A deep dive into FLEABAG with Phoebe Waller-Bridge
If you’re anything like me, you spent the weekend watching, and re-watching, the BRILLIANT new comedy series FLEABAG on Amazon. The show, created by and starring the incomparable Phoebe Waller-Bridge (BROADCHURCH), follows the titular heroine as she talks to the camera, clues you in on the workings of her mind, and weaves a perfect look into the exhausting life of being a modern woman, plus all that comes along.
Surprises abound as you learn the fate of her best friend, live vicariously through her adventures, and see completely different sides to people we know Fleabag hates; before you realize it, you’re empathizing with this woman who has a ton of emotional baggage and laughing along (often times out loud) at what she’ll say next.
I recently had the chance to talk with Phoebe in a round table setting for a press day surrounding the show. Check out what she has to say, including what President Obama might think of her character’s affinity for him –
Does Obama know?
Well, I don’t know. I hope it gets to him one day (all laugh).
I think he’ll be flattered.
(laughs) I hope so. Slightly disturbed maybe. It’s good for him to know that that happens around the world.
Do you ever feel awkward like seeing someone, certain lines, or acting out certain things? Like the scene where you’re taking, you know a photo of your crotch?
(laughs) Um, I can’t get quite used to that stuff in the, doing the play versions. I got well warmed up. I think so. I think because so much of the show was about her expressing herself so openly and with such genuine candor about her life that that gave me um, a kind of armor about it, and a kind of strength about it, because I felt like they were important to show that you know, women might be doing these things, but they’re also doing them like, bored and exhausted, and frustrated. And so, I think the moment that, it was almost as if there was a human angle on all of those things, it wasn’t just gratuitous, then um, then yeah I felt I could do it. I mean, I felt confident with it. If I ever felt like something was just a bit gratuitous and just a bit gross then I, I wouldn’t feel so confident I don’t think.
How challenging was it to, you know, to transform it from a stage production to, you know, to, to an actual, you know …
Yeah, really, really challenging. So I performed all the characters. Um, so, actually letting go of them was actually one of the nicer side effects! It’s nice seeing them come to life. Um, but really it was the role of narrator that was the hardest to kind of translate from, well kind of, I suppose it was in the, in the play version she’s just … The audience only experienced the world as she describes it and she’s the only um, she’s the only um, source of the information that the audience have. And everything that she tells you, you just have to take as, as read, because … And that, and that gave me so much opportunity in the play to manipulate the audience a bit into that kind of sense of her telling a story of you know, anecdotal sexual kind of hilarity and then actually letting the truth and the tragedy simmer up through, um, the story that she’s trying to tell was one um, was kind of a really clear way of writing it.
And um, then um, obviously with the screen version, the world is there, the evidence is there. She can’t deny things, she can’t manipulate so easily. Um, so it was really finding the balance between the amount of um, stuff she was confiding in. Because the whole thing is a, is a, is a confession basically or, or so to speak, I suppose of, in the play, of letting this be a bit more of a commentary of her life. And that she’s um, she’s still telling you, she’s still complicit with you, as an audience member. And she’s inviting you in, but she’s um, she has to … It was basically her having to admit she hasn’t got complete control over everything you see and hear so, she can say, she can describe the character in one way and then they can behave in a complete different way. And that was where the fun started happening. And I was like, okay, it’s a different kind of game to play with the audience. When real life, um, butts into her story a bit and maybe contradicts her a bit.
We saw that when we’re introduced to Olivia’s character how she, well, she’s got some great things to say about her. But her step mom is actually the nicest!
Yeah, yeah. She’s so sweet. Exactly. It was those kind of games that, that really um, came out of the, of the, of the kind of move, um between the two.
Um, I love the characters. I mean, they don’t have names. Arse man and Boo (laughter); did you cast these people? Because that, that bus guy, he’s amazing.
I know! He’s totally awesome.
I have a feeling he’s like that off camera too a little bit. Is he?
(laughs) He’s actually not. He’s got the same amount of charm.
How about his teeth?
