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Killing Eve’s Owen McDonnell on Why Niko Finally Faced Off Against Villanelle

Photo: Tom Dymond/REX/Shutterstock

It’s one of the most twisted jokes on Killing Eve: No matter what Villanelle does to Eve’s husband Niko to get the MI6 agent’s attention, her actions don’t have the desired effect. “She does not care about your life at all, does she?” Villanelle (Jodie Comer) tells Niko (Owen McDonnell) when she unexpectedly turns up on his school’s field trip to Oxford. But rather than driving a further wedge between the increasingly estranged couple, Villanelle’s revelation that his wife stabbed her in Paris sparks the pair’s uninspired sex life. Still, Villanelle’s latest lethal effort would surely be of interest to the obsessed spy: As Eve supervises her unpredictable protégée’s undercover operation with tech executive Aaron Peel (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) in Rome, Villanelle has left Niko lying unconscious in a locked London storage unit — along with his asphyxiated friend Gemma (Emma Pierson).

Ahead of the season’s penultimate episode, McDonnell took a break from doing his taxes in London to talk about how Niko wound up in such dire straits, what it was like to finally work with newly minted BAFTA winner Comer, and why, despite the show’s huge success, Niko’s mustache makes him virtually unrecognizable — even in a room full of reporters who’ve just screened his show.

Condolences on the loss of Gemma. Liking Niko did not go well for her.
[Laughs] Villanelle now ceases to be abstract in any sense for him. She’s always been a shadowy figure lurking. She’s gotten closer and closer to Niko, and to Eve’s relationship with Niko. And now, she’s not only destroyed his marriage to Eve, but also the hope of [him] possibly having another relationship. He’s responsible for Gemma’s death, in a way. He knew that bringing her into this world was dangerous. But he was naïve. He thought he could just leave.

Villanelle says she was close to letting them go until he said he loved Eve. She says Eve would never forgive her if she killed him. So did she kill Gemma to intimidate him? Or was she just bored?
You’d have to ask Jodie that question. I think Gemma is collateral damage. Villanelle seems to have this belief that a normal relationship with Eve is a possibility, that there’s this connection. Because she’s a psychopath, the normal rules don’t apply. So she uses a mix of pleasantness and intimidation to try and get Niko where she wants him. Obviously — well, not obviously — [Villanelle and Eve’s] relationship will come to a climax in due course.

Villanelle has already discovered Eve doesn’t pay much attention to Niko. Is he just a pawn in her obsession with his wife?  
I don’t think he’s a pawn. I think he’s an obstacle. Not for what he does, but for what Eve feels for him. They’ve had a really good relationship, but they’ve reached a phase — what did we say it was, 12, 13 years in? — that they’ve started to not quite get each other. But they still have this deep love that’s evolved over time. Villanelle struggles to understand the very normal, quite banal human connection that millions of couples have. Niko and Eve have something that she kind of wants. She doesn’t understand why Niko is so important to Eve because she thinks he’s dull and boring.

Niko was pretty menacing when Villanelle showed up in Oxford. Where was that aggression in the storage unit?
We’ve developed quite an elaborate backstory for Niko. In his past, he escaped from a familial relationship that was abusive, so he’s used to dealing with violent people. He could’ve gone down that road himself, and possibly he did when he was young, then he made a conscious decision to suppress that and be this mild-mannered man. But the situation that Villanelle puts him and Eve in sometimes allows that to come out.

Villanelle is the unseen catalyst in Niko and Eve’s sex life.
[Laughs] Unbeknownst to Niko when she sends Eve flowers.

But also when he confronts Eve about the stabbing. He asks her if she wants him to love her or frighten her. When she says she doesn’t know, he opts for the latter. The next day, Eve is exhilarated, but he seems disgusted. Is he afraid of who he’s becoming?
Absolutely he is disgusted. He is afraid of his potential to become something that he doesn’t necessarily want. He thinks leaving is a better option. Personally, I think it’s slightly cowardly that he doesn’t see it through. But he has this terrible fear of becoming his father. The fact that they both enjoyed that role playing so much scared him and I think that’s why he leaves.

