How Jodie from St Julie's comp conquered the acting worldApril 12, 2023
How Jodie from St Julie’s comp conquered the acting world…with a little help from her teachers, a female photographer, a playwright and her first agent – who reveal what inspired the Killing Eve star
From the moment Jodie Comer walked on to the stage and uttered her very first line, the audience were mesmerised by acting skills which appeared to go way beyond her years.
One critic who saw her perform described her as ‘sensationally natural, well-judged… lairy, challenging, then suddenly child-like’.
Yet this wasn’t the West End debut which saw the 30-year-old actress scoop a Best Actress Olivier Award last Sunday.
This was Jodie Comer as an unknown, untrained 16-year-old schoolgirl, treading the boards for the very first time at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre back in 2010.
‘She was brilliant, superb,’ says David Daly, who became Jodie’s first agent when he signed her up aged 13. He was in the audience for her theatre debut in The Price Of Everything in which, as one of just three cast members, she played a privately educated schoolgirl whose parents suffer money troubles.
From the moment Jodie Comer walked on to the stage and uttered her very first line, the audience were mesmerised by acting skills which appeared to go way beyond her years
‘Right from the start she was a fantastic actress,’ adds Daly, speaking on the phone from his Cheshire and London-based agency. ‘She got glowing reviews. Even at that early age I knew she was going to go places.’
This week, Jodie’s triumph in Prima Facie — a one-woman play in which she plays a defence lawyer specialising in rape cases who then becomes a victim of rape — was recognised with the highest award British theatre can offer. Such is its acclaim, the play has now transferred to Broadway and Jodie was a guest on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in New York City on Wednesday.
The Mail has spoken to the key individuals who nurtured her as a young teenage actress. As well as her first agent, they include the playwright who gave the Bafta-winning Killing Eve star her first break, the photographer who took her first professional portfolio, the TV director who gave Jodie her first major role, as well as a former teacher at St Julie’s, her Catholic girls’ school in Liverpool.
Together, for the first time, they tell the inspirational story of Jodie’s hard-won rise to the top; the key choices she made — and the offers she turned down — as she navigated her way through the minefield that is modern celebrity.
It is a heart-warming story which stretches back nearly two decades and one punctuated with pivotal moments; among them the day in 2006 that Donna and Jimmy Comer brought their aspiring 13-year-old daughter to a vast Italianate Victorian villa looking out across the River Mersey, ready for her first ever professional shoot.
Jodie attended St Julie’s, a Catholic girls’ school in Liverpool. The Mail has spoken to one of her teachers
Photographer Stephanie de Leng recalls how her mother Donna told her: ‘I don’t know where Jodie got this idea from but she just said to me: “Mum, I want to be an actress.”‘
‘The moment Jodie walked into the room I thought, this girl is amazing,’ adds Stephanie, a former Vogue model who became friends with the Comer family and advised them during Jodie’s early days.
‘She was just a baby in terms of experience but I’ve photographed thousands of actors. You get an instinct. You just know when someone has it and Jodie had it. She didn’t even have to speak. It was just a look she had. I knew.’
At the time, Jodie was still only around 5ft 4in and still growing, with long, dark brown hair and a naturally stunning face.
‘I did her first pictures in black and white, on film,’ Stephanie recalls. ‘She was very sensible and calm, not as chatty as she is now but completely natural and did exactly what I asked her. And her parents were hugely supportive. They are a wonderful, salt-of-the-earth family.’
Jodie was just 11 when she began expressing a desire to be an actress to her parents; Jimmy, a former factory worker who now works as a £65,000-a-year physiotherapist for Everton FC, and Donna, who is employed by Liverpool’s local transport authority, Merseyrail.
This week, Jodie’s triumph in Prima Facie — a one-woman play in which she plays a defence lawyer specialising in rape cases who then becomes a victim of rape — was recognised with the highest award British theatre can offer
The close-knit, hard-working family still live in the same four-bedroom house where Jodie was raised with her younger brother Charlie, now 27, in the city’s south-eastern suburb of Childwall.
