'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Phoebe Waller-Bridge ('Fleabag' & 'Killing Eve')

The multihyphenate behind two of TV’s buzziest shows reflects on how a series of 10-minute plays that she wrote opened the doors to screen jobs, how much of herself is in her characters and how being a feminist does (and doesn’t) shape her work.
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Phoebe Waller-Bridge

"I certainly am a feminist and always have been and always will be until the day when that word doesn't need to exist anymore," vows the actress/writer/producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge as we sit down at the New York Edition Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast. We're discussing how her two massively acclaimed, female-centric TV series, both now Emmy-eligible for their second season — Amazon's Fleabag, which she created, wrote, executive produced and starred in, and BBC America's Killing Eve, which she developed for TV and wrote the first season of — have made her someone people turn to for commentary on matters related to feminism. "But," the 33-year-old emphasizes, "my best expression of how I feel about it and my own analysis of it was always in the [shows]."

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.

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Waller-Bridge was born and raised in London, a tomboy and jokester with acting ambitions that led her to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. There, however, she lost confidence in her abilities, and, upon graduating, struggled to land acting work and applied to law school. "Of course, the moment I got a place at law school, I got my first acting job," she says with a chuckle. For years thereafter, she found work on the stage, but few opportunities onscreen, winning some small parts (including in the 2011 film The Iron Lady) and missing out on many more (such as the part of one of the sisters on TV's Downton Abbey).

One night, after going to see her then-boyfriend perform in a play, Waller-Bridge met the show's director, Vicky Jones, and the two quickly became the best of friends. They formed a theater group, DryWrite, which paired writers with performers on 10-minute shows. One night, Waller-Bridge, who had never written before, was urged by Jones to write one of her own. "It went down really well, and I suddenly had that feeling of like, 'Oh, my God, I think I might be able to do this,'" Waller-Bridge recalls. "I literally owe her everything."

After Waller-Bridge had accumulated 10 such scripts, Jones approached the artistic director of London's Soho Theatre and convinced him to give Waller-Bridge an evening there to perform them. Among those who attended was a producer who, on the basis of one of Waller-Bridge's works, commissioned a pilot for the TV show Crashing, about young people living together in what was once a hospital.

Fleabag was another Waller-Bridge short play, but was first performed at a venue featuring comics, not playwrights. "Because it wasn't the theater crowd that I knew — it was a comedy crowd — I felt like I had less to lose going in there," she says. Her work, which pertained to the sexual journey of a young woman not unlike herself, was received well enough that she decided to expand to expand it into a 65-minute one-woman-show. "It's really personal, but it's not really autobiographical," Waller-Bridge insists. "The story was definitely a constructed story around feelings that I had that were really personal — like, I was feeling really cynical about sex and the perception of women and feeling like I had a brain but that my body was the most important thing." But, she adds, "Overall, it's more the emotion that was autobiographical."

Waller-Bridge took Fleabag to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world's largest arts festival, in 2013, where it garnered rave reviews, played to sold-out houses and was honored with the Fringe First Award. Someone from the BBC was in attendance and soon thereafter commissioned a pilot of Fleabag for TV. Meanwhile, as a result of the Edinburgh reception, Crashing was ordered to series, followed soon thereafter by Fleabag, and Waller-Bridge wrote the two shows simultaneously. "They were really two different times of my life summed up in those two shows," she says. Crashing made it to the air first, but was not well-received, which, Waller-Bridge admits, "really hurt." Fleabag, however, had a smoother landing. From the get-go, critics and viewers of the Alfie-influenced show were enamored with its depiction of a free-spirited 21st century woman (played by Waller-Bridge), which is just as daring stylistically (with its recurrent breaking of the fourth wall) as it is with subject matter (anal sex is casually discussed in its first episode).

Meanwhile, the stage version of Fleabag had convinced producer Sally Woodward Gentle that Waller-Bridge would be the ideal person to adapt Luke Jennings' 2014 e-book Codename Villanelle for the small screen as Killing Eve. Waller-Bridge originally turned down the offer because she was so overwhelmed with her other assignments, but Woodward Gentle and her associates wanted her enough to hold their project until she could come up for air, at which point Waller-Bridge dove into the story of one woman, an MI5 spy named Eve, pursuing another, a psychopath named Villanelle. This was her first time adapting someone else's work — and was done with no intention of starring in the resulting product. "It came up early," she says of the idea, "but I felt just very instinctively that these weren't for me. I don't think the characters wanted me to play either of them." Instead, veteran Sandra Oh was cast as Eve and newcomer Jodie Comer was cast as Villanelle.

"I want to write things that actors love playing because I think that audiences can feel that in an instant and it makes it even more electric," emphasizes Waller-Bridge, who has been touted to the heavens by Oh and Comer. The show's first season, which managed to feel scary without showing much actual violence and felt cathartic for many women used to watching men inhabit such roles, proved a massive hit for BBC America and brought Emmy noms for both Oh (best actress in a drama series) and Waller-Bridge (best writing for a drama series), as well as a Golden Globe for Oh (in the same category) and BAFTA TV Awards for best drama series, Comer (best actress) and Fiona Shaw (best supporting actress).

Waller-Bridge did not return as head writer for Killing Eve's second season (she remained intimately involved with it), and did not intend to make a second season of Fleabag, either. "I was convinced that Fleabag would only be one season because it was an adaptation of the play and the play had an ending, and then the TV show had an ending," she insists. "What was really great is that there wasn't any pressure from the channels, like there always is, to keep something open. And I felt like I wanted this ending for season one." However, after Fleabag went down so well, her collaborators asked her to think about a second season. "I was just worried that I'd tell the same story again," she admits. "My biggest fear was that the most interesting version of that woman's story had been told in series one."

In the end, Waller-Bridge came up with a second season in which the character Fleabag winds up as the thing she seemed least likely to be at the end of the first season — religious — which shook things up entirely. Indeed, the show's second set of six episodes went over even better than the first, and many will undoubtedly want more. But Waller-Bridge, who is increasingly in-demand as an actress (she appeared in 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story) and writer (she has been hired to work on the next James Bond movie), guarantees that she will leave the character forever after playing her one final time back on the stage — specifically, on the West End — in August. As she puts it, "It just felt like the perfect way to end the whole journey."