Galway actor Owen McDonnell chatted to David Hennessy about the return of Killing Eve, how it shows female-led dramas can be popular with audiences of both genders and why he never saw it that he was playing the ‘wife’.
When Killing Eve began in 2018, the protagonist and her husband played by Galway actor Owen McDonnell were solid in their relationship and happy even if familiarity had caused some of the spark to disappear.
However, Eve began hunting a female assassin known as Villanelle. No ordinary assassin, Villanelle is stylish and ostentatious. She can pull off a hundred accents and walk into a crowded party and kill her target under everyone’s noses. Not only obsessed with catching her, Eve became obsessed with Villanelle leaving her husband behind.
The third series of the BBC’s dark comedy about spies and assassins has made a shocking return and although Eve has survived the bullet Villanelle put in her chest at the end of season two, it appears the marriage has not survived. Jodie Comer’s Villanelle was always trying to come between Sandra Oh’s Eve and her husband and may just have succeeded.
Owen told The Irish World: “While they have spent a lot of their lives together and there’s feelings there, Niko feels like he needs to make a new start and start putting himself first rather than Eve but you’ll see how it plays out in the next few weeks.
“Is there a future for them? I’m really not allowed to say. It’s a terrible show to do publicity for because you can’t actually say anything about the show.”
The third series came back with a bang when main character Kenny was thrown from a high rise building. Whether it was Villanelle or an attempt to get at Eve remains unclear although it was Eve who first discovered his lifeless body.
Fiona Shaw’s Carolyn recruited Eve to chase the deadly assassin and stop her showing off all the way back in season one. Usually an unflappable MI6 commander and never squeamish about people dying in the field, Carolyn will have a tougher time writing off Kenny’s death as collateral damage. He was her son.
“We really see a lot of Carolyn in this series and the way that she deals with or tries to deal with that loss is fascinating. I felt really bad for Sean Delaney (who played Kenny) because we’re good friends and we worked together on The Ferryman as well. He played my son in the Ferryman. It’s really tough to get killed off at any point in a big series like that but it absolutely makes sense for the series, to hang this third season on that shocking death works really, really well.”
At a time when people are screaming for more female stories and females to be recognised more at awards ceremonies, Killing Eve has been an international success that has seen both of its female main characters honoured with numerous awards.
“I think that’s why it was so successful in a way: Because it was something new and fresh that came at a certain time when people were really looking at historically how women have been treated in the entertainment industry and in all industries.
“Particularly with the #metoo movement and it came on the heels of that and we seemed to speak to people about that and also show people in those roles that Jodie and Sandra play that men will tune into a show led by women just as much as women would tune into it.
“I think that is quite ground-breaking and also a big wake-up call to the industry.
“The timing of the show was brilliant and it just spoke to a general feeling that was abroad and still is abroad at the moment.”
Phoebe Waller-Bridge was showrunner and executive producer for series one of Killing Eve. Well known for Fleabag and also scripting the latest Bond film, Owen could see what she brought to the table straightaway: “It was apparent that she was brilliant and that the scripts were great, that she was a really special individual and the sort of person you don’t come across that often.
“But I don’t think anybody could have predicted the success of Killing Eve. The success of Fleabag had already happened but then it became this global phenomenon. She’s a genius really, she’s able to just see things in a slightly different way and make weird situations speak to everyone.
“She brings something that is entirely individual to her, her entirely individual way of viewing the world particular and entirely specific to her sensibility and they obviously saw that and they wanted a little bit of that in Bond. They said, ‘We’ll have that if we can’.
“She’s an extraordinary talent and again another really nice lovely person showing that you don’t have to be an egomaniac to be brilliant. You really don’t. It’s really refreshing to work with people who aren’t.”
Well known for dramas such as Single-Handed and other dramas that saw him play a guard, Killing Eve reverses the roles making him the concerned partner although he says he never saw it like this himself.
“Yeah, when it initially came out, people were like, ‘You play a lovely wife’. In a way I never really thought about it like that. I just thought he was a guy and making his partner happy is what made him happy.
“We had a whole back story where she had kind of kept him going for years, she was the main bread winner before he retrained as a teacher. We just tried to make their relationship make sense but people immediately jumped on the bandwagon going, ‘Oh, Eve is like the masculine role and he’s like the feminine role’. We just tried to make it a modern couple that worked together as a team but obviously then the circumstances of Eve’s life overtook that and destroyed even that strong bond. When we first met them in series one, they were happy but they were just very used to being around one another and slightly not getting each other 100% and not feeding into what they both wanted from life. And those tiny cracks became huge gaping chasms by the end of series 2.”
