TV

Dame Harriet Walter Tells Us About The Creation Of Her ‘Killing Eve’ Assassin Trainer

BBC America’s Killing Eve is in full third-season swing with a new formidable character on the scene. The premiere introduced Dasha, portrayed by Dame Harriet Walter (Downton Abbey, The Crown, Succession), as she crashed Villanelle’s wedding, and we soon found out that there’s quite a history there. There’s quite a competition as well, given that Villanelle attempts to one-up her trainer’s most notorious kills while aiming for assassin supremacy. The next few episodes follow Dasha as she grapples with an unwieldy Villanelle in a war of wills that doesn’t look resolvable in the near future.

The veteran actress had a ball while barrelling into this role and making it her own, but she’s also giving plenty of credit to the behind-the-scenes players who helped craft Dasha’s physical presence. Walter was gracious enough to speak with us about what it’s like to introduce a new player into a TV show that’s already working so well, along with the strange experience of receiving the most fanmail in her career (out of three decades of work) for her quick blip in the Star Wars franchise.

Dasha is a knockout role. Out of all the gigs you’ve had, though, you’ve gotten the most attention for playing Dr. Kalonia in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. What do you anticipate with Killing Eve?

It hasn’t yet aired in the U.K., but a few people have streamed it in advance, so I’ve had some friends’ feedback. My experience is that there’s kind-of a nine-or-six-month delay when the maximum people have seen something, but yes, they told me that my seven words in Star Wars would have been seen by more people than all of my performances anywhere, put together. That surprised me.

What was your gut reaction to that?

It is humbling. Some of the things that I’m proudest of were seen by 250 people in a small theater, so you just accept that there’s all these different forms of communicating, and it’s a challenge to try and get some impact in all of them. So that’s good, I’m really not snobbish about who likes what.

Were you a Killing Eve fan before you accepted the Dasha role?

Yes, I was a massive fan. Fiona Shaw [who portrays Carolyn Martens, Head of MI6’s Russia Desk] and I are friends from way back. She was telling me about this great show that she was filming with Sandra Oh and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and I thought, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” And when it came out — she was talking about it like any old job, you know — and then I watched it, “Oh, this is quite the best thing.” So, I was a fan from the beginning.

Did you do any extra homework before landing on the set?

When I got offered the role, I went back and watched everything, so I could see it all through new eyes, though the eyes of somebody who could have been watching over Villanelle from afar. All the kills that she was doing, I would have known about. It was important to see that whole stretch of work through the eyes of Dasha, so she knew what was going on. That was helpful.

Nobody knew Dasha even existed, and then all of sudden, blammo, she’s there.

I know, it is strange. It was great because I was very aware that it was going to be difficult to fit in with something that was so beautifully working before, and I didn’t want to upset the rhythm or not fit in, but at the same time, I think that she was there deliberately to bring some new energy into the show. So, I had more license, and I didn’t have to completely toe the deadpan line or whatever the different type of styles are that have evolved through that show, sort-of tongue-in-cheek, but they’re all outrageous and stylish. With all those components, I thought, “Gosh, how am I going to fit in with that?” But in the end, it’s down to what you’re told to say, and what you’re told to do by the script. It was all in there.

In terms of the hierarchy of The Twelve, are you aware of how Dasha compares to Konstantin?

It’s slightly nebulous, and I think it’s deliberately so. I don’t know how far you have watched.

I’m through episode five as of now, but let’s not go past episode three.

There is a person who surfaces that is higher than me in the hierarchy. I’ve always thought that Dasha was about level with Konstantin in terms of knowledge and involvement. I think that she, to be frank, has a vulnerability to The Twelve, and she needs them, more than they need her, perhaps. Or she thinks that she needs them more than they need her. In the past, she’s been incredibly important. She’s been their top trainer of assassins, and she’s been important to the hierarchy, but she’s feeling old, and she’s feeling like she could be on the scrap heap and wants to retire in glory to Russia. So she’s quite vulnerable, and she’s scared of losing her place.

Well, she still gets pretty physical, especially in the tacking scene. I imagine there were stunt doubles to keep you and Jodie Comer safe?

Well, I have to let you in on a secret. They don’t want us to break our limbs or get bruises because the makeup has to cover up, so it’s just easier that way. But we’re in on it from the beginning and work with the stunt doubles, so they digest what type of character you are and what your energy is. The stunt director is given a breakdown of who these people are, so you would stop them if they did a move that your character wouldn’t do.

What wouldn’t Dasha do in a fight?

My character wouldn’t poke someone in the eye or punch them across the jaw. You could say things like that. But other than that, you leave it to the experts to design the fight and choreograph that. They’re [the ones who are] throwing themselves around.

Villanelle’s got the coolest costumes, but yours are pretty funky as well. How does that compare with the period costumes that you’ve worn on other projects?

Oh, the wig and everything were very helpful to locate and invent this character. The wig and makeup designers devised the look with my lipstick always kind-of smudged and lovely little touches like that. With the costuming, they work separately, but somehow, when it comes together, it really worked. Sam Perry, who’s the costume designer, I’ve worked with her before on two different jobs, very different but both modern dress, and she’s just incredibly inventive, and they just let her come in with all these great ideas. I could never come up with that, that was lovely creativity, and I can think the department for helping me create a character because I don’t know for sure that I would have had that imagination.

In terms of Dasha’s dynamic with Villanelle (which includes putting a baby in the trash), do you think that she truly cares about her?

I think it’s a mixture. I don’t think Dasha’s really capable of tenderheartedness. I think that what we see in young Dasha at the beginning is designed to show you that she will cut out anything that threatens her ambition, whether it has to do with emotional dependency. That’s what that scene was about, where she kills her sort-of admirer because she’s in danger of lured away from her ambition, and so she’s killing that side of herself. She’s done that to herself, and I don’t think she’s got the tenderness about Villanelle, but she has a possessiveness, like an ambitious stage mother. That type of thing, where she lives through Villanelle, and her successes become Dasha’s successes. Her mistakes throw a bad light on Dasha, so that’s how she feels, so she’s competitive with her but also cares because she respects and admires her talent, but there’s a narcissism in Dasha where she’s also narcissistic about Villanelle, like she’s some extension. I’m sounding very complicated her, but there’s a good mixture going on in there, and Dasha’s not very good at being nurturing with kids in the school and gym club. She’s not interested in being sweet or kind.

Villanelle’s getting pretty careless, too, so there’s some concern, right?

Yes, absolutely. She’s blowing it, and if she blows it, she blows it for Dasha, too.

With the Spice Kill, was Dasha as appreciative of the hallmark as she claimed?

Yes, I think so. These are the little ways that she communicates. The little bit of a taunt before it happens. Where Dasha says, “I’m the best,” and Villanelle says, “You used to be, but not anymore,” or whatever it was. And it’s comforting for Dasha because the message is “I can do as well as you can and top it,” but at the same time, it’s a flattery because imitation is the highest form of flattery. So it satisfies Dasha, but it also exemplifies the way that Villanelle got a little bit of the last word, so Dasha’s gotta look out.

BBC America’s ‘Killing Eve’ airs on Sundays at 9:00 PM EST with simulcasting on AMC.

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