It was here as a child that Jodie mastered her talent for accents, while imitating voices on TV adverts with her father.
She started taking weekend classes at CALS Theatre School in Liverpool’s Belle Vale shopping centre and was soon telling teachers at St Julie’s about her future dreams.
‘Jodie really shone at a young age,’ says Kate McCourt, Jodie’s former PE teacher and acting head at St Julie’s where Jodie took part in productions including Hairspray, Aladdin and James And The Giant Peach.
‘You could see that natural gift in Jodie,’ she adds. ‘She was into English and drama from the start. She really engaged. She always showed passion but also kindness and generosity. She was a genuinely lovely young woman and it’s so good to see that someone like that has done so well.’
She was ‘very popular’ and elected to the sixth-form council, the equivalent of being made a prefect.
Throughout school, she was in the same class as world champion heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson. The pair had a ‘close connection’, says McCourt, and remain good friends to this day. But, ironically, it was getting kicked out of a dance act for a school talent show in 2006 that set Jodie on a path to becoming a serious actress.
Due to perform in a routine from the hit musical Chicago, a family holiday meant Jodie missed rehearsals and her friends decided she couldn’t take part.
But it turned into a key moment from which Jodie made the best of the situation.
Having prepared a monologue about a young girl on the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster for a local drama festival, Jodie was encouraged by her mother to read it at the school talent show first. Staff were stunned by the hugely moving performance.
Jodie (front right) aged 13 or 14 in a production of Hairspray while at St. Julie’s Catholic High School for girls
Jodie, still only 13, later came first in her category at Liverpool Performing Arts Festival. It was the first time her father, Jimmy, had ever seen her act. ‘I remember seeing his face and him begin so taken aback,’ Jodie said recently. ‘I got such a buzz. It was so much fun and the first realisation that I could do this all the time.’
It was on the strength of this 2006 performance that her drama teacher at the time sent her to open auditions at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre for what was her first ever job in a 2007 BBC radio play called Tin Man.
Playwright Laurence Wilson says she was ‘phenomenal in that audition’ and that while the producer wanted to cast another girl, they ‘eventually saw what I saw’. Jodie took on the gritty role of Jessica, a teenage girl forced to repress her emotions, and was paid £150.
Wilson advised Jodie that if she was serious about acting, she needed to get her photograph taken professionally and get an agent. He sent her to see photographer Stephanie de Leng and, after photographing her, de Leng called agent David Daly. De Leng recalls: ‘I said to him, ‘I’ve photographed this young girl and she has massive star quality. She went and met him and he signed her right away.’
Daly admits: ‘Stephanie was absolutely right about her. It soon became clear that she was going to be very good indeed and she quickly got TV work.’
Over the next four years, until she left school half-way through sixth-form in 2010, Jodie juggled school and professional work.
Photographer Stephanie de Leng recalls how Jodie’s mother Donna (right) told her: ‘I don’t know where Jodie got this idea from but she just said to me: “Mum, I want to be an actress.”‘
In 2008, as a member of her school dance troupe, Billiart, she took part in the National Osteoporosis Society’s Boogie For Your Bones, dressing up in a skeleton outfit. The group was one of four acts invited to perform in London by judges including Strictly’s Craig Revel Horwood.
But Jodie was also getting bit-part roles in TV shows such as The Royal Today, Ashes To Ashes, Holby City and Waterloo Road, roles for which, says her former agent, he is still passing on royalty payments.
‘They’ll be a drop in the ocean compared to what she’s earning now,’ he says.
It was also in 2010 that Jodie’s extraordinary ability to switch accents first became apparent.
When she arrived to audition for The Price Of Everything in Scarborough, director Noreen Kershaw was aghast when 16-year-old Jodie first opened her mouth and spoke in a Scouse accent because she was looking for someone to play a well-spoken, middle-class teenager from a very wealthy family.
Kershaw was stunned, says David Daly, when Jodie began her audition and effortlessly slipped into received pronunciation.
