‘Killing Eve’: The Showrunner and Stars on the Love Story Behind the Sleeper Hit

Posted May 25, 2018 4:53 p.m. EDT

Born during the silent era and perfected by Alfred Hitchcock, the cat-and-mouse crime thriller is practically as old as cinema itself. It has also become a staple of television in the binge-viewing age, in addictive series like “Fargo,” “Mindhunter” and “Narcos.”

BBC America’s sleeper hit “Killing Eve,” which ends its first season Sunday at 8 p.m., is part of this trend — but you need only glance at its credits to get an idea of what distinguishes it from its peers.

Based on a series of stories by Luke Jennings, “Killing Eve” follows underachieving British intelligence agent Eve Polastri (the “Grey’s Anatomy” alum Sandra Oh, also an associate producer) as she tracks a glamorous, young female assassin known as Villanelle (Jodie Comer) across Europe. Spy thrillers almost never cast women as both the cat and the mouse, and this one also features an equally rare female presence behind the camera: The English writer and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who created and starred in the pitch-black comedy “Fleabag,” is the series’ lead writer, showrunner and executive producer. Waller-Bridge realized early on that Eve and Villanelle were more than just hero and villain; they were two broken women whose flaws bound them together in a twisted pas de deux. “Female obsession with other females is rife,” she said recently. “I’ve been obsessed with too many women — way more than I have been with men.”

As with most niche cable dramas, the ratings are modest — the most recent episode drew just under 1 million viewers a week. (BBC America says the average audience rises to more than 1.7 million when online viewing is included.) But much like the lead characters’ mutual obsession, the audience is steadily building — it has grown by more than 47 percent since the series premiere. And among TV connoisseurs on social media and elsewhere, “Killing Eve,” which has been renewed for a second season, has been one of the breathlessly praised new shows of the year.

“You don’t know how anything is going to be perceived until it goes out,” Comer said. “It’s amazing that people are enjoying it this much.”

As the showrunner and stars tell it, the process of making “Killing Eve” also felt like a love story. First, Waller-Bridge fell for Eve and Villanelle; then, she, Oh and Comer fell for one another. In separate phone interviews, the three women discussed all of these relationships and recounted what it was like to shoot the show’s most intense scene, an intimate encounter between the two leads. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Q: “Killing Eve” is an unusual show about two powerful — and deeply imperfect — women. What attracted each of you to it?

PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE I felt an affinity to Eve. And I knew Villanelle would be a challenge, but the idea of writing somebody who is utterly unforgivable was too delicious to turn down. To me, everyone has the side they present, and then they have their inner darkness. I picked up that that’s what Luke was really writing about. These two women were so polarized that it felt like one of them was the shadow of the other.

JODIE COMER As soon as I saw that Phoebe had written it, I wanted to do it. When I thought of (a character who was) an assassin, I pictured a woman in a black leather leotard and thought, “Oh God, I don’t know if that’s me.” But then I read the script, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen on screen. Villanelle wasn’t a stereotype. There was a lot of humanity and humor to her.

SANDRA OH Television is potentially multiple years of commitment, and what you’re going on (when you sign on to a show) is the relationship and the idea. I loved the idea, and I wanted to see if Phoebe and I could fall in love. The first time we spoke, on Skype, we were wearing the same color, red. The next time we met, we were wearing the same pants. Those things are neither here nor there, but when you’re falling in love with someone, they become magical.

Q: It’s rare that the hero and the villain of a spy thriller are both women. How do you think gender shaped Eve and Villanelle’s relationship?

WALLER-BRIDGE I loved the idea that these two women don’t even have to see each other to feel each other’s presence. They give each other life in a way that’s more complex than a romantic relationship. It’s sexual, it’s intellectual, it’s aspirational. And I loved experimenting with how women can (expletive) each other up — like Villanelle sending Eve clothes. She doesn’t send her a finger. She sends her a dress that fits her better than anything has ever fit her, and that suits her better than anything has ever suited her.

Q: While the women are playing cat and mouse, many of the men play traditionally female roles. Eve has to save her former superior, Frank (Darren Boyd), who becomes a sort of damsel in distress. Eve’s husband, Niko (Owen McDonnell), tends to wait at home worrying about her.

WALLER-BRIDGE: I was aware of the gender flip, but it wasn’t something I was consciously trying to do. All I’m ever striving for is to make the characters feel truthful, but also surprising. And the glory of it is that the men in the show — even the good men — still underestimate or miss the point of Villanelle. That they haven’t for a second imagined she might be a threat — whereas every single woman in the world imagines for a split second that the man she is about to go on a date with, or the man that she just met in the corridor, might be a threat. That’s a calculation you make all the time that men don’t make — and it’s catnip for Villanelle.

Q: There is a physical urgency to Eve and Villanelle’s mutual fascination, even though they only have a few scenes together.

WALLER-BRIDGE You can feel that there’s an unrest in both of them at the beginning. In the books, the characters don’t meet until much later, but I felt strongly that they needed to cross paths in the first episode — because something physical and raw happens in that first meeting.

COMER Villanelle’s ego goes through the roof when she finds out there’s this woman after her. Eve has a job and a home and is happily married, and Villanelle craves that. Human behavior captivates her, and she wants to be a part of it, but she’s such a complicated person that it can’t happen.

Q: Did Sandra and Jodie observe each other’s performances in the scenes they didn’t share?

WALLER-BRIDGE Not at all. They were only on set (at the same time) when they were acting together. It helped, because of the anticipation of knowing that half the show is being carried by your character’s nemesis, and that you never get to see their world. Sandra and Jodie were both so fearless about imbuing each other’s characters with complexity that by the time they did meet, in the kitchen scene at the end of Episode 5, their chemistry was really fizzing.

OH The first iteration of that scene was the audition scene for Jodie. I learned that she was a fantastic dance partner, and I couldn’t wait to see how she surprised me. Then, we basically didn’t see each other for three months.

Q: Was that scene — where Villanelle appears at Eve’s apartment, and it’s their first one-on-one encounter where each knows who the other is — as intense to shoot as it is to watch?

COMER It was quite intense. Villanelle tries to pull the wool over Eve’s eyes, and it doesn’t work, and that just makes Villanelle want more.

OH Eve’s superpower, when she meets Villanelle head to head, is that she’s so honest. What was great about that scene — which is, for me, the scene of the show — was that we knew what it was going to be months in advance. It got to percolate. When it was time to rehearse, Jodie and I already felt like we were in the right place, so we just started shooting.

COMER And because we didn’t rehearse a lot, we could keep each other guessing. Q: It seems as if everyone who watches “Killing Eve” becomes an evangelist for it. What does that enthusiasm mean to you?

OH I loved when someone said (to me), “I sat down at my hairdresser and asked what she was into, and she said your show.” That’s what you want: to stand out in a field of so much content.

COMER It’s lovely. There’s been so much fan art, which I’ve put on my Instagram. Villanelle is the villain, but people are on her side a little bit — which is naughty, but I love it.