When Phoebe Waller-Bridge stopped by Variety’s offices earlier this month, she cautioned me against asking her too many definite questions about Season 2. Although the creator, writer, and star of “Fleabag” had already hinted at a Season 2 in previous interviews, “it’s not actually officially announced.” But that hasn’t stopped Waller-Bridge from overflowing with tons of ideas about it. The effusive, hilarious writer and actor got so excited sharing ideas that she accidentally showed me an iPhone photo of, and I quote, “a friend’s tit.”
All part of a day’s work for Waller-Bridge. “Fleabag” is a six-part half-hour comedy series from Amazon Studios about a woman so charmingly and scathingly funny that it takes several episodes before you begin to realize just how much has gone wrong for her — her relationships, her family, her best friend, and now, her livelihood, too. The series is a twisted, meta journey into the unnamed protagonist’s mind — one that describes the contours of a collapse, in a very darkly funny way. Waller-Bridge talked to Variety about adapting “Fleabag” from a one-woman, one-act play into a six-episode sitcom, flipped through guinea pig headshots, and explained why she let Olivia Coleman really slap her in the final episode.
Variety: When did you realize that ‘Fleabag’ could continue for another season?
Phoebe Waller-Bridge: I was told in the first place to keep things open at the end of the season. But her arc closes off, and the relationship between her and the audience ends. So when it first came up about doing another season, I was like No way. I can’t see a way back in, and I don’t want to milk it. I don’t want to flog it. But then Amazon gave me a little time to think about it, and then just one day I’m on a bus and just was like hold on, I think I’ve found a new way in.
The promise I made is that it will be something completely different. It will still be her and her story, but in a completely different time of her life. You know how parts of your life feel different to you, when you look back nostalgically? I just sort of felt like that series should just feel like a stage in her life when that happened. And then I’m gonna go into a new stage in her life, so there’ll be a whole new structure and story and everything. I think I’ve found a way to do it.
But really, I kept saying to myself: Are you going to regret not doing it? Which one are you gonna regret more — not doing it or doing it? Cos if I f— it up, at least I had a go. There’s so much material that I was trying to get into Season 1 that didn’t fit in that story, but there’s still loads of material that I could see working with her. So I’m just gonna see what pops out.
‘Fleabag’ was originally a play. Tell me about developing that into Season 1.
It was originally a play, and it was set over three days in her life. Basically just the destruction of this girl in a very quick amount of time. So it was quite hard stretching it, but I’m glad it was only six [episodes]. And also because no one trusts anyone probably, they’re like, we’ll just give you a small amount and see how you go. But Amazon kept saying, think of it as a movie with chapters. Which is a poetic way of saying a short series. But I can’t imagine what 13 episodes of ‘Fleabag’ would look like all in one go.
Your technique of addressing the camera directly — breaking the fourth wall — is so fresh and engaging. Was that also in the play?
Yeah, the whole play was audience-addressed, apart from the very beginning and the very end. I’d open with the scene with the bank manager, and it would stop halfway through it and then I’d come back to that scene, which was just a voiceover. But that was the only bit. The rest of it was a monologue direct to the audience — like proper eyeballing the audience.
And that was kind of what I loved about it. I loved the power of that, and the fearlessness of the character to be able to just look the audience in the eye and say… you know, whether it’s something about her sex life or something which she’s avoiding saying. I just could feel it was tangible, the energy, in doing the play. And that became the most important relationship in the story for me, actually —between her and the audience. That it had an arc of its own — so she invites people in, she tells them, we’re gonna have a rollicking time together! and then she slowly starts regretting it. She doesn’t want you to see so much of her. And I thought that was really, really interesting.
I’m obsessed with audiences, and obsessed with the journey that an audience goes on. This was the purest form of that, I think, when the character and the audience are hand-in-hand all the way through. By the end I really wanted it to feel like that relationship had fractured and had gone on its own journey. Which was the same in the play, really. Except there’s a captive audience in the play, so it turns slowly over the hour and you can feel the audience slowly going [faux-screaming] ahhh get out get out get out! [Laughs.] Which is why that moment with the camera in the final episode — it starts bullying her and won’t leave her alone. That was the equivalent for me.
Her relationship with the audience is like her relationship with other people. At first she’s very cute and funny and then you get a little closer and it’s quite destabilizing.
It’s funny when people say it’s so honest. Because there’s so much dishonesty in it! Because the person that she is in the real world when she’s talking to people is not truthful. Even when she meets the guy on the bus, or when she’s talking to her family. It’s very British in this way, but I think that lot’s of people can relate to it. That everyone is going hi, you okay? Love you! and then going I f—ing hate everyone in this room! And that is for the audience, and I can see why people felt that was fresh and honest. But really it’s about someone who’s not being honest and like you said, can’t engage with her own misery.
