How Phoebe Waller-Bridge Won Hollywood with Truth-Telling
Whether de-frocking a priest, raising hell with a ukulele or romancing a serial killer, the multi-hyphenate carved out a distinct space for herself in a crowded landscape
Daniel Craig aka James Bond was said to have been instrumental, insistent even, in bringing on Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a co-writer to punch up the script for No Time to Die, the latest installment in the Bond series, which comes to screens in November. When producer Barbara Broccoli sealed the deal, it was only the second time in the 58-year history of the Bond movies that the script had had a female scribe, the last being Johanna Harwood who co-wrote Dr. No and From Russia With Love, the first and third Bond films in the early Sixties. No Time to Die will be Craig’s final outing as the notorious agent 007 and in pushing to hire Waller-Bridge who has recently swept BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Emmys for her work as creator and lead actor in the TV series Fleabag, he has signaled that Bond, never to be out-run, actually needs to catch up with the times and has all but ensured that he will indeed go out with a bang. When asked if Waller-Bridge was hired for representation as a woman, Craig shut the conversation down and responded that it was a moot point and that she is simply one of the best writers around. He is not wrong.
I feel like a bad feminist for bringing Craig into this at all, as though I need a man, James Bond no less, to validate Waller-Bridge’s success when in fact this 34-year-old Brit had taken the entertainment world by storm well before the news of No Time to Die. The thing is, I know she would understand. After all, it was her central eponymous-ish character Fleabag (Waller-Bridge’s family have always called her Flea) who said, “I always worry that I wouldn’t be such a feminist if I had bigger tits,” encapsulating in a single humorous zinger the complex ironies of being a woman today. Feminism aside, Waller-Bridge is deft at zeroing in on the voice of doubt that haunts all of us irrespective of gender or situation. Despite being called out on occasion for her own posh roots (her parents both work but the family has baronets on both sides and Waller-Bridge was sent off to an upper-crust English boarding school before attending the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, RADA), the reach of her writing extends well beyond her world. Barely begun, she has already created a range of compelling characters in a way that feels at times Shakespearean in her depth and economy of words.
In fact, the first episode of Fleabag’s second season, the rare sophomore outing that outshines the brilliance of the debut, feels like it could be a standalone tragi-comic drama. The scene unfolds over a disastrous restaurant dinner that begins with loaded banter and ends with two bloody noses and a black eye. Fleabag, sinking in the aftermath of grieving the death of her best friend and her mother, left her relationships with her family in shambles in season one. Season two opens a year later at the family dinner to ostensibly celebrate her father’s engagement to her godmother (brilliantly played by Bill Paterson and Olivia Colman). She hasn’t seen her sister (a fantastic tight-lipped Sian Clifford) and brother-in-law (a wonderfully smarmy Brett Gelman) for months and meets the Hot Priest (the unforgettable Andrew Scott) who is to wed the couple for the first time.
In the course of just twenty-six minutes where we are stemming the laughter to catch the dialogue, each character’s idiosyncrasies unfurl as passive frictions escalate and the tensions that define each relationship reveal themselves like a Rubik’s cube in reverse. We have the unmistakable feeling of familiarity because we know a woman just like Fleabag’s godmother who disdains as she charms, or like her brother-in-law who is as misogynistic as he is insecure, or a man like her father who can’t connect with his own children, try as he might. Each line, perfectly delivered is a stroke of blink-and-you-miss-it genius in an episode that sets up a season while being its own self-contained piece of theater. Unsurprisingly, Waller-Bridge has been known to tell her writing room to, ‘Go Greek or go home’ in a nod to drama’s genesis and her own background in the theater as both playwright and stage actress.
Waller-Bridge first conceived Fleabag as a ten-minute vignette in 2012 with encouragement from theater director and writer Vicky Jones, who soon became her best friend and creative partner. After several years of acting parts that didn’t speak to her and feeling that the RADA experience, typically a grueling one, had done more to break her down than build her up, Waller-Bridge was eager to write parts for herself and to write her own stories, period. She and Jones soon formed DryWrite, a guerrilla theater company, and egged each other on to write, direct and produce. Jones directed the expanded version of the vignette which was a roaring success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013. The rest soon became history as Fleabag was picked up by the BBC and Amazon Studios to be adapted as a TV series, going on to win armloads of awards including six Emmys and a Golden Globe, while the one-woman show played to sold-out audiences in London’s West End and in New York and was recently nominated for an Olivier, the U.K.’s top theater prize.
