Posted by admin on October 10, 2021

From Killing Eve’s assassin to Help’s broken care worker, the home-grown superstar has proved she can do anything. As she hits Hollywood, can she keep it real?

Fist bump? Quick, slappy handshake? Standoffish salute? After a brief hesitation, the actor Jodie Comer abandons 18 months of professional caution around hellos, spreads wide her arms, and gathers me in for a big, swaying bear-hug. We’ve never met or spoken before. “But I’m quite a tactile person,” says Comer, who grew up in a suburb of Liverpool and whose scouse accent, which can sharpen or soften depending on the circumstances and her level of comfort, is in full, glorious evidence this afternoon.

The 28-year-old has knocked off early from rehearsals for season four of TV drama Killing Eve, in which she plays a chameleonic assassin called Villanelle. She recently got back from an Italian film festival where her second proper Hollywood movie (an epic called The Last Duel) had its premiere. Her first proper Hollywood movie (a knockabout comedy called Free Guy) is still playing in cinemas, an ad for it plastered on the side of the bus I rode in to meet her today. By choosing a cafe quite close to her rented London flat, we’ve managed to confound her numerous competing obligations and come together for an actual tea and biscuit, instead of the video call that was originally planned by her diary-keepers.

“How long have you been back doing stuff like this in person?” Comer asks, sitting down. “’Cos I gotta say, I’m so glad to be here. Present. Not on Zoom. I totally forgot that this was what we used to do. Hot drinks! Biscuits! You become so used to the routines of separation, don’t you?” She’s far too nice to say so herself, but Comer is cresting as an actor right now. She is one of the golden few for whom the work is plentiful and excellent, the praise regular, the focus intense. I imagine it must be hard to cling on to normality, as your star rises in this way, but Comer has developed one or two methods, which we’ll discuss properly later. First, tea.

A pot is brought and she pours from it eagerly, at the same time shuffling out of a big yellow trenchcoat. Underneath, Comer has on torn blue jeans, a white T-shirt, leather boots, avocado-patterned socks … But when she catches me making a note about the tiny, stitched avocados, she raises an eyebrow and asks: “You gonna be writing about what you were wearing today, too?”

Fair play, I tell her, promising to mention my grey jumper, jeans and unpatterned socks. We agree that the chaffing and teasing that’s fundamental to conversation, or at least to a certain type of British conversation, is impossible to get right over Zoom. Comer does an exaggerated pantomime wince as she recalls the small talk that preceded most production meetings, rehearsals and read-throughs that took place during the lockdowns. “You know the ones where you’re asked to log on 30 minutes early? And you start getting there later? And later? To avoid the before-chat?”

Recently, Comer starred in a standalone Channel 4 drama called Help, which, for my money, was the autumn’s first piece of necessary, must-see TV. Help was a brutal exploration of the Covid crisis in the British care system, telling a story about a Liverpudlian care worker (Comer) and her disillusioning experiences trying to look after vulnerable people as the virus spread through her nursing home. When Help went out on a Thursday night, you got that rare sense of the rest of the country tuning in, too, everyone holding their breaths till the end.

Comer was watching from her London rental. She sat in pyjamas on the sofa, she says, a mug of tea in hand, terrified what the public would make of it. Given that this was one of the first dramas to be made about the Covid crisis, would it all feel too soon? Would it fairly represent the experience of the care workers, some of whom she spoke to in preparation? “This is a lot of people’s realities, still. I never wanted it to feel preachy.”

Comer remembers how a first read-through with the cast, in December 2020, took place while she was in lockdown at her parents’ home in Liverpool (her dad, Jimmy, is a sports therapist; her mum, Donna, works in travel). Not the most satisfying way to start a challenging creative project – sitting in front of an open laptop at her folks’, “looking down the barrel” of a webcam – but she reckoned she could tell from that initial, pixelated rehearsal that Help was going to be socially important. She hasn’t often had that feeling with her work, Comer says. As for the draining shoot itself, “There was very little ego involved, nobody serving themselves, because we knew the subject was bigger than all of us.”

The finished film ended with a savage monologue about our collective failure to protect (even adequately acknowledge) care-home residents during the first wave. Written by Jack Thorne, delivered by Comer, this monologue was arranged by director Marc Munden so that it was spoken more or less to camera. Is this who we are, Comer’s character asked, that we would let so many people die, simply because they were out of sight? After the programme went off air, her inbox started to fill with messages forwarded on by her parents and relatives. Friends of friends got in touch, mostly people who worked in social care, to say they felt seen. “Meant the world,” Comer says.

