Spoilers ahead for Amazon's Fleabag.
The title of Amazon’s latest addition, Fleabag, comes from the nickname of the protagonist — a sexually voracious, unapologetic, cynical, whip-sharp, complete mess of a woman. Phoebe Waller-Bridge first conceived of Fleabag as a challenge during a friend’s storytelling night, which then turned into a one-woman play in Edinburgh, and now is a television show. The show, which aired first on the BBC this summer, retains the intimacy of theater by telling the story entirely from Fleabag’s perspective. She breaks the fourth wall constantly, making jokes and offering commentary so that the viewer becomes her confidante. And what seems at first like sexual misadventures quickly morphs into a tragic tale of grief, trauma, and loss. Vulture spoke with Phoebe Waller-Bridge at a press day for Amazon at the Crosby Street Hotel a few weeks prior. We talked about the character’s need for sexual affirmation, Ryan Gosling feminism, and the horror of losing your only friend.
What was the original conception of the character?
It started as a challenge from a friend to do a ten-minute slot in her stand-up storytelling night, which is where this whole idea came from of doing it sort of stand-up-y. I was on with a bunch of other stand-ups, actors, and playwrights. I've never done that before, I never really wanted to do it. It's terrifying, but having accepted the challenge I thought, you know, I've never played, as an actress, I've never played a part that's just shamelessly dangerous as a woman, and she's like, I know I'm dangerous. I know I'm naughty. I know I'm massively broken. But she's going to let it all hang out. I knew I wanted play something that was in that area, and somebody who was unapologetic about desperately needing sex and affirmation. Also the need to keep moving. She's moving the whole way through — she's not going to stop because then the tragedy will land on her. I wanted that feeling.
Do you identify with her?
Yeah, massively. I do in the sense of humor and the desperate need to say the thing you shouldn't say, and it's really cathartic playing that character, because she does. She has someone to say it to. The idea of losing your best friend basically is the worst thing in world. My best friend, who actually directed the play version of Fleabag, we worked very closely together, and the idea of losing her or losing my mom or losing someone who's very close to me was a fear that I put into that. The rest of that I amplified, and made her trauma so much worse. Her kind of sex addiction, I suppose if it is that. So it's not autobiographical, but it is personally driven.
Fleabag began as a one-woman play. What was it like adapting the play as a TV show?
So it was just me and the audience, on a stool, and her just telling the story of three days in her life. But the character was presented as slightly stand-up-y. She had to keep making the audience laugh. In the beginning she's just talking about her sex life and she's very confident and she's just unapologetic about how sexually voracious she is. She has an awareness the audience is going Whoa, ruffling feathers, and then slowly that story unravels about the café and about Boo. She's trying to keep up the jokes, but the tragedy starts revealing itself through the story. It was that feeling I wanted the audience to have, of laughing and laughing and laughing, and then going, Oh, no, actually we shouldn't really be laughing at this character, why am I laughing? Am I allowed to be laughing at her? At the end she's just like, Please, keep laughing, because I'm fine. She's really, really not. That was the structure for the play.
This became about stretching it out and giving her other places to go to, like the silent retreat isn't in the play. I played all the characters in the play, so it's nice seeing them brought to life by other people. It was really about how to maintain this sense that she is the potentially unreliable narrator, but she's the one who's complicit and she's the reason you're there and in the story. Then marrying that up against the fact that it's now dramatized, so you can actually see her life, where before what she said to you, you had to believe. Whatever picture she painted you had to believe in the play, whereas now she's, like, saying someone is a cunt, and they appear not to be for the first episode — those sorts of tricks she plays are the main challenges.
Right. I remember watching it and thinking, at first, Olivia Colman's character, your godmother-stepmother, seems lovely.
Exactly. I want to confuse the audience for a second, and then you're like, Oh.
And then you slowly find out she's very shady.
She's an excellent, excellent magician of cruelty.
Can you tell me about your choice to use addressing the camera as a narrative device? I feel like it could also be a tricky thing.
I knew that she had to have a direct relationship with the audience because it had been born out of the play, and so much of it was that she was so boldly looking into the eyes of people, saying these things that had happened to her, and holding herself together. The aliveness that gave me in the play with the audience was really important to keep. Also, that idea that she is in control of the story. She's like, come with me into my hilarious life, and there's a moment where it gets to the end where she's actually like, I regret having you here. I wish you weren't here. And then she starts pushing the camera away. I didn't want to lose the joy of complicity with the audience. It felt like the relationship she had with the audience was the one of a friend and one where she can show her darker, naughtier side. You are that person that she can be herself with, and that's the most important.
You're the secret best friend that she is maybe using in place of Boo.
Oh, totally. But also without being able to be truly vulnerable. It’s really important to her that the audience thinks she's totally fine. She's got her hair done nicely, she's got red lipstick on, and she looks like she's got everything together. Even though she's grieving and these terrible things are happening to her, she can say that in a dismissive, funny way, But I'm totally fine. The audience gets ahead of it like, You’re not honey. I wanted to give people that feeling of wanting to hug the TV, and just admit that you're unhappy. So that idea of denial, and that she's keeping the sass up was really fun to play, especially in the scenes where she's unhappy and she has to give an acknowledgement that they've seen her change, and she's like whatever just happened there was fine.
You play with this idea of “bad feminism.” Do you see the show as trying to push this idea further past where it currently stands in pop culture?
