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Phoebe Waller-Bridge Twists the Spy Genre With BBC America’s Thriller ‘Killing Eve’

Eve Polastri may be brilliant, but 007 she is not.

“She’s not trained to within an inch of her life — she can’t do a backflip, pull out a gun and shoot three people with one bullet,” says Phoebe Waller-Bridge about the central character in her new BBC America thriller “Killing Eve,” which bows April 8.

Polastri is the central figure in her new BBC America thriller “Killing Eve,” which bows April 8.

“She’s a woman who is out there protecting people and hunting somebody, but when there’s a bang in her house, she runs upstairs and hides. There is something much more human and relatable about that.”

But what truly sets “Killing Eve” apart from the rest of the well-worn spy genre is that the cat and mouse at the center of the story are both women.

“Grey’s Anatomy” star Sandra Oh portrays Eve, an M15 operative and assassin obsessive who is bored with the mundane reality of her day-to-day existence. But her humdrum routine takes a turn for the dangerous when she is assigned to track Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a prolific hired gun who’s dispatching victims all over Europe. The two women become obsessed with each other as they fall in “espionage love,” as Waller-Bridge puts it.

Sarah Barnett, president and general manager of BBC America, feels the female stars make the story unique. “Cat-and-mouse and assassin stories have been told so many times and for good reason: There is an enduring appeal there,” she says. “What was so fascinating was that making these two leads female casts the genre in a whole new light. You realize how implicitly masculine this form of storytelling has been.”

“I don’t want [Villanelle] to be disliked even though what she does is so awful,” says Jodie Comer. “I want people to be excited by what she’s going to do next. She’s awful but she’s brilliant at the same time.”

Based on Luke Jennings’ novellas, the eight-part series also stars Fiona Shaw (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) as intelligence boss Carolyn and Kirby Howell-Baptiste (“Downward Dog”) as Eve’s assistant, Elena — both roles that were changed from men in the books to women on-screen.

“There was a meeting at one point where someone actually said, ‘We can’t have too many women,’ meaning it will look unbelievable,” says Waller-Bridge. “I was like, ‘What the f— are you talking about?’ Not if it’s written well and shot well.”

Waller-Bridge burst onto the TV scene in 2016 with “Fleabag,” a jet-black comedy she wrote and starred in about a young woman struggling with modern life; the show debuted to raves on both sides of the pond.

It was Sally Woodward Gentle who put Waller-Bridge and Jennings together, before “Fleabag” hit screens and when the stage play was running. After attending a matinee during the Soho run, Jennings reached out to Waller-Bridge about adapting his works for the screen. “He texted me to say, ‘Can we have some falafel and talk about psychopaths?,’ and that’s how it started,” Waller-Bridge says.

Sally Woodward Gentle, who serves as executive producer through her banner Sid Gentle Films, knew that to work for TV, Jennings’ books “needed an attitude so that someone couldn’t say, ‘Isn’t it just “Nikita”?’” she says. Waller-Bridge delivered that and also helped win over BBC America.

“Phoebe was the bull’s-eye for us,” says Barnett. “As we developed the show we became more and more excited about the potential to do something really quite daring. In a world of over 400 scripted shows, if you don’t stand out with something new, different and original, you are never going to cut through.”

“Fleabag” was a drama that played like a comedy. “Killing Eve” is a character-led show with thriller twists. To work, it required a versatile lead. “We knew we had to get the casting of Eve right,” says Gentle. “Someone with extreme acting chops, someone of her age and who could have a history, and someone who could fit legitimately within a British cast because undoubtedly there can be differences in acting between Americans and Brits.”

Enter Oh, who was a fan of “Fleabag” and drawn to Waller-Bridge’s “energetic” scripts. “I thought it was really, really interesting — a woman kind of spiraling toward herself and also into some sort of dark place,” Oh says. She was also intrigued by the idea of playing a character who was written as white in the books. “It’s about f—ing time,” says the actress. “The character is not Asian, but there are a billion examples of the reverse where the source material or the character in the book was one ethnicity or another, and no one blinks an eye.”

The role of Villanelle, the psychopathic hired killer, will likely be a breakout one for Comer, best known for her work in the BBC drama “Thirteen.” Her very normalcy is what convinced the producers she was right for the part.

