• Interviews

Sandra Oh on the Magic of the Eve-Villanelle Relationship

Killing Eve, based on author Luke Jennings’ series of Villanelle books, is a reliable mixture of sophisticated comedy and fast-paced spy drama. Much of the appeal of is to be found in the relationship between intelligence agent Eve Polastri, played by Sandra Oh, and her nemesis, Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer. While Villanelle is undeniably a psychopath, a cold-blooded assassin all but devoid of conscience, she is nevertheless extremely charismatic, and during Eve’s pursuit of her, the two women form a bond that defies description, providing the very core of the story. According to Oh, who won a Golden Globe for her performance in Killing Eve in 2019, it is important that this bond remains mysterious because in that mystery lies its magic.  We met the actress to talk to her about the third season of the show.

At the beginning of season 3, we meet Eve living alone in a very messy apartment, and drinking red wine in bed. What’s going on with her?

It’s interesting that she doesn’t seem from the outside to be in a good place, because  I actually feel like she is at her most independent and, in some ways her strongest, yet. She’s keeping a very low profile: she’s working in the kitchen of a Korean restaurant during the day and going home afterwards to a squalid flat where she obviously drinks too much. This doesn’t seem like a healthy way of life. But while we were shooting these scenes, I felt very strongly how important it is that Eve is alive. At the end of season two, she was shot by Villanelle. She had finally woken up to Eve’s treachery – she said no to her, and suffered the consequences. So even though you find her in bleak circumstances, she is winning because she is alive. She is alive and surviving and that is the strongest statement there is of freedom and independence.

The dynamic between Eve and Villanelle is very important to the show – how would you describe what is going on between the two women?

I’d actually rather not try to describe what is happening between these two because you shouldn’t mess with magic – and it really was magic that Phoebe Waller-Bridge created in the first season of the show. You shouldn’t try to define this relationship. I think that plenty of people have been in relationships which you can’t possibly describe because they are too complicated and too ambiguous; often the very ambiguity is what is interesting about them, and I am not going to try to define this one, because it’s just not possible, and that’s what I really love about it. I can say in broader terms that I feel that by the end of this season, Eve and Villanelle have come to a new place of understanding between them, and in some ways, a new way to – dare I say – depend on each other. 

The first season was written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

I’d say that the overall tone and sensibility of all three stays true to the tone of the show. Having said that, Eve is not the same character now as she was in the first season. All three writers have had their own individual take that they have brought to the show, and every year that has created a very creative dynamic: in terms of the scripts themselves, there have been different topics that different writers have been interested in exploring. In Season Two, Emerald was really exploring themes of addiction – you can see that theme emerging throughout the season. Someone like Suzanne, who has a background as a playwright, is writing from a much more classically dramatic point of view because the character is in a much darker dramatic place. She’s also exploring the idea of family: she’s written plays about family dynamics in the past, and this is obviously something that interests her. So each writer has brought her own flavor that has influenced the show. But the show is also a living, breathing thing and needs to change on its own as well, going from something that was light and playful to something that was somewhat darker, and now is growing in a direction that is more dramatic.

How does it affect the material that the show is written by women?

I think it’s dangerous to say that only women can write female characters. Not all writers are great, and just because you are a woman and a writer, doesn’t mean that you can write a great female character – or any character, for that matter. So I don’t want to get into generalizations about that. But of course, there are scenes where you have to think: OK, that was written from a female point of view. I think in a production where almost everyone above the line is a woman, it has to have its effect on the tone of the show. In what way? I can’t say exactly. But it has to affect it. If everyone in charge has something in common – whether they’re of a certain race, or religious background, or whatever they are – I can’t tell you exactly how it will affect the end result, but it will. It’s very exciting to be part of that.  Until now, stories told on film and television have been told from the point of view that was not necessarily the woman’s. So it’s great to be part of the change.

You hosted the Golden Globes in 2019 and you also won an award the Award for Best Actress in a Dramatic Television Series at the same ceremony. What was this experience like for you?

It was one of the most amazing and unbelievable experiences ever. I hold it very dearly in my heart. When the HFPA first asked me to host the show, my reaction was: ‘What?! Oh no! That’s crazy.’ It made me feel very nervous. But I also really wanted to try something that scared me. So that made me say: ‘Yes: I am going to do this.’ But it was terrifying – the most terrifying thing that I have had to do. I was shaking. I was literally shaking. It also ended up being one of the most satisfying experiences in my life! And then when I won the award too, it was unbelievable. I will say that I remember that part of the show the least of all because my main focus that evening was on just wanting to get through the hosting part. But that was great because it meant I was so focused on hosting that I didn’t even think about either winning or not winning, and then – it happened!

What is your fondest moment from that night?

Being able to thank my (Korean) parents publicly in the way that they would understand. That was definitely the highlight because in some ways you have no idea what you are doing up there. You go into such a crazy mind space when you’re accepting an award on stage. You don’t really know what to say and you don’t really know how other people will take it. I know that my parents really appreciated what I said and that it resonated for other people too – probably mostly people who have also Asian parents and who understand how much that gesture means. It meant a lot to me. Actually, it was the highlight of my career so far.

It is really nice to hear that this was your experience of hosting the Golden Globes and winning an award there.

It was not just the winning – it was the whole thing. The hosting was very important because it meant that I’d accomplished something. I did something that really scared me, and I gave it my all, and I came through it.  And that felt great.