Jodie Comer Is Hollywood’s Next Great Chameleon
Article from Town&Country.
Few things can establish an actor’s chops—or cast doubt on them—as quickly as a multiple personality role. The most famous example, of course, is Sally Field earning her spot high in the pop culture firmament (and a Best Actress Emmy) for her portrayal of the 13 other personalities contained within the woman at the center of the 1976 TV movie Sybil. Think also of the chill you felt when Edward Norton suddenly shifted from sweet, stuttering altar boy to vulgar, manipulative murderer at the end of Primal Fear. It was Norton’s first film, and his first Oscar nomination.
Villanelle, the chameleonic Russian assassin at the center of the addictive BBC series Killing Eve, is arguably that kind of role for the large-eyed 26-year-old Liverpudlian Jodie Comer. Each assignment Villanelle takes on comes with a new disguise designed to get her close to her target: She morphs from Italian party guest to aspiring French parfumier to Slavic sex spa worker. But Villanelle and Comer do much more than wear wigs and costumes (though both actress and character do relish that part of it).
Each episode is a delicious kamikaze mission of new accents and mannerisms—of entirely new personas. “That’s how I viewed Villanelle at the start—as an actress of sorts,” Comer says. “The way she prepares for her jobs, how she takes them very seriously and is proud of her work and gets off on seeing people be convinced by her guise and her charm.”
“She just has tremendous innate talent. She travels at light speed.” —Sandra Oh
Indeed, Comer’s masterful portrayal of Villanelle’s masterful portrayals—and of Villanelle’s between-jobs persona, which is itself titillatingly complex—is earning her award nominations and fawning headlines like “Why Jodie Comer deserves a Golden Globe (in 5 GIFs).”
“It’s hugely demanding,” says her co-star Sandra Oh, who plays the MI6 agent on Villanelle’s trail, of Comer’s role. “There’s the fighting, the accents, the languages. It’s not like a film where you prepare for a year and then you know Russian perfectly. We get new scripts, and she goes, ‘Oh, gotta speak French.’ I’d be very hard-pressed to do some of the things Jodie does. She was born with an uncanny ear, and she just has tremendous innate talent. She travels at light speed.”
So, in short, Comer, whose prior work includes lauded turns in the BBC’s Thirteen and Starz’s The White Princess, is quickly emerging as one of the most talented actors of her generation. That said, the real reason I’m talking to her is her skin.
When I watched the first season of Killing Eve last spring, I was of course mesmerized by her performance and her tantalizing pas de deux with Oh. But I was equally transfixed by her perfect porcelain complexion. It’s like the love child of milk and glass. It somehow remains embryonically lineless even as Comer contorts her face into all sorts of goofy and intense expressions. And it turns out I was not the only one so obsessed: Several publications have dedicated stories to her products and diet in an effort to suss out the secret. (Hint: It involves sunscreen and being 26. And a superstar facialist).
But then a funny thing happened: I rewatched season one of Killing Eve before meeting Comer, and this time I was struck not by her beauty but by how willing she is to be not beautiful. To be messy and coarse and unfeminine. There is a total lack of vanity in the performance. Comer has a face she could dine out on for decades, but that’s clearly not her intent. It never was.
“I recently asked my mom if she ever thought I’d end up doing this professionally, and she said no,” Comer says. “I didn’t really go to a local drama school until I was maybe 11. But as a child I was always doing impressions—of Cilla Black, of the singer Anastacia. I was very extroverted, very in touch with my emotions. I loved to talk, and I was probably a bit of a nuisance in the classroom because I never shut up.”
Meeting Comer in person is a bit like that Ed Norton Primal Fear moment in reverse. It’s the face of Villanelle, and her playfulness, only the manipulation and menace have somehow turned into warmth and sincerity. (There’s also the surprise of her not actually having a Russian accent.) You realize how completely she is able to transform herself at will.
Comer remembers the first time it became clear to those around her that she had this ability. “I was 12, and I entered this local drama festival where you had to do a monologue. There were dozens of kids, and I was set to perform toward the end. And as the competition went on, my dad, who had never seen me act, grew more and more petrified. There were so many kids who got up there and were amazing, and he just thought to himself, ‘Oh god, I hope she isn’t really awful.'”