Steely realism is not this actor’s usual milieu. As a screen presence, she’s normally a hoot, fizzing in and out of scenes, and often stealing them. Killing Eve – in which her character Villanelle changes up her accent, her posture, her whole demeanour as often as a dozen times per series – has been a perfect showcase for Comer’s elastic, sketch-show versatility. “Villanelle is a larger-than-life character. She’s been in people’s living rooms for three years now. It’s what people know me for.”
This autumn ought to bring about a few changes in perception. As Help continues to do the rounds on Channel 4’s streaming service, The Last Duel will get its general cinema releasein mid-October. Directed by Ridley Scott, co-starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Adam Driver, and co-written by Damon, Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, the movie is certainly ambitious – both a bloody, brassy, historical battle movie and a thoughtful study of sexual consent. Imagine a Gladiator in which the creators actually bother to explore what ancient Rome might have been like for Russell Crowe’s wife.

The Last Duel is told from three perspectives and turns on a question of whether Comer’s character Marguerite (wife of Damon’s character, Jean) was raped by Driver’s character Jacques, or whether she consented to adultery, as he claims. This makes for a heavy-going plot, and certain scenes that are unsettling to watch. I admit to Comer that because of a quirk of scheduling I ended up watching The Last Duel and Help in the same day.

“Oh gosh,” she says, putting her head in her hands. “Oh God. The double whammy?”

In a way, she says, it all circles back to her beginnings as an actor. She was 12 when she read an intense, intimate monologue about the Hillsborough disaster at the Liverpool drama festival. Quick to cry at that age (“Still am”), Comer was in pieces before she got on stage. She won a prize for the reading. Later, a drama teacher at her all-girls school in Liverpool, St Julie’s, told Comer that if she could control her emotions, perhaps gain access to them on tap, she could go a long way as an actor.

She was 15 when that same teacher encouraged her to audition for a BBC radio play. She got the gig, showing up as the only non-professional among a cast of grown-up actors who did most of their work in the soaps. One of them helped Comer find an agent, and over the following years, while she was still at school, there were appearances on the hospital serials The Royal Today and Holby City as well as an episode of the soap Waterloo Road. There’s an alternate reality where Comer kept auditioning for these sorts of shows, kept landing parts, and never escaped that closed loop. Lucky for us she did.

At St Julie’s, Comer formed a group of five friends that included Katarina Johnson-Thompson, later to become a world champion in the heptathlon. The five mates are still “very, very close” as adults. Not that they always behave like adults, Comer concedes. “Couple of Christmases ago, my friend Olivia was teaching us all a dance move called the Worm. I was doing it. I accidentally smashed another mate in the face. She got a nosebleed. That’s the vibe: teenage chaos. No bougie cocktail places. It’s getting together in a safe little space around someone’s sofa and letting our hair down.”

Johnson-Thompson was competing this summer in Tokyo when she suffered an injury, live on TV, that ended her bid to become an Olympic as well as a world champion. I ask Comer how she and the other three mates responded. “We just wanted her home so she could let her hair down and be Kat for a while. We grew up with her. And we’ve all made sacrifices in different ways. But the dedication she has to that sport? The sacrifices she’s made, in terms of the time she’s missed with us, and the time she’s missed with her family? It was just, yeah … important for us to be together in the one space.”

Comer says she knows how it feels when something goes wrong. “Sometimes people can have your best interests at heart, they’re looking out for you, they’re gonna say, ‘Don’t worry about X, Y and Z’ – and that can be the last thing you want to hear. As friends, we’re good at reading each other, seeing where they are at that moment. Just being present.”

As the five friends headed off in their own professional directions, Comer carried on with the small-time telly work. Doctors. Silent Witness. Casualty. She has always credited another Liverpudlian – Stephen Graham, her co-star in Help – with getting her into richer roles. They met in 2012 when Comer was 19. She had a small part in a police procedural in which Graham was cast. Impressed, he telephoned Comer a couple of weeks later and tried to persuade her to meet his influential agent, Jane Epstein.

Comer was on a train with her own agent at the time – awkward. Years later, Comer and Graham reminisced about this phone call. “I was going to an audition that I really didn’t want to go to,” Comer told Hunger magazine, “and you called and said, ‘Don’t go to it! Come and meet Jane!’ And I didn’t go to the audition, I met Jane, which is very naughty. But it was meant to be.”

