From ‘Fleabag’ to James Bond and Beyond: Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Death and Her Secret New Movie
With two Emmy-nominated series and Hollywood at her feet, 'Fleabag' creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge — and now Bond’s second-ever female scribe — talks about what's next, the allure of 007 and why she can’t stop writing about death.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge has clearly done her homework. Delivering herself onto a shaded sofa in the Chateau Marmont courtyard, the 34-year-old British auteur surveys the Sunday brunch set with the confidence of a regular. “Before I got here I read something like ‘The 25 Most Controversial Things That Happened at the Chateau,'” she confesses, her eyes flashing with a newfound awareness of decades marked by glamour and debauchery. “You know, just to really get in the zone.”
Interviewing a writer and actor who so nimbly avoids cliche on the grounds from which roughly 8,736 celebrity profiles have been harvested feels almost unsavory. But Waller-Bridge is leaning into Hollywood stereotypes as she hits Los Angeles at the beginning of August for a wave of press to capitalize on the glut of Emmy nominations tossed at her razor-sharp comedy, Fleabag — and every element of this decadent tableau delights her. We run through some of the hotel’s biggest hits: Helmut Newton’s deadly car crash in front of the valet stand, Lindsay Lohan charging $686 worth of cigarettes to her room, Benicio Del Toro and Scarlett Johansson’s alleged 2004 Oscars night tryst …
“In the lift!” she declares, thrilled all over again. “Oh, when someone asked her about that, she just gave an unbelievably cool response.”
As the creator and star of Fleabag, Waller-Bridge has herself become synonymous with cool among the creative class, subverting taboos with audacity and chain-smoking over two six-episode seasons of her BBC and Amazon Studios show. This Sunday afternoon, however, finds her doing a bit of recalibrating. During a rare six-day visit to L.A., she has lain poolside like a proper starlet, hosted a dinner party at the Mexican restaurant Toca Madera — which, by her account, more closely resembled a nightclub — and glad-handed members of an entertainment industrial complex desperate for a piece of her next act.
Fleabag‘s second (and, she says, final) season, which bowed stateside in May, was heralded with borderline hyperbolic fervor. Critics called it “thrillingly deep,” “a minor miracle” and “brilliance slathered on brilliance.” The reaction in Hollywood C-suites hasn’t been any more subdued. “Nothing would make us happier than to have her bring another season of that show,” Amazon Studios boss Jennifer Salke recently said, “or anything else she wants to do.” James Bond producers quickly enlisted her for a rewrite of the Bond 25 script. And on the subject of potentially being the one to land Waller-Bridge’s next TV project, FX tastemaker John Landgraf offered only a “hallelujah.”
As for the subject of all this adulation, “I’m just trying to sniff out where the freedom is,” says the creator of the moment. “Freedom and that feeling of not having any grown-ups to answer to.”
Based on her 2013 one-woman stage play, Fleabag is up for 11 Emmys for its second season after being snubbed for its first go-around. The tally includes three for Waller-Bridge — for lead actress, writing and comedy series. And it’s not even her only show in the running. As creator of Killing Eve, she’s also up for best drama as executive producer on the second season of BBC America’s slick spy thriller (after serving as showrunner on its first). Should she score a deuce — admittedly unlikely against HBO heavy hitters Game of Thrones and Veep — Waller-Bridge would join TV legend David E. Kelley, golden boy of the 1999 Emmys with The Practice and Ally McBeal, as the only person ever to sweep genres in the same year. Win or no, it’s rarefied air for a woman who was virtually unknown in Hollywood just three years ago.
Standing shy of her reported 6 feet, Waller-Bridge sports a tousled bob of brown curls and is easily distinguished by the birthmark engaged in an ongoing flirtation with her hairline. But for anyone familiar with Fleabag, it’s her eyes that make the most compelling case for attention. On the series, that certain glance indicates when her nameless protagonist (known unofficially as “Fleabag”) breaks the fourth wall — letting the audience in on a titillating joke or, more rarely, begging you to look away when she’s shared too much. In person, they signal a burning curiosity prone to throwing off sparks.
