This interview contains spoilers for the second season of Fleabag.
Andrew Scott signed up to appear in the second season of Fleabag without a script, though wouldn’t you, considering the promise of the show’s first season? He’d had a few conversations with its star and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, with whom he’d appeared in a play years before, and was interested in her ideas about tackling religion in the show’s second season. So, she wrote him the part of a nameless priest — or as the press coverage calls him, “sexy priest” or “hot priest.” He’s the object of the titular Fleabag’s overwhelming sexual obsession, despite and because of the fact that his Catholic faith prevents him from sleeping with her. (Also, as Scott points out, that priest is pretty hot, too.)
Though he’s done plenty of stage work in the U.K., and is currently in rehearsals for a production of Present Laughter, Scott is best known to American audiences as Sherlock’s scheming rival Moriarty in Sherlock, so he’s pretty glad to play something of a romantic lead in this show. Vulture caught up with him over the phone to discuss the priest’s best outfits, gin and tonics in a can, and the twisted relationship between Catholicism and sexuality.
It seems like everyone just calls your character “hot priest,” even in the press. How do you feel about that?
Well, it’s better than a lot of things you could be accused of. So yeah, it’s great, it’s cool. The reaction to the priest has been unbelievable. I think it’s more about the character itself. I think the dog collar probably does something to people that’s more privy to that than to me.
How did Phoebe Waller-Bridge first pitch you on the role?
We knew each other from before. We did a play together about ten years ago. So we met up last summer, and she was talking about this character that she had in her head, of a priest, and how they want to sort of establish this sort of extraordinary relationship. We talked a lot about love and loss and how it’s represented onscreen, as well as religion and what place religion takes in people of our generation’s lives. We were kind of looking to try and create something where there could be a match for the character in Fleabag, and we knew it was going to be a sort of a flawed character and somebody who is good at his job and, like, a real proper human being.
We had a big long meeting in London. We walked around London and talked about all those things and caught up, but I didn’t actually get a script. I signed on to it without a script. I just signed on to working with Phoebe because I obviously loved the first series and loved Phoebe herself, so I was very delighted, actually, when I got the script eventually.
Were there things that you specifically were interested in exploring about the place religion has in contemporary life?
I was brought up in Catholic Ireland myself, and I’ve always been troubled slightly by the idea of desexualizing people, and I think that’s a real struggle for the priest character. I think there’s a genuine dilemma. I think he’s somebody who is really deeply conflicted. They have an immediate connection as soon as they see each other. But he’s also somebody who really enjoys his job, and also who’s really good at his job, so there really is a dilemma for him about what his priorities should be. It was very interesting to me, to play a character like that on TV. I haven’t played a character like that before. I like the idea of all the characters in Fleabag are flawed characters, but no less deserving of love.
There’s that scene in the fourth episode at the confessional that so much of the season pivots around, where he gives in to his desire and tells her to kneel. What was it like filming that?
We just wanted there to be sort of an atmosphere of danger and sexiness and sort of a degree of mystery. I think the wonderful thing about these characters is they don’t have names. I think sometimes we think of characters in terms of how much we know about them. If we have a lot of knowledge about them, that’s going to make them interesting, but actually I think sometimes the mystery of characters is as interesting. He’s definitely got a relationship with alcohol and a relationship with God, and we are sort of in the inner sanctum of his life there. It’s sort of forbidden and comedic and sexy and moving all at the same time.
It’s a fascinating moment because it feels in a way like a sacred and holy thing, even if it’s profane.
I don’t think Phoebe is scared of the grand gesture, you know. Big, sort of almost theatrical gestures. She worked a lot in the theater, so she’s writing scenes that are a little longer than you might normally see in a television series. I think she’s bold and it’s just to ensure that they’re compelling, that they’re alive. I think they’re very special scenes. I’m very proud of them.
This is something that only exists in subtext, but as a gay man, it was interesting to me to watch a gay man play a Catholic priest, considering the church’s perspective on homosexuality. Did that come to mind to you?
Not so much about homosexuality, just really about sexuality in general. I think there’s a sort of prudishness about sex in the Catholic church, a flagrant disregard for it to even exist. That’s certainly what my trouble with the Catholic church is, that so many people have been silenced on that front in relation to even talking about sex. Which I think is very dangerous territory. But having said that, we didn’t want to paint a character that’s an extreme character. This is somebody who went into the Catholic church trying to do good. But I think it shows the kind of conflict that a lot of young priests and nuns might feel. If the church could be a little movable on the subject of priests and nuns being allowed to marry, then I think maybe there might be more people interested in entering the church in our generation.
It’s interesting because he doesn’t initially seem like a character who’s repressed. He’s kind of happy and chatty, but you realize he has so much pent up inside him.
I think that’s really true. Without labelling it too much, I think he’s got a troubled relationship with alcohol. But there’s a whole lot of symbolism, even though, like great comedy, it all works as something that’s very fun to watch. This whole idea of the foxes [who follow the priest around] and all that kind of stuff. Love is a great mystery — who we fall in love with, and why we fall in love with them. There’s something very spiritual about that and religious about that. In the sense that we don’t know about God and what’s the mystery of God as well. So there’s sort of an epic feel to this series. What lurks beneath us is very much at play, as well as the fun.
There are a couple of moments where the priest catches Fleabag’s internal monologue, where she’s speaking to the camera, and turns to the camera too. How did you talk about what was happening there with Phoebe?
The way we talked about it was he sees her. He’s the first character that sees her, that sees everything about her, even her inner thoughts and inner doubts. I suppose we wanted as well to break TV convention, the visual convention. It also works on a couple of different levels because I think you then see, “Oh, wow, this is something that’s really deep and something that hasn’t happened to her before.” I also think it’s fun to go “You think you’re existing on a certain plane watching as an audience member, no, this actually can go a couple more layers deep.” It was really good fun to play.
Phoebe’s rhythm with her turns to the camera is so exact, and such a part of the rhythm of the show. It must be hard to match her on that.
You got to, but that’s the great fun of it all. Phoebe and I have got this great chemistry between us and it’s a joy to sort of play with her in that way. I think that’s one of the reasons it works: because it’s a specific, wonderful symbiosis that happens between us that you don’t get every time with every actor that you work with. So I think that’s one of the magical things that we’ve got for free.
Fleabag and the priest drink G&Ts in a can on the show. Can you explain what those are like for Americans?
A G&T in a can is not a bad thing. My advice to any Americans reading this is make sure it’s refrigerated, because a warm G&T in a can is a less-appetizing offering. But, yeah, sales of this particular type of G&T are up by 25 percent. That’s the sort of extraordinary Fleabag affect.
Most American audiences at least probably know you best as Moriarty from Sherlock. There’s still darkness to this, but there’s more of a romance, more of a comedy. Were you looking to sort of branch out to try different things?
Absolutely. A romantic comedy is something I’ve long had a hankering after doing, and would love to play sort of a romantic character, particularly with something that’s so extraordinarily well written. I think to find work that’s sort of playful and funny and romantic and all that kind of stuff, but also has a little bit of depth to it, is rare.
You’re also in the future season of Black Mirror, as per the trailer. Is there anything that you can say about?
It’s fantastic, it’s an extraordinary role and beautifully written, I think it’s a very, very human story. Yeah, it’s a very exciting film. Very distinct writing and very distinct worlds make for the best kind of TV and best kind of theater. So yeah, that’s the next big adventure.
One last question: The priest is so obsessed with his different outfits. Did you have a favorite of those?
You gotta go for white. White is always, I think, a reflection of my inner purity, you know. I’ll vote for that one.