They’re not his real teeth. He’s so upset though because one of his, like most, like high profile roles now that loads of people are being like, oh yeah the guy and the teeth. And he’s like no! Not me! He’s like, don’t ask me about the teeth. People want him in stuff with the teeth you know. Yeah, um, I knew a lot of the actors from like theater days and just from acting um, a lot, I met a lot of them, like Olivia, um, of course there’s other jobs. Hugh Skinner, who plays my boyfriend Harry, I’ve known, I did a play with him when I was 21. And so when I was writing it, I had some actors vividly in my mind. And just kind of begged them to do the pilot. And um, and then others like Jamie was incredible. He was um, uh my producer, Lydia knew him very well and she was just like you’ve got to have Jamie (Demetriou). Because on the page, that guy’s a bit of an ass. He’s just, he’s a bit of a dick really. And um, and, Jamie brought so much vulnerability and heart to him you know. He’s really trying, you know, he’s really trying to kind of, he thinks he’s doing well. Um, and so that was a bit of a coup. But yeah, it was really um, and also we had amazing casting directors as well to fill it all out. But there were a lot of the core characters were people that I was praying would actually end up doing it, so it was a real coup to get them all.
I’m surprised, it just made me laugh out loud, but also in CRASHING. There’s that one part where, I cannot get this scene out of my head. The one where you’re wearing the, you called it a onesie.
A onesie yeah, yeah. They’re dangerous. Oh my god. Honestly, the amount of time. And the moment that zip breaks or something, she’s screwed. She’s screwed! That’s so dangerous. I’ve been caught, short, so many times with those things. You know, and you’re like, proper panic, screaming for someone to help!
You can’t wait till the last minute in a romper.
You just can’t. You have to plan ahead. And you need to have a friend there, in case you need unzipping.
Where did this character come from, Fleabag? She doesn’t have a name, does she?
No, she came from, um, it was really, um, an attitude and a sense of humor where I started from with her. She was, I was, a friend of mine asked me to do a kind of 10 minute slot in her kind of stand up story telling night that she produced and finished theater in London, I wanted to sort of, went along and just tried a bit of something, and um, I’ve never done anything like that before. And I was really flattered and um, terrified that she asked me to do it. She just had a slot and I thought, I’ve got to do it because I’ve never done anything like this before. But um, I was also had no idea of how that sort of stuff worked, or how the kind of stand up stuff worked. And so I knew the rule, rule 1 is you have to get the audience on side. And so I was like, it’s got to be funny. Most stand ups get the audience on side.
But then the rest of the time, a friend of mine was going. Um, who ended up directing the play, the theater director Vicki and she was, she was gonna come along and see me in it. And I just decided. Because she’s going there, I’m just gonna do it. I’m gonna write it and perform it just for her. Because just a way to make her laugh, and not trying to appeal to the masses. It’s for Vicki, it’s for Vicki’s naughty sense of humor. I want her to laugh and feel, you know feel like it’s a conversation that we, that we’d be having, kind of naughty. And the first 10 minutes, that 10 minutes ended up being the first 10 minutes of the stage show.
So I was doing this um, this 10 minute stand up bit and it was just the, the kind of dry wittiness and the kind of sexual confidence that had and it felt like it was a free song with the audience kind of danger that they were kind of like, whoa, she’s very sexually confident. There’s lots of kind of um, descriptions about um, dismissive and flippant descriptions of this like amazing carousel of sexual experiences she’s had and then um, and actually it was interesting to me to have somebody who talks that candidly about sex and then actually it’s revealed later towards the end of the 10 minutes that she’s, that she’s, you know, that she’s sitting on a terrible um, misery and sadness and that maybe one is tied into the other.
And um, and then so after that 10 minutes, and some people said you should take this to Edinburgh and turn it into a one woman show. That was kind of the starting point was somebody who can make you laugh and laugh and laugh. But by the end of it you’re not sure if you should be laughing at them anymore. If it’s appropriate that you should have laughed, because actually it’s a, it’s a front that she’s playing the whole time, that she’s totally fine, but actually she’s not, she’s miserable. (laughs)
What inside of you discovered that person?