Waller-Bridge, ready to engage in fresh Fleabag analysis, is markedly more intrigued when conversation veers off of anticipated terrain and into random facts about elephant psychology, the “Shakespearean” drama of Love Island or, a real favorite, death. For all of the doors it has opened — making Killing Eve, voicing a feisty droid in Solo: A Star Wars Story, becoming only the second woman in history with a Bond writing credit — Fleabag is still what’s expected of her.
When she talks about moving on, people have opinions. During a screening and panel down the street two nights earlier, a standing ovation was shortly followed by disapproving groans when Waller-Bridge confirmed that, yet again, she’s done with the show. “I’d rather that than the other way around,” she says, laughing. ” ‘End it! Please, end it!‘ No, I love that sound that people make. But I can genuinely say that was it.”
Waller-Bridge has tried to close the door on the character before. Fleabag the series, originally set to end with one season, inspired an initially reluctant sophomore return. Fleabag the stage play, which was to have wrapped after its off-Broadway revival in April, kicks off a string of 30 sold-out performances on London’s West End on Aug. 20. A chanteuse begged to keep singing the hits, obliging her public with multiple farewell tours, she has been gearing up to say goodbye to the role of her young career for most of its existence. “The reasons to end never felt as guttural as they do now,” she explains as she leans over the lip of the couch, offering a small bird an oily shard of tuna from her Nicoise salad. Hopeful eyes flatten under furrowed disappointment as the sparrow (possibly a finch) rejects her gift, but she understands. “I’m a big follower of the old gut.”
Waller-Bridge grew up in West London — “clinging onto the end of the Central Line,” as she puts it, a practical way of signifying her suburban childhood. Older sister Isobel, a composer whose work includes the gnarring metal guitar and ethereal choral work of the Fleabag score, and younger brother Jasper, a music manager transitioning into production, flank her by only a few years on either side. Her parents — her mother works for the Ironworkers Guild, her father is a retired finance man who now focuses on photography — divorced when she was a teenager.
Divulging no sign of Middle Child Syndrome, Waller-Bridge describes a sibling rapport more akin to the harmony of The Partridge Family than the discord of Fleabag. The series’ autobiographical elements are limited to its creator’s worldview and do not include the loss and dysfunction that consume Waller-Bridge’s character. “I want to say we’re an artistic family,” she says, before pausing to consider the baggage of that description, “but we’re probably quite a performative family is the truth.”
Gaze a few limbs further up Waller-Bridge’s family tree and you’ll find such terms as “landed gentry” and “2nd Baronet.” Both translate to roughly the same thing: She was raised in the upper middle class. Dead set on acting from a young age, she attended a private high school in London’s tony Marylebone neighborhood, then applied to and was accepted by London’s rigorous Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Her first year lingered on technique and theory, not the performing she’d anticipated.
“I was quite footloose,” she says of 17-year-old Phoebe. “I just wanted to have … what do you guys call it when you just go crazy? Freshman year! It’s not like that in drama school.”
Instead, says Sian Clifford, who studied with Waller-Bridge at RADA before playing her uptight older sister on Fleabag, “Drama school was more about survival than anything else, particularly in our year.” The two actresses met during their 2003 orientation, bonded over their shared 45-minute commute and went on to spend nearly every day together for the following three years. But Clifford, the supporting character onscreen, was “a favorite” at RADA, she says, whereas “Phoebe is someone I saw very stifled in that environment, not really nurtured at all.”
Waller-Bridge looks back on her three-year RADA program with a “mixture of huge affection and a feeling of being slightly trapped” — especially by the type of period-project lead that the institution was famous for supplying to British stage and screen. Though she also applied to law school (“I was never going to give up acting, but I felt like my brain was going to shit”), she was focused on mining for satisfying roles. Stage productions of Balm in Gilead, in which she played a transvestite — “I looked exactly like Russell Brand, it’s the hottest I’ve ever been” — and Roaring Trade (opposite future Fleabag season two “hot priest” Andrew Scott) let her loose. But with frustrating gaps between good roles, she began to write her own. In 2007, she formed theater company DryWrite with her best friend and frequent director Vicky Jones. The first kernels of Fleabag, the play and the series, were scattered there around 2009.
