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'Fleabag' And 'Killing Eve' Creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge Is Full Of Surprises

TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's Emmy week on FRESH AIR, featuring interviews with some of this year's nominees. We'll start today's show with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator and star of the BBC-Amazon comedy series "Fleabag." The series has 11 nominations, two of which are for Waller-Bridge as best lead actress in a comedy series and best writing in a comedy series. She also created and wrote the first season of the hit series "Killing Eve," which leads to her second nomination this year for her role as an executive producer of "Killing Eve."


GROSS: In "Fleabag," Waller-Bridge plays a young single woman who's a feminist but suspects she's a bad one. She's sex positive but often doesn't enjoy the sex. She owns a cafe that's in financial trouble. She lost her mother a couple of years ago, and her father's response was to buy her and her sister tickets to feminist lectures. He also started dating their godmother. Phoebe Waller-Bridge's character presents a confident image, but she confesses what she's really thinking to the camera.

Note to parents - in a few minutes, we'll be briefly talking about how the main character's sexuality figures into this series. Nothing explicit, but we thought you should know. Let's start with the opening scene from Season 1, which is about sex, too. Fleabag is at home in the middle of the night, waiting at the door. She's out of breath because she's been rushing to get ready.


PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) You know that feeling when a guy you like sends you a text at 2 o'clock on a Tuesday night, asking if he can come and find you, and you've accidentally made it out like you've just got in yourself, so you have to get out of bed to drink half a bottle of wine, get in the shower, shave everything, dig out some Agent Provocateur business (ph), spin about the whole bit and wait by the door until the buzzer goes?


WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) And then you open the door to him, like you'd almost forgotten he's coming over. Oh, hi.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) And then you get to it immediately.

GROSS: (Laughter) Phoebe Waller-Bridge, welcome to FRESH AIR. So as we just heard, the series starts with sex. So let's start the interview there, too.


GROSS: Your character, who you play, says - and I'm going to conflate here a sentence from the TV series "Fleabag" and also from your one-woman show. So your character says, I'm not obsessed with sex; I just can't stop thinking about it - the performance of it, the awkwardness of it, the drama of it - the moment you realize someone wants your body, not so much the feeling of it.


GROSS: So describe that kind of sexual obsession, where it's about the drama and the performance, being desired, but not so much, like, the feeling of sex itself.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Well, I think that idea came from a lot of conversations I was having with friends of mine and - about how - what their relationship with sex was. And actually, often with the women I'd speak to, when I was really boiling it down with them - and through my own experiences as well - it felt like the most sort of important part of it was the validation a lot of the time and less of, you know, what the woman herself desired and more about the feeling of being desired.

And I just thought that was a really - it was kind of sad (laughter) how many women I spoke to felt like that and that I could relate to that and that I felt like that, certainly through my 20s. And I just sort of thought that that would really key in - that'd be a really quick way to kind of key into this character.

GROSS: And she kind of describes a problem that that can lead to. She says, I know that my body as it is now really is the only thing I have, and when that gets old, I might as well kill it. Either everyone feels this way a little, or I'm totally alone. So, you know, if you placed your value, your identity, on your sexual desirability, and then you passed the age where people see you as - sexual desirability being your defining (laughter) attribute then what do you have? I mean...

WALLER-BRIDGE: Mmm hmm. You're screwed.

GROSS: Did you go through that in any way, large or small?

WALLER-BRIDGE: Oh, yeah, I did, totally, in my 20s. I would feel like - I felt very frustrated because I could also - I could intellectualize my own neuroses about it, and I could say, this is - I can see this feeling that I'm having is a wrong feeling, and it's going to totally screw me up later down the line. But yet, this - I could feel the pressures of it. Maybe it's also because I'm an actress, and I see - you know, you can see that a lot when you're growing up. It's just very, very beautiful women on screen and with media and the pressure and adverts. I mean, I went through phases of just - you couldn't open - I couldn't open a newspaper, and it would just be women in their bras, like, advertising mortgages.


WALLER-BRIDGE: I mean, it didn't even make any sense, you know. It's just like, why are we always naked everywhere? And which - you know, which I struggled with as well because, you know, I don't believe that - I don't - I'm not a prudish person, and I'm not - and I never want anyone to feel, like, censored, and I never want to be censored myself. But I just felt like it was being commodified, like, the female body and the female - and not for our - not in any way that was healthy or made anybody happy. And that really, really frustrated me. It made me kind of angry and rage-y (ph) in my 20s. And so I think that's where a lot of that feeling came from.

GROSS: So your character in "Fleabag," she knows how to bring herself to orgasm, although her partners don't necessarily know how. And this seems to be the first period where women writers are actually writing about masturbation. The act itself is not a new thing, but I think being written about in comedies that are on TV, I think that's new. You know, it's interesting because in male coming-of-age movies and men stand-up comics are always talking about this subject - well, always - like, so frequently talking about this subject, but not so much - rarely, if ever - in movies or TV shows about women until recently.

WALLER-BRIDGE: I know. It's so funny, isn't it?

GROSS: It's like it was a secret (laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: It's so funny how shocking - yeah, it is like a secret. And it's like the shock of it. Like, I remember when "Fleabag" first came out, and the idea that she was - 'cause a funny reaction happened to "Fleabag" was - the TV show - was that people were talking about it like there was an awful lot of nudity in it or very gratuitous sex in it. And actually, there's no nudity in it. And you don't see any sex. Like, you don't see it very graphically. But the language is very graphic. And the fact that, I think, I'm looking straight down the barrel of the camera and that you stay on her, she's talking you through these moments.

So when - there's a moment when I'm masturbating with my boyfriend next to me, and it just feels, like, really, really intimate, I think, because we held on it. But then the show was written about like it was the filthiest, most, like, exposing...


WALLER-BRIDGE: ...Like, couldn't leave how much nudity there was in it. And I had - kept having to correct everybody like, no, nothing happened. And I can't - like you say, I cannot count on my fingers and toes how many scenes I've seen of, like, men on TV since I can remember (laughter) - I mean, especially in comedy. But it just seems like this thing - that it's just, like, an everyday occurrence for men that we all kind of understand and we all kind of see that it's kind of adorable. Like, these poor guys have get on with it.


WALLER-BRIDGE: And, you know, for women, it's this, yeah, transgressive act of, you know - of something naughty or in some cases something dirty, I think. You know, the - that women pleasuring herself was, like, a deeply selfish act, whereas a man having to do it was just, he had to get something off his chest or wherever else it comes from.


GROSS: We were talking about how your character kind of defined herself by her sexual desirability. But in Season 2, she decided to stop having sex, or at least to stop having so much of it. And she says sex didn't bring anything good. It's in fact brought some things that were very bad. But in the meantime, she desires a young, handsome, witty priest who's going to perform the wedding ceremony when her father remarries. And she desires him so much, even looks up celibacy on Google to see if there's any way around it (laughter). There isn't, but she's still going to try.

And I want to play a short scene in which she's visiting the priest, who's played by Andrew Scott. He recently gave her a Bible, which she's been reading. And so she's talking to him about it in this scene.


WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) So I read your book.

ANDREW SCOTT: (As priest) OK. Great.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Well, it's got some great twists.

SCOTT: (As priest) True.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) But it just - I couldn't help but notice...

SCOTT: (As priest) Come on. Just spit it out.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) ...Just one or two little inconsistencies.

SCOTT: (As priest) OK. Share.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) So the world is made in seven days. And on the first day, light came. And then a few days later, the sun came.

SCOTT: (As priest) Yeah. That's ridiculous.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) But you believe that.

SCOTT: (As priest) It's not fact. It's poetry. It's moral code. It's for interpretation to help us work out God's plan for us.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) What's God's plan for you?

SCOTT: (As priest) I believe God meant for me to love people in a different way. I believe I'm supposed to love people as a father.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) We can arrange that.

SCOTT: (As priest) A father of many.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) I'll go up to three.

SCOTT: (As priest) It's not going to happen.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Two, then.

SCOTT: (As priest) OK. Two.

GROSS: So in putting the priest in this position, I'm sure you had to think about what goes through a priest's mind when they're dealing with celibacy. Say they desire somebody. So what did you have to do to write that character, the character of the priest?

WALLER-BRIDGE: Well, I spoke to a monk quite extensively (laughter). And he'd also been a priest. And it was very important to me that this priest was - that the priest in "Fleabag" was portrayed as a fully multidimensional person and that his - that we could really feel his struggle and we really believed in who he was. And a big part of that for me was addressing that he's a sexual person because, you know, he's human, and that he will have some relationship to sex and he will have some drive, I believed, this character. So and I think it's really important to consider that about every person. Like, (laughter) everyone in the world.

So when I spoke to - and when I spoke to this Father William about it, he was incredibly, incredibly open with me. And it was really powerful, a moving conversation, because he said it was a daily struggle and it's something that he's very - that it's part of the struggle for him that makes him feel like he's really getting closer to God, or the more - that grapple is a conversation he has all the time with God. And he made it a very real, day to day, sort of live thing for me in my mind for this character 'cause he was saying it's - he basically was saying it's a bloody nightmare (laughter).

And then actually, you know, for me, there's - I'm not sure if it's a good thing that priests have to be celibate. And actually, the show, when it came out in the U.K., there were a few articles written about whether or not this is starting up another conversation about it in the modern world. But what was interesting is, also for me, when you take that one thing away from this man, that he can't give that to Fleabag, and that's the one thing that she wants basically from most men, is, at least, the potential for it. And from the moment they meet, he says there is no potential. We're going to have to connect on a new level.

And actually, Father William said that a lot. You know, he said you do, once you take that out of the equation, you do find other ways to engage with the world and with people. But it doesn't necessarily mean that it's completely out of his mind or he's at peace with it. So both him and Fleabag share a struggle with their relationship with sex. He's got a system to support him, and she doesn't.

GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and she created, wrote and stars in the comedy series "Fleabag." She also created and wrote the first season of "Killing Eve." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She created, wrote and stars in the BBC Amazon series "Fleabag." She also created and wrote the first season of the BBC America series "Killing Eve."


GROSS: Let's talk about your formative years. (Laughter). So...


GROSS: ...You went to a Catholic school for girls. How did the sex segregation work for you? And was this - like, how, old were you when you were in Catholic school?

WALLER-BRIDGE: I went there when I was 11. My mom had felt it was very important from day dot that we had boys around. (Laughter). As well as our brother and - 'cause my brother had, you know, sisters around the whole time, and we had him. But it's something about, actually, socializing. And so Mom was really, really good about making sure that we had boys and girls around the house. So I had a lot of, like, guy friends growing up 'cause of that. But then I also really loved the camaraderie of being around girls, and I still do. You know, I think there's something very special about that feeling.

But looking back, it does feel odd. The exclusivity of it is - does feel odd.

GROSS: So right before you went to Catholic school, when you were 6 until you were around 10 - and correct me if this is wrong 'cause this is just something I read - that you dressed as a boy. You shaved your head and called yourself Alex. (Laughter). Now, looking back on those years, do you understand why you wanted to do that?

WALLER-BRIDGE: Yeah, and I still have the same impulse all the time. I mean, I feel like when I was - I remember growing up, up until I was about - this is when 11, 12, is when I started dropping Alex and I was Phoebe again. But I just thought they just had more fun. I just wanted to be out climbing the trees and wearing comfortable clothes. And, you know, I just didn't feel like it was for me. And a lot of my friends were really into the dresses, and the dolls and that kind of stuff. It just wasn't my bag. And the only - and it just seemed so you kind of had to choose one or the other at that time. And I just definitely wanted to be climbing the trees and that kind of thing.

And so I had a friend, called Maria, and we both cut our hair really short and - yeah, I shaved (laughter) it at one point - and wore boxer shorts as swimming trunks. And we were just boys. I remember going into Gap once when I was about 7, and the guy coming up to me when I was with my mom and said, so what does the young man want? And I was like, yes...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: ...Convinced.

GROSS: (Laughter). Do you think if that was happening today that your parents would wonder if you were trans?

WALLER-BRIDGE: I think my parents would have been exactly the same, you know? And they never had an issue with it. They never - they were just sort of like, sure, you're Alex. Let's take you to Gap, Alex. (Laughter). And I just remember it never being a problem. I mean, there's the tomboy kind of thing.

