A version of this story first appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
When crafting the quirky, magnetic assassin Villanelle (played by Jodie Comer) for BBC America’s new drama “Killing Eve,” that’s the question that showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge kept asking herself.
“Whenever I get stuck on something, I’m like, ‘What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?'” she said. “What would I write if I wasn’t afraid? What would I say in this situation if I wasn’t afraid?’
“[Villanelle] sees social construct as something to play with and manipulate and f— with. If I could look at the world in that way, oh, my God, everything would be so much more fun.”
And Villanelle does have fun, choosing to only do things that might bring her joy, from wearing the latest haute couture to stabbing a victim in the eye with a weaponized hair pin.
The series is based on Luke Jennings’ “Codename Villanelle” novellas — but while the broad strokes and main characters are inspired by the source material, Waller-Bridge said she ended up changing some of the male characters in the books to female characters on the show, a tweak that won author Jennings’ support.
“I was really determined to make [the women] as individually colorful as I could,” she said, noting that the spy genre generally doesn’t represent “varying personalities” when it comes to female characters.
MI5 officer Eve, played by Sandra Oh, is the “perfect counterpoint to Villanelle,” Waller-Bridge explained, because she’s “crippled by a sense of self-consciousness and guilt. In that way, I feel like she is an Everywoman and people can relate to her. She wants to have an easy life, at the same time craving an extraordinary one.
“She feels guilty about feeling dissatisfied, whereas Villanelle has no guilt about being dissatisfied in her life.”
The British showrunner is no stranger to writing quirky, relatable characters. Her 2016 Amazon comedy “Fleabag” had a protagonist who would break up with her boyfriend whenever their apartment needed to be cleaned.
That show, she said, was inspired by Lena Dunham’s “Girls.”
“I remember when ‘Girls’ came out, feeling like that was a really watershed moment,” she said. “I felt like that was a moment in American TV when people started realizing [women] were important and amazing and entertaining. It was a really good time in the industry, when suddenly people were waking up to that kind of work being made.”
And the key to writing important, entertaining characters?
“They have to be funny, whether you agree with what they’re doing with the rest of their life or not,” she said. “A part of you will fall in love with them if they make you laugh.”
Read more of TheWrap Emmy magazine’s The Race Begins issue here.