Julia Davis on the Joys of Playing a Sociopath

By Fiona Gibb


The force behind Sally4Ever discusses her over-the-top brand of comedy and why acting out, if only onscreen, is so appealing.

HBO: Tell us about your two main characters, Sally and Emma. What makes them tick?

Julia Davis: I feel a lot of love for Sally. It’s funny that some people have said, “Oh she’s a bit weak,” but I don’t see her that way. I think she’s someone who is very reactive to life, and isn’t quite sure what she wants, which is a bit weird for a main character. But I think that’s quite truthful for some people — they don’t know what they want until things come toward them.

Really, Sally4Ever is a story of someone looking for love, and I think in a weird way, it’s the same for Emma, but she obviously comes across as more brutal, opportunistic and sociopathic. I think perhaps in her case, she’s also trying to find security.

It’s just humans seeking connection, really. I don’t know how much the lesbian aspect of it is actually that important, although it was interesting to explore two women together.

HBO: Is Emma just a sociopath — or is she more calculating than that? She is so manipulative. What did you enjoy most about playing her?

Julia Davis: I do think she’s probably a sociopath because I don’t think she’s that clever to be Machiavellian. She’s very instinctive in thinking, “I want to be an actress. I want to do that. Oh, he’s a director.” And to be honest, I have met people like that along the way. It’s those sort of people who are just so blatantly grabbing for what they want.

I always like playing these sort of characters. There’s something so fun about it. In my real life, I worry about what people think of me, what I’m doing, am I doing the right thing? It’s a relief to play someone so selfish and so rude.

HBO: In your work, you’re known for characters with a narcissistic streak. What about that is so appealing to you?

Julia Davis: I’m sure that partly it’s working in this industry, in which these kind of personalities — which are both difficult but also very charming — exist. I think narcissists are frequently very charming. There’s something about them that’s a bit exciting. I guess it’s their lack of predictability, as opposed to sort of really good people, who you know what they’re going to do in every situation.

When I see people like that in real life, I’m sort of amazed that they’re not frightened of the consequences of their actions, but there’s also something very daring about people who live that way.

HBO: It was interesting to watch a comedy focused on two women over 40. And these characters, particularly Sally, still haven’t got it figured out.

Julia Davis: I guess you feel like over 40, you should have things figured out — and I hope I’m not in the minority, but I feel like I haven’t. I just hope that’s actually helpful. When I was younger I used to think by the time I get to this age, I’d be quite wise. The older I get, I just think, “Oh God, I’m probably not going to be any wiser at 80 than I am now.”

HBO: Much has been made about the Sally and Emma’s first sexual encounter. One critic said, “The song ‘China in Your Hand’ is ruined.” You really went for it — what was your inspiration there?

Julia Davis: Well, I knew I wanted to do a sort of montage, slightly tongue-in-cheek sex scene that was kind of misty and slo-mo, and had a kind of ’80s feel to it. But at the same time, I was trying to contrast it with David’s nighttime routine. It was also sort of inspired a bit by some elements of Blue Is the Warmest Color and that relationship. In its early stages, it was going to be a lit more arty, with some snails crawling across each other, and more images of nature as well.

HBO: Besides being a love story, Sally4Ever is also a workplace comedy. Why do you think offices are such fertile ground for comedy?

Julia Davis: I mean obviously we’ve had The Office, both here and in America, and I love both. I’ve worked in offices, but never explored that world. It’s just life there in a little microcosm, isn’t it? Just seeing all those relationships, and people fancying each other, just because they’re cooped up together. In a way, it’s just like a play set in one room almost.

HBO: The Lena Headey and Sean Bean cameos were fun and unexpected. Are you a Game of Thrones fan?

I really am a big Game of Thrones fan. Luckily I knew Lena already, so that was just incredibly nice of her to come along and do that. I didn’t know Sean, but I thought it would be great to get somebody like him in the show, and I was pretty surprised that he said yes. He was so great to work with, and so brilliant at improvising. It was amazing having them both, but it wasn’t meant as a Game of Thrones tribute.

HBO: There’s a lot of toilet humor. The honeymoon scene, in particular, really left a mark. I don’t think I can look at a shellfish buffet the same ever again.

Julia Davis: I realize when you see the series as a whole, there’s a lot that stuff — arguably too much. I’m not sure what that says. It’s probably some deep problem I have. I like shellfish, but I don’t know that I can look at it in the same way, either. Without fear.

HBO: You’re a household name in Britain, but for some of our viewers, this may be their first exposure to your unique brand of comedy. What should they expect?

Julia Davis: People describe my stuff as shocking or dark, but also as quite silly, and I think there is a weird mix of those three things in there. But I do think also there is a love story underneath it, and there’s a lot going on besides just the ludicrous things. I guess a phrase that’s been used before is “not for the faint-hearted.”

Episodes of Sally4Ever premiere Sundays at 10:30 PM.