How would you go about designing the apartment of a psychopathic hitwoman? That was the crux of my conversation with Kristian Milsted, set designer on BBC America's new series, Killing Eve. Find out how they created that perfectly aged Paris apartment and check out an exclusive behind the scenes clip of the making of the show below.
Starring Sandra Oh as MI5 security agent Eve, the plot centers around her quest to uncover a new (and deadly) female assassin, known as Villanelle. Killing Eve premiered on April 8, and is already racking up critical acclaim. We chatted with Kristian Milsted about how he and the team created the world around this game of cat and mouse. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
When we think of assassins in pop culture, normally they're seen in sleek, and modern spaces. But Villanelle's apartment is pretty much the opposite of that. What do you think that says about her character?
We had this discussion a lot, and we looked at a lot of interior design magazines. Obviously Villanelle has got a lot of disposable income. She's a very glamorous person, and obviously, she's got this very unusual job. She's got the same desires and wishes as any other young woman. We wanted to create space for her that was both real, but also a fantastic space, a grandiose apartment, but without being showy. We don't want her to live like a supermodel. She needs to have some darkness, to her world.
Her apartment belongs to the secret society, and she's only there for a short while. She lives a transient existence. She doesn't think very far ahead in the future, I think. She bought some fabulous furniture in the local shops, because she's got the money, but she's not a homemaker. It's a chaotic space, that had a glamorous side to it.
That's really interesting, because it's not fully tied together, with a color scheme and all of that, but she obviously likes nice things. In the first episode, she asks for the designer of the Italian silk throw during a hit, and that was just such an interesting scene. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that speaks to her and her impulses.
She's a compulsive person. She's a magpie. When she sees something, and she likes it, she wants it. I think it could have been a watch. It could have been a motor car. If she see something, and she likes it, she wants it, she takes it.That's her psychopathic element. So, as a designer, I always start from the character, and I think of finding stuff that is desirable enough to entice her. It was interesting, choosing the furniture in her apartment. It's something that she would have gone around picking out. I think that was fun.
Can people actually get that throw? Is that something people can buy?
No, they can't. It was a tricky thing, because the designer was written into the script. It's difficult to get a real designer throw, and to then call it another name with copyrights and such. We were in contact with some throw designers, but the turnaround time on each episode is tight—you have a couple of weeks, sometimes, to get it together. We used an antique throw. Though a lot of contemporary designers in Central and Southern Europe use this vintage style as inspiration. It kind of looks modern, I think, but I think it's from the '50s.
The Paris apartment has a crumbly European chic look. How do you get that vibe, when you're building a new set?
We tend to use real materials from the source. Obviously, our walls are all made up out of plywood and timber. We have layers upon layers of timber, of plaster, of paper, that needs to go into the wall. You have to design it with the aging in mind, so that only where there's a defect, there's a hole in this corner, there's water damage here— it becomes in the design process, but we use real material. Most of the wallpaper in the film is antique. When we found that we ran out of something, we could then print another roll, or two, and try to match it. But, you get something with the real antique wallpaper, because it's kind of green. You can just tell, I think, that it's real. We spend a lot of time on paint effects, and scuffing things with sandpaper, and wire brushes. It's just time, really. We spend a good long prep for this set. I think we've spent time on making it look right.
Eve's place is a bit of juxtaposition to Villanelle's. What do you think her space says about her character?
Eve is stuck here in the mundaneness of her life, and her husband, and her job. We thought that her house would be a very typical London small space. You kind of want it to let you feel a bit trapped in that existence. A little bit trapped in this house, which is a bit small, and also a bit messy, because she's really not the most organized person. But also, it's a very safe place, very comfortable. Her husband is a very lovely, loving man, but almost to the point of him being suffocating. She's wanting to be a spy with a glamorous lifestyle, and a big case to solve, and she finds herself living in the not very glamorous part of London, in a not very glamorous house.
We used very warm colors. Her walls are a pinkish hue. At the same time, her husband has his corner, he has a little man cave in the garden, but it's very much her place. She's an intellectual, so she's got some lovely Eastern European animation posters on her walls. We had a lot of fun trying to establish what she'd like, and what she'd read, and how she educated herself. That's what we do, we try to create a persona layer under it. It was a much less impressive space to design, but it's very moving to me, that all the spaces that people inhabit are real, but also give an extra dimension to the story and the characters.
Do you have a favorite detail in Villanelle's apartment? Was anything particularly difficult to source?
Well, I think after the struggle that we had, finding and deciding on the bathroom and bathtub, I think that is my favorite. It was quite an ordeal, and there were many different designs. We brought the fixtures from France, the fish tap, and all the brass things. We sourced the tiles, and then, we found out that we ran out of tiles, and we had to make some, which was, again, an ordeal.
But, it's funny how difficult it can be to find a pink tile, because that kind of pink, they just don't do them anymore. You have to go to the back of the shop, finding all 18 tiles. [laughs]
I also really liked the layers of wallpaper in the living room. There are some, if you can see it, but it's quite hidden. There's some hand-painted French wallpaper with peacocks, that's underneath the blue wallpaper. I had two rolls of it from another project. We could never do a whole wall, but that peacock wallpaper is great.
The bathroom is a 1930 bathroom. The apartment itself would've been 1870. It has different layers of decades going through it. You don't necessarily notice it, but it gives you a sense of realness, and also charm.
Killing Eve airs Sundays at 8/7c on BBC America.