Oh right, sorry, yeah. Um, I think at the time I was writing it, um, I was feeling quite mischievous as an actress for a start, because I felt like um, that kind of human that I employ in my life quite a lot of the time is slightly provocative, kind of naughty, kind of um, side, I haven’t been able to play that as an actress that much and then an opportunity to and so I really wanted to write something that I felt was a bit more badass and read like bone dry kind of humor. Um, and then also I was, I was feeling frustrated by um, the rules of being a woman at the time. And what it meant to um, to, to be a sexually confident woman, to identify as a feminist, to um, the constant and relentless need to be sexy on top of everything else that you’re supposed to be, you know. As a woman in my early 20s I remembered it really, it weighed heavy on me, that sense that you always have to look good and be cool, and be confident sexually and stuff. And a lot of my contemporaries felt the same. And I thought, um I want to write somebody who is like that. Um, but then to show the other side of her which is actually, it’s exhausting.
I remember one night when I was out in my early 20’s I remember, it was like midnight, and I was like moisturizing my whole body. I was like, why am I doing this? Like, I was like so tired. And I was like why am I doing this. And I thought, and then she’s in the play, she has a much, she’s got a porn addiction that’s comes back all the way through it. And I had been spoken to, speaking to a lot of women who felt that they felt the kind of the, the avalanche of porn that had just landed on society and the accessibility of it and how ubiquitous it was and how many people watching it and the expectation on women to be, you know as, as sexy or sexually open as, as the kind of porn was showing and stuff. And just, the how it had infected the female psyche. And then we’re making it really angry. So I wanted to write about somebody who is angry.
So is Fleabag um, a sort of conflicted feminist would you say, um?
Yeah. I mean, I think no. I think she’s, she’s definitely a feminist. She knows, she knows, she knows in her heart that of course she’s a feminist, because really everybody should be a feminist. Because it’s just equal, you know, it’s just equality between men and women, and she knows that. But she’s got confused, and she’s become conflicted by all the other messages she’s getting, like that question in episode 1, like would you have the perfect, you know, would you take a year of your life out to have the perfect body? Of course, of course I would. You know how much easier my life would be if I had the perfect body. Like, you know, take a year, take 10 years. You know whatever. And then suddenly, that’s not the right, she thinks it’s the right answer, so she feels, because it’s the truthful answer, but then she very quickly works out that it’s not the right answer and so she should be truthful about it, how she feels about it. And it’s all those kind of conversations that, that um, that happen and kind of throughout the series I think that make her, that she’s becoming more and more conflicted about something that she thought was really quite simple to begin with, which I think is true of, I don’t know about you guys, but of me.
I think even a feminist will stop and think for a, you know my, I try to think of myself as a feminist, but for a question I said was, but how long do I get to keep this perfect body?
That answer is smart. You’re a business woman then as a feminist.
You mention the sadness too that she has this kind of underlying sadness. I thought it was interesting that the only person she can really open up to is like her cab driver that she doesn’t know.
Is that kind of a theme that we see, that she just, she’s gonna keep up pretenses to everybody around her except maybe people that she doesn’t care about?
I mean yeah. She does. I think it’s safer that way. Um, and I think it does. There are a couple of other moments when um, when she does that. But, but strangely, it’s the, it happens the other way around as well through the series that other people find themselves opening up to her and the kind of, so I think she’s quite openly broken. Um, with her humor and um wanting to say the honest thing. And like the cab driver saying to her, go on and tell me about your life then. And there’s a side of her that’s like, really? Okay. And that there’s a need for the, for the truth to be out, but it’s her attitude and her flippancy that makes her um, uh, that made her interesting to me when I was writing her that she’s not crying in the back of the cab going actually my you know … She’s saying yeah, and that’s life, right. I’m gonna deal with that. And then the constantly having the idea of the audience there is, even though she becomes incredibly vulnerable in that moment she’s got to put the front back on at the end and be like, oh no I’m fine.
It struck me with the show also, how it kind of, you know, society still has a problem with women who like sex. Amy Schumer’s kind of opened that discussion up but there, is there not a, not really a comparable word to slut for men. Not really.
Legend (laughs). Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And, and your show kind of, is a response to that, is that?
Oh, definitely, yeah. And in um, I think it was 2013, 2014, that we did the show and it was, there was a lot of that kind of conversation happening at Edinburgh Festival; lots of different plays were talking about um, female sexuality and um, and all that kind of stuff, all that porn stuff. But it was incredible, the reaction when I first did it, women coming up to me, saying thank you so much for talking about women masturbating. And it was like, it was just this huge thing. They were like, we just need to talk about it. And actually, there seemed to be just something in, there was just a wave of it, because Amy Schumer just kind of came and exploded that, and it was just so exciting, and Leah Dunham and all the people talking about it suddenly.
