It’s a gloomy Monday afternoon in Westwood and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is wrapping up Deadline’s cover shoot. Fresh from the Fleabag stage in New York, in two weeks’ time her brainchild Killing Eve will sweep the BAFTAs, but of course she doesn’t know that yet. For now she’s hard at work on a very famous, typically male-dominated franchise.
“Congrats on the Bond job,” the make-up artist tells her, during a last-minute touch-up.
Waller-Bridge is surprised. She seems to almost blush. “Oh, thank you,” she grins.
The Bond job is a big deal. Following a special request from Daniel Craig, Waller-Bridge is currently polishing the script for the newest installment, due for release in 2020 and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, with the working title Eclipse. Only one woman in Bond history has ever been credited on a script—Johanna Harwood, for the first two entries, Dr. No in 1962 and From Russia with Love in 1963—and the franchise that has historically favored damsels in distress, doomed-to-die seductresses and catsuit-clad villains will surely benefit from a Waller-Bridge tune-up.
“There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not [the Bond franchise] is relevant now because of who he is and the way he treats women,” she says. “I think that’s bollocks. I think he’s absolutely relevant now. It has just got to grow. It has just got to evolve, and the important thing is that the film treats the women properly. He doesn’t have to. He needs to be true to this character.”
Before getting the Bond job, she already had a real appreciation for Craig’s incarnation of 007. “When I saw his Bond for the first time, there was a wryness to his performance that I really loved,” she says. “So, I was really excited about writing dialogue for him.” Then she adds, “I mean, the script was there. It’s already there. I think it’s unfair to say that I’m writing the script.”
Still, given the example she has set in her work to date, it isn’t hard to imagine Waller-Bridge’s hand on the tiller will be strongly felt. “It’s just about making them feel like real people,” she insists. “I always think the test for me as an actor, whenever I’m writing anything, is: would I want to play that role? And so I’m coming into this polish thinking, I just want to make sure that when they get those pages through, that Lashana [Lynch], Léa [Seydoux] and Ana [de Armas] open them and go, ‘I can’t wait to do that.’ As an actress, I very rarely had that feeling early in my career. That brings me much pleasure, knowing that I’m giving that to an actress.”
Distant dreams of Bond had in fact been lurking in her mind for a while. “The funny thing is that it was one of those feelings I had: I’d love to write a Bond film.” So, then, did coming up with Killing Eve—the tale of a dogged spy on the trail of a wacky, sociopathic assassin called Villanelle—inform her work on Bond?
“I feel like there are elements of Villanelle and Bond that appeal to me in the same way,” she says. “That they’re both these characters who we love, even though they do these violent, brutal things. Her motive is less clear than his. She just wants money and clothes. He’s trying to protect the country’s security, so fair enough. But that kind of tipping edge of psychology is really interesting to me. Someone who can kill, and then also be charming. There’s a front that appeals to me. But the wit of it is the thing that I love the most about that franchise. It’s the wit.”
Waller-Bridge has been shaking up the storytelling scenery for some time with work full of twists and sharp left turns, nixing all tired tropes, predictable plot lines and one-dimensional characters.
Take the Season 1 finale of Killing Eve for example, when Sandra Oh’s Eve rolls over in the midst of what might be a love scene and stabs Jodie Comer’s Villanelle in the stomach. Or, in Fleabag Season 2, when Kristin Scott Thomas’ character Belinda sips a martini in a bar, having just won a Best Woman in Business award. We think she’s enjoying this success, until she suddenly says, “It’s infantilizing bollocks.” So-called ‘women’s’ categories are “ghettoizing” and “a subsection of success”. They’re the “f*cking children’s table of awards”. And then, without a pause in which another writer might have heard imaginary applause, Waller-Bridge has Belinda move on:
“I’ve been longing to say this out loud. Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny—period pains, sore boobs, childbirth. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out. They invent all these gods and demons so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we do very well on our own. And then they create wars so they can feel things and touch each other, and when there aren’t any wars they can play rugby. We have it all going on in here, inside. We have pain on a cycle for years and years and years, and then just when you feel you are making peace with it all, what happens? The menopause comes. The f*cking menopause comes and it is the most wonderful f*cking thing in the world. Yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get f*cking hot and no one cares, but then you’re free. No longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person. In business.”
