The first season of Fleabag started out as a nearly unnoticeable series on a rather unnoticeable channel (BBC Four). The name, Fleabag, didn’t really lend itself to being blockbuster material. But by the time the second and final season rolled in, Fleabag had been bought by Amazon, and its creator and lead actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge had a BAFTA under her belt for Best Female Performance in a Comedy. A two-season comedy-drama set in London, it focused on a quirky, strong, sexually aggressive and yet vulnerable woman — the eponymous Fleabag, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge — who is dealing with loss and grief.
A fellow from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), Waller-Bridge, in a telephone conversation from London, explains why her character kept breaking the fourth wall, and why women can be everything they want to be.
Fleabag, the protagonist, is tragically whimsical and apologetically staunch. Is it autobiographical?
A friend had asked me to do a 10-minute thing, and I had been thinking a lot that I haven’t played a dark character that sort of wheels me, a woman in her mid-20s. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s very personal, and the character comes from a very deep place within me. I had to put my money — there was no money at point actually — on this instinct, which is quite cynical. And she became this model of that cynicism for me.
There’s a certain bravado to Fleabag. She also was not liked much initially.
I feel people have been scared to write characters like these. But I think, now, especially women, are so relieved to have this new template. And aren’t we all a bit of everything? The morning can start out with us being a chaste princess, and by the afternoon we can be the Gremlin whore. We are all very different things in the same day, and at the same time. I feel, weirdly, that it felt less brave to not do that now. It’s been pouring out of me, this need to project multi-dimensional women as we are. We can be celebrated and at the same time do things that are potentially unforgivable. Then we let the audience decide.
Fleabag was first staged at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe. How was the transition from the stage to the screen?
It was really hard. I have my directors to thank massively. My best friend helped develop the play, and then we got Harry Bradbeer as the director. He really cared about the heart. Many directors, they care about what you see, he cares about what you feel. It was critical, as I wanted to create something I hadn’t seen before, especially that interplay between the audience and the creator.
You breaking the fourth wall is the one salient features of the show.
It was very specific to the one-woman show that we did. I wanted the audience to be drawn in, so I could share with them how personal it all was. It felt like the biggest relationship to me. I wanted the audience to be lured in, to come with me and enjoy this time, I promised that it will be fun. And at the end of the play, when there was this big reveal, they are looking in the eyes of the character, and the audience is feeling betrayed and conflicted.
All because of their relationship with her. We wanted to get the same vibe and sense to the screen. In the second season, she is almost caught in that act. The moment that audience feels safe and comfortable, you have to disrupt it. That idea that I might be caught in the act — it gave me goosebumps — had cropped up even before we knew that we would have a priest in the mix.
The ending of Fleabag was quite unusual.
One always asks the story how it needs to end. With Fleabag, we thought that was the right one. There were many fantasy endings in my mind. But oddly, that ending where she doesn’t end up with him, seems the best one, as she could now survive without the need to perform any more.
You are also a screenwriter and have developed the critically acclaimed series, Killing Eve. How do you switch gears, from an actor to a writer?
Its like being on a train that’s moving too fast. You don’t have time to think about it. I think they keep moulding into the same thing, making sure that the most truthful and surprising version of the story is presented. Be it talking to other actors for Killing Eve, talking to designers or acting in Fleabag. It’s always the same focus, all a bit unifying. It’s also great as you get to accost the whole thing. They feed into each other. Though there are times, when I am not acting, I am like ‘God I wanna act’, and when I am acting, I am like ‘give me a little room where I can write’. The one that is left now, is to direct, and that feels like a good mix of it all. Because then you are in the character and looking at it at the same time. That will be the final part of the triptych.
You have also worked on the script of the upcoming unnamed James Bond film.
I helped polish the script. I can’t take credit for the script or characters. It’s been an amazing experience to help with a film like this, and to see first hand how this kind of a movie is made, with the sheer passion involved.