Waller-Bridge soon began adding some significant non-theatrical credits. She booked a series regular gig on Sky1 comedy The Cafe and a supporting role in Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, where she met Olivia Colman (Fleabag‘s Godmother). The Oscar-winning star of The Favourite recalls being instantly drawn to Waller-Bridge’s sense of humor. When DryWrite had an opportunity to take Fleabag to the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Colman was among those who contributed to its Kickstarter campaign — which raised $6,000.
Fleabag, an hourlong stage monologue that starts as a riotous meditation on sex and spirals into a revelation of gut-dropping betrayal, was dubbed “rude” and “filthy.” Time Out wrote that Waller-Bridge was “almost certainly going to go to hell for it.” The project minted Waller-Bridge the star of the festival, earning the Fringe First award and, soon after, a run at London’s Soho Theatre.
“I had gone thinking, ‘Brilliant, I’m going to have an hour of wetting myself laughing — Phoebe is the funniest person I know,’ ” says Colman. “Instead, she pulled the rug out from under my feet and broke my heart.”
BBC brass were among those in the audience at Edinburgh and again during the London run, and Waller-Bridge was offered a TV series if she could manage to translate her free-standing one-woman show into a pilot. It became one of two series she sold in the festival’s wake, both premiering in 2016. Broader comedy Crashing debuted that January on the U.K.’s Channel 4 to critical approval. Its reception was tepid compared to the rapture that greeted BBC’s Fleabag that July.
“My only worry was that it was being pigeonholed as sexually depraved, filthy, outrageous and shocking,” says BBC comedy chief Shane Allen. This concerned Waller-Bridge also, as the show made its way to the U.S. via Amazon Prime Video. “I’m not saying it wasn’t a show about sex,” she acknowledges. “What’s interesting is that when women write about sex, suddenly sex becomes the headline, the theme of the whole show.”
One of the Chateau hostesses approaches our table — not to see if the salad went over well but to give Waller-Bridge her number. The confessional familiarity of Fleabag, minting Waller-Bridge as the internet’s latest best friend, has made it so that she can’t even enjoy a staged interview without being solicited for a hang. No, wait, she asked for that number.
“Yeah, last night actually,” says Waller-Bridge. “There was a massive wedding and she was so stressed. We kept telling her, ‘Just fuck ’em all off and come have a drink!’ “
Even as she tucks a near-stranger’s number into her pocket, Waller-Bridge notes she’s becoming more private. She politely takes a pass when asked about the aforementioned “we.” (She’s in L.A. with playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, 49; the two have been romantically linked since his 2018 awards-season run for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.) Conscious of her growing fame, some of her inner circle have even started telling her to stop taking London’s Tube — “my idea place!” — but she’s committed to not giving it up completely.
That she can still find the occasional semblance of anonymity has much to do with the choices Waller-Bridge made after Fleabag hit. Motion-capture work for a Star Wars movie is not the stuff of tabloid fodder. But when she was invited to audition for original directors (and Fleabag fans) Phil Lord and Chris Miller, she was excited by the novelty of acting without actually appearing on camera. And Killing Eve did not land Waller-Bridge’s face on the sides of buses, but it proved crucial in bolstering her profile. Before her protracted deliberation over a second season of Fleabag, she was approached by BBC America to develop and write the series based on Luke Jennings’ spy novella Codename Villanelle. Network president Sarah Barnett had lost her bid on Fleabag to Amazon when the BBC initially courted U.S. partners, so Waller-Bridge was the exec’s top pick to adapt the cat-and-mouse story of a British intelligence desk jockey and an irreverently psychotic assassin. In a genre so bloated with machismo, both characters being women sold Waller-Bridge.
She delivered a first season that helped define a low-profile network, recharge star Sandra Oh’s career with two Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe win, and supply a new breakout in co-lead Jodie Comer. For all of the people who laud Waller-Bridge — and they are many — few speak about her as effusively as those who pay her to write. “The only note you give Phoebe is, ‘You can lean into the weird,’ ” says Barnett. “She wants to subvert. She wants to surprise. She wants to play in this highly charged space between laughter and deep feeling.” Adds BBC’s Allen, “She does homework on the bus on the way to school, but it’s always there. The only other person who has the ability to turn around a whole draft in a weekend and it’s perfect is [Black Mirror‘s] Charlie Brooker.”
