states of disarray. One was so overcome that he could sustain only moist eye contact with me, thanking me effusively for my work. (I was gracious.) Comer handled tears and requests for photographs with a kindly reserve, effortlessly picking up the thread of our conversation. She was still thinking about an Alice Neel retrospective that she had seen, in London, that felt like a vast family album. Neel called herself the collector of souls. Comer loved her way of painting hands as elongated and distinct—so like her own—and as “always doing something.” And the unfinished edges! “You could always see where she started,” Comer said. Those unpainted corners, she went on, seemed to tell us, “This is how I got here.”

See that foot, that blue, those busy hands. These are, perhaps, Comer’s own traces, her own admissions of how she gets there. More than once she told me that she is untrained—no acting school, no Stanislavski technique. Since she began working, as a teen-ager, she has found her way instinctively to her characters, through their bodies and through her own. She tries to locate their source, their “source energy.” For cerebral Villanelle, the source was in the head, the brow. For preening, strutting Tessa, it’s all in the chest. Comer showed me, squaring her shoulders and raising her chin. I watched Tessa arrive.

That kind of arrogance can be delicious in a woman, Comer said, over tea in the museum café. (“That’s a good tea bag,” she added. Tea in America has been an abiding disappointment.) If Neel regarded herself as a collector of souls, Comer looks at the gallery of women she’s played—Villanelle, Tessa, Marguerite in Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel”—as visitations, all come to teach her something. With Tessa, however, there is something cuttingly personal. “I know where she’s from,” Comer said. “What she’s had to do to get where she is.”

In the rehearsal room of “Prima Facie” hangs another wall of images, mostly of women and girls. They are the photographs Comer has collected to conjure Tessa. In one, a woman draws a mustache on herself—Tessa going to court, Comer explained, “thinking of what she has to become.” A blank-eyed woman in an embrace—Tessa after the assault. There are photographs of a man’s wrist encircled by a heavy watch, photographs of Liverpool in the nineteen-nineties, street kids mugging for the camera. Tessa has scrabbled out of a loving, brawling world, catapulting herself to Cambridge to become a star barrister. Her mother, she tells us, cleans offices like the one she works in. Her vigilance—her awareness of being scrutinized, assessed, dismissed—has become a kind of superpower, an acute understanding of judgment and persuasion. She is a connoisseur of contempt, a human barometer of doubt—not that she seems to possess any herself. The law is blood sport for her, but behind it is righteous pride. “Prosecutors, you work with the police. You say you are fighting for justice. You are fighting for jail time,” she says. “It’s our job to find holes in the case, to protect society.”

At the center of the wall is a photograph of Comer as a girl—a large cast on her leg, grinning as she sails down a slide. (“I peaked,” she said, wryly.) To think about Tessa at her freest, Comer gave her the gift of her own childhood. The actress’s “source energy” seems to arise from this place—the Liverpool suburb of Childwall, where her mother is a transport worker and her father is a physical therapist for the Everton Football Club. The parish priest still sends letters to Comer’s family, reflecting on each of her roles. (On Villanelle, he’s spoken “about the depths he feels I would have to go to in order [to] understand why a person would be like this,” Comer said.) She spent much of the pandemic back home, playing badminton with her brother over the washing line. “We were like kids again, having to knock at the neighbor’s door, like, ‘Can you throw the ball back over?’ ”

One of Comer’s first proper roles came at twelve, for a monologue at a school talent show. She played a child who had lost her father in the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy: a stampede, during a Liverpool football match, that killed more than ninety people. When her name was called, Comer found herself already in tears; the emotion was bewilderingly easy to access. She had something powerful inside her, her drama teacher said, and she needed to learn to harness it. (In “Killing Eve,” Villanelle’s former handler gives her a strikingly similar speech.) Bit parts followed, in radio plays and “Law & Order: UK.” Comer worked the weekend-morning shifts at Tesco, “hungover 99.9 per cent of the time.” In lieu of formal training, she cribbed Villanelle’s facial expressions from her mother, and developed a facility with accents by imitating advertisements with her father. She remembers his face, awed and proud, the first time he saw her perform. “I’m always chasing” that face “in some way,” she said.

Comer invokes her family with an insistence that begins to make sense when one realizes how often her background was seen as a liability. Although she worked steadily, there were fallow periods. Casting directors were incredulous at her Northern accent. Theatre was impossible to break into; she was not educated enough, she was told, not trained. When she started out, she wanted to be Keira Knightley, to wallow in big frocks and yearning. Instead, she has become known for characters marked by their mastery—a mastery acquired in private, at cost, and intended as a kind of armor. Onstage, when Tessa speaks, in her strong Scouse accent, of being patronized, of desperately counting on her vigilance and nice manners, on her brilliance and ambition to prize open the doors so intent on keeping her out, Comer’s fury is electrifying.


The London dress run of “Prima Facie” was plagued with problems. At one point, when Tessa changes clothes onstage, Comer got her head stuck in a shirt. But the previews indicated something special at work. In the last fifteen minutes of the play, Tessa speaks directly to the audience. A woman in the front began to cry, making deep guttural noises. “It was like little lights going off all over the theatre,” Comer recalled. “It was spreading. It was as if people in the audience were giving each other unspoken permission to feel.”

Of course, it is Tessa who grants the permission. Standing at the front of the stage, she points into the audience: “I see all the women who came before me, all the women who will come after.” Her bluster is gone. She is no longer the star defense lawyer but the victim, humiliated by taking the stand and withstanding the very interrogation techniques that she once deployed with pride: the suggestion of inconsistencies in memory, of ulterior motives influencing the rape accusation. “In all of my professional life, I have participated in a system that has done this to women, and now I know it is not right,” she says. “If the women’s experience of rape is not as the court would like it to be, then we conclude she is prone to exaggeration.”

The play wavers at the end, unsure where to send the shattered Tessa. Lines curdle into cliché: “I am broken, too, but I’m still here, and I will not be silenced”; “Somewhere, somehow, something has to change.” But Comer always seems to shine when scripts struggle—screenwriters from Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Matt Damon praise how she sees the character beyond the page. Here, she does something interesting. She does not fight the clichés but leans into them, lets us feel Tessa reach for them, choose them—what else can she say? As she speaks, her hands hang at her sides, grasping at air. She seems shorn of language, of certainty, suddenly doubting everything but herself.

Comer began hearing from women almost immediately: women who had recognized something in their past, who were on the verge of leaving the law but now saw a reason to persist. The dynamic is woven into the action of the play—the way the house lights come on at the end, enabling the audience to see one another, to see themselves, and to see Tessa, who draws near and says, “There was a time, not so long ago, when courts like this did not ‘see’ nonconsensual sex in marriage as rape, did not ‘see’ that battered women fight back in a manner distinct from the way men fight.” How, she asks, can we unsee what we now know?

Recently, watching a recording of the play, I found those lines nagging at me. I called Comer. Broadway rehearsals had begun, and her voice was different—slower, assured. She was struck by how rare it is for an actor to return to familiar material, to infuse it with what they now know. I asked her what Tessa had allowed her to see. I recalled how, when she concentrates, she closes her eyes and taps between her brows. She seemed to be doing that now. She responded, “I have nothing to prove.”



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