The Bikeriders’ Jodie Comer on Motorcycles, Austin Butler, and Nailing That Chicago Accent

Jodie Comer explains why the world of 1960s biker gangs and old school cool fascinated her so in The Bikeriders, and what it’s like to be hanging on the back of such a “bike” (plus Austin Butler) while speaking with a thick Chicago accent.

Jodie Comer and Austin Butler in The Bikeriders
Photo: Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

When filmmaker Jeff Nichols finally saw Jodie Comer on the London stage, one thought kept racing through his head: this might be the greatest actor he’s ever seen. In retrospect that’s a bit ironic since by the time the English-born Comer starred in Prima Facie, a searing one-woman play about a rising barrister in the British legal system, she’d already met and agreed to star in Nichols’ passion project: The Bikeriders. And the writer-director had of course seen her before, be it in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, BBC’s Killing Eve, or even opposite Ryan Reynolds in the high-concept comedy, Free Guy.

But the thing about Comer is the more you see of her range, the more shockingly limitless it becomes. (She in fact would go on to win both the Olivier and Tony for Prima Facie.) Hence how she can both so convincingly be a spy trained in flawless identity shifts on that cult-loved BBC series and Kathy in The Bikeriders, a charming and defiant raconteur from Chicago’s South Side who’s lived a lifetime of questionable decisions but never had a regret to show for it. She even boasts in the film’s opening that five weeks after meeting a rough-and-tumble biker who looks a lot like James Dean, Austin Butler’s Benny, that “I married him.”

As soon as we sit down with the multi-award winning star for Den of Geek magazine, those chameleonic skills are on full display too, simply by how at ease and Liverpoolian the real Comer turns out to be with her real, cheerful, and definitely northwest English cadence. But with the release of The Bikeriders being a long time coming due to industry strikes and a change of distributors delaying the film’s release, Comer seems mostly happy to finally be able to talk about a project and character that’s so fascinated her—plus the Chicagoan accent she needed to conquer. For like Kathy, Comer was determined to ride with this biker gang, even if she can see straight through their chrome and leather cool.

It must be nice to talk about this movie after missing its premiere at Telluride and other festivals [due to last year’s strikes].

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It feels great. Jeff held the fort and did press for like around three months, I feel like. So he’s well rehearsed. I have to say this is the first time I’m speaking about the film. So I’m going to have to cast my mind back a lot, but it feels amazing. I feel like when I watched the film for the first time, I was so energized by it. I think it’s such an incredible ensemble piece, and it felt like such a shame that we couldn’t have everyone together to speak about it. So it feels great now that we can take the time and celebrate the work that was done and what Jeff and the whole team has put together.

What did you think when you first met Kathy on the page of Jeff’s script?

I kind of immediately fell in love with her. I can’t lie. She just felt like such a force of nature. She felt like an incredible storyteller. I immediately leaned in when I read the script, I had a Zoom with Jeff, and we were speaking about her and the script and my instincts and what I felt. And then he said, ‘You know I have 30 minutes of audio of her?’ And I was like why have you kept this from me? Like why don’t I have this?! [Laughs]

So he sent me the audio, and again  it was just so clear that I wanted to delve into her. I think especially when you hear the audio, I felt like I could gain so much information about who she was, how she kind of moved in the world. She doesn’t really hold back. It almost felt like when Danny [Lyon, the real-life journalist] asked her in these interviews how she felt that she’d been waiting so long for someone to ask her what she thought. She was ready.

When you looked at the pictures of her in Danny’s book, what did you see when you looked at the real Kathy?

There were so many little things I noticed. For someone who was so seemingly kind of outspoken, it seemed to me that when Danny was photographing her, and she was aware of it, there was almost a kind of coyness or a shyness of being in front of the camera. A lot of the women in the photographs were so beautifully made up, you know, meticulous hair and clothing, but with Kathy, her jeans were a little bit ill-fitted and her hair was always messy, as if she got off the back of a bike. She had three kids, so I always felt like it was as if the kids have had their fingers in her hair. There was just something about her that was a little messy.

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There was something as well about the way she stood and the way she sat, like, her legs were always a little bit open. I just felt like she led with her gut. That’s how I felt when I saw her. I noticed as well she always had her red nails no matter what. Through the years, she always had like a really hot red color nail polish. So it was little things like that, that you kind of take what you can.

She had such a perspective into this world. It seemed like for her, maybe this was a chance of getting a lot off her shoulders.

Yeah, absolutely. She does have a different perspective because she’s part of this biker gang, coming into her world like a complete and utter whirlwind. She meets Benny. She falls madly in love with him. They get married in no time, and what starts off as seemingly very quite and innocent ends up becoming very dangerous. She gets married to Benny… but I think she’s a little bit on the outskirts and I think as a result of that she can see a lot of their behavior, and she can kind of see it for what it is. And she’s a woman, so it’s just very different for her.

What is the secret or the challenge of developing a Chicagoan accent? 

The biggest thing for me was when I heard the audio, and I was working with my dialect coach Victoria [Hanlin], who’s incredible, she was like, ‘Do you want to do a generic Chicago accent or do you want to get as close to this audio as possible?’ And I said, I want to get as close to the audio as possible, and Jeff was really in support of that.

So it became more about that. As we broke down the audio in the script, like a lot of Kathy’s vowel sounds were complete contradictions. A lot of the vowel sounds weren’t in a traditional Chicago accent. So it felt very singular in that sense, but I was adamant that I wanted to get as close to it as I could. So it just became about listening to that nonstop really. Also I knew there was a danger–because it felt like a choice to commit to it—I knew there was a danger that it could be over-the-top, especially in the way of her narration and her enthusiasm and her inflections. It was so unusual that I thought ‘there is a danger of this not working’ or me going too far with it and it feeling almost like a caricature.

