Writer Created 'Fleabag' By Looking At What She Loved, Then Taking It Away

Nov 6, 2016

Fleabag is the name of a British comedy that tackles intimacy, feminism and womanhood. Writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge created the show and plays its main character, also named Fleabag.

"She's a young woman living in London," Waller-Bridge tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "The relationship that she treasures most in the world, treasured most in the world, was that with her best friend who she recently lost in a terrible accident."

Fleabag copes with that loss by breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the camera. "She tries to keep her life humorous and amusing for the benefit of this audience that she has invited in," Waller-Bridge says. " ... And eventually that relationship starts to break down in itself and she starts to regret bringing the audience in in the first place — because, of course, she has these secrets and these feelings of grief and misery underneath all the comedy."


Interview Highlights

On how she named the show

It's a word that I'm really close to because it's actually my family nickname — well, Flea is my family nickname. And it was actually a real pain the ass when I realized that Fleabag was the perfect name for this show in my mind, because, you know, I felt like I was slapping my own name on it. It just begs certain questions about the rest of the show.

On how she came up with the show's premise

Well, I have a best friend [Vicky Jones]. And when I found her and we found our friendship, I just suddenly felt so much more invincible in the world. And I felt like she understood me and would forgive me my kind of weird, quirky thoughts and personality traits and all those kinds of things, and me her as well. And it was so glorious to me. And my biggest fear — and I always end up writing my worst fears, really — my biggest fear was what would happen if I lost her now?

And the moment I came up with that idea and we sat there, I was like, "What if she had a best friend that had died?" Both me and Vicky were like, "Oh no, that's a horrible story." And I was like, "Yeah, I love it. I love it." Every time I'd say something and Vicky's face would scrunch up and go, "No, that's horrible," I'd be like, "Haha, brilliant, it's going in." And then that informed a lot of it. And just seeing things that I loved in my life and imagining if I wasn't lucky enough to have them — kind of sadomasochistic, really.

On deciding to give Fleabag an active sex life

I was attracted to the idea of creating a character who does just have a lot of sex and doesn't need to kind of explain it away. So that was the first impulse was just, yeah, she just likes having a shag occasionally.

But then in order to deepen the character I did have to kind of analyze that a little bit more. And I think there's a bit in episode two when she says that she loves everything about sex: the drama of it, the performance of it, the kind of build up to it — but she doesn't actually like the feeling of it. And that is, I think, at the heart of what's complicated [about] the character. ... The moment that it's about sex, it's incredibly clear, and that's a relief for her and a release. So she's like, the moment she sees desire, you know, flutter across somebody's eyes, she's like, "I know this game. I know what we're doing here. I just need to do this; that person will do that; we'll end up having sex and then I'm in control. I am desired." And for a short moment, you know, she has agency over her life.

On how Fleabag's feelings about sex change by the end of the show

She just feels the pressure of being sexual and being sexually attractive so much more that it's kind of become innate in her character. And my fear for so long about younger women, especially today, was that they would feel like a vital part of being a woman and especially a young woman is how sexually attractive you are. And I wanted to create a character that kind of was the walking example of how that can go wrong, because she does feel like that I think.

On the audience never really learning the root of Fleabag's pain

I felt for a long time that if there was an explanation, if I could easily explain away Fleabag's emptiness or sadness, I felt like I'd be betraying her own complexity, really. But some people are just susceptible to feeling certain things that others aren't. And I feel so often that stories of angry young men are often unexplained, and actually so often when there's a broken, damaged woman it's because at the end you go, "Oh right, oh, it's because she was abused. That's why." Or, you know, she was abandoned or she was raped. ... I was really determined to make sure that she didn't have the one reason.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

"Fleabag" is the name of a new series from Amazon. And it follows the misadventures of a young woman in London. Things aren't going well for her. Her cafe is failing, and her business partner and best friend has died.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLEABAG")

PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) I opened the cafe with my friend Boo.

JORDAN LONG: (As taxi driver) Cute name.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Yeah. Yeah, she's dead now. She accidentally killed herself.

MARTIN: On top of that, she can't really keep a relationship together.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLEABAG")

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) You know that feeling when a guy you like sends you a text at two o'clock on a Tuesday night asking if he can come and find you. So you have to get out of bed, drink half a bottle of wine, get in the shower, shave everything and wait by the door until the buzzer goes?

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZING)

MARTIN: In short...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLEABAG")

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) I have a horrible feeling that I'm a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can't even call herself a feminist.

MARTIN: Phoebe Waller-Bridge created, directed and stars in the show "Fleabag." She also named the show after herself.

WALLER-BRIDGE: It's a word that I really am close to because it's actually my family nickname - well, flea is my family nickname. And it was actually a real pain in the ass when I realized that "Fleabag" was the perfect name for this show in my mind 'cause, you know, it felt like I was slapping my own name onto, which just begs certain questions about...

MARTIN: It does.

WALLER-BRIDGE: ...The rest of the show (laughter).

MARTIN: You know they're going to come, yeah (laughter).

So before we get into all the, yeah, autobiographical stuff - if there is any - just introduce us to this woman as she is a character.

WALLER-BRIDGE: So she's a young woman living in London. She has - the relationship that she treasures most in the world - treasured most in the world was that with her best friend, who she recently lost in a terrible accident. And the rest of the time, she spends trying to keep her life together. And more than that, she tries to keep her life humorous and amusing for the benefit of the audience that she's invited in. So that's - the breaking of the fourth wall is her sort of making a new relationship and a new friendship with an audience, which is obviously you.