In March and April, while Waller-Bridge was in New York for nightly performances of Fleabag — Anna Wintour and Adam Driver were among those spotted at the sold-out run — she was secretly polishing the script on the still-untitled Bond 25, said to be Daniel Craig’s final turn in the role. It was Craig’s suggestion that she give the project, beleaguered by delays, some sharper dialogue. The fifth credited screenwriter, she joined director Cary Joji Fukunaga, co-writer Scott Z. Burns and usual Bond maestros Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Sources paint Waller-Bridge’s pay at around $2 million for her incremental work on the script. Not too shabby for a punch-up. Her hiring speaks to an awareness that Bond needs to better serve female characters in his post-#MeToo debut.
“There’s something about James Bond that always intrigued me in a similar way that Villanelle did,” says Waller-Bridge, referencing Comer’s Killing Eve assassin. “They live a fantasy! But it’s a life none of us would ever want, if we’re honest. We don’t want to go put a bullet in someone’s head to sleep with people and have martinis. It’s a kind of fantasy nightmare.” Asked about reports that Bond 25 actress Lashana Lynch will be picking up the 007 mantle, she says, “The whole thing has potential to birth new iconic characters all the time.”
She’s cognizant and somewhat suspicious of the mild frenzy around her contribution: “A lot has been made of me coming on board because I’m a woman, and that’s wonderful. But also I can’t take credit for the movie that was written. It’s Cary’s movie.”
With the new value on her name, Waller-Bridge speaks most carefully about credit. Her role on Killing Eve is now solely that of executive producer. She says she offers feedback on season three scripts when current showrunner Suzanne Heathcote sends them but prefers to give writers the freedom she’s been afforded. She’s also not writing on HBO’s Run, a detail she says has been ignored in early coverage. Created by Vicky Jones, the comedy stars Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson, with Waller-Bridge attached as executive producer and in a recurring role. (For HBO’s part, the network does have bragging rights in being the next to get her on camera.)
Waller-Bridge’s real Fleabag follow-up, she insists, is a feature she’s writing with the intent to direct: “The day I wrapped Fleabag, I went to bed thinking, ‘I’m never going to have another idea again. Oh shit.’ I woke up with the vision of this film.” Of three things she appears to be certain: She won’t take the project to market until it’s finished, she needs a meaningful theatrical release (sorry, Netflix) and she will not be cajoled into appearing on camera — though the third requirement could prove unrealistic. “I blatantly will end up in it,” she cops after wincing her way into a laugh.
In the age of the nine-figure overall deal, it’s also easy to assume any future sale for Waller-Bridge may coincide with the multihyphenate wedding herself to one outlet. “You can smell it a mile off when people are just saying, ‘We want to pay for your name,’ to be associated with their company and then have their own agenda,” she says. “No, I wouldn’t trust that for a second.”
That’s not to say she doesn’t ponder the perks. Outside of the money, she sees one big draw to working with just a single company: “There is certainly an appeal in not having to meet new people all the time.”
Afternoon running out of steam, Waller-Bridge leans in a bit, beer in hand, for a casual chat about death. “I have to stop myself from writing about it,” she concedes, “but it’s all I really want to write about.”
Tear away the wrapping of sex and cynicism, and Fleabag is about the loss of both the character’s mother and best friend. And while death proves a subtler specter in the second season — with Fleabag falling for Scott’s “hot priest” — the debate over faith and the afterlife becomes central to the existential intimacy. “I just can’t get my head around literal unconsciousness forever,” she says. “The whole worm-food thing. That’s what gives me panic attacks.”
She is better equipped to deal with Fleabag reaching the end of the line — though she also can’t stop herself from dangling a carrot with the suggestion of revisiting the character two decades down the line, “when I’m 50, maybe, when you know there’s been a life lived and it’s a different face looking down the barrel.”
But Waller-Bridge says expectations, for more Fleabag or anything else she does, will pass. It’s one of the reasons she’s taking a breather, she insists, before she goes onto the next. “People get over shit,” she says, offering a shrug and crediting her mother with some evergreen advice. “If something doesn’t go well, you’ll get over it, everyone will get over it. And if something goes brilliantly, we’ll all get over that, too.” When she tries to predict how she’ll feel in a month, after Fleabag‘s final London performance Sept. 14, all she can summon is an “elated,” before taking things a little deeper: “We need things to end to remind us that we are still alive.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.