Joey Moser talks to Phoebe Waller-Bridge about bringing her one-woman play to a wider audience with Amazon’s critically acclaimed Fleabag.
Fleabag was my favorite show of 2016. The wickedly funny British import centers on a self-destructive young woman (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) as she navigates relationships and grieves the death of her closest friend. Phoebe Waller-Bridge adapted it from her one-woman show. It’s a beautifully sad and funny portrayal about not knowing how mourn, especially at an age where you should be finding your own path.
With only six episodes, Waller-Bridge cemented herself as a formidable talent in this year’s awards race. Not only should she be considered for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, but she should be honored for adapting her own work. Fleabag is candid with its humor and devastating with its honesty.
Fleabag was my favorite show last year. I just think it’s wonderful.
Oh, thank you!
How does it feel to finally bring it to a wider audience? You’re having such a break out year.
It just feels wonderful! On one level completely surreal and on another level it’s just very…real. I can’t really describe it. It’s truly a dream. It’s brilliant.
Since you created the show from the very beginning, I was curious as to how autobiographical it is?
I’d say the story isn’t at all. It was a narrative completely constructed for the audience to have a good ride. A lot of the humor is really personal, though. There are a few anecdotal things from my life that have gone in. Just a couple awkward moments with guys have ended up in there. It’s a very personal show. I’m very close with my best friend, and I always asked myself what’s the worst thing that could happen. And that would be losing her and the more worse thing would be that it’s my fault. It came from those sort of feelings. Luckily, I have not experienced the kind of trauma that Fleabag has.
Something that I didn’t notice the first time watching it was how you don’t really give your character a name. She’s just known as Fleabag. People don’t call her that to her face obviously, but why did you not want to give her a specific name?
It was very instinctive. I felt like giving her a name almost defined her really quickly for me, and there’s something about the mystery of her that I was hoping would give her the feeling of an Everywoman as well as somebody’s very specific story. If I felt that if I called her Sarah or Lucy she’d be immediately associated with some other people you might know. I don’t know. It didn’t feel right to give her a name. I also just couldn’t come up with one. In some ways, people live up to their names or their names do something to them. That’s why I thought Fleabag was the closest thing to her to name.
One of the first things we notice as an audience member is how much Fleabag talks to the camera. I immediately felt like I was your friend and that I was along for the ride with you. Was talking directly to the camera something you always wanted to do, or was it something you toyed with in the adaptation?
It was definitely going to be an integral part of the show for me because the stage show was all audience addressed. The real arc of the story was the relationship she has with the audience and the journey they go on with her. I always felt like I wanted it to be a story of someone letting you into their lives so quickly and so intimately and then instantly regretting it.
When she’s like, “Come enjoy my life, it’s hilarious!” Then eventually she’s like “Get out! Get out! Stop looking at me, I can’t deal with this!” I knew that was going to be the spine of the show, but it did obviously have to change when there was a real dramatized world around her rather than just her version of the world spoken to the audience.
The big breakthrough was finding the moments where the camera starts bullying her at the end when she can’t escape the camera. That was the moment that I thought that this could work and it could have a journey on its own. I never wanted the talking to the camera to feel like Restoration comedy asides. I wanted it all to have a very real role.
What was the most intimidating thing about bringing it to television? Did any of the content give you pause?
Funny enough, the sex scenes were fine because they were for comedy sake. There was no nudity or anything. I was actually really excited about those scenes going out. People kept talking about it like it was a really filthy show or explicit show. It was the language that people found so shocking which is a real joy.
The idea that people wouldn’t get her is what intimidated me the most. She has this sort of hard outer shell. If people didn’t see that it was a construct and built because of the pain she had gone through and her damage. If people just thought she was spoiled or caustic for the sake of it is what I was really scared of.
Also on a sort of basic level it not being funny. I found the jokes funny, but you lose sight of it. First and foremost, it’s a comedy and that’s what it’s promising the audience. Outside of the jokes that were in the stage play (which I know worked because I put them in front of an audience for about a year), all the new material that I didn’t know if it was funny or not was intimidating. There’s nothing worse than looking at the camera and part of you dying thinking, “Oh God did that land like a wet fish?” It’s a shuddering thought.
Your chemistry with your sister Sian Clifford feels very real. Did you base that relationship on your own sister? It feels so true and honest.
A lot of the humor comes from the relationship I have with my sister. My sister is nothing like that character—she’s much more relaxed! There’s certain sisterly quirks sewn into it that were kind of a love letter to her and my brother actually.
There’s that sibling thing when you’re always on the cusp of blowing up on each other but you also know you unconditionally love each other forever so you can sort of behave however you want. Sian and I went to drama school together and have known each other for years. She and I always said that we should play sisters one day. We’ve always felt that she was a kind of soul sister anyway and when this came up, it could only be her. There was no question.
Fleabag originally premiere in the UK and then debuted here in November. Have you noticed any stark differences in how it’s been received?
People seem to be responding to the same things. It seems to be the same. I’m asked if I’m surprised by that, and I just think it’s not culturally defined to a point that it would alienate an audience. Somebody trying to hard to cover their pain with humor is something that everyone can relate to, and that seems to be what everyone can relate to. One level that’s really reassuring because I can relate to that so much and that’s where that character came from. When there’s so much of your own rawness put into something and people react all over the place in the same way, it just makes me feel more normal as well.
You go toe-to-toe with Olivia Colman in almost every episode, and I love it. You are such worthy adversaries for each other!
It was complete heaven. She is one of those people that radiates goodness in her life. She’s a really close friend of mine, and I really roped her into this. After she saw the play, she loved it and told me that if I ever needed anything to let her know. She was saying it as a lovely friend, and I thought, “You’re going to really regret saying that to me!”
When Fleabag came about, I said, “I’m going to pay you 10 pounds to be in this!” Part of the appeal, I think, was that we got to have a fight. Also, she got to play a monster. I don’t think she had at that point. It could only really be her. I wrote it completely for her. You could only have someone who can pass themselves off as genuinely a lovely person for their evil to truly land to the audience. Watching her do that was sublime, because she really is the loveliest person in the whole world. God she knows how to be evil!
You recently brought the stage play back to Soho, right?
Yes, I did!
Was it strange to be back on the stage performing those words after the show premiered?
It was! I was really scared because now they know the twist at the end and because they know so much about the character I was worried that it wouldn’t land so well, especially some of the jokes that are literally lifted from the play. All the best jokes from the play are in the first episode. I had to cut out a character from the play called Joe who was a really, really integral part of the play. It always really broke my heart that we couldn’t fit him in.
It didn’t just didn’t work for some reason. I had to sort of kill him in the process. Part of going back to the original play and giving the audience that new character and those new stories that aren’t in the TV show was really cathartic. To go back to that original story was really nice. It just reminded me that theater is such exciting place to start making work because you cannot hide from the audience. They are right there.
I re-watched the entire season recently, and while I knew how it all goes down, the ending just hits you like a sledgehammer. You make us laugh out loud and then break our hearts in a span of three hours.
Oh good! Sorry! Yay! I’m so thrilled that people are responding to it that way.
You’re super busy right now, but are there any plans for a second season?
I think I found a way to bring her back without it being cheesy, so God knows. Amazon and BBC were really patient with me about that. Either way I am writing Killing Eve at the moment, and I’ll be working on that until about November. I wouldn’t be able to start writing Fleabag Season 2 until the end of the year anyway. I am so pleased that people want a second series! Sometimes you don’t know. There are some purists who think that it’s just one story and don’t want to go back.
Fleabag streams on Amazon.