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Now-Tony winner Jodie Comer talks about her Broadway play 'Prima Facie'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Jodie Comer - American audiences probably know her as Villanelle, the beautiful, chameleon-like assassin on "Killing Eve"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLING EVE")

JODIE COMER: (As Villainelle) I did my first ever kill in this country here - strangled a high-ranking police officer. He was a tango champion.

SUMMERS: ...Or as Millie and her avatar Molotov Girl in the movie "Free Guy." Now Comer is also a Tony Award winner. She won best actress at last night's ceremony for "Prima Facie." The one-woman show is in the final weeks of a Broadway run after selling out in London's West End last year. It is the story of Tessa, a lawyer who successfully represents men accused of sexual assault.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMER: (As Tessa) The only way the system works is because we all play our roles. My role is defense. The prosecutor prosecutes. We each tell a story, and the jury decide which story is the one they believe. They take the responsibility. A good lawyer just tells the best version of their client's story - nothing more, nothing else.

SUMMERS: But Tessa's idea of the law and the system she excels at beating changes after she is sexually assaulted by a coworker in love interest. I spoke to Jodie Comer before the show's Broadway debut.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

COMER: Hi. Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: So, Jodie, there's so much to talk about here, and I want to get into the themes of this play. But as I just mentioned, you are the play. It runs for about two hours, and it's a combination of narration and acting, and it's incredibly physical. Like, you do not just act out these parts. You are all over the set. You are jumping on tables. Your hands are all over the place. And I got a little tired watching you. What has this been like for you physically?

COMER: Yes, it was definitely, you know, a challenge. But it was also incredible. You know, I think it really fed into this fact that, you know, Tessa was in control of every element of this storytelling, you know? And that was what really struck me when I first read the piece. You know, I'd explored material before that deals with sexual assault, but it was never told in this manner. And I felt like she had so much control over the narrative.

SUMMERS: The other thing that sticks in my head, thinking about watching you as Tessa, is your voice and the way it changes when you're talking about a high moment, when you're talking about a low moment, when you're describing things that are funny or things that are sad. What was it like having to control all of these different elements for two hours?

COMER: Yeah. Well, it's interesting. I think it's something you're really aware of at the beginning because, you know, I just felt so intimidated by the size of it all. But you then come to a point where it kind of flows naturally. But what I was struck by in my kind of research - you know, there's one particular barrister who I was kind of shadowing, and she was from Scotland. But whenever she spoke publicly in court, her accent really diminished, you know, and she was pronouncing her words much clearer. And I thought, how interesting is that, you know, that there's a kind of presentation within the court itself?

And then, you know, like you say, when you see Tessa at home, she's kind of back to her roots. And that kind of, I guess, facade slips. And they're all just nuances. You know, these were all things that I witnessed and thought, oh, how great if we can incorporate that, especially because Tessa is from a working-class background. And she's extremely successful, but it's all from her own hard work.

SUMMERS: It's so interesting because, as you point out, Tessa is from a working-class background. And she describes early on how she fought her way to Cambridge Law, which is no small feat. And she's just so powerful as the play opens.

COMER: Yeah. I mean, she's confident, you know? Like, that's what's so brilliant about that opening. Like, there's a cockiness to her, and there's a slight arrogance. There's an element where you could see her in that opening scene and maybe dislike her a little bit because of her arrogance. But I love that she was allowed to be just that because she believed in herself.

SUMMERS: Early on, it almost seems as though she thinks of her work as a bit of a game. I don't know if I would say that I think she manipulates the accusers, but she is fully in control in that courtroom. Is that a fair assessment of the way you think she approaches the law?

COMER: Yes, I do. I think there's an element of - you know, there's a way in which the law works. And she understands that so fully so that when she - you know, she gets into the courtroom and she sees how people are potentially underestimating her or undermining her, you know, there's a way in which she, like you say, manipulates that situation. And she may play into that to then kind of catch them out at the end. But, like, fundamentally, she believes in the law. You know, it's something that she's committed her entire life to. And I think that's what makes her journey all the more kind of richer and also devastating - is the fact that she's dedicated her life and her time to something that is very much called into question. And by the end of the play, you know, she doubts a lot of that and sees how it really does need to change.

SUMMERS: As we were talking about, when we see Tessa at the beginning of the play, she is larger than life. She is powerful. She owns the court. She owns the stage. And then there's this turn in this incredibly intense and, frankly, difficult-to-watch couple of minutes. The audience experiences her, through you, being assaulted. And I'd just like to ask you, what was it like for you portraying those very intense moments?

COMER: I always remember, you know, that part of the play is, like - you literally feel the entire audience holding their breath. Like, I'm always struck in that moment by the silence in the room. What I loved about it and what I will say and what I think about, again, the power of the play is that you don't see the perpetrator. You don't see Julian. You don't see the physical assault take place. But it's all about language and stillness and her telling you what it is that she's experiencing. You know, it's incredibly intimate and exposing. And I think the way in which the assault is depicted is very rare. And I think in a way, that's what makes it all the more powerful.

SUMMERS: How do you think that Tessa's idea of legal truth changes over the course of the play?

COMER: I think it changes in a sense of, you know, especially, you know, when you think about being questioned in court, you know, if a woman becomes irate or emotional, that can be used against her. And it's like, if you experience something like Tessa experiences, how are you supposed to bottle up that emotion when it's something that has happened to you and is so deeply, deeply personal?

SUMMERS: Right. How are you not emotional? How are you not angry?

COMER: Exactly. Exactly. And, you know, I think, as well, this idea that, you know, the woman is questioned - the man can sit there. You know, for instance, let's speak about Tessa and Julian. It's like, she's questioned. Her phone is searched. You know, she has to speak about the assault and what happened to her in front of her family in court and in front of, you know, however many strangers, who are predominantly men. And Julian can just sit there in silence and not have to prove anything. You know, it's up to her to prove her innocence, actually, is what it is. And I think she realizes how, you know, backwards that is - you know, the fact that he can sit there and not be cross-examined.

SUMMERS: That was Jodie Comer, now a Tony Award winner and star of the one-woman show "Prima Facie." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.