Encore: Sandra Oh On Obsession And Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Killing Eve’

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on June 21. A six-time Emmy nominee with five supporting nods for Grey’s Anatomy, Oh this year made history as the first Asian woman nominated for Lead Actress Drama with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s acclaimed BBC America drama Killing Eve.

Sandra Oh is a five-time Emmy nominee already, with memorable turns in American Crime and Grey’s Anatomy. But in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s compelling spy series Killing Eve, she’s tackling what might be her meatiest role to date, delving into the psychology of a security operative’s obsession with a female assassin.

It was a new experience for Oh, something she is constantly seeking. “I’m interested in ‘new’—not for new’s sake—but I think that’s always been a part of my work, because there aren’t a lot of Asian-American actors who are consistently working and being a main part of the storytelling,” Oh explains. “That is what’s interesting to me, and it’s also what the show’s talking about, where it’s wanting to go. Is the point of view interesting to me? When I read it, I’m like, ‘Well, this is new.’”

While Eve stems from the imagination of novelist Luke Jennings, when filtered through Waller-Bridge’s “crazy brain” and Oh’s own imagination, she took on new life. Admittedly, even as she heads into Season 2 of the BBC America series, Oh still isn’t entirely sure what makes Eve tick—even why she shirks the normalcy of married life to gravitate toward psychopathy.

What went through your mind when you first read the scripts for Killing Eve?

As soon as I started reading it, what jumped off the page to me were a few things: the originality of its tone and the fact that I felt like I understood where Phoebe was coming from immediately. The idea that it’s a psychological piece between these two women, about the female psyche, was so interesting to me.

There’s tons of things that are interesting to me. I love spy stuff—who doesn’t? So to kind of upend that…because this character is not slick. I felt immediately like I could understand Eve. But the two biggest things were what I felt the piece was about, which was an investigation of the female psyche, and the originality of the voice and the tone of Phoebe.

What did Phoebe Waller-Bridge convey to you, in early conversations about the show?

There was never anything like an end product or a goal. We never talked about it in terms of, “This is a psychological drama.” We never talked about, “This is the female psyche.” We never talked about it in the ways that, now that it is finished and you can look back on it, you can now comment on it.

The way that we would talk about it is just like, “What is going on in your vagina?” You know what I mean? This is also what I look for in how I work now. If I think about it, I’ve just recently worked with a couple of female playwrights, and I remember saying this to one of them. It’s just like, “How can I live in your vagina?” What I mean by that is from the deepest, most creative place of a woman. So like, where is that, and can we create from that place? It was mostly going into, “What is interesting to you? How can we both bring our instincts to the piece?”

I get nervous even saying this because it’s hard once you get this moniker, but Phoebe is extremely unique. She has a very clear sense of voice, which is rare. It’s rare to find in anyone, and she’s only in her early 30s. That’s a tricky thing to find early on, in a way that is as confident and developed as I think her voice is.

What was most helpful for you as you set out to explore Eve? Did you read deeply into the Villanelle novels, or research British intelligence?

I’d say no for those two first points. The voice is quite different in some ways [from the novels]—and regarding knowing the actual process of what it is to be a spy, Eve doesn’t really know.

So, that wasn’t the most interesting place of entry for me. I’d say for me, it was more just delving into, what is Eve’s own psychology? If you’re face to face with a psychopath, but it’s also the “shadow side,” if we’re speaking in Jungian terms—the shadow side that you actually need to connect with—how do you approach it from there? I would say a lot of my work comes from those questions.

What’s your take on Eve’s drives? What is it that continues to propel her toward Villanelle?

It’s mysterious for Eve, still, and it’s mysterious for me. But I think maybe why it resonates with people is that you can fill that mystery in with whatever is right for you. I think there’s so many things that make the character of Villanelle compelling; you can kind of see it from Eve’s point of view. One thing that I can say—and this is the classic thing with a psychopath or sociopath—is that they have no guilt. On a day-to-day level, on a lot of fronts, there’s a lot of freedom in that, the idea of living without guilt, or without shame, or without rules. I think that’s an extremely attractive part of Villanelle.

As Villanelle, Jodie Comer makes for a formidable onscreen opponent. What was it like working with her on your characters’ unusual rapport?

Jodie is so wonderful in her presence, and her own instinct, and her own fearlessness. She’s absolutely nothing like the character, which makes what Jodie can personally bring to it so much more extraordinary. We first met in her audition, and the audition was the scene in the kitchen in Episode 5, this 10-page scene. Jodie flew from England to LA, we laid it down, and immediately, I felt like we could both feel, “Oh, this is my dance partner.”

It’s a very mysterious thing that a lot of times is reduced to the word ‘chemistry,’ but it is kind of like a sense of being with your partner. Mostly, it has to do with how well you listen to each other, how vulnerable you can be with the other, and how much you can actually hold the other partner. You let them go as far as they need to go, and you will always be there to match them, to be there for them. I absolutely feel that with Jodie, and I hope she feels that with me.

While Killing Eve is deemed a drama, it has its fair share of subtle comedic moments. Was that on the page, or something that resulted from responding naturally in the moment?

That is definitely in the script, in the style of the show. It’s also just Phoebe’s being. She’s interested in the wit of the true character—not comedy for comedy’s sake, but comedy that can happen through circumstance and character, and how that gives dimension, particularly in what seems to be a familiar genre. I think the show has busted the genre open a little bit, where the assassin and the spy both aren’t slinky. Of course, Villanelle is gorgeous and can morph into whatever, but because of the way that Jodie plays her, there’s so much more depth. She’s just not being paraded around in low-cut dresses. And equally, Eve is not procedural in any kind of way. The stakes are high, and she’s also not always making the right decision.

What was it like shooting internationally for this series? I imagine it’s taken you to some interesting and unexpected places.

Oh my God, yeah. When you’re able to shoot in Europe and internationally, those locations don’t lie. The feeling doesn’t lie, the quality of the light. You can always tell when it’s shot in London. It gives it that flavor and that quality, and we’re on location almost every day. That just gives it a different energy and a different look. It’s not specifically a classic look; it’s not like, “Oh, we’re going to have a flyover of Big Ben.”

That’s just not where we live. We’re in an alleyway off of Trafalgar Square, not Trafalgar Square itself. That just gives it a different tone. Things are familiar, but you’re looking at it from a different point of view.

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