Fresh off the set of their upcoming project 'Help', the Emmy-winning actress talks to friend and fellow Liverpool native Stephen Graham about destiny, playing Scousers and getting the call from Hollywood.
How cool is Jodie Comer? Prodigious talent and an enviable screen magnetism have resulted in an Emmy and a BAFTA for her explosive performance as a psychopathic Russian assassin, arguably one of the most complex, multilayered characters to grace the small screen in years. There is a fearless honesty to her acting that seems to set her apart from her co-stars no matter what role she’s playing, from Ivy in Thirteen to Lizzie in The White Princess, and then of course, Villanelle in Killing Eve. Her co-workers attest to her being a right laugh, down-to-earth and generous to a fault on set. And she looks killer in a clown suit.
Now 28, Comer has been acting professionally since she was 13, but it was a small part in the BBC drama Good Cop, opposite acclaimed actor Stephen Graham, that kick-started what is shaping up to be an incredibly exciting career, one in which she is this year making the leap from small- to big-screen lead. Free Guy, an action comedy in which she stars alongside Ryan Reynolds, will finally be released this summer, with The Last Duel – a historical drama starring Hollywood heavyweights Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Adam Driver and directed by Ridley Scott – following in the autumn. Comer is also Ridley’s choice to play Empress Joséphine, opposite Joaquin Phoenix, in his upcoming Napoleon epic Kitbag, so he clearly thinks she’s pretty cool too.
But her most recent gig is Help, a story that shines a light on the tragic impact of coronavirus on care homes in the UK at the start of the pandemic, and one that reunites her with her friend and supporter Stephen Graham. Having recently wrapped filming on set in their hometown of Liverpool, the pair catch up on their history and swap set stories, sharing personal experiences of working in Hollywood
Stephen Graham: Do you remember how we met?
Jodie Comer: Of course I do, it changed my life forever. It was a lifetime ago now, but I remember it so well. We were filming Good Cop. I was only filming for one day and I remember how much you took me under your wing, and then it was from there that you introduced me to Jane [Epstein, Graham’s agent]. To think, that one day really did change everything for me, in the fact that you gave me a little nudge in the right direction. Because I don’t like to think where I would be if you hadn’t done that.
SG: I believe in the balances of fortune and fate. I feel like it was predestined and you would have gone on to do what you do, but I was just a little part of that journey. But I just remember being blown away by your talent in rehearsal. And I knew I was going to have to speak to my agent about you.
JC: Well, I think I was just so eager to get on my mark, know my lines and be there for everyone else who was doing a much bigger job than me. I had such a tiny part in it, but I remember you made it such a collaboration. And then I was on the train a couple of weeks later with my old agent, going to an audition that I really didn’t want to go to, and you called and said, “Don’t go to it – come and meet Jane.” And I didn’t go to the audition, I met Jane, which is very naughty. But it was meant to be.
SG: Yeah, it was. But before that, when did you first think, “Oh I really want to do this acting thing”? Was it at school? How did it come about?
JC: I remember it so vividly. It was at the Liverpool Theatre Festival. I was probably about 12. I was doing a piece written by a local playwright about the Hillsborough disaster. It was quite emotional, and I was crying before I’d even introduced myself.
That was the first time my dad had seen me act. Before I went on, he was like, “Just do your best.” But inside he was thinking, “Fucking hell, she’s going to get up there and I don’t know if she’s going to be any good. I want her to be good, but I don’t know if she’s going to be any good.” And then I remember doing it, and I remember seeing his face. And I thought, “If I’ve impressed my dad, maybe I’m all right.”
I’d done a radio play, working with actors from soaps, and they were the ones who said, “You could do this as a career.” It had never entered my head that this was an occupation. This was something I did on the weekend with my mates that I just loved. But winning the festival – and seeing how proud my dad was – I think that was a big turning point for me.
SG: We’re very similar in that respect. Like me, your family is massively important to you. I know how close you are. You’ve talked about the support from your mum and dad and how they enabled you to follow your dream.
JC: I remember [when I was young] when my dad drove me to an audition in Leeds, and I was sitting in the car, practising my lines, and my character’s swearing. And my dad was like, “I’m driving my 12-year-old daughter to an audition in Leeds, and she’s telling me to fuck off. What am I encouraging her to do?” But even though they didn’t have a clue about the acting world, they could see how much I wanted to do it, and they’ve just been so proud and given me the space to make my own decisions. My dad is always like, “Trust yourself, young Skywalker.”