It is utterly unexpected and breathtakingly relevant today.
Vicky Jones, Waller-Bridge’s longtime friend and collaborator, says this twisty signature and seat-of-the-pants style has been in her work from the beginning. “Even in her earliest, rawest state, thrilling the audience was her priority,” Jones notes. “She wanted to make the experience of watching an unpredictable ride. Even today, I always talk about trying to make my work Phoebe-proof, which means writing something that she wouldn’t see coming.”
Every scene of Waller-Bridge’s television work—Fleabag, Killing Eve, and 2016’s Crashing—is packed with wicked observations, and characters steeped in messiness (having sex with a priest; stealing from an evil step-mother), greatness (punching awful people in the face; looking impossibly chic at a funeral) and ridiculousness (deliberately farting in an elevator; singing brutal ‘truth songs’ accompanied by a ukulele).
And of course the ‘female’ accolades have arrived in spades. She’s often asked what it feels like to be a female writer and producer in this climate; what inspires her to write about whole, complex women. Her female characters’ sex lives are bold and liberated and she writes well-rounded women with all the detail that male characters have traditionally enjoyed. All of these things are of course enormously valuable, but in some ways, does focusing mainly on their femaleness, and on Waller-Bridge’s own femaleness, feel reductive? Is it another conciliatory dish for “the children’s table”?
Waller-Bridge smiles wryly at the question. “It’s a way of containing us and controlling us in our work,” she says, “and immediately being able to almost tie a bow around our collective work and go, ‘That is women’s work.’ It’s a trap, because we want to talk about it, and each other, and the experience, and share it and make sure it’s something that is articulated well.”
She says her work speaks more eloquently on this topic of femaleness and feminism than she herself ever could. “When people ask me those sorts of things, I just want to point at Fleabag and go, ‘That. That does it.’ But also I’m more inspired listening to female artists talk about their art than female artists talking about what it’s like being a female artist.”
In fact it’s only when she’s doing press that she finds her gender becomes relevant. “My collaborators and colleagues don’t refer to me as a female writer, like, ‘Can you send in your latest female draft of that, please?’”
Sian Clifford, who met Waller-Bridge at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and plays Fleabag’s sister Claire, sees her friend’s presentation of women as coming from a pure place of human observation, rather than a political one. “I know that she has a passion for writing transgressive women,” she says. “I also know that she writes without an agenda. She really writes the people she wants to see on TV. It just happens to have landed at this moment in time when I think we are so thirsty for real representations of humans, and not just women, but humans. They come from a very pure place within her. They’re just real, fully-formed, three-dimensional humans.”
And it’s certainly not just the female characters that get the full human treatment. Men also get to embody characteristics they’ve previously been denied. “I want to afford male characters the same vulnerability that women are afforded,” Waller-Bridge says. And while Fleabag’s first season featured some nameless men with titles like The Hot Misogynist, that was, Waller-Bridge points out, about the Fleabag character’s own flawed tendency to reduce people.
Villanelle is a perfect example of the Waller-Bridge approach to rounding out characters. A role that could easily have become an obviously sexy ingénue hook for Killing Eve was instead made meaty and wholly unlike anything else we’ve seen.
“That is my goal for writing women,” Waller-Bridge says. “Like knowing that Villanelle was going to be a girl in her 20s who didn’t have to get her tits out, and who could play an assassin. It wasn’t about being in a catsuit. She could just have a ball and be a complicated, weird, freaky person who would just shoot someone in the head and you don’t know why.”
