Phoebe Waller-Bridge might not be a name that you’re instantly familiar with, but after September has come and gone it will surely be one that’s more prominent on your radar. After tearing up the UK by making a name for herself on programs like Broadchurch, Man Up, and Crashing (which she also created), Phoebe has moved on to writing and starring in Fleabag, which feels like her most personal and polished work yet. Adapted from her award-winning Edinburgh Fringe Festival play of the same name, Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is a series like no other.
While many dark comedies offer damaged, flailing characters that filter the world through their very specific perspectives, the world of Fleabag is a wholly new experience. You truly feel like this confused character is sharing her most intimate secrets with you, placing you in a unique position as a viewer. Fleabag takes many emotional risks, but it’s also flat-out hilarious with Waller-Bridge’s voice being as hysterical as it is acerbic. On the cusp of Fleabag’s premiere on Amazon, we chatted with its star about balancing comedy and drama, the show’s constant fourth wall breaking, and the more surreal moments from the series.
DEN OF GEEK: You’ve been working on this show for a while now, with it starting as a play. What has the adaptation process been like and how have you seen this story changing?
PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE: I guess the main challenge was that it was originally constructed to be a one-woman show. So I would play all the characters and I had complete agency over any information that I gave the audience. The audience is completely at the mercy of this one woman’s portrait of her own life. Then to turn that into a TV show, whether she’s describing it one way or another, you’re still seeing a different image, and there’s some level of truth removed there. So that was sort of the biggest shift because so much of the show was about her being an unreliable narrator and telling a story in a very specific way. Just in terms of the way you get information out and only show certain parts of other characters. So I suddenly I was like: “Woah! She’s lost all that control the moment she hits the screen.” Painting the complicity with the audience was crucial there where she might say one thing and another thing plays out. Or she describes a character one way and he’s in fact totally different. It also keeps her role as narrator strong without becoming diluted by the real world.
There are certainly other shows where the main character talks to the audience, but it’s different here. It’s like you’re one of Fleabag’s very best friends. It’s more personal.
Ah, good! It was exactly that that was so important to us. It’s crucial that you feel like she’s talking just to you. That this is something between just you and her. She’s not just playing to the gallery; she’s playing directly to you.
What other television shows or characters are sort of inspirations or influences to you?
I mean there are so many… Jennifer Saunders and Absolutely Fabulous had a massive impact on me growing up. They are these horribly behaved, yet hilarious women where it’s them against the world. In some ways it’s more a love story between Edina and Patsy. I always adored that show so much. I found those characters so arresting and so unapologetic. And then I suppose I’ve been watching a lot of Louie and I love that misanthropic, unapologetic character he plays. Things just happen to him, whether they’re by his own making or not, but there’s always a moment of truth at the heart of every experience that he has. There’s something always so beautiful at the core of all of his stories.
There are some great structural flairs going on in the show, like how you’re figuratively being haunted by Boo. Were those more unconventional touches important to the show?
Again it comes down to having complete control over the story. In the play, if I wanted to talk about Boo, it was just very clear—something would change in the storytelling and suddenly I was dealing with Boo. It’s important for the audience to get these things about Boo and understand what’s going on. So my worry in adapting it for the screen is that I would just need to constantly be reminding people about Boo. Being all, ” Oh, by the way, I had a very nice friend and then she died…” So that was the big leap there.
My director really spoke to me about the idea of visual sentences and the ability to tell a story without words. That was a big jump for me since I became so reliant on telling a story with words. That sort of image of Boo on the road that keeps flashing back to Fleabag is such a powerful image that hits so much harder than talking about her in the play. So when doing the edits and having so much freedom of where you can drop in those shots of her is incredible. Even if it feels wrong, you can still try it out.
What do you think your show is saying about femininity and being a modern woman?
I suppose while writing that show that question was really in my heart. At first I didn’t really know. It’s just a really strong impulse that the character came out of. There’s of course the question as to whether she’s really “alone,” and how a lot of people surely feel how she does. I really wanted to have a character that was so honest that she was alienating people, and I think in that honesty she articulates her confusion about feminism, and specifically about sex. How she’s so voracious but doesn’t like the feeling of it–just all of these weird contradictions that come to your head through her. She’s kind of a collection of the worst neuroses running through women’s minds. At the end though it’s kind of a cry of, “Am I alone?” and the answer is, “Not really.” I think that’s sort of the best way I could answer that question.
Which of the series’ two extremes of comedy and drama do you enjoy playing with more?
I think I always feel that the balance is necessary. Even as an audience member, you need that relief from the one to make the other work so well. You crave it. If you coast on comedy for too long you end up not having any depth and it can go both ways. But in terms of the acting and the performing, actually getting to the meaty bits is probably the most satisfying. In those moments I can find the heart of the character whereas in the other ones I’ve got to hide it.
What would you ideally like to say in a second season of the show? Would you want to expand things in a big way, or continue down the same sort of path?
I’m sort of mulling it around in my head. I think that after the end of the season there’s sort of been an arc for Fleabag—and that was the arc of the play. But in some ways since that original story and journey is over with, I feel like another season would have to be something completely different. I don’t know if it’d be leaping forward in the future or finding some different way to tell her stories. But I don’t want to leave her and still want her close to the audience.
Lastly, Phoebe, rank the following from best to worst: guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils.
Oh my God! I’m going to now say that guinea pigs are the best…
Well that seems a little obviously considering the show…
But before I met Hillary who stars in Fleabag I wouldn’t have answered that way! Beforehand I had no pre-existing relationship with guinea pigs. When I was young, I had a hamster that I adored, so before Fleabag I would have said that. But I’ve since played with a guinea pig on set endlessly and fell insanely in love with that stupid little rodent. So yeah, guinea pigs first, then hamsters, and then gerbils creep me out.
Fleabag begins streaming on Amazon, September 16th