‘Fleabag’ Star Phoebe Waller-Bridge on ‘Unlikable' Women and Sexual Validation
We talked to the creator of the hilarious show about a horny young British mess.
All photos courtesy of Amazon Studios
Fleabag: It's a great show! That's the consensus among a certain type of cultivated television watcher. (Usually, you find them on Twitter.) Complex, quality TV series are a dime a dozen these days—the medium is often declared " the new novel"—and yet something about this six-part, character-driven comedy has made viewers pleasantly surprised. Heralded with cries of " finally" and praised as "different from anything else on TV," the show is well-written, well-plotted, very funny, and doesn't have to work hard to win you over.
Released on Amazon last month after airing on BBC Three in the UK over the summer, Fleabag concerns the impending emotional breakdown of its sex-obsessed protagonist, who has a distinctive lipstick and haircut but is known only as Fleabag. Fleabag has a café that she can't afford to keep operating; a weepy boyfriend (Hugh Skinner) she continually torments by doing things like masturbating to Barack Obama speeches; a deadpan, disapproving upper-class family; and a recently deceased best friend. The show deals with how she doesn't handle any of this well—at all.
But while many similar storylines make their female protagonists a visible wreck, Fleabag maintains her autonomy (until she doesn't). Originally a one-woman play that debuted in 2013, the series was written by its star, 31-year-old Phoebe Waller-Bridge; her frequent quippy asides, spoken directly to camera, make you feel like she's your most interesting friend—the one whose stories you love but whose life you can't imagine leading. As Fleabag, Waller-Bridge embodies the charming naughtiness of the British tradition—she cites Michael Caine's Alfie as an influence—while forcing herself to reckon with it: Whether she's relaying Fleabag's ill-advised sexual encounters, her tense relationship with her uptight sister, or the moment when she finally comes to terms with the destruction her selfishness and laziness have wrought on her life, Waller-Bridge is the show.
We spoke to her over the phone the morning after her appearance on The Tonight Show—one of many indications that we will be seeing more of her, and hopefully soon.
VICE: A lot of writers have characterized Fleabag as "unlikable," which is a trendy way to talk about female characters who do bad things. Fleabag definitely does bad things—did you set out to make her "unlikable"?
Phoebe Waller-Bridge: Not at all! It was important to me that she's funny, self-aware, and entertaining company for the audience to keep—but also, whenever she seems callous or dismissive, it's because of underlying pain. I hoped that pathos would balance out the more caustic sides of her character. I think that a woman not giving a shit about what people think in a certain moment—being undercutting or self-aware—weirdly means that she's a profoundly unlikable person. I see [Fleabag] as a person whose mood changes and is defined by her pain, not necessarily her actions.
In an interview, you talk about Fleabag's motivations for sex as being unclear: She doesn't know if she really likes it, but she wants to do it really badly.
She feels pressure to be validated by sex—that's her weakness. I wasn't too interested in explaining where that comes from; that pressure is something a lot of women I've spoken to—as well as myself—deal with. I just massively amplified the fact that her whole life is defined by whether or not people desire her. In my mind, I decided that sex had ruined every aspect of her life. In the play, there's a lot more emphasis put on the porn she watches and the fact that she sexualizes literally everything—from her food to every single person she meets. Whenever she's bored, lonely, or happy, she watches porn.
Did you have to downplay Fleabag's sexual obsessions to make her more "relatable" for TV?
No, weirdly, [we did that] because it was hard to dramatize [the sexual obsession]—it felt a bit relentless. In the play, she could say, "I went home, watched some porn, cried for a bit, and then made myself some dinner"—to me, that was much more powerful as a throwaway line than having to depict it over and over again. [For the show], I thought people would get the message that she's sexually driven from fewer points of contact. Also, I wanted to explore other aspects of her relationships with people—more than just sex.
"I think I see the portrayal of any believable female character as feminist."
What were the challenges in translating the play for TV?
The joy of it was seeing it literally come to life—the play was just me on a stool with a hell of a lot of sound effects. The hard part was having the character maintain complete autonomy over the storytelling. Onstage, the audience has to believe everything she says—she's the only narrator. The moment it came to the real world, the audience experiences a different kind of storytelling that she doesn't have complete control over. It was really [about] cracking how much of the story she narrated, how much she was trying to manipulate the audience, and how much she's looking at the camera and being an unreliable narrator—and balancing that with letting the world unfold naturally and rub up against what she was saying.
People often ask you about feminism and "bad feminism." Do you see the portrayal of a hyper-sexual female character as inherently feminist?
I see the portrayal of any believable female character as feminist. There are elements of her being sexually liberated and unapologetic that strike a chord with people talking about women's liberties—of thought and body—but I didn't think about it that much, which is funny because it's been talked about so much since.
How do you feel when people compare you to Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer?
Obviously, I massively admire those women, and it's amazing to be compared to people who you admire. But apart from the fact that it's about women of a similar age discussing sex and personal traumas and jokes, our work is really different! But I can totally see why people are drawing comparisons between three women writing about women—there aren't that many.
Let's talk about how money's represented on the show. A couple of times, Fleabag sells a sandwich in her café for, like, 25 GBP, and everyone just accepts that with an "Ugh, London" attitude. It's very funny, but it also creates tension: She doesn't have an income and she's struggling, but at the same time she has this decent studio apartment. How does she afford it?
There were drafts about the fact that it was her boyfriend Harry's flat, which was going to be part of the joke: that he kept leaving his flat [when they broke up] to stay with his friends. In the end, it just didn't work. I knew I would take the hit for that—like, how the fuck does she afford this flat?—but I also didn't want the comedy to be about her having to find a flat or all those logistical things, so I just set myself free from that stuff in the end.
Did you expect the show to resonate as much as it has?
Because the play had resonated in a certain way, I was so frightened that the TV show wasn't going to have the same impact. The character was changing, her life was changing, and there were new characters coming in. For a long time, I was like, "I've lost it the purity of it; this is going to be a hack-y version of what the play was purist about." I was so down on it for so long. There were loads of times when I was like, "No one's going to get it, this is going to be a massive disaster." So the overwhelming response is a huge relief.
I thought the show ended on a kind of cliffhanger, though some people would disagree with that. Is there going to be a second season?
I thought it was quite complete, but I love that you think it ends on a cliffhanger—the catharsis of her having that breakdown was a kind of ending, but the hope at the end and the idea of her future was a cliffhanger. I was told the whole time that I had to keep thinking of where it could go in terms of a season two, but at the same time, because it was an adaptation of the play, I was still quite determined to let it end the way the play ended.
Everyone's really keen for another one, and so am I—I just want to make sure I've got the right story before I commit to it. Because it was originally coming from the play, in my head and my heart it was just one story, and I felt like I'd completely committed to that in the series. But that character has resonated, and I see that, and I'm inspired by that. I want to write more stuff for her, but I just want to make sure it's right.
That's very principled.
I'm probably absolutely going to do it. I have that feeling of, "Oh, quickly, quickly, because it's worked just fucking write some more," but it's so special and personal to me that I don't want to fuck it up.
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