Dierdre Friel has swapped New York City for sunny California, both in real life (just for now, she insists) and on TV. Friel — whose first-ever TV job was on The Sopranos — plays Greta, the kind-hearted, down-to-earth millionaire opposite Rose Byrne’s self-hating, neurotic, San Diego supermom in Apple TV+’s Physical. The dramedy, created by Annie Weisman, is about a 1980s housewife whose every drop of energy goes to her husband, her homemaking, and her severe anorexia-bulimia until she finds power in the world of home-video aerobics. Reductively speaking, it’s a show about control. And while being skinny and beautiful and quiet in 1980s America was a form of control, we don’t live in 1980s America anymore.
Though Byrne stars, the cast of characters around her (including Rory Scovel as her husband, Della Saba as her unwitting partner in fitness, and Paul Sparks as a local politician) are fully fleshed out and ready for grand arcs, some of which we’ve seen unfold over the first eight episodes. And with the bow of episode eight, Friel’s character has done a full about-face, which includes shaving her head and confronting her husband (Ian Gomez) about his secret kink. Vulture recently spoke to Friel, who also has a recurring guest role on NBC’s New Amsterdam, about holding space for both self-love and self-doubt, how her body — in real life and on the show — has strengthened her, and whether she really did shave her head for that scene.
Nowadays, we see more storylines about women pulling up other women, collaborating, etc., but Greta and Sheila’s relationship is very much of a different era — that in-fighting and jealousy and competition. What’s it like to go back there?
I was so excited working on these scripts because I feel like Annie Weisman and the amazing writing team caught the complexities of female relationships. What’s amazing about TV now is things are becoming kind of genre-less, we’re exploring things a little more like how they are in real life — something might be super-serious, but you’re laughing about adversity, or it might be hilarious, but it has touching moments. What I love about Greta and Sheila’s relationship is the complex dance of “I don’t know if I like you. Okay, I do like you. Okay. Now we’re fighting.” Like, all relationships are complex, but as a woman, and speaking to my relationships with other women, I feel like this show reflects that reality well.
Yeah, like, while watching it I kept thinking, Glad it’s not like that anymore! And yet … I still look at some girlfriends’ Instagram and immediately feel jealousy.
It’s so true. I do think we’ve come far with it, but to say anything has evolved beyond that for forever is maybe naïve. We are moving forward and lifting up other women, but there’s also humanity underneath it that people can have. We went through this whole female-empowerment thing where we said women can do anything. And then Reagan becomes president, and it’s like, no. And what’s so cool about doing a show set in 1981 is you see three of the women on it, Bunny and Greta and Sheila, all in different positions, but all still have to rely on their dudes in some way or have to camouflage themselves in order to be women in the world.
Was it frustrating or even hurtful playing opposite a character like Sheila?
Even in the ways Greta is together on the outside, she’s still neurotic like Sheila. And Sheila seems together on the outside, too, but the audience gets to peep into the insides of her brain. What was interesting was shooting our scenes together two ways: We’d shoot the whole scene without any of Sheila’s voice-over dialogue and then we’d do it with her voiceover, meaning somebody off camera would be reading Rose’s lines — Sheila’s inner voice — and we’d pause for that, but obviously Greta isn’t hearing it.
That must have been really weird to do since Sheila’s internal monologue is so disparaging to Greta.
You know, when I got this audition, I only got three scenes, two from the pilot and one later episode. I was reading it with no context, and reading what they’re saying about my character — n“she’s so fat, look at her, she’s a whale” — and I called my reps. I’m a plus-size actress. I have no illusions about that. I like my body. I like what it looks like. But I’d made a decision a couple of years back to shy away from these roles where that’s my full descriptor, my raison d’être.
I told my reps I wasn’t sure about this role, but my manager said it was a really cool project and wanted me to test for it and then we’d ask them for more context. I trust him, so I went. When I tested, I saw more of the scripts, and I understood why Sheila was talking about Greta that way. There were 40 pages of her talking about herself that way before it even gets to me. And I realized why it had to be somebody who looks like me to be opposite her. So I felt really empowered about looking how I did. The internal dialogue that was disparaging about my character really became the reflection of how her character was feeling about herself. And Greta gets to have this huge empowerment storyline, which fueled me to push on.
Where does this show fit into the body-positive movement, then?
It’s tricky, isn’t it? Sheila really is disparaging of herself. And Greta is too, at first. It’s funny, when we were talking about women lifting up women, even in this body-positivity movement, I think we still have our humanness, our real moments of questioning. “Do I look okay today? Is this person going to like that? Am I brave enough to pull this off?” Like I said, I’m pretty happy with my body. I like how my body is really strong and I like what my body does and how it feels. But I still have moments where I try on a romper and ask my boyfriend if I look okay. That’s just human nature — or if not human nature, it’s female nature. We look in the mirror, and we question ourselves.
Right. Just because we’re positive about our bodies doesn’t mean we’re not going to wake up and worry if our thighs are going to chafe today because it’s hot out.
Exactly. And I think also part of the social conversation is that you can hold space for two things: You can feel body positive, but also acknowledge your own insecurities. This show lives in that space because I think it addresses the other side of it, where you try and turn that negative self-talk into empowerment. Sheila starts to do that through aerobics and learning her body is actually strong and capable.
Episode eight has a real come-to-Jesus moment for almost all of the characters in the show — and Greta shaves her head. Did you actually shave your head? Please tell me you did.
When I read that script, I was staying with my parents at the time. I ran out of my bedroom and screamed, “Mom! I shave my head!” And I thought, I have to do it. I have to shave my head. I actually surprised myself; I thought I would do it. But then, the way we shot the show because of COVID, we had to do block shooting, where every episode and every scene from every episode is completely out of order. We shot stuff from episode nine in the first week and stuff from episode two in the last week, so there was no way that I could shave my head for real. [Pauses] Oh God. Now I’m afraid Apple’s going to read this and be like, “Let’s shave her head!”
You could put that on your résumé: “Will shave my head for roles.” I mean, if one thing is certain, it’s that hair grows back. Well, death, taxes and that hair grows back — the three certainties in life.
[Laughs] That’s a good one! I’ll get that on a Greta T-shirt.
Send me one when you do. But back to Greta — this was a huge moment for her.
It’s such an amazing moment for Greta. She is claiming her marriage. She is claiming her own empowerment. And in a time like the ’80s, where no one was talking about kink, Greta is like, I’m going to meet this man where he is. And if this is what Greta’s husband needs, she loves him and wants to understand him, and if they can understand together, then what’s the problem? It is pretty forward-thinking for the ’80s, but also for someone like her, a housewife who has not had to deal with much outside the normal track — it was a total 180 for Gretta and how she feels about herself, how she feels about her marriage. They become partners in a big way in that moment.
Just to play devil’s advocate: Greta did change her appearance to please her husband, did she not?
I hear you. And I’ve heard people say things along those lines. But I feel that in order to make a move like that, you have to embrace it yourself. You’re committing to shaving your head, you’re committing to that yourself, even if the impetus is another person, in Greta’s case, how she sees this as something that her husband likes, that answers something in him. Greta has a moment at the tail end of episode seven where she looks at herself in the mirror and goes, “You’re going to do this.” She decides. He doesn’t ask her to, and he doesn’t participate in it. She chooses it. So, yes, it’s for him, but in my mind, for Greta, it’s for them, because if she does this thing, they can be a better team.