SG: So when was the moment you thought to yourself, “Hang on, this could be my career”?
JC: God, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve ever had that conscious moment. I feel like each experience brings a newfound confidence or certainty with it. When I got Silent Witness, I was like, “Yes!” I felt like I’d proved myself. And My Mad Fat Diary was a big one. I remember going, “Wow, I’m going to be in something for six whole episodes.” And then with Thirteen, that was my first lead, and I was like, “Wow, this is a big responsibility.” And then obviously Killing Eve… I don’t know how you feel about this, whether you have one specific thing. But for me it’s like each step I take gives me something. As opposed to it being one kind of euphoric “this is it” moment.
SG: Yeah, you’re constantly learning, aren’t you? Gaining that education as you go along. And experience comes from actually being on the job. Because you never went down that drama-school route, did you? So all of your learning, and all of the knowledge you’re gaining, is primarily through experience. I think that makes you one of the most instinctive actors I’ve ever worked with.
JC: But so are you. I think that’s why we enjoy working together so much. But yeah, I think you’re right in that sense, because when I think back to being in audition rooms, I’d be in rooms with girls who had, like, three pages of notes. And I’d be thinking, well I haven’t done that kind of preparation, everything is always kind of on how I feel. But I guess everyone has their process, right? And you need to try to not look at what everyone else is doing and worry that you’re not doing the same.
SG: Yeah, of course. Drama schools are great and are excellent places for people to learn about the craft. But as soon as you get on set, it’s a completely different ball game. You can’t teach the minimalism that is needed when you’re on camera.
JC: No, you can’t teach how to feel. And when I was very young, it was always at the surface, and I just never knew how to control it. But I know that you’re the same, I’ve seen it on The Virtues. But even on Help I saw the way you access your vulnerability. I think it is incredible and was amazing to see up close.
SG: Help was a wonderful experience, and it was lovely for me to share that with you because of where we’ve both come from. We’re both kind of paving the way in our own journeys. In Help, you play Scouse, and I don’t think you’ve done that since the first time we worked together.
JC: No, I haven’t. Starting out, apart from Good Cop, I was always asked to change my accents in auditions. Which was fine – I always felt like accents helped me separate myself from my character. But there was definitely something lovely playing my own accent and showing the kind of woman that’s a part of me. And also the kind of woman I know so well. I found it quite exposing, actually, doing my own accent in such a bare, stripped-back way. But it was also something I really enjoyed, it felt like a celebration.
SG: I can’t wait for the world to see you playing this aspect of yourself in your true accent. Because to me, and I’m not just saying it because you’re like a little sister to me, it’s as powerful as Carol White in Cathy Come Home or Julie Walters in Boys from the Blackstuff – those really powerful, strong, visceral, fucking guttural women. But you’ve done it in such a modern way.
And it’s exciting to see, as it’s such a departure from all these other characters you’ve played, especially the magnificent Villanelle, for whom you’ve just had a fourth BAFTA nomination. How did that come about and how much did you help create that character?
JC: Well, I remember I’d seen Fleabag, and was obsessed with Phoebe [Waller-Bridge], and then, lo and behold, episode one of Killing Eve came through on a script. You can tell something’s special just by the writing, and I’d never, ever read anything like Phoebe’s script. And when creating it, we all felt a buzz, but didn’t quite know what it was going to be. And then it came to life in a way that none of us had ever imagined. And for me personally, I think what Villanelle has taught me is to be a little bit fearless.
Before I played Villanelle, a crew show was the most intimidating thing for me, even though the crew are on my side. I would always be so conscious of myself and my body. But with Villanelle I thought, if I’m going to fall on my face, I’m just going to get back up and try something else.
And I think that’s still in me going forward – to take risks and not be so self-conscious, and I’ve really enjoyed finding the freedom in that. And I’ve learnt that things can be flamboyant and in your face, but you always need to try to find where the truth is rooted.
SG: Yes, and we can tell how much fun you’re having while also completely believing that character, because you made it your own.
JC: There’s a scary amount of myself in there. Part of the whole collaboration with Phoebe on the first season was that she would write while watching the rushes – writing in and amplifying things I was doing. But we were constantly having to walk a tightrope of how much empathy we gave her, or how much we let people in. Because people are so invested in her and her relationship with Eve. At the beginning she was just this psychopath assassin, but she’s so much more than that now. You can’t put her into a box anymore.