The crux of Waller-Bridge’s success is the truth in her characters. In the early days, she and Jones would spend boozy nights playing a game they called ‘truth songs’ in which they would sing words of absolute truth to each other. The game forms the pivotal episode of the sitcom Crashing that Waller-Bridge wrote and directed for Channel 4 (now streaming on Netflix) after Fleabag’s initial success. Crashing follows six characters who are thrown together whilst living rent-free as property guardians in an abandoned hospital. In a scene where the group, who either have secret feelings for one another or suppressed sexual identities, are having a celebratory curry dinner, Waller-Bridge’s character, Lulu, forces them all to sing a truth while playing her ukulele. Their emotions barrel forth like a train wreck. Lulu’s insistence on creating havoc has echoes of Fleabag’s messiness. The dinner blows the lid on a pressure cooker of feelings that is an amped up microcosm of how we tend to walk through our adult lives, often afraid to fully be ourselves. The core of Waller-Bridge’s oeuvre is in the way she exposes us, ultimately freeing us, through her characters.
If Crashing addresses repressed desires, Fleabag accomplishes more, tackling heavier themes in meta ways in the guise of twelve comedic half-hour bites, a mere six hours that have become a cultural touchstone. Fleabag’s first season introduces us to a young café owner who appears to be dealing with the grief of the death of her mother and her best friend by casting aside her gentle, musician boyfriend Harry (the excellent Hugh Skinner) and having sex, mostly meaningless and lots of it, whilst trying to navigate her dysfunctional family. The difference here is that Fleabag isn’t the slutty male vision of female promiscuity that we are often dished up. Waller-Bridge challenges both male and female stereotypes. It’s Harry who is the sweetly sentimental if emotionally clingy one who suggests that she stop masturbating so they can “save it” for each other and eventually decides he’s had enough when he finds all the porn on her laptop. And while Fleabag is a mess emotionally, she’s in her power sexually, fully aware of her charm and one step ahead of the men she’s with, even if she knows better than to let them know it.
Waller-Bridge isn’t trying a switcheroo simply to challenge our notions of gender. She’s speaking from a place of honesty because she went through a similar dark phase in her twenties. The results are extraordinary, perhaps because when sex is written by men for the screen it’s full of perfectly timed mutual orgasms, perky breasts and not a stray pubic hair in sight, maintaining its glossy veneer. There is almost no nudity here and yet the show is endlessly provocative. If Fleabag’s sexual scenes feel shocking, it’s simply because television has rarely explored sex so authentically. That they are intercut with her asides to camera, gives the show another layer of intimacy. Fleabag gives us a cheeky glance before masturbating to Obama giving a speech and later tells us mid-shag that her one-night stand is edging towards her anus. Fleabag isn’t watchable just because it’s very sexy, a tad filthy and utterly hilarious but because it’s entirely bare emotionally. Obama agrees. He included the show when he made his year-end list of unmissable movies. Fleabag was one of only three television series that he considered as powerful as the movies that topped his list. I’m pretty certain it wasn’t the masturbation scene that got him ‘excited’ about the show.
Sexual threads run through the first season in more ways than one. Fleabag has inexplicably stolen a statuette of a naked female torso, an act of childish vengeance, from her painfully condescending artist godmother, who happens to be working towards a ‘sexhibition’ that is the backdrop for the season’s culminating denouement. As we are at turns reduced to laughter and tears, we empathize with Fleabag as she drowns her loneliness in sex, finding it impossible to pull herself together. But the threads are party ribbons distracting us from the real issues at hand. Like a punch to the gut, Fleabag eventually reveals a dark secret that she has held onto but cannot face. It dawns on us that she’s duped us like she duped everyone else so we’d buy the version of herself she wanted to portray or be blissfully unaware that her sadness was guilt-ridden. Cheated, we retrace our steps and begin to judge our beloved character, stripping her of the permissions that grief allows until her depression hits us like a ton of bricks and we just want to hug her. Fleabag is a relationship as much as a television show, leaving us too invested not to grapple with our own ideas around sex and morality, guilt and culpability, friendship and loneliness, grief and its salve.
