Fiona Shaw talks about creating Eve’s enigmatic handler, Carolyn Martens, in Killing Eve.

We spy on Carolyn Martens in Killing Eve, Wednesdays on FOX (DStv 125) at 20:45

Darkly comic spy drama Killing Eve centres on the deadly and oddly flirtatious game of catchers (or is it courtship?) between intelligence agent Eve (Sandra Oh) and her target, deadly assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). But this game takes place in a richly detailed world filled with attention-grabbing allies and enemies. One of the most intriguing of these is Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw), head of MI6’s Russian Section who recruited Eve to track down the mystery assassin in the first place.

Carolyn’s subtle, often unexpected humour, acuteness, command of the situation and enigmatic motives raises so many questions. “That’s Carolyn’s business. It’s disconcerting, isn’t it?” says Fiona. “I think you are meeting very much the person that she is. She’s quite reassuring in a way. I find her reassuring and disconcerting. It’s quite hard to play, actually, because I have to judge it all the time. I don't think she’s acting, but she’s judging the situation all the time, she is assessing all the time. She is taking things in and she is capable of being in good humour if she thinks that it would help the situation over a martini. And if just direct questioning would help the situation, she does that. She does whatever is necessary. She is highly trained.”

But with this show, answering one question just leads to another. Fortunately, Fiona was willing to indulge us.

Watch Killing Eve now on Catch Up.

Enigma: Carolyn Martens

What were some of your own key questions about Carolyn at the start of the show?

Funny enough I didn’t know how she travelled. There’s a lot of travel and appearing in countries. I remember asking with the scenes in Germany, “How did Carolyn get home? Did she come on a commercial flight?” A lot of things weren’t answered, and I had to work it out, that she probably has private flights. My first questions (like this) were about the level of her power. I’m not sure that you’re always let into the level of her power, though, because Killing Eve, which is the story of Eve and Villanelle, is just one part of Carolyn’s life. I find that hard to hold onto – that Carolyn has other people working for her, too, and other problems in other parts of the world. (Fiona laughs). And people here (in the UK) who’ve very high in the ranks (in British intelligence) dress very casually, so initially I tried to do that, I tried to dress very casually as Carolyn for the first one or two episodes. And then I began to think, “No, she’s more stylish than that.”

How does Carolyn hold onto power in her world?

I based Carolyn partly on a wonderful boss that I had at the National Theatre, Jenny McIntosh. She is a nice woman, very benign but very, very good at understanding situations. I think the thing that Carolyn has, that I borrowed from my friend, Jenny, is that most problems, after 15 years on the job, are problems that you have seen before in another form. So as things arise and they seem terrible – bodies found on the street in Berlin or what – she’s not hysterical about anything because she knows that this sort of thing has happened in the past. And the series plays into that, that Carolyn has been around the block and she has dealt with an enormous amount of people and probably knows, in general, the criminal element in the world. Of course new people crop up all the time, and that’s what she has to deal with. So what she has done at the beginning of S1 is that she has broken away from MI6 and has been given a small budget to run her own outfit just off Trafalgar Square in some rooms. And I think that was the case at MI6 for a while (in real life), that people did have their own little private units, which are not really official, and therefore you don’t have to follow the protocols of MI6. It’s amoral, but also really efficient.

In episode 5 we see Carolyn comforting a mole from MI5 in the safe house by cradling them in her arms like a child. How did you keep a straight face?

We didn’t for a long time! But we had to, for the camera. Carolyn keeps a straight face though. Carolyn is likely to be on the (autism) spectrum, isn’t she? She doesn’t like to get too involved in emotions, but she does understand that people like emotional things. There was that wonderful thing about Temple Grandin, the autist who wrote a book about it. She gestured to a sunset and said, “I understand people like this kind of thing.” Well, Carolyn is a little bit like that. She understands that people like to be stroked when they are sad. She, of course, does not! She is hyper analytical, so she will use that if it is necessary.

In episode 8 there’s a surprising scene in which we’re shown the state of Carolyn’s hotel bedroom and it’s not just untidy, it’s been trashed

These scenes were written as we went along because Phoebe Waller-Bridge had written the first two episodes. And in them you meet a very straight-laced Carolyn. Then Phoebe got very interested in Carolyn. The plot turned to Russia, where most people would find it quite taxing to be, in that tense political time, but Carolyn absolutely adores it because it brings back memories of her earlier life in subterfuge. I don’t want to take away the mystery, but part of this joy (in the role) is that Phoebe takes an idea and turns it on its head. So you would assume that Carolyn is very organised, that all her life is organised. But, like a lot of people, part of her life is so not organised. I think that just makes for a better character, doesn’t it? She’s not on the train tracks of just one set of rules. Carolyn is very human in that way.

What’s one of your favourite things about Carolyn?

The knife edge with Carolyn is that you don't know whether she is being funny or not. I know… but the audience doesn't know. What’s interesting in saying to someone “Have some chops”? (as Carolyn tells Eve while she’s recruiting her), or Eve turning up at Carolyn’s house (in episode 5) and Kenny (Sean Delaney) being present? (and yet scenes play off as extremely funny). Maybe it’s because I’m classically trained, but it’s Carolyn’s language that I look after as well as I can. And maybe the best piece of her language is (from episode 1), “I once saw a rat drink from a can of Coke there. Both hands.” It’s just the idea is so low grade, in a way ,that there would be a rat that she has to go past to do her job. But then “Both hands”. Both Hands is the wit of it. It’s the sort of wit that doesn’t ask you to laugh. It’s dry, and that’s a touchstone for Carolyn, that she is always going to calmly say the things that someone might be slapping their thighs about. I love her language. Throughout the seasons you’ll always see that she has a turn of phrase that is really nothing to do with anything. I think that’s what I like. Her mind is always on the job, but she doesn’t talk about the job all the time. She talks about things on the edge of her mind. She’ll talk about clothes in the middle of a murder. In that way she’s a little like Villanelle, but she’s always on a non-sequitur. That’s the fun of it.

In episode 7 (spoiler alert!) there’s a scene in Russia with Kenny that could really have people questioning Carolyn’s intentions when she orders him to go home

It’s up to the audience to figure out what she’s really feeling. She is rarely cross with him, but she is cross with him then. And that’s bound to happen when your son is also your employee. Her methods (of handling the investigation), which have always been slightly off piste, are being questioned. Kenny isn’t sure whether his mother is being honest or not, but she has been doing that job since he was in socks and shorts, so she is understandably not happy about being crossed, because that interferes with her effectiveness. I think Carolyn is a shark, she likes to swim clear through the waters. She doesn’t like people interfering with her methods. I know an artist like that who goes through this huge process and she knows exactly the thing that she wants to do. I think Carolyn is like that. The goal might be very clear, and the route might be convoluted, but she’s not there for anyone to question that.

Watch Killing Eve S1 on Wednesdays on FOX (DStv 124) at 20:45

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