Jodie Comer is no stranger to rave reviews, but The End We Start From is the first time she’s received them for the unfamiliar role of a mother. The Emmy winner has briefly played mothers in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and The Last Duel, but Comer considers Mahalia Belo’s survival drama to be her first proper exploration of motherhood and all its nuances. Based on Megan Hunter’s book and Alice Birch’s adapted screenplay, Comer plays a character simply credited as “Woman,” and at the start of the film, her water breaks around the same time that London is hit by a devastating environmental crisis, resulting in mass flooding.
With a new baby in tow, Comer’s character and Joel Fry’s husband/father character retreat to the countryside like the rest of the city, but food shortages and civil unrest soon cause their young family to separate, amplifying the challenges of being a new mother. So Comer’s character and her baby known as Zeb, the only named character in the film, have to find sanctuary and food on their own. Comer ultimately worked with 15 different babies in the role of Zeb, and it presented a new challenge for her as babies are basically improvising all the time.
“They don’t really take direction or notes, and you are at the mercy of that. You have to be present, and it can create really beautiful and spontaneous moments,” Comer tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You just have to roll with it and work with it, and there can be a real freedom in that once you get over your brain initially going, ‘This isn’t what it’s supposed to be.’”
The month of December was originally going to be quite memorable for Comer, as her acclaimed work in Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders was also supposed to be released on Dec. 1. However, due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, New Regency and 20th Century Studios balked at releasing the pic without actor promotion, and once the strike was resolved on Nov. 8, New Regency instead found itself looking for a new distributor. Focus Features then stepped up for a June 2024 release. Naturally, Comer is disappointed by this course of events, but less so for herself and more so for Nichols, who’d been doing months of press to support his sixth feature film and first film since 2016.
“I’m a big believer in things happening when they should. I think it’s a shame, obviously, but especially for Jeff. But I think the film is going to be really supported and really celebrated at Focus [Features],” Comer says. “And I am really excited that we are all going to be able to support it and speak about it in a way that we couldn’t this year. So it’s a shame, but I think it’ll all work out for the best.”
There was once a time where Comer would’ve played Josephine in Ridley Scott’s recently released Napoleon, but due to Covid’s impact on schedules across the industry, her other commitment to Suzie Miller’s one-woman play, Prime Facie, led her to exit what would’ve been her second film with Scott, following 2021’s The Last Duel. Comer’s decision worked out quite well as she now boasts a Laurence Olivier award and a Tony Award for the role of Tessa Ensler.
“That was a choice I had to make and I didn’t look back in a sense,” Comer admits. “I knew I really wanted to do the film, but now, Josephine is Vanessa’s [Kirby] role. I’m so happy for her and I wish her all the success with that movie. A lot of this industry is sliding doors, and I do feel like I was always supposed to do that play. So I was happy with my decision.”
Whenever a high-profile role is up for grabs, Comer, being a young, award-winning actor, ends up on most casting shortlists, and she certainly finds her name being thrown around in online casting rumors, namely Fantastic Four’s Sue Storm. And while such rumors get fans’ hopes up for better or worse, Comer finds the whole situation to be slightly amusing.
“It’s so funny because people come up to me — even friends and family — and they’re like, ‘Are you doing X, Y and Z?’ And I’m like, ‘No,’” Comer says. “I’ve always felt very clear on where I want to go, and some rumors that come up may not necessarily be something I’d be interested in right now. But I’d never shoot them down because who knows where I’m going to be or what I might want to do in years to come. People change, their interests change. So it’s always just fascinating, and sometimes, I’m like, ‘Where did they come from?’”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Comer also discusses The End We Start From’s dance party with Benedict Cumberbatch and Katherine Waterston, as well as the elaborate prosthetic that covered her middle and upper body.
So where did The End We Start From fall on your timeline of conquests?
(Laughs.) On my timeline of conquests, this script came to me when I was in the rehearsal process of the London run of Prima Facie. It’s quite hard to remember, but I remember the script coming through with our director Mahalia Belo’s name attached. I wasn’t familiar with Megan Hunter’s book, so I read the book and the script before I met May [Belo], and I was really struck by the story. I’d always wanted to work with Mahalia after seeing one of her films on Channel 4 many moons ago. So I was really delighted when I saw her name, and I was really excited about her vision. I could see what she wanted to explore on camera and how stripped back and bare she wanted to go and how much she wanted to portray a truthful representation of motherhood, the good and the bad. And then we started shooting it four weeks after I’d finished the [Prima Facie] run in London, so it was all pretty quick.
Did Benedict Cumberbatch’s company first approach you with it?
