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How a slew of "embittered male loners" allowed author Luke Jennings the room to create the gripping characters of 'Killing Eve'

Luke Jennings reveals how he feels about 'Killing Eve,' the current direction of the show, Sandra Oh, his inspirations, and much more.
UPDATED JAN 15, 2020
Sandra Oh (Source: Getty Images)
Sandra Oh (Source: Getty Images)

Since 'Killing Eve' premiered on April 8 this past month, the show has been garnering rave reviews from critics, as well as audiences, who have heaped praise on the show's refreshing take on the done-to-death 'spy vs spy' premise. Starring Sandra Oh and Jodie Corner, the BBC America show is based on Luke Jennings' 'Codename Villanelle' series of novellas and most recently aired its fifth episode 'I Have a Thing About Bathrooms.'

To provide a brief overview of the story, the narration follows the life of Eve, a very bored, very smart MI5 security officer who is fed up with her desk life. The life of a spy isn't all that she hoped it would be. On the other side is Villanelle, a talented, ruthless, and mercurial killer who clings to the luxuries her violent job offers her. When Eve is tasked with apprehending the psychopathic assassin, it triggers the start of an epic game of cat and mouse between the two women, each determined to outsmart the other. It's kill or be killed. 

A student at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, author Jennings was a dancer for ten years before turning to writing. As a journalist, he wrote for the likes of Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Time, as well as other British titles.

An acclaimed dance critic at the Observer, he has in the past published several books, including 'Stars: Stealing the Show,' a stage school series for girls of 9-plus that he wrote with his daughter Laura, 'The Faber Pocket Guide To Ballet,' an easy-to-use classical ballet guide that spans two centuries of classical dance, 'Beauty Story,' the story of a young journalist set in the rich and sleazy backdrop of 1990s London, and 'Atlantic,' a shattering novel that takes place in a cruise ship in the post-war years and was was nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

There's also, of course, 'Codename Villanelle,' for which he is now receiving widespread recognition and praise. The book was adapted into 'Killing Eve,' by Phoebe Waller-Bridge of 'Fleabag' fame and is now one of the hottest shows on television. Meaww had the opportunity to talk to Jennings and pick his brain about the show, the casting, and what he has in store for rabid readers in the future. 

Jennings was visibly pleased that 'Killing Eve' was one of the highest-rated shows on television and was being so widely applauded, telling us: "It's wonderful to see the TV series doing so well. At the center of my novel,
'Codename Villanelle,' is the relationship between Eve and Villanelle. The deadly cat and mouse game, the mutual fascination. So it's great to see that tension driving the show."

When the idea for the show was conceived and approved, Sandra Oh, who previously brought life to 'Grey's Anatomy' with her portrayal of Christina Yang, was immediately cast in the role of Eve. He told us that he was consulted for the process and there was only one actress in his mind the entire time: "A lot of actors tested for Eve, but for me, as for Phoebe Waller-Bridge, it was always Sandra. She's such a subtle actress. She moves so deftly between extremes, between the droll and the horrific, hitting every beat. You always know exactly what she's thinking and feeling."

That decision seems to have paid off handsomely, with fans especially pleased to see the talented actress portray such a complex character so beautifully and flawlessly. The show has gone from strength to strength with every episode, each adding further depth to an already enthralling plot. Jennings says viewers can expect more heart-racing tension, dark comedy, and perverse romanticism as the series proceeds.

"I'm very happy. When I saw Phoebe's play, Fleabag; I knew she'd get Villanelle, in all her quirky horror and glory. We talked about the characters for months. About Villanelle's psychopathy, and Eve's self-deprecating brilliance. And about how clothes were central to the story - Eve the moth to Villanelle's butterfly - and how Villanelle styled her kills with a very deliberate eye," Jennings said, talking about his vision for 'Killing Eve,' and the current direction of the show. 

As it is with every author, Jennings, too, has developed a sort of personal attachment with the characters he spent months and years toiling over and perfecting. And like millions around the world, he had a favorite too. Not too surprisingly, it's Eve.

"Eve is much more human and vulnerable. Her life is chaotic, she's erratic and obsessive, she burns the toast. And as Sandra Oh shows so well, she wants something in her life that isn't there. Something high-risk. Something or someone to make her heart race. And that's exactly what she gets," he said.

But he also offered us an in-depth look at what makes the psychopathic Villanelle tick. "If Eve is relatable, Villanelle is utterly alien," the author said. 

He clarified: "She's written her own rule-book, and in a mad sort of way, her life is a dream. She's got a rooftop flat in Paris, a weakness for Balenciaga, and all the money she can spend. In return, all she has to do is kill people, which she does with immense flair. But behind this amoral front is a sad and desperate backstory. She's a psychopath, but a human being too. Creating her was the most fun I've ever had as a writer, and I do kind of love her."

We didn't want to badger Jennings just about 'Killing Eve,'. An opportunity to explore what made such a talented author tick was not one that falls in your lap very often, so we asked about what sparked his passion for writing and what inspired to him seek out the thriller genre and the attempt to rejig it. Jennings said it all came down how novels were now mostly falling prey to the same old tropes over and over again.

"The genre has got stale. All those embittered male loners with their whiskey habits and their broken marriages and their love of jazz. All those humorless ex-Special Forces trigger-men. Too often, the female characters are just there to frame the male protagonist. That's why I created a thriller series with two strong, complex and multi-layered female leads. There just weren't any well-written stories like that out there."

Jennings boasts a wealth of experience and it shows when he writes. An air of confidence and self-assurance is to be expected from one who has accomplished so much and he says his biggest inspiration has been Ian Fleming, who readers may recognize for his work in publishing the supremely popular James Bond series of spy novels.

And while most authors will admit that their first novel was a gargantuan struggle, that it was the hardest to conceptualize and write, Jennings says he loves writing and does not find it a challenge, though he jokingly told us he doesn't think anyone would be very interested in his thoughts on cooking.

'Killing Eve' will wrap up with its eighth episode on May 27, but fans need not be disheartened. We asked Jennings if he has any other novels in the pipeline currently and he said he is close to finishing the second novel in the 'Codename Villanelle' series and that he has it planned out in his mind as a trilogy.

Patience will be paramount but if the current iteration of the show and the book is anything to go by, any further installment is most definitely going to be worth the wait.