After she signed with Epstein, Comer’s career started to crackle. She filmed the first of three series of My Mad Fat Diary for E4. In 2015, she played a small but special role in the smash domestic drama of that year, Doctor Foster. Remember that wrigglingly horrible dinner-table scene, in which the title character, played by Suranne Jones, tore lumps out of a 23-year-old woman who’d had an affair with her husband? Comer was the 23-year-old. A year later, she had her first big lead, in a five-episode kidnap drama called Thirteen, which earned Comer the first of many Bafta nominations.

Though she didn’t win for Thirteen, Comer stayed out till dawn on the night of the event in May 2017. She wound up partying with the actor and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who’d won an award for Fleabag. The pair hadn’t spoken before, and didn’t again until Comer was meant to audition for Killing Eve, Waller-Bridge’s first post-Fleabag project. Before the audition, a sheepish Waller-Bridge telephoned a sheepish Comer, and the conversation about their drunken night together began something like as follows:



It must have cleared the air of any lingering embarrassment (“Don’t worry,” Waller-Bridge assured her) because Comer wound up getting the life-changing part of Villanelle. At the time she’d just starred in a US miniseries about the Tudors, The White Princess, based on Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction. According to most reviewers, it was a dud. Certainly, it’s hard to watch the trailer without wincing for Comer, even if the show was quickly washed from the cultural memory by better, later work.

We’re discussing her new film The Last Duel, in particular the scenes in which her character Marguerite is bartered over by the men in it, when I ask Comer if she has ever felt horse-traded in a similar way as an actor. “Nothing to the extent that Marguerite experiences, and I feel very lucky in that,” she says. “But, yes, as a woman. I’ve had to find my voice. Have a sense of my own worth. Know what I have to offer. ’Cos there’ll always be someone to question that.”

She learned on Waller-Bridge’s set, for instance, that she could be more influential as an actor if she took more risks. From the first days of filming on Killing Eve, scripts were reshaped to make the most of what Comer could do. A pleasing symmetry developed – writer amplifying actor, actor inspiring writer – and some version of this creative exchange has continued through the four series, even as the head writer has changed from Waller-Bridge to Emerald Fennell, Suzanne Heathcote, and Laura Neal.

Not long after the show debuted on the BBC in 2018, Sandra Oh, who co-stars as Villanelle’s adversary Eve Polastri, was nominated for an Emmy and later won a Golden Globe. Then it was Comer’s turn. She won a Bafta in May 2019, before bagging an Emmy of her own the following September. In the days after the Baftas, while her parents took the award back to Liverpool on the train (and later out on a celebratory tour of local pubs), Comer flew to Boston to start filming Free Guy, a Ryan Reynolds comedy directed by Shawn Levy.

It was during this filming stint in Boston, in 2019, that Comer met her partner, an American called James Burke who by all accounts works in the tech sector. Information about this relationship is necessarily sketchy. There was a fuss in 2020 when amateur internet detectives determined that Burke was or had been a registered member of the Republican party. In a time of peak Trump toxicity, this mild nugget of biographical information angered some of Killing Eve’s fans. A few leaps of Twitter logic later, and Comer was being derided as some kind of crypto-fascist apologist. She has been circumspect in her discussion of the relationship since. “I don’t really have any desire to post my personal life on my Instagram now,” Comer says.

I sense a skittishness when it comes to discussing her own politics, too. It’s as if that whole strange saga, born of an innocuous me-and-my-partner post, has left Comer unsure whether it’s wise or helpful to say what she believes in. Her recent drama Help was so frank, so angry in its criticisms of our current government. “It’s the way this country works now,” her character says at one point. “[We] keep our eyes down to the rest of it.” Do Comer’s views match up at all? Is she angry about the handling of that aspect of the Covid crisis?

“To be a part of something like this,” she says carefully, “you’d have to have an affinity. I wanted to be a part of Help because it was saying something we all needed to pay attention to. For me it was, purely, this wasn’t fair. Doesn’t matter what side [of the political divide] you’re on. This was not right.” Comer thinks for a minute, squinting at the wall, before continuing: “The character I played – kind of like myself, I don’t think she paid a lot of attention to politics before. The moment forced her to grow up – look around, take note of what was going on. I definitely came away from the making of that particular story feeling like a different person.”

When production on Help began at the start of 2020, Comer was still living at home with her parents. Aspects of this arrangement were lovely, she says. Takeaway trays of her mum’s roast chicken, slathered with mint sauce, to bring in for Sunday shoots. “A piping hot bath at the end of a filming day. Like, too hot, to the point where it’s five minutes in the water and then you’re on the edge to cool down.” But the arrangement brought challenges, too, says Comer.

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