In Apple TV+’s Physical, Rose Byrne embodies the despair of an unseen and unheard woman. 1980s housewife Sheila is both wracked by bulimia and her carefully controlled rage, as her intelligence and emotional needs go unrecognized by her proselytizing, pseudo ‘right-on’ husband (Rory Scovel). But then she lights upon the idea of starting an aerobics business and a quasi-Jane Fonda’s workout is born, complete with shiny leotards. As she fights to regain her power through business acumen and sheer sweat, her mission aligns somewhat with the part Bryne played right before this: feminist icon Gloria Steinem in Mrs. America.
DEADLINE: When you first met Physical’s creator Annie Weisman, you were shooting Mrs. America. What was your first impression of reading that pilot script and meeting with her?
ROSE BYRNE: Well, I just loved the world of the script and the character too, but really the world was my first point of entry in a way. It was such a specific setting and a specific time. And probably because I was shooting Mrs. America at the time, it was a direct jump in a way, a direct line straight from the era of the feminist movement and fighting for the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) and all the stuff that Mrs. America encompassed. It was this parallel piece, if you will, with Mrs. America, of the disillusionment of the late ’70s and the early ’80s and a lot of women moving away from the movement, feeling disenfranchised and finding autonomy and independence through financial gain and financial independence. And that historically has often come in the health space. And that was one of the early conversations I had with Annie.
The script just really captured me. It was beautifully written and very dark, but very funny. And then since I met her and realized what a deeply personal story it was with her and what she saw for the whole show as a whole, I got really excited. And being the lead in the show is a lot of work. Having done Damages for five, or was it six seasons? I knew what the undertaking was and it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s long hours and all that.
DEADLINE: Annie’s been quite open about how Sheila’s mental health issues, her internal voice is drawn from her own life. How did you approach presenting something so deeply personal directly in front of the person who’d experienced it?
BYRNE: Annie’s been terrific. She’s very candid with me and very open in general about her struggles with bulimia and so forth. So, she’s very much an emotional touchstone for all the beats of the story and particularly, the inner voice. And for me, the inner voice is interesting because it’s always in the scripts, but it changes as the episodes evolve and the edit evolves. And so, it’s often the last thing we do, and we change it a lot in the ADR booth and the sound booth. And I love that. I’m one of those weird creatures, I guess. I like ADR and I like fixing things and changing it and seeing it. And I think it’s a great, it’s a fun way to do it. And the voice is the final texture of the show in a way and there’s a lot of potential with it. It’s the human condition so you do reflect, I think, a bit, whether you were doing it consciously or not, on your own narrative that we all have going.
DEADLINE: In this era we are taught about self-care and to pay attention to what we are saying to ourselves. But back then, there weren’t the resources for people to address mental health or even ask themselves, What is my internal voice? So, it’s super interesting to remember a time when there just was none of those resources.
BYRNE: Yes. And it’s great to have it from this perspective now, whereas there’s a lot of dialogue around now. Back then in 1980 or ’81, there was no language around it at all. And in Season 2, she’s “in recovery”, but there’s recovery and there’s recovery. And later, she really has to go to the root of the issue. What that looked like at that time was really interesting. There was this thrown together, patched together rehab place. It’s a very interesting period of time when it was so new. Whereas now, obviously, there’s a lot more language around it and understanding of it. Whereas back then there was just nothing. Diedre Friel’s character at one point doesn’t even understand what she’s saying when she’s trying to describe it to her. So, it’s fascinating, I think, to look back at it from 2022.
DEADLINE: I grew up in the ’90s when it was the era of Kate Moss saying things like, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” And now things have changed. Young women are looking to Kim Kardashian and embracing curves. It’s a whole other mindset.
BYRNE: These things move in such trends, don’t they really? Have these waves of what’s in. It’s bizarre. But the messaging is fraught always a little bit. It’s complicated. It’s just not straightforward.
DEADLINE: Yes. It’s not necessarily a liberation. It’s another form of what’s cool and what’s not.
BYRNE: It can be. Yes, unfortunately.
DEADLINE: Did you have to learn all that step aerobics or were you familiar already?
BYRNE: There was this thing in Australia called Oz aerobic style, and it would come on with breakfast, like a morning show. And it was very popular, but it was the late ’80s, maybe even ’90 or ’91. But I do remember doing that, but by that time it was a joke though. It was starting to be just more of a boobs and bums, a bit of a peep show rather than serious exercise. And I think the next trend was coming in, which was yoga and that kind of movement.
DEADLINE: Season 2 is coming out and it has some really great zingers and moments where Sheila gets to finally download her rage on her husband. Do you have a favorite?