And the premise for her is that she's saying, come into my life. I'll show you my hilarious adventures and the details of my life. And eventually, that relationship starts to break down on itself, and she starts to regret bringing the audience in in the first place because, of course, she has these secrets and these feelings of grief and misery underneath all the comedy that slip out.

MARTIN: I mean, this is all about intimacy in different forms. You've said she's conflicted about bringing the audience into her life, that she's strained by that intimate dynamic. She also has a lot of sex with people she's not necessarily emotionally engaged with.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And it does - it seems that she is kind of searching for some kind of connection with people, but maybe that's just my projection. Maybe she's not. Maybe she just enjoys sex and just has a lot of sex because that's part of her identity. And we're not used to seeing women in such sexually explicit roles on TV.

WALLER-BRIDGE: I think it's a mixture of all of those things, really. I think, first of all, I was attracted to the idea of creating a character who does just have a lot of sex and doesn't need to kind of explain it away. So that was the first impulse was just - yeah, she just likes having a shag occasionally (laughter). But then, in order to deepen the character, I did have to kind of analyze that a little bit more. And I think there's a bit in episode 2 when she says that she loves everything about sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLEABAG")

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Got to think about all the people I can have sex with now. 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.

And that is, I think, at the heart of what's complicated of the character is that she sees sex exactly, as you say, as a connection. But it's in - when she has so many different emotions firing off the whole time in her life that she can't deal with and she can't articulate and she can't express, the moment that it's about sex, it's incredibly clear. And that's a relief. The moment she sees desire, you know, flutter across somebody's eyes, she's like, I know this game. I know what we're doing here. I just need to do this. That person will do that. We'll end up having sex, and then I'm in control. I'm desired, you know, and for a short moment, you know, she has agency over her life.

MARTIN: But then, without giving too much away, by the end of the show, it becomes something different.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Yes. She just feels the pressure of being sexual so much more that it's kind of become innate in her character. And my fear for so long about younger women, especially today, was that they would feel like that was a vital part of being a woman - and especially a young woman - is how sexually attractive you are. And I wanted to create a character that kind of was the walking example of how that can go wrong because she does feel like that, I think.

MARTIN: There are some real low points that she has. So this is where I ask you the deep-dive, autobiographical question.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But you named the character after yourself. So...

WALLER-BRIDGE: (Laughter) Yeah. I know, I begged the question.

MARTIN: (Laughter) So did you have a low moment? Did you have a crisis ever? Or was this just kind of part of your evolution, part of growing up - is grappling with your identity and as a young woman and how your sexual attractiveness plays into that?

WALLER-BRIDGE: I don't think I had a crisis. But looking back, I definitely had a couple of years when I was incredibly rage-y (ph). And I think it was about all that stuff that I felt like I was - because I had a self-awareness about it and I was - and I hated myself for caring so much about, like, how I looked or how I was coming across. And even though I didn't invest as much time in it as a lot of people do, like, in my appearance or anything like that, I still really, really, really, really cared.

So I felt like I wanted to talk about the pressure on women to be sexy.

MARTIN: Or the loneliness that can accompany that insecurity.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Well, I have a best friend. And when I found her and we found our friendship, I just suddenly felt so much more invincible in the world. And I felt like she understood me and would forgive me my kind of weird, quirky thoughts and personality traits and all those kind of things - and me, her as well. And it was so glorious to me.

And my biggest fear - and I always end up writing my worst fears really - my biggest fear was what would happen if I lost her now. And the moment I came up with that idea, and we sat there and I was like - what if she had a best friend that had died? Both me and Vicky were like - oh, no...

MARTIN: That's horrible.

WALLER-BRIDGE: ...That's a horrible story.

And I was like yeah, love it (laughter). Love it. Every time I'd say something and Vicky's face would scrunch up and go, no, that's horrible, I'd be like, haha, brilliant. It's going in. And that informed a lot of it and just seeing things that I loved in my life and imagining if I wasn't lucky enough to have them. Like, I let my brain wander around the darker potential, kind of sadomasochistic really (laughter).

MARTIN: No, but it's also interesting that we don't ever really get to find out what the root of that pain is for Fleabag.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Yeah. And actually, I felt, for a long time, that if there was an explanation - if I could easily explain away Fleabag's emptiness or sadness, I felt like I'd be betraying her own complexity really - that some people are just susceptible to feeling certain things and - that others aren't.

And I feel so often that stories of angry young men are often unexplained. And actually, so often when there's a broken, damaged woman, it's because, at the end, you go oh, right. Oh, it's 'cause she was abused, like, that's why. And like - oh, you know - or this, you know - or she was abandoned or she was raped or - there's always...

MARTIN: They're not allowed to just be complicated.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Just be complicated and weird and contradictory and kind of unpleasant sometimes (laughter).

MARTIN: Yeah.

WALLER-BRIDGE: And so actually, it was a real point of - I was really determined to make sure that she didn't have a - the one reason.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Yeah. Is Fleabag done for you now? I mean, she's such a compelling character, and it didn't quite all feel sewn-up at the end.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I was worried. I'm glad you say that it doesn't feel all wrapped up because I was worried that the show does, in my mind, in some way, end because of when her relationship with the camera ends. And so I was like, oh, God, can't...

MARTIN: Can't go back.

WALLER-BRIDGE: ...Can't justify a way to go back. Have to be like - so I had this other friend, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

WALLER-BRIDGE: ...At the beginning. But I think the more I think about it, I can't quite let her go yet. And I do think, if she was real, she would have to get up and she would have to keep going. And actually, what would that be? And the challenge is appealing to me. So I'd love to write another series, yeah.

MARTIN: Phoebe Waller-Bridge - writer and actor of the show "Fleabag." Phoebe, thanks so much.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Thank you. That was so nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MODERN GIRL")

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