After ‘Killing Eve’, Jodie Comer wants to make it big

Jodie Comer knows that people recognize her as Villanelle, the psychopathic killer she played on «Killing Eve» for four seasons. The figure was bold and unhinged, requiring an equally bold performance. But the Liverpool actor, 30, has always felt at home in softer roles. She was doing that before «Killing Eve,» and that’s why she signed on to star in «The End We Start From» (now in limited release), a lyrical, small take on Megan Hunter’s 2017 post-apocalyptic novel about a woman. which is born as a natural disaster.

«It’s funny that Villanelle is what people know me by,» says Comer, curled up in a chair at London’s Corinthia Hotel. “But I love anything that holds up a mirror or that feels real. I mean, there’s an arena for everything, right? Everything has a purpose.»

Her new film is a turn back to something more «closed,» she says. «I felt it (was going to be) naturalistic and stripped down and raw. That can be really revealing as an actor, but ultimately very exciting.»

The End We Start From, directed by Mahalia Belo, imagines a near future when Britain is literally engulfed in an ecological crisis. The woman, known only as the mother, goes into labor for the first time just as the waters rise, sending her and her partner R (Joel Fry) fleeing London for higher ground. The earth descends into chaos, forcing a mother to not only survive, but protect her young son in an uncertain world.

«The climate crisis is a huge element of the film, and there’s no question that it’s a very real issue that we’re facing,» says Comer. “But I also liked how artistically Mahalia saw it as a symbol of birth itself. There was something so poetic about her exploration of the story.’

A woman is sitting on a sofa.

Jodie Comer, photographed in Pasadena.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Belo doesn’t see it as a disaster movie. The Mother is up against a real fight (as is Mother Earth), but «The End We Start From» never descends into overt violence. Instead, Belo says, «the biggest thing a character has to go through is her own experience» of surviving the chaos of societal collapse with a young child.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company Sunnymarch acquired the pre-publication rights to «The End We Start From,» due in part to the fact that the original writer Hunter is the actor’s sister-in-law. Her prose is sparse and fragmented, told in bursts of verse. Not only did Cumberbatch feel it read cinematically, but the female-led story also reflected Sunnymarch’s vision.

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«It’s such a powerful, polemical piece that’s simultaneously poetic and at times mundane,» says Cumberbatch, speaking via Zoom from London. “It’s so honest and raw about early motherhood. The focus of mother and child in the first year against this epic backdrop of societal and systemic collapse is a very rich mental canvas to draw from.”

Cumberbatch, who has a small role in the film, adds that the story was eerily timely. It’s no coincidence, he says, that he’s talking about this after two weeks of heavy rains that have catastrophically flooded parts of England.

«But it doesn’t have to be after the flood to imagine it as a reality,» says Cumberbatch. «It’s already a reality for people. People give birth in crises all over the world, be it war or environmental disaster. What’s scary about it is that it brings it into a household that is recognizably British.’

A bearded man survives in a terrifying future world.

Benedict Cumberbatch in «The End We Start From».

(Republic Images)

Director Belo read Alice Birch’s script during the initial COVID lockdown, shortly after she gave birth to her second child. The story spoke of her experience of «trying to be there for someone else when you’re worried».

«You look at this world changing around you and you wonder what kind of world this child is going to enter,» Belo recalls. “The journey that this one woman takes as she deals with the process of becoming a new mom was really interesting. I thought it deserved screen space.’

Comer was cast as a mother on the verge of her West End debut in Suzie Miller’s one-woman play Prima Facie. According to Comer, the biggest obstacle was that she had not experienced motherhood herself. But she was curious. Belo paired the actor with a midwife and gave her a weighted doll to hold during daily activities. The pair also kept exchanging videos and poems.

“I was very lucky that my best friend had a baby before we started, so I asked her the really stupid questions,” says Comer. “But my lack of knowledge was perfect in the end, because the Woman has it at the beginning too.

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The film was shot over 30 days in and around London, on a tight schedule with little room for maneuver as the children could only be on set for 20 minutes at a time. A total of 15 different babies were used in the story, which follows the mother as she is separated from R and seeks safety with O (Katherine Waterston), a co-mother.

«Kids don’t take notes,» Comer says thoughtfully. “They are incredibly honest. They just observe and react and you’re at the mercy of it, so you have to roll with it. I think it creates a real spontaneity on set. There are moments in the film that happened as a result of that, so I actually think it was a blessing in many ways.”

One of those moments came during an emotionally powerful scene between Comer and Fry as the characters deal with a tragic loss. Both actors felt a weight of sadness, but then the child lying on the bed between them smiled, adding a new layer to the emotion. «It is this moment of joy that Woman notices, reacts to and feels,» says Comer. “It almost discourages her from being there for him.

A woman with her child walks through a devastated landscape.

Jodie Comer in «The End We Start From».

(Republic Images)

However, the limitations of making an independent film were demanding. Comer caught COVID-19 during production, and an emotional scene between her and Fry had to be shot separately due to scheduling. Later, when filming moved to Scotland for five days, time ran out before the key Mother Walking into the Sea sequence could be filmed. Comer insisted they take one shot, and he and cameraman Suzie Lavelle dove into the frigid water. A suggestive scene, a turning point for a character, is essential to the resulting film.

«It was really important to me,» Comer says. “It’s the first time I’ve been so heavily involved in the making of an independent film. There’s no guarantee what the outcome will be, but these are people telling stories that they think are important, and as a result, so much care is put into them. I really felt it.»

At the same time, Comer, who was executive producing the film, was preparing to play Kathy Bauer in Jeff Nichols’ «The Bikeriders.» Comer practiced her Midwestern accent off set for the film, which she shot in Cincinnati just a week after shooting «The End We Start From.» He admits it was «not an ideal way of working», but he just loves acting. It is full of questions and uses its characters to find answers.

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«I’m always looking for something different, a part of myself that maybe I haven’t worked out, or a challenge that’s new,» says Comer. “Just so I can keep growing, you know? I don’t want to get into a repetitive cycle of, «Oh, I’m safe here, so I’ll stay here.» I think it’s important to feel a little bit afraid of what you’re taking on.”

«The End We Start From» marks Comer’s first film lead. She starred in Ridley Scott’s «The Last Duel» and starred with love in Shawn Levy’s «Free Guy», but here she is in almost every scene, the camera is pulled close. She speaks admiringly of movie stars and laughs when asked if she considers herself one. «No,» he says, «not like a movie star.»

Going forward, Comer hopes to do more movies, more theater, and possibly a limited series. She is «pleased» with the amount of time she has spent as Villanelle – that chapter is now over. She’s also aware of the reaction to the «Killing Eve» finale, which sent Villanelle to her death in a way that enraged fans. But for Comer, it’s about the journey, not the reaction.

It’s about integrity, he says when considering whether to accept the role. «(If I know) why I’m going into it and I know what I’m going to get out of the experience, so if it goes out into the world and people hate it or it goes completely unnoticed or it’s a huge success, it doesn’t matter,» she says. That doesn’t change my experience and how I felt.»

What she gained from the experience of «The End We Start From» seems immeasurable.

«I’ve never necessarily felt maternal,» Comer says. “I haven’t really discovered that part of myself. And then when I started filming and doing the research and the whole process, I was like, ‘Oh, I actually think it’s in me if it’s something I choose.’ I have a lot of respect for women and what a sacrificial act it is to have a child.’

Like Mata’s journey in «The End We Start From,» Comer’s trajectory has been unexpected, often taking her to places she never imagined. And now here she is, on the verge of being one of those movie stars she talks about so wistfully.

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