Eve Polastri was bored of her protection role with MI5 when she was struck by Villanelle’s style and asked to head up a team trailing her which led to the hitwoman dominating Eve’s thoughts to the point where Niko couldn’t get a look in.
What is it like to work with Sandra Oh, well known for big US films and TV like Grey’s Anatomy? “She’s a really down to earth, solid individual. Her and her partner, when he comes over, we catch up and we have a lovely time.
“She’s really decent, she works really hard but she’s about as unaffected as you can be while a Hollywood superstar, I think. She’s great. We’re very lucky with Killing Eve. It is a really lovely team and because Sandra and Jodie are both incredibly down to earth people without a lot of ego, everybody else has to tow that line so everybody’s really nice to everybody else all the time. It’s quite weird.”
Owen had very little scenes with Villanelle, she remained a shadowy figure and a cause for concern for him until he came face to face with Jodie Comer’s deadly killer in season two.
“I’m lucky in that I managed to have scenes with Jodie and remain alive which is unusual for everybody in the show except for Eve and Konstantin.”
Someone who did not survive was Gemma, a well meaning teacher friend of Niko’s. Villanelle suffocated her to death before leaving Niko alone with her body in his storage container. This is something that is still very raw for Niko at the outset of this current series.
“I felt bad for her. I really liked Emma that played Gemma and the character as well, I thought she had more mileage in her. I see why they did it because it’s such an effective cliffhanger to leave at the end of the series. How much will Niko take? It gave me a lot to play with coming into series three, the thought of having been in that lock up with her corpse for however long and the effect that that would have on you, that informed where we see him at the start of episode one.”
On the other Irish cast member Fiona Shaw who plays Eve’s superior Carolyn, Owen says: “She’s obviously brilliant. I’ve been a fan of hers for years and years and years, her stage work and her film and television work. But she is remarkably intelligent and well read and brings all that to the role and all her experience but she’s great fun and she’s not shy of a wry eyebrow or a gag either.
“She brings that intelligence but also with a great sense of fun as well. She’s great company.”
It has been often been Fiona who got the laughs with a casual one liner: “That may have been surprising to some people because they kind of go, ‘Fiona Shaw, she’s a very serious actress’. She can be a serious actress while at the same time being able to do seriously brilliant comedy which she is well able to do. She’s a bit of a master.”
Owen has often taken the chance to return to Ireland for work whether he is playing a cop in the supernatural Paula or a publican in My Mother and Other Strangers. However, he has also done a few things in Irish such as the western An Klondike or the tense drug thriller An Bronntanas. Is keeping the Irish language alive important to him? “It is. I’m not an Irish language fundamentalist but it’s always been part of my life. My primary school was through Irish, I did a lot of Irish language theatre in Galway so when I got the opportunity through TG4 to go back and do some stuff in Irish I really appreciated it.
“I love the fact that people can pursue a career in the Irish language in drama now because of the fact that there’s an Irish language television channel and if people are producing good quality content like An Klondike and An Bronntanas, people will watch it and that will keep the language alive even in people’s minds. I think it is important. I live my life in English but I do love the opportunity to occasionally go home and practice my Irish which isn’t as fluent as it used to be. I do think it’s important to keep it going.”
Owen has resided in the London area since 1996 when he came to study acting at Central School of Speech and Drama.
“24 years it will be in September. A long time. I suppose it’s kind of home now. Definitely home, I think.
“I was hoping to get home over Easter but obviously with the coronavirus outbreak, I couldn’t put my mother in that position but hopefully I’ll get back soon.”
On the lockdown that everyone has had imposed on them due to Covid-19, Owen looks on the bright side: “Actors are used to having their lives torn apart by forces outside their control so I think psychologically we’re probably quite suited to something like this but there’s nothing you can do.
“The main thing is you’re healthy and all we can do is stay at home and look after our own families. At least we’re not in hospital on a ventilator which I know so many thousands are. It’s a strange time but I certainly feel very lucky in that we’re hale and hearty and are able to survive.”
Killing Eve continues at 9.15pm on Sundays on BBC1 and is also available on BBC iPlayer.