Comer performed a monologue about the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 people were crushed to death at an overcrowded soccer match in Sheffield, England, in 1989. The piece had been written by a local playwright whose father died in the tragedy. Comer won first prize. “I remember seeing my father’s face after I finished. He was just, ‘Whoa,’ ” she recalls, still giddy at the memory.
From there, Comer got a part in a radio drama and a couple of other gigs. A few years later she found herself playing a small role on a BBC miniseries called Good Cop alongside veteran actor and fellow Liverpool native Stephen Graham. (You know him as Scrum in Pirates of the Caribbean, among many other things.)
“The character I was playing was not a very nice man and quite physical,” Graham says. He had two scenes with Comer, and he had never met her before, so he took her aside to discuss if she was comfortable with how he planned to play them. “She was up for it. She just wanted to do right by the character. So I went for it, and she went for it, and I immediately thought she was fantastic—one of those actors who are open to giving everything to that moment with no sense of ego.” The next day he called his agent and urged her to take on Comer. “I could see an extreme talent,” Graham says. “I watch everything she’s in now.”
“There are a lot of redeeming qualities that make her lovable,” Comer says of her Killing Eve role.
The day I meet Comer is in the middle of award season, which she has enjoyed despite the fact that many people thought she was robbed of a Golden Globe nomination. Nevertheless, and somewhat surprisingly for a skyrocketing starlet, Hollywood seems to take up a very small slice of her consciousness.
When asked whose career she most admires, she mentions Michelle Fairley, the Northern Irish actress who played Comer’s mother-in-law in The White Princess but is best known as Catelyn Stark on Game of Thrones; Julie Walters (“like, forever and always—I love her so much”); and Jessie Buckley, a 29-year-old stage and BBC actress who blew Comer away in the recent film Beast. “I find inspiration from people like her, who are at a similar stage of life as I am and are just absolutely smashing it.”
“Jodie is interested in making interesting choices,” Oh says. “She’s young, but she has gravitas.” She also has no desire to transplant herself to Los Angeles, preferring to retreat between projects to her parents’ home in Liverpool, where she can sit on the couch with her mom and watch Judge Judy. (“She’s fierce—she takes no shit!”)
Not that Comer has taken many vacations lately. She is currently busy promoting the second season of Killing Eve, in which there is once again no shortage of murder, though this time around it often happens for reasons unrelated to Villanelle’s profession. “The characters are in very different places, so there’s a very different energy,” Comer says. Oh adds that the suspense factor has been ratcheted up. “We spend a lot more time trying to be together,” she says of their two characters. “You have to get to the end to see if we’re successful.”
While it airs, Comer will be filming Free Guy, an action comedy with Ryan Reynolds that takes place inside a video game. And she was recently cast alongside Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer in a new version of Death on the Nile directed by Kenneth Branagh. Comer nabbed the role played by Mia Farrow in the 1978 film version.
As dedicated as Comer seems to keeping her life low-key, she does enjoy a bit of glamour now and then—witness her clowning around with Oh on the Globes red carpet in a voluminous Ralph & Russo gown, or looking nonchalant with her hands in the pockets of an emerald Erdem jumpsuit at the BAFTAs.
She’s not a fashionista, but she appreciates style, as does Villanelle—the character’s fridge is stocked with champagne, her closet is stuffed with designer frocks, and in one episode she orders herself one of the gorgeous silk blankets she spots at the estate of her target. “She’s very, ‘Before I kill you, where did you get that?’ ” Comer says.
Fortunately for me, Comer also loves to talk skincare. When we finally get around to the topic, she admits that people who know her mock her for panicking at the slightest hint of a blemish, and for her dedication to a thick daily veil of sunscreen. “Every day, rain or snow. I try and tell everyone how important this is, and they’re all like, ‘Shut up, I’m not putting 50 on when it’s thunder and lightning outside.’ And I’m like, ‘You can still get the damage!’ ”
An ounce of prevention is key for someone with so much power and versatility in her features—forehead-freezing injections down the road just won’t do. “Although maybe I need to chill with the crazy expressions or I’ll be a prune by age 40,” she jokes. In reality, fine lines are a small price to pay to show the world the breadth of her talent. “There are so many different faces she has,” Comer says of her small screen alter ego. “To be able to explore that all within one character is so rare, and I don’t know if that will ever happen again. I’ve been really spoiled—but, wow, what an experience!”