When Fiona Shaw picks up the phone, I’m startled to hear her real Irish accent come through. She’s shown up in so many projects (like the Harry Potter series, for starters) with that imperious, sharply drawn posh London accent that it’s hard to remember that she’s originally a girl from County Cork. “I’m so sorry to be short,” she started, “but I’m heading to a barbecue at my mother’s.”
And then, for 15 minutes, Shaw alternately enlightened and scolded me (all while laughing) for digging so far into the characters that have brought her her latest round of acclaim: MI6 boss Carolyn Martens on Killing Eve, and the famously dry-forearmed therapist who shows up in Fleabag’s second season. But for a woman with a CBE and the London theater world at her feet, Shaw was delightfully in thrall to another woman, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator of both shows and the force behind Shaw’s TV resurgence. We chatted about therapy, the unmistakable hard work of acting, and bicyclists who go to extreme lengths to greet her on the street.
You and Phoebe Waller-Bridge have turned into this brilliant duo. First Killing Eve and now that great therapy scene in Fleabag. How did you two decide to start working together?
One thing led to another, really. She asked me to do Killing Eve. We had a wonderful lunch where I was just enchanted. She has such enthusiasm, and such energy, and such self-deprecation — and that meets my Irish self-deprecation. We get on very well.
Killing Eve was astonishing, because I had no clue how I should play it. But then Phoebe was there and knew exactly how to play it. She gave me great permission to do something quite dangerous with it, this incredible dryness that I didn’t think was feasible, really.
You’re only in Fleabag for ten minutes, but the scene is jam-packed with meaningful looks and dialogue. How long does it take to get a scene like this right when Phoebe is directing, acting, and running it all?
Well, she sent me a version of it, and then I learned it, and then we discussed it, and then I turned up to do it. And then she began to slightly rewrite it that morning. That woman can do so much in five minutes.
Of course, her great director, Harry Bradbeer, was with her. She herself suddenly sees something beyond what she’s already written and so she begins to rewrite. So I had to relearn, which was very hard. And of course, she understands rhythm, which I think we’re both good at. If I respond with my wayward rhythms to her rhythm, it’s like playing jazz.
Is there any room for improv? I almost fell out of my chair laughing at the dry-forearm bit.
No, it’s all written. It’s just that you have to respond to what’s written.
You can’t believe she starts such a scene like that. She always starts in such an oblique, unlikely premise. It immediately teaches the actor that, obviously, this isn’t going to be a stock scene about a therapist. She, herself, is so undermining of herself as Fleabag. That kind of tragic comedy character is an amazing creation. And then you never know where it’s going to go. She has a great way of being charming whilst being actually quite anarchic, doesn’t she?
Or damaged, or something. She makes very difficult things very charming.
Your Fleabag character is wearing the perfect therapist outfit, right? The sweater, the little silk scarf, the big jewelry. Do you supply your own ideas for that?
No, no. She needed the scarf. As you know, she refers to the scarf. The scarf is not something I would wear. It’s something the character has to wear. Maybe that tells you something about Phoebe, that she already envisages something, doesn’t she? She envisages it. Normally, when I work in the theater, I absolutely invent the thing I’m playing. In this instance, I’m just responding to Phoebe’s invention.
Do you believe in therapy? When you went into this scene, did that come into play at all?
Oh, I think therapy is like everything else. There are some genius therapists in the world and there are some frightening therapists. I don’t think that was the issue in this instance. It doesn’t bear scrutiny, does it?
What do you mean?
The universe in which the comedy is being played is not [interested in] whether therapy is of great value or not. She goes to this therapist who does not get shocked at the thought that she might want to fuck God.
You’ve been a renowned actress for decades. But all of a sudden, you’re everywhere. You have a cult following, especially among women who just adore these characters you’re playing. Are you getting noticed on the street?
I’m certainly more noticed in the streets. I can’t ask for directions anymore.
No, no, it’s amazing. I’ve had bits of it before when I did True Blood in America. For a while, you have a lot of following. But this is quite extraordinary, because it’s bumped into culture. People on bicycles stop when I’m crossing the street, and they come over. I think, Shouldn’t you keep on your bicycle? That’s a new level for me.
In the Killing Eve books, the role of Carolyn is actually a man. The show not only changed her to a woman but made her so complex. She’s rich. She’s powerful. She’s really smart. And she’s sort of absurdist. What’s your favorite part about playing her?
Reinventing her. It’s quite hard work, actually. The things that Carolyn knows, and has to know, and that I have to know to play her, are way in advance of anything that’s said. The lines are the tiniest cherry on the cake, aren’t they? There’s much more going on. She may have five other Eves working. That’s how big she is. There may be Killing Eve going on in other departments, you know? Killing Sally, or Killing Mary, or Killing Sandra.
At one point, we realize that Carolyn’s boss is also a woman.
It felt really great to see this long chain of capable women running things. It still feels to me, at least, like a rarity in television. Do you think that Killing Eve is an exception in how brilliantly it highlights women? Or do you think the film industry is sort of catching up?
I don’t think it’s going to be an exception for very long.
I think it’s broken something through, hasn’t it? It’s made it very clear to the comedy world that women are very funny, or that women can be funny. And complex. And immoral. And charming. And dangerous. And all the rest of it.
Carolyn isn’t stoic, but she’s so dry. She manages to say these shocking things without a trace of concern. Do you do anything particular to flip yourself into that mind-set?
I work very hard at it! I lose sleep about it. I live with it. I rehearse it. It’s not easy to get, because she’s not at all like me. And so I’ve had great fun finding her. And I am surprised at the styles that I have found that hide so much. Normally, when you’re playing as I’ve been playing over many years, I usually try to clarify something for an audience. In this instance, I’m hiding from the audience.
At one point this season, Carolyn testily points out that Eve is wasting her time. She says something like, “I have hobbies, you know.” Do you know what those hobbies are? Have you built Carolyn’s whole life out in your mind?
I don’t know if you need to know that. [Laughs.] Why do you want me to take away the mystery of Carolyn? I don’t think we should dig [that] up, but I can say that I certainly suggested some of her hobbies.
I hope we get to see her playing mah-jongg, or something like that.
Well, she does fencing, doesn’t she? We’ve seen her fencing.
Oh, that’s true. Did you have to learn how to fence at all for that brief scene? Was that you?
I trained how to fence many years ago, so I’ve known how to fence for 30 years.
Now that you’ve taken roles on shows that are dominated by a woman’s perspective, has it changed how you decide to take roles in the future?
Oh no. No, it wouldn’t change. Except that, as I say, there’s been a great excitement. People are delighted by its success. It’s been nothing but a huge pleasure. It’s been hard work and a pleasure.
The mystery of its jackpot is that it’s obviously hit the times very correctly, hasn’t it? We live in very insecure times. And there’s something about the insecurity that’s being explored in Killing Eve that people respond to, I think. [Pause.] And the humor.