Watching the first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and getting to know her title character is like dismantling a stubbornly built wall, brick by brick, until all that is left is for it to crumble. She wants to let you in to her fast-paced world and cheeky adventures, just not too close. She wants you to believe she’s fine and will go out of her way to prove it. She’ll turn her friend’s “accidental suicide” into a joke to stop you from trying to get to the real heart of her emotions. But Fleabag couldn’t be further from fine and, once you get to know her story and the people no longer inhabiting it, you’ll understand just why.
Fleabag was actually born from a dare set out for Waller-Bridge by one of her friends: to create a ten-minute piece for a stand-up style storytelling night. She then went on to develop this ten-minute affair into an hour-long one-woman play (winning the Edinburgh Fringe First Award in 2013), before finally taking over our TV screens this summer as an Amazon series. Waller-Bridge thrives on challenging her audience to acknowledge the emptiness and awkward discomfort present in her characters. The dark, twisted side of human nature is what really fascinates her, and this can be felt even in her light(er)-hearted comedies like Crashing.
We caught up with Waller-Bridge to discuss the depiction of female emotion in media, her writing process and Fleabag’s return for an 11-day run at the Soho Theatre in London, starting December 5th.
Paste Magazine: How does it feel taking Fleabag back to theatre?
Phoebe Waller-Bridge: I’m so excited because it feels like doing a full circle, really, it’s like coming back home. There were so many aspects of the play that never made it into the TV show. They wouldn’t actually have fit in the end, so it was the right decision. It’s going to feel more like I’m going to be visiting those other characters and other stories one more time at the end of this crazy cycle. It’s really nice.
Paste: Like the guinea pig. You didn’t get to kill him on the TV show.
Waller-Bridge: Didn’t get to kill the guinea pig. I would have really enjoyed killing the guinea pig in the series [laughs].
Paste: What is it with you and the guinea pig? Poor little thing…
Waller-Bridge: I know!! Actually, to be fair, [in the play] it’s to put her out of her misery. It’s not actually a brutal murder!
Fleabag is actually your second series this year. In Crashing, the character Sam is going through a grieving process similar to Fleabag’s, only his way of dealing with it is deemed normal, male behavior. What do you think it is that makes the female emotional/grieving process uncomfortable for some viewers?
Waller-Bridge: Yeah, that’s a good point actually. I suppose the cult of the strong woman character on TV has probably been misinterpreted in so many different ways, meaning that a woman can’t be emotionally complicated, or want things, or can’t be weak in moments. That was something that I was really excited about in writing this show, in that hopefully you’d see a woman trying to be your quintessential strong woman, for so much of the show. She always makes sure that she looks good, her hair’s nice, her make-up’s on. She’s got a good attitude about stuff. She’s flippant about sex. She’s in control of her body. She’s independent. She’s got all that shit going on, and she’s trying to convince the audience the whole time that she’s completely in control. And the bit that was really exciting was actually pushing her off the edge and saying that she’s actually a lot more complicated—which I think we all are, despite what our lipstick says.
Paste: Is it fair to say that Fleabag presents herself as someone who doesn’t want to be anyone other than who she is, while at the same time fighting her true self?
Waller-Bridge: Yeah, I think she’s using a certain type of honesty as a weapon of distraction. She talks very openly and honestly about sex so you feel like she’s being open with you when, actually, she’s completely hiding by doing that. She’s distracting you from a completely different side of her, which is the side that’s traumatized and in pain. I think in being honest to a ‘t’ about one aspect of your life, you can give the illusion that you are confiding in somebody. She’s using it to be dishonest in a different way, by hiding.
Paste: There’s this beautiful moment between Fleabag and Hugh Dennis’ character at the silent retreat, which brought a line from Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” to mind: “Two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl.” The only thing they really connect on is the fact that they’re both lost and hurting.
Waller-Bridge: That’s so beautiful… Yeah, they can see it in each other. They trust each other for that strange little moment. It’s as bleak as it is optimistic, hopefully.
Paste: One theme that keeps coming to the surface in your work is the female power struggle, the need to always one-up another. Is that something you’re calling the viewers out on, something you feel we need to evolve from?
Waller-Bridge: I think it’s part of human nature, that we want to achieve. It’s definitely a kind of cosmopolitan nature, wanting to achieve in the fast lane. It is, in some way, seen as weak not to have immediate success in your life when, actually, they’re missing the point. In my heart, for any of these characters to succeed they need to make human connection and be honest and open with each other. To know that success is something that will come and go. It’s not something you can hold onto tight enough. It’s not something that will keep you safe forever, whereas family and friends often will. I guess that’s what I’m hoping to say. It’s funny. I can post-rationalize it in so many ways. But in terms of what I was trying to say, I’m not always totally sure. I guess it’s an articulation of something I see [around me] and very simply just makes me laugh. Like people openly lying to each other: “I’m fine, I’m fine” and both these people can see that they’re not fine, and that the other person’s not fine. And that just makes everyone feel calmer: that they’re all lying. It’s so funny, I don’t know what it is, but it just makes me laugh.
Paste: So you allow yourself a lot of freedom in the writing process?
Waller-Bridge: Yeah, I’m so scared about the big concept. I just kind of like to feel myself into stuff by writing scenes and seeing what characters end up saying. It was a nightmare from a producing point of view earlier on, because they’re like, “What’s it about?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, there’s a guy on a bridge and he’s kind of bummed out and there’s a teacup somewhere… and that’s kind of all I’ve got” [laughs]. And they’re just like, “Okaaaay, sounds great,” through gritted teeth. But yeah, it’s more about finding the story after finding the characters, I think.
Paste: You do explore a lot of dark territories with your characters. Is there a certain space you need to be in for this or is that just you?
Waller-Bridge: I love it. I love all the dark stuff. My brain immediately goes to the joke and then to the darker side of the joke. I just kind of turn the joke around in my head. That’s what happens every single time. I don’t know what that is because I’m quite a happy, jolly person. But I think I’m very in touch with my shadow [side].
Fleabag has been compared to shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls and even some of the themes that are touched on in Transparent. Which shows do you connect with most at the moment in terms of highlighting the complexities within characters?
Waller-Bridge: Well, Transparent was huge for me when I first saw it. I felt that, from an authorial point of view, no one was trying to sell characters to us, you know? It’s the idea of not having to adore these characters and want to cuddle them, you just have to be into them and their psychology and be compelled by them. That completely hooked me on Transparent. I’m really enjoying Better Things with Pam Adlon. The humor and the honesty, the struggle and frustrations and her full commitment to that—I love her so much. And I’m watching Atlanta as well. It’s amazing how [Donald Glover] tells his story in a very different way.
Paste: Yes! I definitely think we’re seeing a new approach to storytelling in a lot of the shows that came out this year, Fleabag obviously being one of them. Before we wrap this up, I just have to say the Fleabag scene on the train was one of the best things I’ve seen this year, so thank you for that!
Waller-Bridge: [Laughs] Thank you, I’m so pleased!
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.