Casual anal sex, masturbating to a Barack Obama speech, and raw female anger are all on on display in the opening episodes of Fleabag, written and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a 31-year-old multi-hyphenate talent from Britain. Largely unknown here, that will change when her brilliant six-part comedy series debuts Sept. 16 on Amazon Prime. (Fans of the Brit mystery series “Broadchurch” recall her standout performance as the barrister who will do anything to save her client’s neck.)
When “Fleabag” premiered on BBC2 in July, critics described Waller-Bridge as the British Amy Schumer or British Lena Dunham. This would be to sell her short because her voice is unique, even as she covers some of the same territory, like navigating family, career and sex as a 20-something middle-class single woman in the modern world.
Fleabag has her share of tragedies although grieving is not part of her repertory. She runs a café with her only friend, who it turns out recently died. We see their interactions in flashbacks. Fleabag’s mother died two year earlier and she’s never dealt with that emotional fall out either. The delicious Olivia Colman plays Godmother, an officious and phony nightmare of a stepmother who shacks up with Fleabag’s father (Bill Paterson) to add to Fleabag’s misery.
Referred to in the series only as Fleabag, this character is full of rage and self-loathing. She makes snarky and rude comments about people – which they can’t hear – while she looks at the camera so the audience feels like they’re co-conspirators let into a secret. Fleabag’s bitchy wisecracks are great fun, but a moment later she can make a revealing or emotional confession that unveils so much pain it feels like a sucker punch.
She has lots of casual sex. After her sweet but cloying boyfriend Harry (Hugh Skinner) leaves her – he’s caught her too many times masturbating next to him in bed during an Obama speech – she goes through a carousel of hook ups with weird and worthless men. The series opens with Fleabag’s tryst with a handsome near-stranger known only as Arsehole Guy (Ben Aldridge). During sex Fleabag generally looks bored or detached.
I only saw the first three episodes released to the press, but the show seems to get darker as the story deepens. Whether Fleabag evolves or finds any happiness – or even makes another much-needed friend – you can’t help rooting for a character this brainy, funny, flawed and human who is battling her demons.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is just as funny but infinitely more polite than the character she’s created, turned up recently at the Crosby hotel in SoHo to talk about her upcoming Amazon show.
“Do I have a massive asshole?” is not a question I’ve ever heard asked, especially on tv.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge: I’m glad I’ve added to your archive.
How do you think our President will feel about the way he’s used in the show?
I hope he finds out about it, and I hope he’ll be flattered.
Do you ever feel awkward with certain lines or acting out certain things?
I got used to that stuff doing the play version. I got well warmed up… I think that because so much of the show was about her (Fleabag) expressing herself so openly and with such genuine candor about her life, that that gave me a kind of armor about it and a kind of strength about it because I felt like they were important to show that women might be doing these things (laughs)… As long as I knew there was a human angle in all of those things and that it wasn’t just gratuitous, then yeah, I thought I could do it.
What inspired you to create the one-woman Edinburgh fringe show the series is based on?
A friend of mind asked me to do a 15-minute slot in her stand up storytelling night that she produced in a fringe theater in London. I’d never done anything like that before. I was really flattered and terrified… I had no idea how that sort of stuff worked, stand-up stuff, but learned rule one is you have to get the audience on your side, so it’s got to be funny.
But then the rest of the time a friend of mine, Vicky (Jones) was going… I just decided I’m going to write it and perform it just for her, just a way to make her laugh, not to try to appeal to the masses. I wanted her to feel like it’s a conversation that we’d be having, a naughty conversation. That became the first 10 minutes of the stage show…
That was kind of the starting point, someone who can make you laugh and laugh and laugh, but by the end of it you’re not sure if you should be laughing at them anymore, if it’s appropriate, you laughed because actually it’s a front that she’s playing the whole time, that she’s totally fine, but she’s really not, she’s miserable.
How challenging was it to adapt your solo show into a series with a cast?
Really it was the role of narrator that was the hardest to transfer from the stage (to the screen). In the play version, the audience only experiences the world as she describes it and she’s the only source of information that the audience has and everything that she tells you, you just have to take on face…
Obviously with the screen version, the world is there, the evidence is there, she can’t deny things, she can’t manipulate so easily, so it was really finding the balance between the amount of stuff she was confiding in, because the whole thing is a confession basically, a commentary of her life and that she’s still complicit with you as an audience member, inviting you in, but it was basically her having to admit she hasn’t got complete control of everything we see and hear; she can describe a character in one way and they can behave in a completely different way, and that was where the fun started happening.
What was inside of you that inspired this character?
I think at the time I was writing it, I was feeling quite mischievous as an actress for a start, because I felt like that kind of humor that I employed in my life quite a lot of the times, slightly provocative, kind of naughty, I hadn’t been able to play that as an actress that much and I had an opportunity…
I really wanted to write something that I felt was a bit more badass and really bone-dry humor and then also, I was feeling frustrated by the rules of being a woman at the time and what it meant to be a sexually confident woman, to identify as a feminist, the constant and relentless need to be sexy on top of everything else that you’re supposed to be.
As a woman in my early 20’s, I remember it weighed heavy on me that sense that you always had to look good and be cool and be confident sexually, and a lot of my contemporaries felt the same. I wanted to write somebody who is like that and show the other side of her, which is actually exhausting.
How did you come up with the idea to give Fleabag a porn addiction?
I’d been speaking to a lot of women who felt the avalanche of porn that had just landed on society and the accessibility of it and how addictive it was and how many people were watching it, and the expectation it brought on women to be as sexy or sexually open as porn was showing. I wanted to show how it affected the female psyche, and it was making me really angry, so I wanted to write about somebody who’s addicted to porn.
Why do you think there’s still such a taboo about women being as casual about sex as men?
Maybe it’s a place of fear or not understanding… I just felt also like peeking behind the curtain into a woman’s brain about sexuality. Here’s a woman bored with sex or doesn’t seem to see it as a massively big deal. That’s what not only upset but kind of really shocked people about the play at the beginning. They were like, ‘But she doesn’t seem to care that she’s sleeping with so many people!” (Laughs.) No, she’s just getting on with it.
Is there even a word comparable to slut that men are called?