Daly recalls: ‘She was amazed at how quickly she was able to adapt to playing that character given that she was so young. The play was great and Jodie was superb.’
Indeed, her father Jimmy was so excited by his daughter’s big theatre break that he borrowed the Everton team bus to transport family and friends across the Pennines to see it.
Noreen Kershaw then helped Jodie get her first big break into TV, urging producer Colin McKeown to cast her in a major role in his BBC1 Liverpool-based crime drama, Justice.
At last weekend’s Olivier Award ceremony, Jodie’s extraordinary past appeared much on her mind during her emotional acceptance speech
McKeown, who runs TV company LA Productions, recalls how Noreen told him: ‘I’ve found this girl. She’s only young but I think she’s going to be great.’
McKeown was concerned that the then unknown actress wouldn’t be a match for the hugely experienced lead, Welsh actor Robert Pugh.
‘I said: ‘Are you sure she’s good enough to cast against him?’ And, without hesitation, Noreen said: ‘I am.’ I said: ‘Ok. Let’s give her a go.’ We got her to read for us and Noreen was right. She was brilliant. A lovely kid and very talented.’
Even then, McKeown had to persuade then BBC daytime controller, Liam Keelan, that Jodie was up to the job.
‘He kept saying: ‘Who is this girl?’ And I said: ‘Just trust us, for Christ’s sake.’
The five-part series was broadcast in 2011. By then Jodie, who had started A-levels at St Julie’s and juggled her studies with a part-time job at Tesco, had left school and was deliberating a possible move to the ITV soap Emmerdale.
McKeown recalls: ‘Her instinct was that she wasn’t going to do it. We all thought she had more to offer and encouraged her to hold out but it was her decision.
‘She didn’t go for the easy route. She’s made her own way by being clever enough to make the right choices. She deserves credit for that.’
McKeown introduced Jodie to fellow Liverpudlian actor Stephen Graham, who helped get her a part as an actress in the 2012 TV series Good Cop. He was so impressed by her talent that he insisted on introducing her to his own agent at International Talent in London.
‘These things happen,’ says her first agent David Daly. ‘I’m not uptight about losing her, just delighted that she’s doing so well. I knew she was going to be successful.’
Still barely 18, it was now that Jodie’s career really took off. She starred in E4’s 2013 comedy drama My Mad Fat Diary, played nurse Ivy Bolton alongside James Norton in the 2015 BBC1 film Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover and appeared as Suranne Jones’s love rival in BBC1’s Doctor Foster.
She earned a Bafta nomination for her first starring role as Ivy Moxam in the BBC series Thirteen. Dozens of other roles followed before she found global fame in 2018 as Russian assassin Villanelle in Killing Eve. In 2021, she starred alongside Ryan Reynolds in the surprise box office hit film, Free Guy.
Jodie found global fame in 2018 as Russian assassin Villanelle (right) in Killing Eve. Left: Sandra Oh as Eve Polastri
Since then, her career has gone from strength to strength.
And yet Comer — say those who have worked with her — remains loyal to her roots. While she rents a flat in North London, she is extremely close to her parents and spent lockdown at her family home.
When filming in Liverpool, her mother has even been known to send her home-cooked roasts to the set. Then there is her close circle of five school friends, including Johnson-Thompson, with whom she keeps in touch via a WhatsApp group chat called ‘Hoes in Different Area Codes’.
St Julie’s acting head Kate McCourt is hopeful that Jodie will one day return to school to speak to pupils ‘about her journey and the path she has taken in life, about what can be achieved’.
McCourt adds: ‘I think she’s quite a busy lady at the moment.’
But at last weekend’s Olivier Award ceremony, Jodie’s extraordinary past appeared much on her mind during her emotional acceptance speech.
‘To any kids who haven’t been to drama school, who can’t afford to go to drama school, who have been rejected from drama school: Don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t possible,’ she said.
‘It might take the stars to align and you to be met with generous, kind, patient people, but it is possible.’
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