As the elusive and taciturn Carolyn Martens on Killing Eve, Fiona Shaw always makes it clear that her on-screen alter ego knows more than she’s letting on. But Carolyn’s true agenda remains a mystery. As Eve (Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) zigzag around the globe trying to outsmart (and kill) each other, Carolyn remains the irreverent calm at the eye of the storm. She’s Eve’s MI-6 boss, but she might also have allegiances to other, more nefarious characters.
Paste had the chance to chat with Shaw, perhaps best known before this role as Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films, about the second season of the hit BBC America series, what it’s like to play such a mysterious character, and reuniting with Killing Eve creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge for the second season of Fleabag, which premieres May 17 on Amazon Prime Video. [Editor’s note: The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Paste: Are you surprised that Killing Eve has turned out to be such a hit?
Fiona Shaw: I get stopped on the street all the time, people look at me on the subway and smile. Given the amount of things people can watch, it’s amazing how many people have watched Killing Eve. I’m absolutely blown away by that. I’m not surprised in that I think it deserves it. But I am surprised that it has such a variation of audience. I am thrilled and surprised because very little in the world does that.
Paste: What is that you think viewers are connecting to?
Shaw: For some reason it seems to tickle the part of their brain that nothing else has. I talked to a young woman this morning and she said it allows the darkness within herself to dare to speak and I think, “My goodness, how dark are these young women?” I suppose she’s identifying with Villanelle. But I meet many middle-aged people who are delighted by Carolyn and many young people are delighted by Carolyn. It keeps on shifting its demographic. Eve represents the kind of everyman character, who is muddling through life and full of a talent that sometimes hits and sometimes misses. The premise is so outlandish, in a way, but the human element has got plenty of time to come in and just be about people in a room talking to each other. What do you think it is?
Paste: I love that it’s a cat-and-mouse hunt with a unique twist and that it’s highly entertaining. I’ll confess that with two small kids, I often fall asleep at night while watching TV, and I’ve never once fallen asleep during Killing Eve.
Shaw: [Laughs] I will pass along to the cast. I feel it’s partly the stylish wit and the stylish style. The wit keeps pulling the rug [out] from under your expectations. You have your expectations fulfilled and then it’s pulled away, or you just think you are going to laugh and something terribly sad happens, or just watching something very sad and something very funny happens. You’re morally twisted, aren’t you? You become a morally twisted person watching it. You find yourself on the side of the psychopath because she’s absolutely charming. And you suddenly see that murder is quite stylish and, of course, that’s a terrible thing in this time we’re living in.
Paste: To me, Carolyn seems very different from any other role that you have played.
Shaw: I’m so flattered that you said that, because I keep saying that and nobody believes me. It’s not like anything I’ve played. I normally play characters who express something people can’t express. Suddenly I’m not expressing anything at all. I find that really, really hard to do. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously because I know a lot more than I say. So I have to keep on saying things that don’t actually point you to the information. I thought, “How will they know what I know if I don’t tell them?” and, of course, the key is to just not tell them. I’ve begun to trust the dark web of Carolyn’s mind. I’ve enjoyed that experience very much, playing the non-information.
Paste: How do you begin to play that?
Shaw: It’s not just a mannerism. It’s an actual choice of thinking. It’s the way in which she thinks. She knows something and she has to not say it. Oddly, I think that is true with people I’ve known who have been in slightly secretive jobs. I know one particular person who I based Carolyn on a bit on who often hesitates before they speak, as if they have to file a lot of information first before they answer your question. So you’re never having a true conversation with that person. I think Carolyn is like that. You’re always given as much as you need to know, but no more.
Paste: Her relationship with Eve is fascinating, especially this season.
Shaw: You think most bosses would be looking out for the welfare of their subordinates, but Carolyn doesn’t give a damn about what happens to Eve and her husband. She really doesn’t. She’s just not interested in that. She’s also not interested in any moral bad behavior by Eve. She’s quite a surprising maternal figure who is not at all maternal. An organized thinker who is quite disorganized. These contradictions somehow sit in Carolyn and they are amazingly rewarding to play.
Paste: How much do you know about what Carolyn is up to?
Shaw: There are certain things I know that no one else knows. But I certainly didn’t know that I was going to go to Russia [last season]. I only want to play characters who will go on surprising the character themselves, in a way.
Paste: You also join the cast of Fleabag this season which reunites you with Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Shaw: It’s very funny how people think somehow we walked across the street from Killing Eve to Fleabag. It has that kind of feeling, doesn’t it, because we’ve become so associated with each other. I play her counselor, and it’s hilarious. It’s brilliantly written and I was thrilled to be part of her world again. Really thrilled.
Paste: What can viewers expect for the rest of the season of Killing Eve?
Shaw: I think Carolyn tries to steady the ship a bit actually. Of course, there are other things that stop that happening. The thing that is being most explored in the second season is Villanelle and Eve. Carolyn is more like a shark in deep water just waiting to do something else.
Killing Eve airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on BBC America and AMC. Read our episodic reviews here.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .