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Phoebe Waller-Bridge is grateful for her “gift of rage.” After all, it’s what led her to write her one-woman show turned BBC 3/Amazon series phenomenon Fleabag, which earned her a BAFTA and three Emmy Awards. (She keeps them at her mom’s house, if anyone’s inquiring.)
“I needed to see that character. And I wanted to act that character. And then I discovered that I could write that character,” Waller-Bridge said at an event at The Town Hall in New York City on Sunday night. “I feel a sort of burn when I’m writing something that feels truthful and a bit dangerous and writing the play was just a big ole burn. And it was driven by that sense of rage. What if I just said onstage what I say to my friend? Or if I just express some of the rage that I have but turn it up?… The only way I could really describe the character to someone once when they asked me was: when I was feeling at my most down and angry and rageful standing at the precipice of whatever that is in your mind and I looked at the bottom of the chasm and the very bottom was Fleabag. So I was like I”m going to write her to stop me becoming her.”
Waller-Bridge sat down with New York Times Magazine staff writer and author Taffy Brodesser-Akner in honor of the release of Fleabag: The Scriptures, a book including the complete script from both season of the show with additional commentary from Waller-Bridge. Brodesser-Akner started the evening by asking about Waller-Bridge’s childhood and time in Catholic school, which is where some of the rage started.
“I did quite like the kind of oppressive energy,” Waller-Bridge said of her Catholic education, adding that she was never religious but she did play drums in the church band. She was somewhat rebellious in her school days, though she did like to keep up the appearance that she was not causing trouble.
“I remember knowing that in order to be able to be mischievous you have to look like you’re playing by the rules,” she said, explaining that her mother taught her to be good so you can be bad behind the scenes.
Her rage also peaked in her 20s, when she was a struggling actor after attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
“When I was in my 20s and feeling quite frustrated by my position in the industry by just wanting a job. That was pretty much it,” she said. “But also in life as well, just feeling my place in the world as a woman and as a woman who wanted to write and act and how I felt about myself physically and what my power was, all that kind of stuff was going on at the same time, I did feel this real rage underneath it all. But I didn’t ever want to express pure rage to people so I think it came out as jokes. Fleabag was the expression of the kind of ‘ahhhh’ that came out.”
A real turning point came when she met Vicky Jones, who directed Fleabag the play. Waller-Bridge’s boyfriend at the time had a gig acting in a short play night in a pub (a gig she was incredibly jealous of), and she approached Jones, who directed one of the nights, and said she wanted to be an actress and would love to work with her. Jones was immediately supportive and brought Waller-Bridge onto her next project, which Jones was subsequently fired from and Waller-Bridge quit. But they still teamed up to found Dry Write, a late night evening of shorts at a pub where writers could be anonymous and try out writing exercises to make an audience feel things.
“We were accidentally giving ourselves this amazing training in writing,” Waller-Bridge said, adding later that the direct address camera work in Fleabag came from this experience of manipulating an audience’s emotions.
However, with the incredible success of Fleabag, Waller-Bridge has found herself in an entirely new position than the one she was in in her 20s and struggling to find work. She’s worked on the next James Bond film and landed a $20 million a year deal creating and producing new work for Amazon. So, Brodesser-Akner, how does this newfound fame affect her work?
“I feel like as long as I know what I’m writing next then nothing else actually affects it and nothing matters,” Waller-Bridge said. “The noise around it is so exciting and you know that people are watching and that’s really wonderful. I guess the pressure to make more stuff or make a certain kind of stuff has the same impact on me as the Catholic school oppression, which is I love it but I also know that you’re telling me to go and do that thing so I’m going to go and do that thing.”
Waller-Bridge feels lucky that she does have that idea for a next project (thought no details were revealed), so she’s able to write and develop with her team. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about how audiences will receive it.
“That’s all I care about. I really really care. I really want it to have impact every single time,” she said. “It drives me insane because [of] the constant voice of it’s not funny enough or what’s the point? All that kind of stuff. I feel like each time I’m writing something it has to be the best thing I’ve ever written, which isn’t fun to be around.”
That doesn’t mean she’s overthinking it completely as she’s writing. When asked whether she considers how a joke will play in the future, particularly considering a lot of past work doesn’t play as well today, Waller-Bridge said she can’t think about that.
“The hardest thing ever is to be really present in what you’re writing because if you’re anticipating anything, I think you’ve already screwed yourself over,” she said. “As long as you’re writing it truthfully at that time, it still has value, even if the value is that it feels inappropriate in 10 years time, it will tell us something about the time it was written.”
One example of being present as she was writing was when she discovered the fox in Fleabag season 2. In the scene where Fleabag and the priest are talking at night outside the church, Waller-Bridge said she was surprised to discover the fox.
“The best feeling is when I’m writing away and then honestly I started laughing and then this thing happened,” she said. “He was like, ‘Oh what’s that?’ I don’t know what it is, let’s find out what it is.”
And even though she has a deep love for the character, don’t expect a Fleabag season three. In fact, Waller-Bridge had a surprisingly emotional parting with her beloved heroine when she was reprising the play on the West End over the summer.
“This is one of the most sentimental things I’ve ever felt and I’ve ever said and I’m sorry if it makes you feel sick but it’s true,” she said, prefacing her story about what happened on the final day of performances. “I was performing the end and I was really emotional and I was suddenly hit by the whole journey of the character and then I felt her go. And it was such a lovely feeling, Ah we’ve done the right thing, we’ve ended the story at the right time.”
So what is Fleabag up to now? Will she ever see the priest again?
“I don’t actually know where she is now,” Waller-Bridge said. “And I think that’s the right thing for both of us.”
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