SG: That’s interesting that you say a lot of your character is in her, and I can see that – you do have to find a way in. Did the accent and costumes help you find the character? I’ve got a weird thing where it’s all about the shoes for me, and once I find them shoes, I can find a walk.
JC: My favourite thing was that whenever you got a new costume, you’d come and find me and do your little walk around the room in your costume and say, “It’s boss, isn’t it?” It was my favourite thing.
But yeah, I have an amazing accent coach, Budgie. I remember in the last season, Villanelle had to do a Scottish accent. And we spent a week doing this accent, really pushing it to the extremes. And then we’d be like, “Oh no, that’s a bit too Lorraine Kelly.” With the accents, I always find the best way is to push it to as far as you possibly can, and then when the moment comes, it’s a lot easier to bring it back. But you’re amazing with accents as well – do you have a coach?
SG: No, but I do work with coaches occasionally. For me, in the beginning, when I was playing a lot of Scouse roles, I could feel that I was possibly going to be typecast. Like that was going to be me for the rest of my days. So I did make a conscious decision to try to do things that weren’t just me being Scouse. But then I decided to go back to playing Scouse, because if I’m really honest, I want kids to see and hear me on the telly and go, “Well if he can do it, maybe I can too.” Because there weren’t many Scousers on the telly at that particular time.
JC: That’s so true. I remember, when I was younger, going for a theatre job, which I did end up getting but afterwards the director told me I was the only girl from the northwest who had gone in for it. And before I auditioned, she questioned whether I could even change my accent.
SG: Yeah, for me it was Martin Scorsese who had faith in me and gave me that opportunity to play the part of Al Capone. He didn’t have any reservations, he just offered me to do the part. And I did it, and at first I was very nervous, but I proved that I could do it and had a lovely time doing it. I’m not sure if I would have got that same opportunity over here in the UK, if I’m being honest. That’s actually a nice segue to the film you’ve just done with Ryan Reynolds – your first Hollywood film. Isn’t it amazing that we’re two kids from Liverpool having this conversation?
JC: [Laughing.] Yeah
SG: So how did you feel when you first went over there and when you were on set? What’s the difference between the little stuff you’ve been doing in England and the big Hollywood movies? I get asked this question a lot, so it’s lovely to ask someone else.
JC: I remember getting there and just being like, “This is so much bigger than me, this is a monster of a production.” My character is in a video game, so a lot of it was about visuals, and I’d never really done any green screen. So then you’re having to spend the entire day imagining what it is that you’re looking at or acting with. And doing it with conviction. Superhero movies have never been something that I’d usually gravitated towards. But after doing Free Guy, I had a whole new-found respect for actors who predominantly work on them. Because I rely so much on what the other actor is giving me. So to have that missing was really hard.
But the team was incredible. Ryan is just stupidly nice, wonderful. And Shawn Levy, the director, was the same. You know what it’s like, whoever is leading the cast usually sets the precedent – if they’re an arsehole, then everyone is going to feel in a bad mood, it just rolls downhill. But with Ryan and Shawn leading it, it was just the most joyous set to be on. And very nurturing.
SG: And you’ve just done another whopper, whopper film, with a whopper director. Ridley Scott, the legend that is Ridley Scott.
JC: Sir Ridley Scott!
SG: Sir Ridley Scott, of course, yes, Sir Ridley Scott. And you got to work with three wonderful actors on the show. Matt Damon, who I think is fantastic. And Ben Affleck. Oh, and that lovely lad, Adam Driver, he’s fucking phenomenal.
JC: Yeah, he’s incredible.
SG: So, what was it like then, sis, when you got the call? Was it exciting or are you just getting used to them now, like, “Yeah, another Hollywood movie… ”?
JC: No, no! For The Last Duel, there was actually this whole confusion. I was told Ridley really wanted to meet me, but that I couldn’t read the script. And then we were chatting away in his office – you know he’s a Geordie? – and he asked me what I thought about the script! And I told him I hadn’t been given it and he was like, “What?” Then he said, “Right, I’m going to give it to you, I want you to go away, read it and let me know what you think.”
I thought the script was brilliant. I thought the way they’d approached the subject matter was phenomenal, and I just wanted to bite the hands off them, you know, for the opportunity to work with Ridley, and Adam and Matt and Ben and Nicole [Holofcener, co-writer of the screenplay]. It’s just a really, really clever script. And filming was just incredible. Ridley works in such a particular way, he has four or five cameras rolling the whole time. And he knows exactly what he wants, he’s meticulous. And he gives you the space to do what you want.