What’s most frightening about this story is that it doesn’t feel too out of reach. I’m sure new parents felt a version of this during the pandemic, but it doesn’t seem like a distant future.
I completely agree with you, and hopefully, that’s why it will potentially have a greater impact or move people in a particular way. I feel like we can see ourselves mirrored within this story, and I connect with something more if it feels like it’s more based in reality and is less extravagant. Don’t get me wrong, the CGI and visual effects in this film are incredible, particularly when you look at independent film. But this was more about an exploration of how we behave on a human level. How would we potentially cope with this? Especially when you look at Woman’s situation of being a very, very new mother.
I recently spoke to Daisy Ridley about playing a mother for the first time, and outside of briefly portraying her Star Wars character’s mother, plus another short stretch in The Last Duel, I’m pretty sure this was your first substantial turn playing a mother, as well.
Normally, you’re focused on your character’s wants and needs, but with a child in the equation, did you lead with their wants and needs?
Absolutely. There was a lot of prep, and there was a lot of time spent with the babies. The first babies I met were eight weeks old and they were tiny. I was terrified [to hold them], and my hands were shaking. But I was very fortunate as well that one of my best friends had just had a baby before I started filming. So I was able to ask her the very personal questions that I couldn’t necessarily ask one of the new mothers or midwives I’d just met, and that was invaluable.
The wonderful thing about working with babies is that they do what they want to do. They don’t really take direction or notes, and you are at the mercy of that. You have to be present, and it can create really beautiful and spontaneous moments. You just have to roll with it and work with it, and there can be a real freedom in that once you get over your brain initially going, “This isn’t what it’s supposed to be.” Some of my favorite moments within the film are when we’ve been able to capture the baby and you see things from Zeb’s perspective.
When she’s tending to her foot in the forest, there’s an exchange between her and Zeb that felt like it could’ve been impromptu. Was that the case?
We were in Scotland in the teeming rain, and we always liked this idea of [Woman] being like, “Can you carry me now?” She was just so exhausted. So there was always a moment of something in the script, but I don’t think it was necessarily on paper.
I definitely had some impromptu moments with Katherine [Waterston], who plays O. The moment where she finds the eyelash on my face and blows it, that was improv. And then we were shooting the moment on the beach, and I said to May, “I feel like she would give her a kiss.” And May said, “Well, don’t tell Katherine. Just try it.” So that’s also in the film, and I think that came from our shorthand and relationship that we developed with each other. So there were a few moments, and there’s probably a lot with the baby doing something that we didn’t expect. The baby was probably the best at the improv. (Laughs.) An Improv star, I have to say.
You worked with 15 different baby Zebs. In the States, there’s a 20-minute rule, so did you also have to swap babies every 20 minutes in the U.K.?
Yeah, and I was like, “I think these babies are onto something.” (Laughs.) But they do get swapped out every 20 minutes. There were a couple of babies for each age bracket. So you could be in the middle of a really emotional scene when the baby has to go, and you then have to manufacture what you just felt when the baby was there. So there are things like that that you just have to accept, and it felt a little strange at first. When you’re on a tight schedule, you’ve got so much to get in such a short space of time, but you learn to deal with it.
Zeb is the only properly named character in the film. Your character is credited as “Woman,” while the rest are just initials. What was the rationale there?
Well, in the book, Zeb was the only one who had a name. For script purposes, it would’ve been an absolute nightmare if nobody had any sort of name, so everybody was given letters. But I loved Megan’s choice, and I’m really curious about viewers’ experiences and whether they will be very aware and think, “Oh wait, we don’t know what these people are called.” But what it enables us to do is attach ourselves in a different way. Like you said, this could be any of us, and there’s something about that choice that almost intensifies that a little bit.
Yeah, I suppose it’s also meant to symbolize that their identities in the old world are no more.
Yeah, what is your identity within this new space?
You, Katherine, and Benedict have a dance party at a certain point, and the characters desperately need that release. Did you also need that catharsis after performing such heavy material for however long?
(Laughs.) I was laughing the other day with May at a Q&A because I remember that Friday night so vividly. There was a full moon and the moon was so big, and Benedict had come in for a day’s filming. We danced so much, and I remember so vividly that we only got two takes of that. [DP] Suzie Lavelle was on handheld camera, and we again had limited time. So we did the first take, and I remember May coming over to me and saying, “Just take it down a bit.” (Laughs.) I suddenly realized I was dancing because I hadn’t had that release myself. I hadn’t been out dancing myself, and it’d all been very, very full on. So, yeah, that really made me laugh because I was definitely going for it.