I mean, I wonder now if I had back then if I had - because I was very, very fervent about it when I was younger, as well. It was like I just desperately wanted to be one more than anything else. If it had been taken seriously and maybe by my school or something, and I'd been - and I'd spoken about those options - those options had been given to me, I probably would have jumped at it. But I don't think my parents would've been any different. I think they're just like live and let live. And so I was very, very happy being a girl dressed as a boy as long as I was allowed to express myself that way and allowed to change my name and stuff. They were like, yeah, whatever makes you happy.

GROSS: So did...

WALLER-BRIDGE: And one day, I turn up, and I'm like, I'm Phoebe now. And they were like, welcome home (laughter).

GROSS: What made you change? When you went back to Phoebe, were you also changing the way you dressed? Because the nice thing about when you're a girl or a woman, you can still wear man's clothes and - you know, because what are they? They're pants and jackets and shirts - you know? - and T-shirts.


GROSS: (Laughter) You know? They're just kind of standard. When a man wears a dress, that's making much more of a major statement than when a woman wears, like, jeans and a T-shirt, which both...


GROSS: ...Genders wear.

WALLER-BRIDGE: So unfair. So unfair (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: It's just such a basic form of expression, just what you wear. And I do feel like that's the irony is that now it probably feels more limiting - clothes-wise, anyway - to be a man than it would be to be - it's massively more limiting. I - what changed it? I don't know. I went to a boarding school for a year and a half, two years. And then I think I was just in the kind of, like, middle range there. Like, I wasn't thinking either being a boy or being a girl.

But then I discovered boys in a big way and one in particular. I remember meeting a boy and then suddenly becoming really aware that I looked sort of boyish myself and that he probably didn't like that. And that was the kind of crossover point. And then I was like, hey.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: (Laughter) This is - I was like, this stuff is fun. And then I just dressed like such a little tart for years and years and years.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: And actually, that was the one thing that my mom - I do remember one - my - one conversation with my mom being like, you know what? I can't tell the difference between your bras and your T-shirts.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: (Laughter) It might be time to have a conversation. But - so I really - yeah, I really - then I went super, super - not sure if I'd describe it as feminine (laughter) in terms of the way that I dressed, but it was definitely not boyish anymore. But I still feel more comfortable in, like, a hoodie and jeans than I ever do in, like, little kitten heels and a flowy skirt.

GROSS: How did you know you wanted to act?

WALLER-BRIDGE: It was such a strong instinct from early on. I just knew I wanted to be in plays. I knew I wanted to be part of a story. I loved telling stories. I loved telling jokes. I loved watching movies. I just - I think it - that there was an - I was extroverted. I loved expressing that (laughter).

And at school, it was just the most fun thing. You were allowed to swear in drama class, which was a big deal. And it was really social. And I just remember that feeling of being on stage. I played - I remember my first-ever job, she says, at my school - my first job was in - I think I must have been about - it wasn't a job. It was just a play in - at school. I must've been about 8, and it was "Pygmalion." And I really wanted to play the lead, and I was cast as the butler. And I was furious.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: And I remember getting the script, and I had, like, three lines. And I went on stage. And I just thought, I'm just going to make this funny because I've got to make a mark because I've only got, like, three lines on stage. So I just made my voice really low and just spoke really slowly and kind of screwed this whole scene up for everyone else. But I remember, like, three people in the audience laughing. And I was like, I've found my reason for living (laughter). Yeah, and I just remember that feeling of just the - how exciting it is to be able to tell a story in front of people...

GROSS: Do you remember the three lines?

WALLER-BRIDGE: ...And the trust - I think it was something like, (laughter) you have a visitor.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: (Laughter) Or something. Like, I just was, like, a creep. I was just a creepy 8-year-old butler. But I do - I really viscerally remember the feeling of, like, I love being on the stage, and I, like - I heard those three in the back, and I want that. I want more of that.

GROSS: My interview with Phoebe Waller-Bridge was recorded in May. She's the creator and star of the comedy series "Fleabag," which is nominated for 11 Emmys, including two for Waller-Bridge as the star and a writer. Our Emmy week series continues after a break with Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette, who are nominated for Emmys for their work on the Showtime series "Escape At Dannemora." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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