BYRNE: I mean, Annie’s such a wickedly funny writer and she’s subtle too. Her writing is very sharp and there are so many ways to mine the humor of the character and the situation, I find. And it’s because her writing is very multi-layered and coming from a very real place and the stakes are always high. And yeah, it’s very funny in this opening scene when the man asks what color her dress is called. There are a plethora of one liners in Season 2.
DEADLINE: There’s an episode in Season 2 where she says, “I’m tired of playing defense.” I just thought that was the perfect statement for all women for all time.
BYRNE: I’m going to tell Annie you said that. She’ll really appreciate that. It is a great line. Isn’t it?
DEADLINE: Sheila’s look is so key to the show’s aesthetic. Tell me about that process?
BYRNE: Annie, she really wanted to have Sheila really fill the frame with the hair, and that was always her vision. And particularly at that time with the wet perm, she really had a specific idea. And so, but I love collaborating with our costume designer. It’s been such a highlight of this job. It’s really our special effects: the look, Sheila’s armor, her way she presents herself. She’s not quite San Diego, she’s from somewhere else, she’s from LA. She’s got a little bit of sophistication about her so that it’s just so fun. And as we’re going through the era and as she’s really coming out of that hippie phase into more of this business woman toward the end, and how that just suddenly starts to seep into her costumes was really fun. I had in the final scene with Paul Sparks’ character, she has this incredible purple leather dress. It’s really short with huge sleeves and it’s just extraordinary. And we had this piece for a long time and it wasn’t until that final scene that Annie was like, “Now we can use that dress.” It was her moment. But I love that side of things. It’s valiant to get up every morning and decide what to wear in your day-to-day life. But for the show, it’s really fun.
DEADLINE: Playing someone who is secretive and battling an eating disorder makes them duplicitous because they need to be, and that extends to the rest of her life. How did you dig into that mindset of someone who has a concealed self?
BYRNE: Well, the writing is everything, that informs everything that you do as an actress. And it is always really complex. And it’s really terrifying. Half the time I’m like, “Oh, I’m stuffing this up.” Trying to figure it out. But that’s what also it’s so fun about the scenes is that every scene Sheila is doing something, she has agency. There is something. It’s a complex puzzle, I think that is really fun as a performer. It’s such a gift to have that complexity in the scenes, to have that puzzle going on the whole time. But I think when people suffer from these sorts of illnesses, it’s not even necessarily a conscious thing. It’s an addiction. It’s almost subliminal changes and stuff that people go through. And the people who I have talked to who have recovered from eating disorders, who still have eating disorders, and people who work at those clinics and what they see and how the behavior manifests is very interesting.
DEADLINE: So you met with people that had that particular eating disorder? What did they help you understand?
BYRNE: Yeah. I’d done a lot of that research and it’s fascinating. I mean, it’s the addictive quality about it is what really struck me doing the research about how it’s almost, it’s so second nature. It’s like, I’m trying to think of something you wouldn’t even think about, the habitual nature of it, and that is so extraordinary to me. Something so horrific and so hard on your body. And it’s not even thought about, like a blackout when you’re doing it. I mean, there’s more of a language around it now, which is really good and really important, obviously. And as an actress, just behaviorally, how does it manifest? What does it look like? How does it present? And that’s what’s terrifying too, is it often you wouldn’t even know. It’s that good of a performance by the person suffering that people are often just have absolutely no idea.
DEADLINE: Was it difficult to leave behind? Did Sheila get in your head?
BYRNE: I mean, yes and no. I’m pretty church and state with work. I tend to just leave it there. But these things you carry around even if you’re aware of it or not to a certain extent. But I also have two very small children who couldn’t care less. You know what I mean? There’s not much time for naval gazing. But it’s fun that stuff too. It’s reaching to the outer corners of your own subliminal thoughts and feelings. It’s all that stuff, that texture that I enjoy.
DEADLINE: If you had your ideal, what would happen to Sheila in a third season?
BYRNE: I don’t know. She’s so much of a creation now. I mean, the setup of that pilot that we shot two years ago now with Craig Gillespie was this aerobics personality, that’s the first image of that pilot. And it would be exciting to be able to really reach that, to tie it up, to finally get to that final stitch that we first made back in 2020. Because it’s really a slog for her in Season 2. She’s going to these rinky-dink fairs to perform and quickly realizing she’s just told to stay in her lane by this company that she has a contract with. And meanwhile, obviously, living an incredibly complicated life at home. So, it would be really, really fun to get a chance to stitch that together.
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