It’s cowardly because he’s not fighting for the marriage?
Yes, but that’s Owen McDonnell’s opinion. [Laughs.] Niko looks at it as, “You’re asking me to cross a line that I categorically refuse to cross. I’ve done so much for you, and you need to come back.” But Eve doesn’t because she has to follow the path she’s on with Villanelle.

After a season and a half of working with Sandra, what was it like to finally work with Jodie?
It was great. She’s such a chameleonic actress. Doing scenes with her, you never know what’s going to happen. It was also lovely to get out of our house — we spend a lot of time there — and go to Oxford. Both Jodie and Sandra are really down-to-earth, hard-working actors. They’re both fun to be around, but very different as well. So it was a real joy.

How are they different?
They have different ways of working. Sandra works very much from the inside out — it’s all about preparation and convincing herself and then seeing what comes out. I think Jodie works from the inside out, but she tends to be very spontaneous, in the moment, on a take. So every take is very, very different.

The show’s tone toggles from serious to humorous so quickly. Was any of the scene when Jodie is holding the knife in your face as you recite the Shepherd’s Pie ingredients improvised? She sounds so delighted to learn about the Worcestershire sauce.
Yes, like she’s finally cracked it — that this is what’s going to finally win Eve over. Villanelle knows that Niko provides things for Eve that she can’t provide and doesn’t quite understand. This is one of those things. She thinks, If I can behave like him and cook a dinner, maybe she’d love that and he won’t be necessary. All of that was scripted by [showrunner] Emerald [Fennell]. It was tough to film because there was a lot of laughing, a lot of spoiled takes. It’s very difficult to keep a straight face when the stakes are so high, but what you’re doing is so ridiculous that you just get a terrible fit of giggles. And yeah, Jodie is prone to a giggle every now and then.

You’ve done theater in Ireland and the U.K. and became well-known for the Irish cop series Single-Handed. I’m curious as to why you wanted to play Niko. In this female take on a spy thriller, he’s kind of in the traditional women’s role of the understanding spouse.
To me, that’s really interesting that they flipped those gender stereotypes. But also, he is just trying to be a good man and it’s not enough. What effect does that have on a person? What does that do to your impression of yourself, your confidence? As the series has progressed, their ability to communicate slowly falls apart. They go from really getting each other’s quirkiness to failing to understand each other. Niko is kind of like, But I’m doing everything that I should be doing and it’s just not enough for you. What else can I do?

Killing Eve was successful from the start — getting renewed for a second season before the first one ever aired. How has your life changed?
Do you know what? It hasn’t changed a huge amount. I don’t get recognized in the streets. People don’t come up to me. I was at a press event last night, and as I stood there talking to journalists, they were like, “Who do you play?” Because I don’t have a mustache. So in the sense of being recognized, it hasn’t changed my life one iota. Professionally, yeah, it’s definitely opened up some doors.

As Eve left Gemma’s house, she patronizingly told Niko he’d be happy there. And he replied, “I dread to think where you’ll be happy.” Now Eve is with the woman who left him locked up in a storage unit with his asphyxiated friend. Can this marriage be saved?
Their relationship is a major unresolved issue, obviously. The woman that Eve was jealous of is now dead by the woman that Eve is obsessed with. It will be really interesting to see how this seismic event affects Niko. It could destroy him; he could blame Eve; it could make him hunger for revenge. He could become obsessed with the woman who killed his friend. If he blames Eve for her death, how does that manifest itself? Being in an extreme situation tests the foundations of a relationship. Will it cause them to implode, or will it make them stronger? There’s no defined way they have to go — especially in this world where things always occur in surprising ways.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Killing Eve’s Owen McDonnell on His Villanelle Face-off https://pixel.nymag.com/imgs/daily/vulture/2019/05/17/17-owen-mcdonell-chat-room-silo.png