Waller-Bridge, who swore not to write a second season was eventually persuaded and outdid even herself. Her opening line of season two, “This is a love story,” begins with the aforementioned disastrous dinner party and introduces us to one of television sitcom’s most romantic relationships, one that tops as it defies the very notion of what love is supposed to look like. Fleabag who has, a year later, gotten to a place where she likes herself enough not to engage in wanton sex that offers her nothing in return, falls in love with the Hot Priest (we never know his name), a man who offers her the love without the physicality that often clouds it. When they do collide, the fact that she has to shed her impenetrable façade and he feels his vow to God is in question makes it a relationship where their very cores are truly at stake. Surrounding these two, through Fleabag’s family, Waller-Bridge digs deep into the love between parent and child, husband and wife, sister and sister, as we laugh ourselves to actual tears. In the final episode, when Hot Priest is marrying her father and godmother, he sermonizes that love isn’t “right” simply when it feels easy but that “It takes strength to know what’s right and love isn’t something that weak people do.” He’s speaking to everyone and only to her. Later, Waller-Bridge deals us her biggest blow yet as we are left wondering how things got quite so deep, quite so real, quite so true.
Fleabag’s handling of life’s large questions, incisive character portrayals and use of humor as foil is what elevates Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s astute writing. The staging of the everyday amidst the absurd and the absurd amidst the mundane is what gives her work its vitality. Before Fleabag, it would be inconceivable to depict a confrontation between a woman and a misogynist at a guinea pig themed café, a flirtation with a dog during a jog through a graveyard (where your mother is buried) or a romantic climax in a confessional booth. Watching Fleabag, it all seems as it should be, making other shows feel alarmingly unlike life.
Waller-Bridge has carved out a distinct space for herself in a landscape that felt saturated until it had to move aside for her. And all this before addressing the position she occupies in the feminist canon. In typical contrary fashion, her role as a feminist upstages the purportedly feminist idea, now pervasive in entertainment, that heroines — long side-lined in the service of heroes — have won the mantle of Strong Female Lead. For Waller-Bridge, this mantle is something of a curse that requires women to be a different kind of perfect — in allowing them to be great leaders, strong fighters and genius scientists — anything but what they truly are multi-dimensionally and forever something they must aspire to.
She rejects this as the consolation prize that it is. Her female characters, indeed all her characters, are themselves, are us and she presents them unapologetically and without judgement. Fleabag’s sister is allowed to be a successful, controlling, incessantly busy woman who would rather have a miscarriage than a baby with a husband who she despises but can’t find the strength to leave. We root for her with gusto even as we ache for him just slightly when he insists that he will leave her if only she begs him. Waller-Bridge is not interested in having her women rail against the patriarchy. She’s more interested in showing us what real men and women look like within social constructs that ask ridiculous roles of all of us. In another memorable moment, Fleabag listens to her sister’s colleague, Belinda, give a soliloquy on women’s uncanny ability to manage pain because it’s hoisted on them from periods to childbirth while men have to “invent wars” to feel alive. Belinda ends by extolling the glories of life after menopause. Instead of surrounding her characters with feminist controversy, Waller-Bridge does more simply by illuminating women for men.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge would probably accept her advancement of a feminist agenda begrudgingly, although she has great admiration for her female peers. She’s said repeatedly that she wants to be defined by her work, her comedy, her art and not by her perspective as a woman. Her refusal of the politicization, that the role of feminists in her work implies, is itself a feminist act. When men create, they aren’t pushed as hard to be stand-ins for an idea or an ideal. To demand to operate with the same freedom is an empowering choice. Perhaps this is why when asked about her influences and inspirations, Waller-Bridge has cited novelist Bret Easton Ellis, best known for creating the serial killer in American Psycho, comedian Louis C.K. who fell from grace for his misdeeds towards women after years of stand-up built around men being gross and the film Alfie, the story of a world-class con artist and womanizer. Her inspirations are drawn from men behaving badly, horrifically even, because she is interested in pushing female characters to the same extremes and seeing what happens when women behave just as terribly, insincerely, nonchalantly, selfishly and downright murderously. Will we still love, them? If her awards closet is anything to go by, we certainly will.
