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Jodie Comer, Evening Standard Theatre Awards Best Actress 2022: ‘This play is what I’m most proud of’

 (Hollie Fernando / Guardian / eyevine)
(Hollie Fernando / Guardian / eyevine)

When it came to discussing the Best Actress category at the 66th Evening Standard Theatre Awards in association with Garrard – reinstated after a two-year pandemic hiatus – the vote was unanimous. Veteran showbiz journalist Baz Bamigboye spoke for the whole panel when he said simply: “Jodie Comer, Jodie Comer, Jodie Comer.”

The 29-year-old Liverpudlian star, best known for her mercurial performance in Killing Eve, stunned audiences in the summer with her powerhouse turn in Prima Facie by Australian writer Suzie Miller at the Harold Pinter Theatre. A one-woman show about Tess, a working-class barrister specialising in sexual assault who is herself assaulted, it was only Comer’s second-ever stage appearance.

She committed to the play despite pandemic delays that cost her a gig on Ridley Scott’s film Napoleon and was rewarded with rave reviews and a sell-out run. A filmed version of the staging released in cinemas in July took £2m, and next year she opens Prima Facie on Broadway.

“The show is the thing I am proudest of in my life,” Comer says, when we speak. “It changed me so much and I learned so much. It really gives me shivers because there have been so many steps and it continues and continues to grow. To have this kind of response” – the Best Actress award – “from people within the industry who really know what they’re talking about and see a lot of theatre… it means an awful lot.” I tell her the last person to win the award was Dame Maggie Smith in 2019, also for a one-woman show, A German Life. “Perfect,” Comer says, clearly chuffed to bits.

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie (Helen Murray)
Jodie Comer in Prima Facie (Helen Murray)

The daughter of a Merseyrail employee and an Everton FC physiotherapist, Comer began attending a local weekend drama club at 11 and made her professional TV debut at 13, working up from small parts, to supporting, then starring roles.

Her screen career is burgeoning, with lead parts in Free Guy alongside Ryan Reynolds and The Last Duel with Matt Damon and Adam Driver already under her belt, and two BAFTAs to her name, for Killing Eve and Jack Thorne’s care-home drama Help. But she felt like an imposter taking to the stage.

“I got the script in the first lockdown and read it in an hour, because I didn’t have anything else to do, and was blown away by it,” she smiles. She asked when she could audition for director Justin Martin and was astonished to be told she didn’t have to. “I’d only done theatre once before in Scarborough when I was much, much younger. And I thought, well, this seems like a heavy load to carry given that I have so little experience. I haven’t been taught and haven’t done many theatre auditions. There was a lot of fear and insecurity and ego. I thought, am I capable?”

But she was fascinated. “I loved that you live everything through Tess’s experience, and only get a sense of [her abuser] Julian and the other characters through her eyes,” she says. “I thought that was extraordinary and I had no idea how to execute it on stage. Also it has a very, very important message. Help was the first project I’d done shining a light on a social issue and I came away from that job feeling fulfilled in a completely different way. When everyone works with that intention it creates a really pure working environment.”

While Help addressed the crisis in social care through the prism of Covid, Prima Facie shows how rape prosecutions are rigged against women – especially those, like Tess, who are assaulted by someone they previously had consensual sex with. The play hinges on a devastating coup de theatre, which I won’t spoil but that brought home the issue on a personal level to those in the audience.

Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards (Dave Benett)
Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards (Dave Benett)

“We’d spoken about the statistics and I had done all my research and we’d been to the courts and spoken to so many people,” Comer says, “but doing that moment in the first preview in a room with 850 people it hit me that we were facilitating something much bigger than us. I heard women crying in a way I’d never heard before, kind of guttural.”

She has squeezed two film roles in between the London and Broadway runs of Prima Facie: The End We Start From, playing a young woman who gives birth amid a climate disaster that floods London, with Benedict Cumberbatch; and The Bikeriders, about a midwestern motorcycle club in the 1960s, co-starring Austin Butler, aka Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. That took her to Ohio for several weeks and she’ll be in New York for two months from April.

“Not seeing family is hard,” she says. “Two of my best friends have actually given birth a couple of months ago and one of the babies already looks huge. It’s christenings and things that you miss, which is difficult.”

One of the friends belongs to the WhatsApp Group called Hoes In Different Area Codes, all people Comer went to school with, including athlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson. Beyond these snippets, her private life is off limits, and has been ever since her presumed boyfriend, American hockey player James Burke, was trolled for his supposed Republican leanings. She won’t even say if she has a place in London now, but concedes that Christmas will involve “a roast dinner from my mum” back in Liverpool.

Does she miss Villanelle, her compelling fashion-forward assassin from Killing Eve? “I think I ‘ll always miss her a bit. I loved the unpredictability of it, never knowing what’s coming next, and it’s a unique experience to spend that amount of time with a character.” She has Villanelle’s boots as a memento. She tried to take the whole wardrobe but realised the murderer’s extravagant outfits probably wouldn’t do for everyday wear: “Also, people would think I didn’t have any clothes of my own.”

Jodie Comer as Villanelle in BBC show Killing Eve (BBC/Sid Gentle Silms)
Jodie Comer as Villanelle in BBC show Killing Eve (BBC/Sid Gentle Silms)

Has Prima Facie made her want to do more theatre? “It absolutely has lit a spark in me, though at the moment Broadway is all I can think of,” she says. “I love being in the rehearsal room, that four weeks of delving in and playing around and making mistakes. And the immediate feedback when you’re on stage and the audience are audibly responding to something you have given them and they’re giving you… you can’t really get that anywhere else.

“Shakespeare terrifies me and I’d be lying if I said I was hugely clued up about playwrights, but I’d love to work with Martin McDonagh. He’s on my bucket list.” On stage and on screen, she’s most interested in the team involved in each project, and in “honing in on what speaks to me in what I read, what inspires me. They’re the kind of stories I’m choosing to tell.”

This year’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards were unusual; the winners mostly young and – in an industry still dominated by those educated privately and at Oxbridge – from diverse and non-wealthy backgrounds.

Comer says it was important to the makers of Prima Facie to cast a working-class actress in a working-class role. “They were able to see - and believe in - what I couldn’t necessarily see in me,” she says. “It’s about giving people the space and the opportunity to show what it is they can do regardless of experience or how long they’ve studied. I feel indebted to them because there are so many actresses they could have gone to with all of that in their arsenal and they didn’t.”

I’m very glad they didn’t, I say. “Me too!” says Comer, beaming again.

The 66th Evening Standard Theatre Awards were held on Sunday December 10; winners were transported there in sustainable style through the snow by Polestar. Prima Facie opens at the John Golden Theatre in New York on April 11 for a limited ten week run; primafacieplay.com