But I, I just wonder where it comes from, the sense, maybe it’s a place of fear or like, not understanding um, it’s sort … I mean I just, I just felt also that having a, peeking behind the curtain into the, into a woman’s brain about something, might be a bit bored about sex or something else or doesn’t seem to see it as a massively big deal, that’s what kind of really just, not upset but kind of really shocked people in the play at the beginning, they were like, but she doesn’t seem to care that she’s sleeping with so many people. No she’s really quite chuffed that she is. She’s just getting on with it. Um, but yeah, you’re right. It’s still …
Um, even Amy Schumer who I love, started saying, well you know, I’m not really the character I write about.
Yeah, yeah. It’s funny isn’t it, the, the um, the kind of obsession with detail about it, but also the kind of abhorrence of hearing about too much detail of women’s situation. But then it’s kind of, it can, it’s that, it’s that line of it not being titillating. Like when it’s in, when it’s been written into a comedy show or something, I think that it, I didn’t write this to get anyone off on it. Like I’m not interested in that. I don’t want people to think that, but it’s really important to me that you see, that it’s not gratuitously and I didn’t want anything to be, I didn’t want anyone to physically see much in the show. Hmm? When we were filming the show I didn’t want it to be nude scenes, sex scenes, or anything to be like kind of too explicit physically. It was the language that really interested me and the power of talking about female sexuality and, and masturbation and all that kind of stuff and her honesty looking right down the barrel and talking about sex to me felt um, like powerful and exciting and unapologetic conversation about this guy that fucked me up the ass last night, it’s like whoa! (laughs) But it’s also how she commands power over her audience, I think. Because when people talk that candidly, in front of you when you’ve only just met them, it does feel like there’s a shift of power in the conversation I think.
The audience is kind of made a character in the show because you talk so directly to them. I love that. It’s not something we see a lot.
Reeling them in. Yeah, and actually drawing that relationship is really important that didn’t just end up feeling like she was making like kind of quirky comments on her life the whole time. That there is actually a, a journey in the relationship between the camera and the audience and the feedback through the series as well.
How do you leave that character? Is, are you sad to leave the character or are we gonna have another, in …
No I’m thinking about what, where she would go next. I’m sad to, I mean, I lived with her for so long now because of the play and everything. I might find that actually her candor is something that I really um, enjoy doing and feel incredibly, I feel huge catharsis writing her because it’s like someone who just goes, ha ha ha, you know to somebody else. And that idea of having a little friend there that you can say whatever you want to and it doesn’t affect your life. Um, but whether or not that remains, if it goes again, will be an interesting thing. I don’t know. I don’t know.
I mean will she, there’s growth, and you know, as self awareness, more of as the show goes on. Is that real to say?
Yeah. It was really important to me that you saw her change. Um, and that, that there’s something, that she lets you in. And actually, the thing that happens sort of towards the end is that she, um, she starts to regret the, the access that she lets the audience in on. So she’s invited the camera into her life, and toward, as the show goes on she’s actually start, she’s like, this is too close now I don’t want to, I don’t want you to be seeing this stuff. I don’t want you to be engaging with me. And so the next phase of it would actually be what that relationship then is again between her and her, which is the thing is witnessing her. And I felt like we hit a tangent, sorry. I don’t really know why I started talking about that.
Maybe she’ll have a friend?
Yeah, that’s a big, that’s been a big conversation actually is if she can …
She needs friends!
She really does (all laugh). Actually her trying to be um, a different person, you know. And the self awareness that she’s experienced in the first season, maybe she can have um, she can come, she can use that to better herself or to bring peace to herself. Or to find herself in even more trouble.
I love how it mines grief and loss with humor. You’ve got, otherwise you just can’t get through it.
So bleak. I love it.
Because everyone’s gone through it at some point. Did you change anything for American audiences?
Oh yeah. There were certain things when we get notes back from um, the Amazon guys and they were a bit like, what is this word you’re using? There are a couple of those and um, so we’ve made a few adjustments, because there are some real like, really idiosyncratic kind of British terms and things that, that might have just confused an audience, but the rest I think, is kind of, you just get I think.
FLEABAG is available now on Amazon Prime – if you haven’t watched yet, you are missing out and must rectify that situation IMMEDIATELY!