Fiona Shaw – Killing Eve’s Carolyn Martens – is a Lesbian Icon

Fiona Shaw is a lesbian icon. And now, playing Killing Eve’s Carolyn Martens, Shaw is finally getting the recognition she deserves.

Fiona Shaw is best known for playing Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter films – a character as straight and repressive as it gets. In her next big role, she had a turn playing a magical character on True Blood: Marnie Stonebrook, an eccentric but powerful Wiccan. She also played Counsellor, a brisk therapist with a finely tuned bullshit-meter, in season two of the smash hit Fleabag.

And Carolyn Martens isn’t the only time Shaw has featured in a spy drama. Before Killing Eve, she appeared as Coleman – a shadowy government operative who always knew more than she let on – in Mrs. Wilson. This was an exciting role, if peripheral. The most frustrating thing about Coleman was how little viewers saw of her. Fortunately, Carolyn is a central figure in Killing Eve.

Carolyn Martens is the head of M16’s Russia Desk. A magnetic and clever woman, Carolyn has a knack for getting other people to do her bidding – whether it’s her underlings, who are terrified of her, or the international intelligence agents who fall for her charms. Shaw’s delivery of this character is deadpan and delicious – a performance that secured the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Television Series.

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Carolyn fences. She has swordfights wearing one of those ridiculous white uniforms in which, by some form of wizardry, she manages to look gorgeous. Carolyn is also messy. Her hotel room is in such a state that Eve and Kenny assume foul play. She writes x-rated love letters. She will betray the people in her life without hesitation. And – most importantly – Carolyn has saved the world more than once.

Carolyn is, as her own son admits, both “filthy” and “dodgy.” She has a moral complexity that is rarely acknowledged in female characters of her age bracket. And she cuts a glamorous figure, striding through the cobbled streets of Russia in a fur hat and immaculate lipstick. Her intrigues and love affairs – often overlapping – are the proof.

Lesbians watching at home aren’t the only people to notice that Carolyn is stunning. Jetlagged and exhausted, Eve turns to Carolyn and asks “how do you always look so good?” The answer: a face cream made from pigs’ placenta that “smells like arse.” But here at team AfterEllen we think it’s because Fiona Shaw is incredibly debonair.

As well as being a lesbian, Shaw is a magnificent thespian. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and has performed in an extraordinary range of classical productions – including As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and Hedda Gabler. A lot of Shaw’s stage work has been with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. She is a decorated theatre veteran, with two Olivier Awards, a Drama Desk Award, and an honorary CBE.

As all these accolades suggest, Shaw is seriously committed to her craft. By her own admission, this meant she mainly had relationships with other actors. For almost a decade, Shaw was in a relationship with fellow Saffron Burrows. They split up in 2011. Although Shaw had been featured on various Out lists, her sexuality largely flew under the radar until this romance.

Shaw describes realizing that she was a lesbian as “a shock.” Born in the Republic of Ireland, she was raised in the Roman Catholic faith. “I was full of self-hatred and thought I would come back into the [heterosexual] fold shortly. But I just didn’t.”

Fiona Shaw is now married to research scholar and economist Sonali Deraniyagala. Deraniyagala was previously married to Stephen Lissenburgh, with whom she had two sons. While on holiday in Sri Lanka, her family died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – a tragedy she wrote about in the award-winning memoir, Wave. After reading this book and meeting the woman behind it, Shaw fell in love.

“It is not just a book – it is a memoir about something as catastrophic as all the things I have lived through in the imagination of my work. I had done plays about catastrophe; Mother Courage, killing children; Medea, the waste of life; Hedda Gabler. I have flirted safely with all these catastrophes and then met someone who has lived through the biggest catastrophe I could imagine and who had such dignity and such laughter still within her.

“I felt devotion to this person who has lived on a frequency I don’t think any person I have encountered could have survived. And she is also great fun and we have a great time!”

The couple exchanged vows in 2018. A renowned workaholic, Shaw never expected to be or have a wife. Falling for Sonali changed that: “At the age of 59, I married. I had long relationships along the way but never wanted to marry. But it suddenly seems the nicest state anybody could ever be in.” They remain happily married. Of this partnership, Shaw says “I didn’t really have a domestic life because I was always working. But I do have one now, which I love.”