Waller-Bridge’s own acting roles span not only her stage and television creations, but everything from an errant lawyer in Broadchurch to the droid with attitude in Solo: A Star Wars Story. As Jones says, “Phoebe is an extraordinary actor. As well as having formidable technical skill, she has exquisite taste, and great observation. She is able to channel truth, and convey that truth so eloquently that it looks like she’s doing nothing at all. But that apparent ‘nothing’ is chiming with your heart.”
Waller-Bridge’s love for the craft, though, really began with writing. “I wrote a lot of really bad poetry when I was a kid,” she says. “I was about 10, and I would write loads of stories. I know—what a wanker. I always saw acting as the way in. I didn’t really know how you became a writer. I also loved acting, so I was like, ‘Oh, that’s how I get into that world.’ It just felt like the quickest way in, and, actually, it’s a very hard way in.”
She also had the sense of wanting many strings to her bow. “I always knew I just wanted to be part of this industry. It never felt like I wanted to be just one thing in it. I want to try producing and directing, as well as writing and everything.”
After RADA, Waller-Bridge met Jones—a scenario the latter describes thus: “I was directing a piece of new writing in a pub theatre, and this statuesque beauty on endless Bambi legs came up to me afterwards to tell me she loved what I had done with it. I remember being immediately struck by her brown eyes and her sweet enthusiasm. She told me she was an actress, and very shyly gave me a paper copy of her CV, folded into quarters.”
The pair quickly realized they were not only going to be friends but also great collaborators, and formed their company DryWrite. Jones would go on to become the director of the stage version of Fleabag, and script editor on its television adaptation and Crashing, as well as writing on Killing Eve. Now they’ll reunite on Jones’s new HBO show Run. In fact, Fleabag’s best friend character Boo was, Waller-Bridge says, “a love letter” to Jones.
She cites their friendship as an enormous source of inspiration. “It took me until I met Vicky to go, ‘Oh. It’s about f*cking surprising people and doing the thing that they’re not expecting. Not standing in the way that everyone else stands and not speaking in the way that everyone else speaks. It’s just about truth and truthfulness and honesty and, to be frank, entertainment.”
In those early days, Waller-Bridge and Jones would put on plays in a room above a pub in East London. “It was such a small scale,” she says, “just coming up with these theater nights. Looking back now, I mean, we were adorable. We put money into it, and I never acted in it or anything—or even wrote for ages—but we were just like, ‘What if we got 11 writers and we asked them to do this, and we got an audience of 25 people to come and watch it?’ And we cared so much, it would be so exciting, and then that grew and grew and grew.”
Once Waller-Bridge did get stuck into writing, she developed a kind of quasi-system to make sure each scene was uncomfortable, gripping and compelling; to show her characters’ width and breadth. “I always think there should be at least three things going on in one scene at the same time,” she says. “I think every actor should know that there are three things this person is dealing with, and usually it’s like they’re having to eat lunch, or they’re having to deal with a really hot room. It’s something like that.”
So, for example, the scene in which an overheated Fleabag tries to take off her sweater, and accidentally flashes her bank manager while applying for a business loan. “I feel like the more you put on a person, the more real it feels, because otherwise it’s just a conversation about a bank loan. But then if she’s sweaty and she’s under-prepared, and she forgot to put a top on underneath but she needs to impress this guy… When there are three things going on at the same time, at minimum, I think you instantly have reality.”
A second season of Fleabag wasn’t necessarily on the cards from the off. As with the original play, she felt the first season had a three-act arc and that was it. “It had a beginning, a middle, an end, and that’s the story that had to be told,” she says. For Waller-Bridge, Fleabag’s constant breaking of the fourth wall, where she directly addresses the viewer like a co-conspirator, had been the story of the show, and that story had been over at the end of Season 1, when Fleabag pushes the camera away, effectively ending the conversation.
