There’s a moment in the first episode of “Run,” HBO’s newest half-hour from “Killing Eve” writer Vicky Jones, where the two charismatic main characters realize they’ve just left their lives behind to run off with someone who may as well be a stranger. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” they exchange, bouncing the epithet back and forth like a ping pong ball as each exhalation takes on deeper layers of meaning. The scene is reminiscent of a classic acting exercise, where a single word or phrase must be repeated ad infinitum, forcing the actors to find a new motivation each time.
Given the writer’s theatrical origins (Jones directed Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s stage version of “Fleabag”), the parallel isn’t surprising, but she’s lucky she scored two actors with the chops to pull it off. It’s easy to imagine that scene falling flat in lesser hands. It was one of the first scenes Jones wrote after settling on the central premise of “Run”: Two people who dated years ago run off together after sending a single text.
“I was so ambitious for those characters to be performed by actors who can play with a million different colors at once, engage with complexity, and could feel one thing in one moment and another in another moment and make really exciting choices. I’ve been spoiled by working with Phoebe, and I wanted that kind of credible craft,” Jones said in a recent phone interview. “When their names came up, it couldn’t be anyone else in my mind, so it was a question of making that happen.”
The names, of course, being Domhnall Gleeson and Merritt Wever, two of the most engaging and versatile actors working today. Though they’d never worked together before, Gleeson and Wever are a perfect match. Both could be considered character actors who have broken into bigger roles (Wever in “Godless” and “Unbelievable”; Gleeson in “Star Wars” and “Ex Machina”). Both lack traditional movie star qualities, but have built more impressive careers through supporting roles in high-quality projects (she in “Marriage Story” and “Birdman”; he in “Mother!” and “The Revenant”).
Though they have very different careers, they share a similar intangible quality — think of it as the actor version of RuPaul’s “charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent” — that makes them so appealing.
One of the greatest pleasures in watching “Run” is witnessing Wever and Gleeson almost giddily run circles around each other. Their characters glide effortlessly between seductive banter and existential turmoil, one almost has the sense of watching two people in a wildly free interpretive dance routine, each revealing new tricks to push the other’s creativity. The simple term for this kind of alchemy would be chemistry, but Gleeson rejects that idea.
“I’ve always found it strange when people talk about chemistry or even doing chemistry reads with people,” Gleeson said. “I’ve always found it sort of baffling, ’cause I really do think if you just get as good an actor as you can get, that really should take care of itself. That’s most of an actor’s job, to create the relationship with people around you to make it work, that’s what chemistry is. And obviously Merritt is absolutely top tier brilliant.”
Call it what you will, “Run” would not have worked without the spark between the two actors. Like “Fleabag,” Jones’ script is economical, and mainly focuses on these two characters. There are plenty of climactic twists and turns, but she’s also not afraid to write a nine-minute scene in an Amtrak “roomette.” Unlike most TV shows, Wever and Gleeson carry most of the screen time together.
“I’ve never had the experience of going to work every day mostly being opposite one other actor, and I’m very glad that it was him,” Wever said. “We value similar things at the end of that day, but we have different ins as actors, different ways of working, so it was this exercise in navigating that. Playing somebody who is so incredibly open to his character and susceptible to him, but also staying tethered to myself and what I needed as an actor. It was really interesting, and maybe not so inappropriate given the scope of the work.”
Gleeson’s Billy is a smooth talker, a motivational speaker and 21st century snake oil salesman. He’s quick-witted, adventurous, and shifty where Wever’s Ruby is genuine, trusting, and seeking escape. While Billy is perhaps a more typical version of the guy you hate to love, Ruby has her demons too. Not only has she abandoned her husband at the beginning of the show, but she’s also left two kids at home. For better or worse, asking an audience to side with a runaway mother is a pretty big swing, even today.
“It never occurred to me that that would not be comprehensible emotionally to people,” said Wever. “As an actor, I don’t know why I wouldn’t want to get to play somebody in that position, why I would ever want to iron out any of her wrinkles or contradictions. Vicky [Jones] gave me a lot of permission to let her be all of the things, let her live in a lot of different places at once. So I tried to give myself that permission as well.”
It should come as no surprise that neither Jones nor Waller-Bridge, an executive producer on “Run,” had any qualms about the controversial choice.
“We were joking about it at first, I think. Then we were like, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ and of course that meant we should do that,” said Jones. “Because men do it and it doesn’t feel transgressive. It feels so shocking when a mother does that, but that is exactly why we should be telling stories like that, because they are taboos for the wrong reason.”
If Jones loses some viewers along the way, so be it. It’s not secret that women’s behavior is held to different standards, and she’s not going to sugarcoat or appease the status quo. She’s going to do the exact opposite.
“That’s something that as a feminist you have to sort of take on board,” Jones said. “I believe all feminists are feminists ’cause they feel they have to be. If there was equality we wouldn’t have any complaint. It’s not an affectation. It’s to agitate and question and challenge and change things.”