On a show filled with monstrous people we can’t help but cheer for, Fiona Shaw stands out as Killing Eve’s MI6 HBIC, Carolyn Martens. Shaw’s Carolyn is an endlessly competent, permanently unshakable, and unapologetically ruthless agent willing to do whatever it takes to win.
A legend in her own right, Shaw — a certified power lesbian — has spent decades playing complicated and compelling women (and men, in Shakespeare’s Richard II) and is no stranger to more consumable pop culture properties. The actress played the permanently-pressed Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter films and was True Blood’s season four Big Bad, the ghost-summoning witch Marnie. But even with a career as celebrated and eclectic as Shaw’s, Killing Eve still stands out.
Ahead of the show’s second season, Out spoke with Shaw about the significance of being on a show that centers women both on-and-off screen, what it’s like playing such a badass woman, and what Petunia Dursley would think of Killing Eve.
I imagine this must be a really fun show to work on.
It's not like anything else I've ever shot, it's really amazing. So, everyday you kind of sink into work, and I've very much enjoyed it. A lot of BBC dramas, or dramas that have been telling the mythological story of your country, tend to be very full of gritty, grimy realism, but Killing Eve is not.
Based on the premise of the show, you would expect this straightforward spy thriller, and then Killing Eve really turns that on its head. What is it like to play in that space?
I mean, my experience of spy thrillers are of the George Smiley stories. Of course they’ve all got a grim reality, didn't they? And the spy thriller you will usually see is some battle between the West and the East, between Russia and the U.S. and whether they were fictional or not, that was the tension mostly between Eastern Germany or Russia and America. This doesn't have that because the enemy, or one of the pawns of the enemy, is a very stylish young woman whom is very attractive. So, the Devil does wears Prada. That flips that premise immediately, doesn't it? That makes it more charming. Then you discover the charm of the people as people rather than the tension of the problem.
It is at its core a show about these very charming people who are all kind of monsters.
Yeah, I mean for them, you know the language of death or murder is all too easy and that's both the good news and the bad news, isn't it? I mean, obviously Villanelle has a disposition towards murder which you can either find appalling, as some people do, or you can reduce it down to such light entertainment that you aren't bothered by it—but violence is violence. Also the MI6 people have to themselves not be as emotionally involved with death as the average person in the street might be.
What is it like being part of this show that is so centered around women at this particular cultural moment?
It's been a long time coming. It's very late in the century for this to be the case, and I hope [this is] the beginning of a much more diverse expectation of what a hero or heroine is.
For a long time the premise was that a male, white, hero or the anti-hero had to be the center of the story. For a long time, we knew that that didn't necessarily have to be the case. I think it was probably lead by Hollywood. There were many many better things written in the 40's than [there were] written in the 60's, and 70's, and 80's, and 90's. So, I'm very glad this has happened, and I'm very proud of it, I'm so proud.
The show itself has such overt, queer overtones in the relationship between Eve and Villanelle so, what is that like to be on a show that’s not backing down on that kind of representation?
Well I think what's happened in England certainly is that fluidity, gender fluidity or sexuality fluidity, has been explored by writers like Phoebe [Waller-Bridge, who developed the show] and Emerald [Fennell, head writer of season two]—that some lid has come off. So, the writing is responding to a reality, it's not leading it, and that is amazing that we are all living in such a time, isn't it?
Do you think Aunt Petunia would watch Killing Eve?
[Laughs] That's a crazy question. No, she really wouldn't like it.
Not even in secret?
She wouldn't like it at all. I don't think she would like it at all. I think she would like to turn the television off. [Laughs]
Well, maybe that's a good thing? Maybe that means you're doing something right.
[Full on cackling] That's a brilliant question.
Killing Eve season two premieres April 7.