Every department was on their game, especially makeup and prosthetics. When her water breaks and her home starts flooding at the same time, did the belly prosthetic do half the work for you during that harrowing sequence?
Yeah, I was honestly just so excited to have the opportunity to wear a prosthetic like that and see myself as I potentially would be if I was pregnant. When do you get that luxury or that insight? But the prosthetic was incredible. In the opening sequence, I had a prosthetic on from my neck to my waist. It took over three hours to get on, but it was so beautiful.
There’s quite a little bit of nudity within the film. Before we started to film, Mahalia and I went to a little cafe in North London to have a full English breakfast, and we sat with the script and went through all of these moments. We spoke about the significance of them and what it is that they’re actually saying. So those moments always felt very important to me and it was very important not to shy away from them. But as soon as you have something like that on you, it almost feels like armor. So it was beautiful to be able to see a mother’s body in that way, and for me, it was so transformative. It makes you walk differently. It makes you hold yourself differently. So it was good to experience that, and I tried to remember it for the moments that I didn’t have the real prosthetic on.
The end of a day on a film set, TV set and stage, which one leaves you most exhausted?
Theater, definitely. Theater is very physical, and that can’t be underestimated. It was something that I didn’t appreciate before. There’s also something about the energy that’s present and shared within a theater. More oftentimes than not, you could be completely exhausted, but you go home and your body is vibrating. So it can take a little while to come down off of that.
Once you arrived on the End We Start From set, did you feel pretty sharp after all the mental exercise of a one-woman show?
I think so, yeah. When I went on to The End We Start From, I was suddenly like, “Whoa, what do you mean we’re not shooting in order? What do you mean we have ten minutes to do this scene?” And I suddenly realized, “Oh wow, I’ve actually been living through an entire story every night, sometimes twice a day, for the past three months.” So it’s a very, very different process, and I had to readjust again. I had to be on the ball and remember where it is that you’ve come from, even though you might not have shot that scene yet, and also be aware of where you may go. So that took me a minute.
Whenever there’s a coveted role in town, your name comes up in rumors and whatnot. And while I’m sure it’s flattering and validating on one level, is it somewhat stressful since expectations are being formed that are beyond your control?
I definitely don’t get stressed about it, but it’s always interesting. And it’s so funny because people come up to me — even friends and family — and they’re like, “Are you doing X, Y and Z?” And I’m like, “No.” And they’re like, “Oh, well, it says online that you’re doing it.” And I’m like, “I’m not doing it.” But I don’t think I’d ever get stressed out about that kind of stuff. I am so clear in what it is that I want and in a sense of my gut feelings. I’ve always felt very clear on where I want to go, and some rumors that come up may not necessarily be something I’d be interested in right now. But I’d never shoot them down because who knows where I’m going to be or what I might want to do in years to come. People change, their interests change. So it’s always just fascinating, and sometimes, I’m like, “Where did they come from?”
Your Last Duel producer Kevin Walsh and I talked about you recently, and he mentioned how they went to Prima Facie’s opening night on Broadway. Did your Olivier and Tony awards ultimately make up for the sting of your schedule no longer aligning with Walsh and Scott’s Napoleon?
(Laughs.) Yeah, it was all fine. That was a choice I had to make and I didn’t look back in a sense. I knew I really wanted to do the film, but now, Josephine is Vanessa’s [Kirby] role. I’m so happy for her and I wish her all the success with that movie. A lot of this industry is sliding doors, and I do feel like I was always supposed to do that play. There was something almost cosmic about it, when I think of it in its entirety and the people who I met and just how profound that experience was. So, yeah, I was happy with my decision.
Selfishly, I wanted to see you do press with Ridley again. It’s always riveting material.
(Laughs.) Yeah, you never know what you’re going to get.
Lastly, I’m a huge Jeff Nichols fan …
And I’ve been impatiently waiting for his next feature since 2016. We thought it was happening this month with The Bikeriders, but then the rug was pulled out from underneath us. Was that a tough pill to swallow, especially since your performance was getting rave reviews?
I’m a big believer in things happening when they should. I think it’s a shame, obviously, but especially for Jeff. Due to the strike, we couldn’t do any press, so Jeff had been holding the fort and doing press for three months, only for the film to then be put on hold. But I think the film is going to be really supported and really celebrated at Focus [Features]. And I am really excited that we are all going to be able to support it and speak about it in a way that we couldn’t this year. So it’s a shame, but I think it’ll all work out for the best.
The End We Start From is now playing in L.A. and New York, before going wide on Jan. 19.