Yeah, certainly. Funny thing is when the play was written, feminism had a new kind of a burst in the U.K. especially, when it suddenly was being tackled head on. Everything there was about the impact of porn on society and on feminism, and it was around the same time that Ryan Gosling was wearing T-shirts that said, This is what a feminist looks like. Suddenly it was this groovy thing that everyone was into, and all the women were like, We're really grateful that it has become fashionable. That's really, really great, but can we just focus on the fact that it's not about hot men wearing T-shirts. It's more about finding equality. It was around that time when it did start getting confusing because it suddenly became a question: Is it cool to be a feminist? It's exciting, but it's a strange conversation to be having. At the time I was like, I want to write someone who is unapologetic about her confusion of it all, like, Are there rules to it and I'm getting it wrong, and how did you get it right?
Also, the different levels of the pretension of it. The idea of that lecture [in the first episode] to me was very important that it came across as very real — it was a self-respecting lecture and real people were there in the audience. The woman was played by my mom actually, the lecturer. I just couldn't think of anyone who could do it better. She's not an actress, but she really should be. I was like, "Mom, could you just give a little speech for Fleabag?" Fleabag just couldn't take it seriously because there was something about sincerity around the whole conversation that she was finding quite uncomfortable.
At least with regard to her sexual relationships, she's pretty straightforward about what she wants — except for the boyfriend.
Yes. Except for all that. There's a line in Act II that was really important to me, when she says she's not obsessed with sex, she just can't stop thinking about it. She lists all the things she loves about sex, but the one thing that she says she doesn't love about sex is the feeling of it. For me that summed her up. It's not necessarily about her going out and having millions of orgasms, it was really that she knows that she needs it for validation, but she can't admit that it comes from that place, because she’s also like, I just want it, so I don't want to apologize for it, but I also know that I don't really like the actual feeling of it. It's that confusion in her. Actually, loads of women after the end of the play were like, "Yeah! Me too! I don't like the feeling of it." I was like, Oh, no. That's so sad that so many women feel like that. Again, that contradiction in her about sex.
How do you write a good sex joke?
I have to be careful, honestly. A lot of it is what I feel in the potential of a moment. People generally are just really nice to each other. You know, the good people. Trying to please each other, and pleasure each other. What if people weren't actually being that honest with each other? What if women would just rather have a wank than have sex in that particular moment? It's finding the potentially extreme version in what otherwise is quite a normal situation. Also, just having a load of bad sex or hilarious sex, I suppose.
Or just awkward situations that will become good stories the next day when you tell your friends.
Yeah, and you know there's the potential for a story, and then the third time you've told it, you've turned it into a joke. That's basically how the play started. Once I got the idea of this character, the anecdotal things I'd imagined would be hilarious if they happened, and then kind of spun it, spun it, spun it, until it became a Fleabag joke. That's how I managed to string them all together, so she tells her life through a series of those carefully constructed jokes.
When you're writing a joke, how do you know whether or not you've gone past the line? Do you know how to calibrate it?
The whole creative team was just really on point with the tone of it. There were a couple of jokes that did go too far, but we had to shoot them anyway. We wanted to see what it felt like in the episode. There was one where there's a guy you end up seeing furiously masturbating in a really inappropriate situation. In principle, the structure of this joke worked, but I always had a nagging feeling that actually it might be a bit gross. We shot it anyway, and this lovely actor fully committed, and bless him. I'm sure when it came out he was like, This is the bit, and then we cut it. He's probably relieved actually.
Really, it's just testing it out on the team during this script-developing process — and trusting my instincts as well, because I really don't like outwardly crude, pointless jokes, and funnily enough I find myself prudish when people use language like, Oh, I'm going to get my pussy out shopping and stuff. I'm like, Oh, I don't like that. I think there has to be a construct to it, and there has to be something human in the joke.
Can you talk about constructing the trauma around Boo and using that as the engine for the narrative?
That whole story came out as such a surprise for me. I was just freewheeling a little bit and writing, knowing I had to write this play for Edinburgh. And then suddenly I wrote this passage about the fact that she died and Fleabag was being flippant about it. It was then I really felt like that is the heart. I used that as the touchstone the whole way through, whenever she talks about Boo. She's not being sentimental. It was avoiding sentimentality about female friendship, so it's not just people skipping through meadows together and how wonderful it all is. It's the feeling of loss of a friend that you didn’t realize defines you. It’s something you take for granted, and when that person is gone she becomes a cynic. And it really helped me with it before and after Boo died, that she was a cynic, but Boo's optimism kept her balanced. After Boo died she loses that. I thought the perfect way to talk about friendship is by the power of losing one.
I thought about the show as what happens if a cynic loses their only friend.
Oh, good. It got through. It was about how easy it is to be a cynic and how we need to pull each other up on it. Without our friends to do that for us, we can fall down a hole.
How did you come up with the title Fleabag?
Fleabag is actually my family nickname, which doesn't help with [the idea that the show is] autobiographical. I was trying to name it for Edinburgh and I knew I didn't want her to have a name, because I wanted her to feel like the everywoman. If I called her like, Sarah, it would feel so personalized to that one particular person, so I knew I wanted her to have one particular nickname. I think my mom called me right in that moment [when I was thinking about a name] and she said “fleabag” to me on the phone, and I was like, Oh, no. That's an amazing sign. Then I told it to the director and producer of the play, and they were like, "Yeah, that's it." I might as well have called it Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Phoebe Bridge's personal life!