Phoebe Waller-Bridge and ‘Fleabag’ cast reflect on love, religion, and saying goodbye
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag could become the most feted two-season series of all time.
In the past year, Waller-Bridge’s pitch-black comedy swept the Emmys, TV Critics Awards, Golden Globes, and Critics’ Choice and is now primed to make a similar showing at the 2020 Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony in Los Angeles on Jan. 19.
In a rare appearance with her cast, Waller-Bridge (as Fleabag) joined costars Sian Clifford (Claire), Andrew Scott (Priest), and Brett Gelman (Martin) for a wide-ranging conversation about Fleabag with Fortune during a SAG-AFTRA event on Jan. 7 in Los Angeles to discuss the series.
What follows is an edited, condensed version of that conversation.
Before we dig into Fleabag, I’d love to know what each of you was most obsessed with growing up in terms of entertainment. Whose posters did you have on your bedroom walls?
Brett Gelman: Basically I took a bunch of movie posters and put pictures of my face over all of them. (Laughter) What, that’s strange? No, on my wall I had the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin—mostly comedians. Actually, for my bar mitzvah, my mother wrote to all my favorite comedians and said, “You’re my son’s favorite…”
Phoebe Waller-Bridge: This is not true.
Gelman: I’m serious. She said, “Will you please sign this photo and put it in a self-addressed envelope for his bar mitzvah?” So I had all these signed photographs from comedians’ assistants. (Laughter) Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, George Burns, Mel Brooks, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal.
Sian Clifford: Okay it’s really embarrassing now, but I had Leonardo DiCaprio.
This was Leo circa Titanic?
Clifford: Oh yeah, ’90s Leo, prime Leo. Romeo + Juliet Leo. I brushed shoulders with him at the Globes, which was surreal and terrifying. Oh, and a lot of boy bands were on my wall too.
Andrew Scott: I had Kylie Minogue on mine, which is quite gay, isn’t it? (Laughter) My dad comes in, “Is that your heartthrob?” And I’m like, “Uh, yeah. My musical heartthrob.”
Waller-Bridge: I had [1990s Irish boy band] Boyzone on my wall. When I first got to school a girl asked me, “Are you into Take That or Boyzone?” I didn’t know what either of those things meant. So I just said, “Boyzone,” because it had “boy” in it and it sounded like there was a zone for that. (Laughs) Then it was the band I had to associate with all the way through school. I had Brad Pitt and also George Clooney on my wall, but just George’s face. It had a red background. It was an awkward headshot of him, not even from a movie.
Gelman: Your wall sounds like the casting board for Ocean’s 11. (Laughter)
Waller-Bridge: I was also completely obsessed with the movie Rescuers Down Under. The main character was a boy called Cody who got to ride on the back of an eagle, which was my dream. I wanted to be a boy riding on the back of an eagle. I think I’m getting there!
Phoebe, you’ve been sharing stories about Fleabag now for years. Is there anything left to tell us about how you transformed your one-woman stage show into an Amazon Studios comedy?
Waller-Bridge: Probably not. (Laughter) No, I think with the first [season], I felt like it had to completely end because the play also had an ending. I had to honor that the original story had one arc. The surprising thing was actually being able to open the characters’ hearts up again and find more in there, especially when you thought you’d created a catharsis that should have been enough for the audience! That’s why it was really challenging going back for [season] two. We’d seen the most interesting parts of this woman’s life: her breakdown, flashbacks of her friend dying. But our director, Harry Bradbeer, said, “If she’s got something else to learn, there’s more story.” Originally I was “Ugh,” but he was right. So what we worked out was, What she had to learn was how to love. That was a big lesson for me, that there was something more for her to learn.
A lot of American showrunners talk about the pressure they feel to pack as much plot as possible into the first season of a show, even just into their pilots. Did you feel that too, especially considering that you’d only expected to do one season?
Waller-Bridge: Yeah, I believe that about jokes as well. Having all those jokes in the first episode can really screw you, but it also really pushes you. It’s great to not worry about what comes later, as long as what you’ve got in front of you is funny, and it moves fast.
Andrew, I want to thank you for being so cool about being so totally objectified as the hot guy in season two. How has it felt for you to see the Hot Priest movement taken hold of the Internet so fiercely?
Scott: It’s surreal, though I try not to go online too much. (Laughs) My sister sends me the exceptional stuff. But it is genuinely exciting to be involved with something that’s such a work of art, and no less a work of art because it’s funny. And then for so many people to see, honor, and love it is genuinely special and rare. So yeah, it’s been amazing.
Sian, you’ve known Phoebe since drama school in England. What were your first impressions of each other when you met?
Clifford: Obviously good because we’re still here. (Laughs) There was a three-day initiation period to our drama school and on the third day there was this terrible party. We found ourselves on the same subway platform afterward and discovered we were from the same part of London. That was was the moment we connected. My impression of Phoebe was that she was intoxicating as a human.