SG: Did you do many takes or does he know what he wants, and when he gets it, he’s like, “Yeah, we’ve got it”?
JC: When he’s happy, he’ll ask you if there’s anything you want to do. I think he really enjoys you giving him something new, he likes to see you playing around, and maybe giving him something he didn’t initially think of. It was amazing being able to have four cameras on you, and two takes, one if you want to play around. You’re not doing it for 12 hours, you know?
JC: You know what it’s like – sometimes you’re doing it all day! But I felt so lucky to be a part of it, and I also feel like I really grew up on that set. There was something in me that really kind of shifted. I read an interview recently with an incredible actress, of my age, called Olivia Cooke. She said, “A fairy isn’t going to die if you say that you’re good at your job.” It’s so true, you should feel comfortable about saying, “I feel like I did a good job.”
SG: Of course, yeah. And actually, that brings me to another question I’ve been wanting to ask you. Has there ever been a moment in your career where you felt that kind of imposter syndrome and that kind of old working-class mentality? Have you ever felt that or has it never affected you?
JC: I think I feel it all the time! Because you go to America and you do these huge things, and then you think, “But I’m from the UK. I’m from a little city called Liverpool and, you know, I live with my mum and dad.” And I feel like you make everything very small. When they’re actually not. But I always feel lucky to be there when I look around at everyone else, knowing all the stuff they’ve done. You know that people are at different points in their life, but you still feel it. But the only space in which I never feel it is when the cameras are rolling. When we’re about to go for a take, it just disappears. Because then I feel like I am where I’m meant to be.
SG: I asked because, you know, I’ve had that as well, throughout my career, right up to when I was lucky enough to do The Irishman. I had a really nice scene with Al Pacino, and I started to get a little bit panicky, thinking, “I can’t do this, it’s Al Pacino.” I had to phone Hannah [Walters, Graham’s wife], and I was like, “Hannah, I don’t know if I can do this,” and she was like, “What do you mean?” I went, “My arse has gone numb. Honest to God, I’ve been to the toilet about six times, my bottle has gone, I don’t know if I can do it.” And she was like, “Stephen, behave yourself,” and I went, “Hannah, it’s Al fucking Pacino!”
JC: [Nodding.] It’s Al Pacino.
SG: And I went, “You don’t understand, I’ve had posters of the man on my wall since I was a kid. When I told my dad I wanted to be an actor, we went to the video shop and we got three fucking films, and one of them was The Godfather. Do you understand, it’s Al Pacino?” And she was going, “Stephen, it’s alright, you’re meant to be there.” And I had to believe I’d earned the right to be there, to just enjoy it. She talked me down and I went back in, and he was wonderful, they were all wonderful. But what you said before really resonated with me – there’s a moment where you feel like there’s a growth. I felt like that on This Is England. But on The Irishman, I was kind of like, “OK, relax, this is where you’re meant to be.”
JC: Yeah, I think with each job, it’s about finding the space to feel like you’re meant to be there, you’re meant to be doing this. And then for me, you look at the people you’re working with, who you’re inspired by, who you look up to, and then you get on set with them and they’re just like everybody else. They’re there to do the same job as you, and be as present as you, with you, in the room. And it becomes more important to me, who I collaborate with and work with. Because I feel like, since I’ve never been to drama school, I’m constantly learning from the people I’m surrounded by. And I feel so lucky to have been surrounded by the likes of you, basically. Everyone needs a Stephen Graham in their life.
SG: Aww, you’re such a joy on set. As a person, you’re so gregarious and your sense of humour is fucking brilliant. And what I love about you is that you treat every single person on set exactly the same, be it an executive producer or one of the lovely girls who makes tea. And I think that’s a beautiful quality to have.
JC: Oh, thank you, Stephen. Well, as you get older and do more, you become so much more aware of how important everyone is. When we wrapped on Help, I felt so emotional, saying goodbye to everyone, because I feel like what Help really solidified for me was the importance of teamwork. You know, we worked six-day weeks, not a lot of time, not a lot of money. Really heavy stuff, night shoots, one takes, and Mark Wolf, our incredible DOP, was like a third person in the room with us at all times. And I just thought, “Wow, this doesn’t work if we’re not all connected.” But I just love being on set. You know what it’s like, it’s just such good energy.
SG: Yeah. I think it’s fair to say we both love being on set.
JC: Yeah. Together, preferably.
SG: Yeah, definitely together.