“We wanted people to feel that they could be sitting next to Villanelle on the [London subway] and not notice it, but the next moment she could kill you,” says Barnett. “If you sat next to the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, you would know it.”

Waller-Bridge sees the complicated assassin as the kind of role she was never offered when she graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “I felt the limitations in terms of the work I was reading and the parts that were available; they were always quite two-dimensional,” she says. “I wanted to create a character for a 25-year-old actress who would have a ball.”

Villanelle’s lack of moral compass is ultimately what makes her compelling. “I wanted her to be lovable in her conviction and dismissal of consequence,” says Waller-Bridge. “I think there’s something funny about people who laugh in the face of convention or surprise us morally. You’ll enjoy her playfulness, but then the things that she does are genuinely shocking.”

“What was so fascinating was that making these two leads female casts the genre in a whole new light. You realize how implicitly masculine this form of storytelling has been.”
Sarah Barnett

For Comer the challenge was to make the character likable despite the trail of bodies she leaves in her wake. “I found myself on her side,” she says. “I don’t want her to be disliked even though what she does is so awful. I want people to be excited by what she’s going to do next. She’s awful but she’s brilliant at the same time.”

With “Killing Eve,” Waller-Bridge set out to upend the spy genre in more ways than just the casting. Amid the high drama, she folds in dark humor, absurdity and even slapstick. When Eve and Villanelle finally meet halfway through the series, the tension hits a peak — and Eve selects a toilet brush as her weapon of choice.

“My instinct is the more serious the scene, the more I need to undercut it,” Waller-Bridge says. “The element of surprise is the most important thing and what keeps me interested in writing. I can feel it if I’ve written that predictable or boring line, and I will carry that around with me all day.”

David Holmes’ soundtrack also plays against the tropes of the thriller format. At moments of extreme suspense, expect to hear a love song rather than a typical dramatic score. Location-wise the shoot spanned Berlin, Paris, London, Tuscany and Romania. The producers avoided traditional shots so that viewers experience the cities from the point of view of those who live there. “It was very important that it was slightly dismissive,” Waller-Bridge says.

For BBC America, a joint venture between the business arm of the BBC and AMC Networks, the need for buzzy originals such as “Killing Eve” is heightened by the advent of greater competition. Along with PBS, BBC America has been the traditional U.S. home of U.K. programming, but the rise of the streaming giants, as well as Brit TV specialty channels Acorn and BritBox, means more people at the party.

Sarah Barnett and Phoebe Waller-Bridge
David Vintiner for Variety

“British content has never been more loved,” says Barnett. “As streaming platforms increasingly acquire or make British shows from scratch, the initially daunting but really interesting opportunity is how do we think about commissioning, developing and putting on the air shows that have enough vitality to catch people’s attention and land not as an American show, or a British show, but something that is an effervescent new cocktail?”

With the representation of women in film and TV a buzzy talking point, “Killing Eve” is the embodiment of a female-led project. “It is not about telling stories of strong women necessarily,” says Barnett. “There’s just so many flavors of men’s stories that are represented in hero or antihero roles, so it is time to start telling stories where the many shades of being female are being represented, and we’ve only just started to do that. There is a marvelous sea change happening where we are profoundly shifting away from an invisible, unconscious assumption that the big stories have men at the center, and anything else is a subset of that.”

Oh is a veteran of female-led series, given her decade-long experience in Shondaland, but recognizes how rare it is to find such roles. “What I love about these characters is that they’re not women in relationship to their men,” she says. “Villanelle has her handler who is somewhat of a father figure, and Eve has her husband [Niko, played by Owen McDonnell]. But we’re not formed from there. We’re not defined by them.”

While she awaits word of a second season for “Killing Eve,” Waller-Bridge is hardly idle. She’s busy writing Season 2 of “Fleabag,” and she’s hoping to add “director” to her résumé. “I’m desperate to do it,” she says. “I feel ready now, and I think that [“Killing Eve”] was my final time of being on set and learning the last few lessons I needed to learn before jumping in next time.”

Though she’ll next be seen on-screen in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” she didn’t manage to write a part for herself in “Killing Eve.”

“I really wanted a cameo — I wanted to be brutally murdered — but the schedule meant I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I would have liked to have been blown up or something.”

Debra Birnbaum contributed to this report. 

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