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Killing Eve's Fiona Shaw on Carolyn Being 'No Exception' to Tragedy

Killing Eve's Fiona Shaw on Carolyn Being 'No Exception' to Tragedy

Fiona Shaw

The out veteran thespian chats with The Advocate about Killing Eve as a needed diversion from real life. 

International intrigue in the worlds of MI5 and MI6 as depicted in BBC America's smash series Killing Eve is serious business, even when Carolyn Martens, the complicated doyenne of that spy world regales the titular Eve with colorful tales told in her signature deadpan.

"I once saw a rat drink from a can of Coke there. Both hands. Extraordinary," Carolyn tells her erstwhile protege Eve (Sandra Oh) early in the series.

Seemingly impervious to the dangerous business at hand, which includes leading a team tracking the colorful bisexual female assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer in the role of a lifetime), Carolyn comes face-to-face with a personal horror in the third-season opener, which premiered this month.

Considering the state of the world amid the pandemic, it's a curious time for viewers to witness Carolyn experiencing tragedy, even within Killing Eve's heightened universe. Fiona Shaw, the out veteran thespian who plays her, is quick to point out that the series is merely entertainment, but she also believes there are lessons to be culled from being forced to slow down and ponder, as Carolyn is and as humanity has been over the past six weeks or so.

"The wonderful challenge of Killing Eve is that in a third season, you can't keep the characters static or where they were," Shaw tells The Advocate. "It's very good writing and probably inevitable that the story has to swerve. It has to deepen -- deepen into what we all experience as being human in this world. Carolyn is no exception."

Spoilers ahead for those who have not seen Killing Eve's third-season premiere.

Fiona Shaw

During the final moments of the third-season premiere, Carolyn's sweet son Kenny (Sean Delaney), a top-notch hacker who's on the verge of uncovering the identity of a member of the group of assassins referred to as The Twelve, hurtles off the roof of his office building to his death. Eve, who's there to meet Kenny for a social outing despite her fraught relationship with his mother, is the first to find his crumpled body and to question the cause of his death, which is publicly touted as suicide. The second episode of the season focuses on Carolyn's refusal to exhibit real emotion, even as her daughter Geraldine (Gemma Whelan) urges her mother to feel anything in the wake of Kenny's death.

"Carolyn is a sort of a behemoth, a goddess in the challenge of MI6, and is able to sometimes puppeteer and sometimes fail at puppeteering, which makes for interesting situations," Shaw says of her character, who sent Eve into the lion's den at the close of last season. "Her reach is long; she can be internationally powerful and also historically powerful. The next big thing that has to happen to all the characters is something unlikely has to occur."

"It crossed my mind last season that something might happen to somebody close to Carolyn. I think I was sort of dreading it because I thought, actually, [Kenny] might get kidnapped or something," Shaw says.

"Of course, you do want the actor to fall right in the heart of the person rather than in their intellect, which you've had two seasons of enjoying," she adds, nodding to Carolyn's dry wit.

It's a strange time for an interview about a TV show, Shaw, who hails from Ireland, acknowledges. Killing Eve was on the verge of its third-season premiere when Shaw spoke with The Advocate from London, where she's sheltering in place. On that day, the city had just experienced its highest number of losses since the outbreak began.

Shaw's body of work includes appearances on TV in True Blood and in Killing Eve creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag. On film, she's played Petunia in the Harry Potter series and costarred in the queer-themed films Lizzie, Colette, and the upcoming Ammonite (with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan). Her numerous stage credits include roles in The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, Electra, Medea, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Hedda Gabler. A consummate artist with a long history, she's contemplative about the role of art and artists in times of crisis.

"Killing Eve is merely entertainment that will divert people because it's not art in this moment. It just coincides with a terrible moment," Shaw says of the timing of the third season. "I'm sure it'll divert people and soothe them."

"I don't know what painters feel, but I think they probably don't want to raise their brushes just yet. I think we must all be members of the human race and just be quiet," Shaw says of taking in the gravity of the times.

Fiona Shaw and Sandra Oh

In a nod to the dual needs of diversion and rumination, Shaw shares about her current state of mind.

"I find I'm reading Dante's Inferno. I'm just trying to take in things that are bigger than myself, that's all I'm trying to do," Shaw says. "I don't know whether anybody wants to hear from me or anybody else like me."

"Our interview is largely because this diversion of entertainment is about to hold people for an hour, which I think is superb," she says.

Killing Eve's third season (this time with playwright Suzanne Heathcote at the helm following Waller-Bridge and last season's Emerald Fennell as showrunners) has Carolyn navigating a web of assassins, spies, and the powerful and corrupt. All the while, she grapples with getting to the bottom of why Kenny was likely murdered and with the reality of becoming a mother who's tragically lost her son.

"She has no religion. She's not Clint Eastwood, gun-toting. It'd be much easier if people would just behave better and things got solved through negotiation, but they don't always," she says of Carolyn's role with MI6. "What little I know of [MI6], it's as bad as the fantasy of Killing Eve shows it to be. It's just as strange."

"So Killing Eve is a metaphor for something that is absolutely true. It's a decorated version of it. It's outlandish, but the world is outlandish," Shaw says, tying entertainment back to current events.

"God knows, we're having this interview at the very moment that it couldn't be more outlandish, and people are having to make decisions about life and death, who shouldn't be making those decisions."

As realistic as Shaw is about the dichotomy of promoting a series meant for escapism at a time when there are near-global shelter-in-place orders, she's also happy to tout the exceptionalism of the women with whom she works -- Oh and Comer.

"[It's] the most wonderful thing for her to practice on, to learn on, to use and abuse," Shaw says, praising of Comer's ability to dig into the role of Villanelle. "It's more wide-ranging than Rosalind in As You Like It, isn't it? It's got good and bad, fun, accents, languages, fashion, ugliness, violence. It is sort of an explosion of a character."

She adds that they all work long hours when shooting, but under normal circumstances, they tend to enjoy a few nights out together.

"They're terribly nice women to work with, so we get on very well. And we all apply ourselves," she says of her costars.

Back to the series having a more celestial role as a salve for viewers at a time when it's needed...

"I think Killing Eve is part of the glorious celebration of what it is to be human," Shaw says.

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