So writing a second season initially felt wrong. “The thing that was really bugging me about it is that, actually, the central relationship for me in this show is between Fleabag and the audience,” she says. “I never wanted to do it if it didn’t mean something other than just a witty aside. I felt like the relationship between Fleabag and the audience drives the whole thing. At the beginning, she invites them in. She goes, ‘Come into my life. I promise you it’s going to be a riot. I’ll show you I’m sexy and funny and my world’s kind of crazy.’ But secretly, she wants something else from us. I just thought that was the perfect journey. She starts with inviting you in, and by the end, you know too much and she’s pushing you away. So, I was like, ‘Well, it’s gone. She doesn’t have a reason to talk to it anymore because she’s confessed and it’s open and the audience know her secret.’ So that’s the thing that was really bugging me. Why would it come back in? And what is she hiding this time? Then I realized it didn’t have to be something that she was hiding. That she kind of didn’t want the camera in her life anymore maybe, or that it was there as a hangover. She doesn’t know how to get rid of you.”
Some early Season 2 ideas had Fleabag feeling hunted by that fourth wall camera-audience. But then something shifted and Waller-Bridge realized a character who sees her break the fourth wall was the key. So Andrew Scott’s Priest character—the man who finally gets under Fleabag’s skin—sees her turn to the audience, and questions her about that secret ‘real’ side of her.
“I knew that she was going to meet somebody,” Waller-Bridge says. “I knew that that person was going to go, ‘Whoa. What was that? Where did you just go?’ And when that idea came up, I went, ‘Oh, shit.’ It was one of those rare feelings. It surprised me when I thought of it. Then it was like, ‘When this happens, it’s going to be huge for her.’ Knowing that he did that became central to his whole existence in the show, really.”
Fleabag Season 2 also meant letting go of Killing Eve, as the two show’s schedules would clash. The only answer was stepping back into an EP role, and handing the Eve reins to Emerald Fennell.
“It was always going to be sad,” Waller-Bridge says of leaving Eve behind. “I feel like in some ways my version of that story was complete. And if not complete, it was rounded off with that moment between the two of them in the bed at the end. I’d taken them on a journey and so I was satisfied by that. It is like a break-up, because it’s like, ‘What about me?’ But it’s equal amounts of pride and excitement to see what they do next.”
Taking over from Fennell as showrunner for Eve Season 3 is Suzanne Heathcote, who, in the early 2000s, worked with Waller-Bridge and Jones on those writers’ nights above that London pub. So things have come full circle there.
And the chickens have come home to roost in London too. Fleabag the play, born in Waller-Bridge’s early years, spread its wings in 2013 at the Edinburgh Festival where it became a surprise breakout hit, then this year landed off-Broadway for what was meant to be its last ever run. But in August it will return to the British capital for a final encore.
“I keep deciding it will be the end,” Waller-Bridge says. “But then the Wyndham’s [Theatre] said they might be interested in it and I love that theater so much. Actually the idea of going from Edinburgh—that tiny little apartment where the whole team of seven was sleeping in two beds just putting up the show—it’s like one of those proper stories. To end in the West End after this amazing journey has felt like the perfect kind of dream.”
With Jones directing, the dynamic duo will be together again. They also have Jones’ new show Run to look forward to. Waller-Bridge is onboard as EP and will star alongside Domhnall Gleeson and Merritt Wever.
“It’ll be a twisty turn-y brilliant tale,” she says. “It’s people who made a pact when they were 18 to one day run away with each other if they texted each other a certain thing. Then in their 30s, they decide to do it.”
Jones says the idea came out of a joke she and Waller-Bridge always had, “that when we were in a situation we had got ourselves into, whether it was work, or a party, or a relationship, that one or other of us would whisper ‘RUN!’ And we would take each other’s hand and run out of there, and just keep running.”
So how will Waller-Bridge follow up Fleabag, the one-woman play that not only morphed into one of Britain’s most important comedies, but became a smash hit in the U.S.? Rather biblically, the answer came in a dream the very same night she wrapped Season 2.
“I was like, ‘God, it’s been amazing, but I’m never going to have another idea,’ and then I went to sleep. I woke up and I had this idea for this movie in my head.” The script is coming thick and fast, she says. “I’ll be in the shower and suddenly it’ll be like, ‘I should go and write that down.’ It’s very strange, which probably means it’s going to be awful.
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