But she can only lie to the audience for so long.
Yeah, which is why a second season is probably a really terrible idea. [Laughs.]
She couldn’t get away with the same stuff in a second season. We know too much about her.
And it would feel disingenuous to be looking at the camera again and being like, all eyebrow-y, and s— — ‘cause once you’ve seen through her … it was so funny. This friend of mine said I should start the season with her looking at the camera and going, so I had this other friend. [Laughs.] Which was just like a perfect joke in itself, I wish I’d come up with it myself. But even that is too knowing.
Tell me a little bit about developing her family. The dynamic between Fleabag and her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) especially.
I really, really wanted to write about just female relationships with other females and things. Two women who are so different — who had experienced the same trauma of losing their mother and dealing with it in incredibly different ways. But then also weirdly, in a similar way. Like neither of them can talk about it, and one of them just wants to move on and just get on with it, and the other one just is in complete denial about it all.
It’s the worst betrayal of the story, when Claire sides with her husband (Brett Gelman) over her sister. And yet you can sort of see why she does it.
The thing about wanting to write the second season is ‘cause when you’ve got characters that are so embedded now, like Brett Gelman and Sian Clifford and that relationship — I just want to do something with them. I don’t know what it is, I just want to write for them again and see what that relationship is. I keep telling myself — at the beginning of the process and thinking about doing a second season, I kept telling myself it would be braver not to do a second season. And now I’m starting to think, f— it, no. It’s braver to do one!
To take the risk of it?
To take the risk. And f— it, you’ve just gotta throw it all at the wall. What if it’s great? My God, I hope it is.
What was it like to jump from theater to TV? TV is serialized and open-ended. But it can feel a little more stagey, compared to film. There are a few playwrights doing well in TV right now.
‘House of Cards” Beau Willimon was a playwright.
And Peter Morgan, for ‘The Crown.’
It’s a really good place to start, in terms of the discipline of knowing that you have an audience there and they have given money and are sat in front of you. And you’re saying, This is worth your time and money. And you have to look them in the eye — even as a playwright if you’re there on a first night you have to look them in the eye — and go I think this is worth your money.
That’s gotta be hard to do.
So painful. The audience sits there with such open hearts — well, the good ones. There’s some way of writing and then off it goes and you don’t really know apart from on Twitter or reviews or whatever — you’re not with the person in their living room. So I think it’s a really good discipline for any writer.
After the play of ‘Fleabag’ we had conversations with different channels and with film companies about whether ‘Fleabag’ should be a half-hour sitcom, an hourlong serialized drama, or a film. And I knew that it couldn’t be a drama because I wanted to hide the drama — that had to be the surprise. I knew it had to be comedy. But there was a kind of toss-up about whether or not it should be a film. And it did feel like strangely that three days in this woman’s life would film too small, actually. Whereas on stage it seemed big because it was just you and her. But if I was to dramatize just three days … and I wasn’t sure if it would reach that many people. Whereas TV, it can light a touch-paper sometimes — and that is exactly what felt like it happened with this.
Are you looking at playing characters that you haven’t written?
Oh yeah, my God definitely. Because there’s so much cool s— that comes out of writing and performing your own character. But at the same time, it’s a weird amount of pressure that you put on yourself, that isn’t there when you’re doing somebody else’s writing. All you have to do is serve the truth of that character. I will say the exact words that you have written down and I will say them with the most truth that I can possibly muster.
But when it’s your own, I’m like: That line sounded s—, I hate that line it makes no sense. I can’t get my mouth around it, I want to rewrite it now! You care about the f—ing truth of the character, it’s not funny enough. I hate myself, I just want you to leave me alone! That can happen, and it’s just a constant self-doubt and loathing that as a writer you carry in your mouth all the time when you’re acting it out.
But at the same time, you feel like if this sinks then I’m the ship that it sinks in. Which is fair. I feel awful — when I first got this cast on board, a lot of them were my friends and a lot of them did the pilot for like… £10 each. And were doing it because we have a community of theater and they’d seen me writing and they were just so behind me. They were like ‘Yeah, we’re all gonna do it.’ And then when we got the season order, I was like f— they’re all so good and if I screw this up… it’s my friendship, it’s my trust.
I think possibly Olivia Colman did it because she’s my friend. And she’s amazing in the part. And I was like if I stitch her up or stitch any of these actors up with bad writing I will never forgive myself. So that’s a really good pressure to have. It’s like the same thing of asking an audience to come in and give you money, it’s the same thing. It’s that trust that people give you, my God. It’s really galvanizing. And then when you get on set and there’s a whole crew and there’s vans. Why’s there a van in my life? I don’t want there to be a van in my life. And they’re all turning up and then we’ll rehearse the scene and then I’ll be like [flustered] I’m really sorry that, you guys were really great but I have to go and rewrite that scene right this second.