Waller-Bridge: It’s funny, one of my earliest memories of school was that really long train ride. The first few days of school, no one’s talking to you. Then suddenly we talked for 40 minutes! I also remember you being coy and saying you couldn’t sing. I was like, “I can’t sing either.” And then the next day in singing lessons she was like [sings loudly]. Typical humility.
Scott: Did you guys did you do serious stuff together in drama school or comedies?
Waller-Bridge: We were never actually in a play together.
Clifford: There were like 34 people, and they split us into two groups. We were in the same group, and we had the same monstrous acting teacher who made us feel very small. (Laughs)
I love the scene at the end of season two when Claire announces to Martin that she’s leaving him. How did you balance humor with what is actually a very sad moment, even though we know they are terrible for each other?
Gelman: For me, Martin’s awful behavior was rooted in the sadness of his marriage falling apart, and then desperation and rage from his denial of that pain to the point where he became a walking explosion. So that scene was about diving into the pathos of that, but at a pace that was very important.
Clifford: Yes, what he said. (Laughs) And it was all on the page. I know we did one version that was super emotional, which didn’t feel right. And we didn’t have much time that day.
Waller-Bridge: The amazing thing with these guys is that you can try the whole scale of performance with them. Start with just comedy, then after three takes they’ll turn it around and suddenly you’ve got floods of tears, it’s Shakespearean, and you’re like, “Oh shit!” Like, “Okay, Sian, turn off the tears and make it more hurt than angry this time?” That scene in particular was extraordinary because I’d changed Brett’s monologue in the car on the way to set, with him in the car. It was the meanest thing I could have done. (Laughs) Then he did it three times word-perfect, like “Bang bang!” Sian didn’t know what was going to come out of his mouth. I have such huge gratitude to you both for taking that on.
Andrew, religion is a major theme this season. Not to stereotype Irish people, but I assume you were raised Catholic?
Scott: Yes, I was.
Have you gotten negative feedback about your character having sex and the show’s overall depiction of religion?
Scott: Actually no, not for the most part. So often religious figures are painted in very extreme ways, and we wanted to create a more human character, particularly coming from Catholic Ireland. I grew up feeling this huge amount of rage, so I’d loved the idea of creating somebody, as we kept saying, who’s good at his job and relatable. In our generation, many people feel let down by the church. So where does our spirituality go? We created a character who is actually a good person and has a genuine spiritual conflict. Something happens when these two characters see each other for the first time. They love each other immediately, but that love has a real competitor in religion. The huge love they feel for each other has to have a huge love battling against it. Phoebe and I talked a lot about how you can manifest love in surprising ways.
Waller-Bridge: I remember early on [in season two] Andrew said, “I don’t know why, but I think we need a moment where Fleabag asks me if I’m a real priest.” And I’m like, “I agree, and I don’t know why.” So I wrote it into the script, and it’s one of the most powerful moments between them. It’s kind of aggressive: “Are you a real priest?” And Andrew comes back, with his beautiful acting that I can watch over and over again, with a simple, “Yes.” It was such a moment.
How much has Fleabag totally ruined you when choosing projects now?
Clifford: Everything else is just… different. I’ve worked on a couple of things since we packed up Fleabag that were beautiful in a completely different way. But they’re not even close, and that’s really difficult. As an actor, you want to be as elastic as possible and stretch yourself in different ways.
Gelman: I think it’s dangerous to think that way. There’s nothing absolute to anything artistic. This show is unlike anything at all I’ve done before or since, and that’s not really characterizing it as better or worse. I just feel grateful to have worked with artists like Phoebe, Andrew, and Sian, the rest of the cast and the crew of the show. You work on something like this and you gain more of a respect for yourself as an actor, and I think that can also carry you into the future.
Scott: One of the biggest things I learned working with Phoebe is that there’s a great pressure set to complete everything that’s on the call sheet. And what she’s so brave about is saying, “No… can actually we just stop here today?” Acting’s very pressurizing, particularly on a budget and when the light is going. But what our audience wants is chemistry, magic, and aliveness, and sometimes priorities need to shift to accomplish that. Her generosity on set is incredibly unique.
Phoebe, you’ve said on numerous occasions that there will not be a third season of Fleabag. But when the show is inevitably rebooted in 20 years, as all iconic series now are, where we will find our hero then?
Waller-Bridge: (Laughs) I honestly have no idea. I think this show is just so instinctive. When I do this character, I have to go so deeply into what I’m feeling at that exact moment. Like, “Okay, now I’m going to write about religion.” And that instinct turned out to be right. So if she comes back later, I’ll have to learn it all then because when I think of a future for her now, I can’t see it! But I hope she’s having a delicious glass of wine somewhere warm.
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