After Fleabag’s success made a strong case that the self-involved, sexually charged, far from perfect woman could be as much of a magnet as her male counterpart had been for centuries, Waller-Bridge was tapped by BBC America to adapt the Villanelle novel series by Luke Jennings into a spy-thriller for television. Killing Eve, as the series is called (a wickedly brilliant name that hints at re-writing the Bible), naturally focuses on the cat and mouse chase between two lethal women. Eve Polastri, a British intelligence agent (played by Sandra Oh), is tasked with catching psychopathic assassin Villanelle (played by Jodie Comer). Eve is an obsessive workaholic-slob who neglects her marriage and compromises her sanity at the expense of the chase. And Villanelle is a seductive killing-machine who would make Ian Fleming turn in his grave. As male characters, they would make for a passable spy thriller. As women, they are joltingly refreshing, deliciously twisted and entirely captivating. The pair make Patrick Bateman, the psycho at the heart of American Psycho, seem like a pleasant date. The two women form an obsession with each other that borders on lovesick passion and turns the idea of the femme fatale completely sideways. Killing Eve, a show that might never have seen the light of day before the advent of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, found itself repeatedly on television’s best-of lists in 2018 and 2019 and made multiple award winners of Oh and Comer.
Waller-Bridge will return to the screen herself in April in the HBO series Run, created and written by collaborator Vicky Jones. For someone who seems to thrive on relieving people of their shackles, liberating them no matter how ludicrous the premise, Run could not be more on the nose. The title for starters. The series’ premise is that two adult friends (played by Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson) who dated in college, made a pact seventeen years prior that if one texted the word RUN and the other replied with the same, they would drop their lives and road trip across America. The idea that underlies the show, that perhaps the lives we are supposed to be happy living, the norms that are supposed to contain us, the morals that we have to abide by, might all be a bunch of crock, is indeed the anxious through-line in Waller-Bridge’s work whether she is de-frocking a priest, raising hell with a ukulele or romancing a serial killer. It’s the constant questioning that allows her to keep pushing the boundaries further, making room for more of us through an on-screen world that is a welcome mat for the unconventional, a clarion call to the souls buried under the surface.
After this comes Bond, a jewel in Hollywood’s Holy Grail. There are few women on screen that feel less true to life or need more liberating than those that find themselves enthrall to 007, and this latest Bond movie is all about the women. In No Time to Die, three women drive the plot which begins with a female 007 played by black British actor Lashana Lynch. French actor Léa Seydoux reprises her role as Dr. Madeleine Swan (a first for Bond who typically loves women only as much as he loves to discard them) and Cuban newcomer Ana de Armas is the CIA agent assisting Bond’s mission. Waller-Bridge’s spin on Bond has been kept a closely guarded secret. He might find himself outshone by a female spy who meets him toe to toe or someone whose dark side and disregard for authority runs deeper than his own. After all he’s a womanizer who doesn’t believe in rules and a woman who outfoxes him is likely to be just as much the antihero dressed as a hero. At the end of the day, we’re all just hiding behind our game faces and getting under the skin of this (we know from Fleabag) is Waller-Bridge’s specialty.
When citing inspirations like Bret Easton Ellis caused a feminist backlash, Waller-Bridge responded that far from being repulsed by misogyny, it urges her on to an artistic rebuttal. What better place to put that rebuttal than an enormous and loved part of the popular canon where a shift in tone would go a long way. Waller-Bridge is likely to reinvent the women in No Time to Die from ‘Bond Girls’ — a phrase Daniel Craig is desperate to retire — into women that hold their own with Bond and this is just what the franchise needs if it wants another twenty-five films in its future. No matter the fate of Bond, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s future in Hollywood looks bright. She is in the midst of writing her first feature that she will direct and recently signed a sizeable overall deal with Amazon Studios. She appears to have disarmed an industry not lauded for authenticity by putting a dose of the truth on screen. Waller-Bridge recently said she wanted to wear something that would emulate Bond at the movie’s premiere. Tux or no tux, she’ll be wearing the pants for a long time to come.
The author is a film producer and journalist and a former hedge fund COO. Twitter: @soleilnathwani