I bet Colman loved playing the wicked stepmother.
My idea of the most passive aggressive person in the world is somebody that the rest of the world sees as Olivia Colman — and I see the warmth of Olivia Colman — and only Fleabag sees as devil incarnate.
She loved it. She loves slapping me — she really slapped me in that scene that we have. And she was like, I really want to do it, and I was like, I really want you to do it. And then we asked the director and everyone was like, we’re not officially allowed to say yes. And they were like roll the camera and Collie was like [lunges]. And the editor when he got that through, he literally texted me going did she f—ing slap you?! because the makeup, my face is actually red afterwards.
I hope it was worth it!
So worth it. Having to act like gasp, you slapped me anyway —you kind of want that shock. And through all the other takes, you could see the real one. There’s something between us, and the look in her eye right after she did it. Because even though she was still acting, when you actually physically do something, there’s fear. You saw fear in her eyes as well. So, it was cool. It makes it more real.
Why guinea pigs?
I have no idea where that came from. I had gone to visit my husband who was working in Paris or something. I had to write ‘Fleabag.’ And I went to Paris and I spent one night with him and he left me in his hotel room ‘cause he was working all day.
On that day I wrote the whole thing about Boo getting hit by a bike and then the car, and all that kind of stuff, and I was like, ooh, that was weird, and then I started writing about guinea pigs. I knew that when I got back to London I had to meet up with the whole theater team — the stage manager, and the designer and everyone — and read them as far as I got. And by the time I got back to London, there were seven guinea pigs in the show. One of them’s called Guitarface ‘cause his teeth were like that, and there was one called Skank and there was one — there were seven. And I remember them being really wild-eyed. So I was just f—ing throwing guinea pigs at the wall. And at the end [the director] was like, Love the guinea pig thing. Do we need seven? Me and people are having serious creative conversations and being really serious to me and I was like, well I dunno, it was my instinct, so probably. And my stage manager Char, who was so central to the tone of the show — she doesn’t laugh unless she finds it funny. I was doing the whole guinea pig bit and I was going seven guinea pigs and Char was like [stonefaced]. And there’s one called Guitarface, and she was [stonefaced]. And then I said and there’s one called Hilary and she died laughing. And I was like, well Hilary’s staying, and then I killed all the others off. And in the next draft it was just this one guinea pig called Hilary. And that’s how Hilary was born, was because Char thought it was funny to have a guinea pig called Hilary. There’s a line when Fleabag says, ‘I don’t feel anything about guinea pigs, they’re pointless’ — which is honestly how I feel about guinea pigs. I mean I love animals, but I was like, they don’t even know what the point of them is! They look like, so scared all the time.
And then they brought in the guinea pig. It was just s—ing itself terrified on this set, and it didn’t know it was the star of this show. And then he gave it to me and I fell so in love with this f—ing thing and she was just constantly terrified — they just live in fear of something happening, and then they die. It’s like a horrendous life. But I was like, what’s the name of this guinea pig and he was like I dunno, pig? so I was, may we name her? So she’s out there. Hilary.
Is she acting in other things?
Well the funniest thing was — when we said we needed a guinea pig. We got headshots sent! Of all these guinea pigs. They actually sent us seven headshots of guinea pigs and it was so funny, they were so serious. Oh my God I need to try and [flips through iPhone] I’ve actually got them. [Shows off guinea pig headshots.] Now I am just showing you a gif of guinea pigs.
So I feel like maybe you are now into guinea pigs.
Maybe I am.
Maybe this is what ‘Fleabag’s’ really done for you?
Totally, I just wanted to get close to a guinea pig. So I thought, write a f—king show. It’s a funny thing about putting an animal in a show though, because I was like, why have I done this? And I think it’s because they are innocent and they’re vulnerable. There’s nothing more innocent and vulnerable than a f—ing guinea pig. Because of that, they are vibrating with fear every single day of their life. I don’t know why they’re so scared. They don’t know why they’re so scared. One guinea pig’s like Why are we so scared? to the other guinea pig and the other guinea pig’s like I don’t f—ing know, but something bad’s gonna happen.
And Boo just accepted it very quickly. She was like, oh, that’s a guinea pig, that’s cute. I’ll look after that, that means love. I don’t know what that is.
Last question. Why this word, ‘fleabag’?
It’s kind of my nickname. My family nickname. Flea ears, or occasionally Fleabag. And when I was trying to find a title for the show, my mum phoned me and referred to me as Fleabag on the phone and I was like, oh s—. S— that’s it, it’s my name.