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So I found a lot of trust in Jeff. There were a lot of conversations when I was rehearsing. I’d send him voice notes and I just said to him, ‘Look, I really want to do this. So I trust that if I’m doing this wrong or if you’re not believing me, or if I need to tone it down that you’re going to tell me.’ And I felt like I had that relationship with Jeff from the offset, so I felt incredibly supported and also able then to play around and know that someone’s got their eye on me and will tell me the truth if I need to be told.

Do you find it harder or easier to do something like this very regional American accent versus Russian or Italian on and Killing Eve?

They’re all so tricky. The trick is to get so comfortable with it that you hardly think about it, which is hard, especially when Kathy spoke so much. She had a lot of dialogue, so I wanted to get to a point where it wasn’t like I was in a scene thinking about the placement of my tongue. So they’re all tricky.

Do you see any overlap perhaps between the Chicago Kathy knows in this film and aspects of Liverpool you saw growing up?

Well, I think it’s funny you say that because I feel like there were elements of Kathy that reminded me of my nan. And I can think of many grandmas in Liverpool who have this kind of spirit about them, and I could see that in Kathy and I lived with that in my life with my relationship with my nan.

My nan also had this skill where she could tell you a story, and it would be the sixth time that she’s told it, but it would get more interesting! It would never get old. It pulls people in, and I recognize that Kathy had that quality about her. So definitely, yeah.

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Could you talk about Kathy’s relationship with Tom Hardy’s Johnny?

In regards to Johnny: Kathy and Johnny have quite a combative relationship, because I think in Kathy’s mind she wants nothing more than for Benny to be with her and at home, and for them to have a much more stable life. But of course that is not the man who she met. It’s that classic thing of you met him, and he’s exactly who he is now. Do you know what I mean? Like, you can’t change people, you meet them as you see them, and I think she was hoping for something more as time went on and he couldn’t give her that.

And then of course Benny has his own kind of complicated relationship with Johnny in the same way. Johnny has an expectation of Benny and wants him to fill his shoes and commit to this role. And I think Benny… feels like he’s trying to be tied down and I think he’s the type of man who you can’t.

What’s it like playing these scenes with Austin and Tom, who from what I understand was doing almost something different from take to take?

It was incredible. I’d met Austin earlier on, and he’s such a professional and has such a sensitivity about him. And we had so much fun, especially in those earlier scenes where we’re trying to find that kind of chemistry and energy. It’s all at the start and it was brilliant, and the same with Tom. The entire ensemble, I spent a lot of time with Mike Faist, I have to say. I had a lot of scenes with [the Danny Lyon character] and again, just to kind of work with people who are so present and committed. It’s amazing. It really was.

There’s a great scene where Kathy and Benny are on the motorcycle, and you’re hanging on to Austin on what I believe is an antique without helmets. So how fast were you going?

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Wellll, we weren’t really on one. [Laughs] We were in a whole rig for that shot… I remember us having to play this really like euphoric moment, and Austin was like, ‘I feel like a fraud.’ [Laughs] It’s the magic of cinema. But he did so much of his own riding apart from that. It was just like whenever I was on the back of it, for insurance reasons, like they couldn’t do it.

But we were on that bridge and all the other motorcycles were around us, and I think that was the first time that I heard the noise that they make, and that was great, just because you could imagine what Kathy felt in that moment of being swept off her feet and being surrounded by all this kind of macho energy drama. It’s very rock and roll and seductive for her to experience that for the first time. It was great to kind of have that moment myself.

Had you ridden a motorcycle before this project?

No. And everyone was like [gasps], ‘Are you going to ride a motorcycle?’ And I was like, ‘No, it’s not my character.’ I didn’t even get to wear any leather. No I didn’t! [Laughs] I didn’t get to wear any leather. I feel like there’s going to be a resurgence of like double denim and biker jackets after this film comes out though.

What’s interesting is Johnny and Benny are trying to play up to the Brando type. And in a way, do you feel Kathy is more honest than either of them?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Everything is memory and it’s a subjective experience, but I think she’s the most reliable narrator out of all of them. Whether she’s completely reliable is another thing. But I do think she is the most reliable and I think it is because she has that quality of not being afraid to say it how it is. Like there is no pretense with her, which I loved. She’s not very self-aware. I feel like she just exists and that’s so freeing when you see people just existing and being themselves, and that’s what I felt with her. You can see that in the way she dresses. She just is who she is.

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… It’s just ‘these guys, you know?!’ They’re all fancying themselves and thinking they’re the next best thing, but I think she also fundamentally recognizes that they don’t communicate. There’s that lovely scene with Johnny near the end of the film when he goes to her doorstep and she’s like, ‘What is it, Johnny?,’ thinking there may actually be this honest moment between them. And he still can’t do it. He still can’t open up, and I think she sees that amongst them all and is frustrated by it.

I know the real Danny Lyon said when he first started this project, he wanted to glorify this lifestyle. He was part of it at the time. Do you see this movie as a glorification of this culture or maybe something else?

Listen, I think it’s both. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t come out of that cinema room and was like ‘Well, now I want to be in a biker gang!’ It’s impossible to not spend time with these characters and not fall in love with them and be enticed by the world. I think that world will always be visually cool, but it’s complex… but I mean, these were also people who were very violent and did really bad things, you know?  There’s no denying that, and the film explores that, but I definitely do think people will feel the glory within it.

The Bikeriders opens June 21.