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'Fleabag' star Phoebe Waller-Bridge talks sex, feminism and 'wanking' to the president

Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in the Amazon series,
Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in the Amazon series, "Fleabag."

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"Fleabag" was created by and stars British writer and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

While the show is not overtly autobiographical, Waller-Bridge draws heavily on her own experiences and those of her friends.

The title character — known only as Fleabag — is a very clever woman who runs a little cafe. She’s not terribly successful in life or love, and when the series starts, we find out her best friend has recently died.

Fleabag often breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience — a part of the performance that Waller-Bridge used when “Fleabag” started as a solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013.

But you quickly get the feeling that maybe Fleabag is a little too glib — that her constant humor is masking some hard, and heartbreaking, truths.

We spoke with Phoebe Waller-Bridge recently. I was curious about the origin of the name Fleabag.

Interview Highlights:

On why she picked the name Fleabag:

I didn't want to give her a regular name because I wanted her to feel like an everywoman. But then my mom called me and referred to me as Fleabag on the phone because that's my family nickname. In that moment I was like, "Oh no. That's such a great name for this character" ... I've always associated it with being affectionate, which is probably why I gave it to the character, which of course, in the cold light of day, is a horrible word with really dark connotations. I thought it was good because it bought me a subtext to the character so the audience's interest was peaked in a different way. When you first meet her I hope you feel like she's just a regular person with a naughty sense of humor. She's not a fleabag. So I thought it might add a bit of texture.

On the review of her 2013 one-woman show of Fleabag that said she might go to hell for performing it:

I was thrilled with that. It's funny because she talks about sex a lot — and in the TV show as well, but in the play, because it's just reported. It's just the three days of her life reported to an audience. It's just me on a stage. And how much she dismisses and laughs at her own sexual experiences without putting too much weight on them or the impact that they have on her own life seems kind of minimal at the time — I think that just really seemed to shock people, the kind of carelessness with which she opens up the secrets of her sexual history. It seemed very shocking, which I was thrilled with as well.

On scenes that seem to be the worst case scenario:

Oh yeah. I sort of get off on writing the worst case scenario of anything even on the small social existence, but also on the bigger scale. Even if I get a kernel of an idea of, oh wouldn't it be really humiliating if this person said this to me right now? Then I'll again have to see the funny side, write it down and turn it into a TV show. It's my way of dealing with it, I think.

On Fleabag breaking down the fourth wall and her former friendship with her late friend, Boo:

It's the absence of someone who understands her and someone that she feels safe with is mixed in with that relationship. That complicity that she commands with the audience is one that she would have done with Boo. But there's also another level to the relationship to the audience when she's got a front up and it's for the sake of the audience. So it's not so much that the audience is experiencing the true inner monologue of this character. The audience [members], I hope, are feeling like they met a character who's still putting on a bit of a show for them. So the relationship between Fleabag and the audience through the series, I was trying to structure it so that relationship changes and evolves and eventually breaks down as well as the other ones that actually populate her world. So she's kind of a mix of a best friend and also someone that she can show the best sides of herself to and have to show her strength to. 

On describing Fleabag's sex, intimacy and inner fulfillment:

On one level, I feel like she has a really healthy relationship with [sex]... She has a sexual appetite that she's not embarrassed by. And that to me is just like me and most of my friends. That didn't seem so surprising or shocking and I think that's probably why so many women have responded to that.

A lot of people were saying, "Oh, my God this character is totally sex-obsessed." So above and beyond the natural appetite she's got, I think she chases it for other reasons, mainly validation, control, power, being able to understand that when she sees desire in somebody's eyes then she is in control of that microcosmic situation in her world and in her life. Everything else can fall away and now she has control in her life for that one moment. I think that can be very true of women.

When I was in my early twenties, I certainly felt like that was really important to be considered sexually desirable or valuable in some way. And then talking a lot with my girlfriends at the time, it seemed like it was a burden that was being carried as well as something that was sort of fun, exciting and pleasurable. And the mixture between the two was actually leaving a kind of broken relationship with the good things about sex and also the reasons that people are chasing it. Like she said in the second episode — Fleabag says that she's completely obsessed with sex and she can't stop thinking about it and she loves every single aspect of it except for the feeling of it. That's the catch with her.

On the scene where Fleabag pleasures herself to the President of the United States:

I don't think I'm the first person to have that leap of imagination! It's actually a kind of truncated version of a scene early on in the stage play when she's lying in bed and there's a number of things that she's trying to watch to distract her from wanting to watch porn. She is saying, "I'm not going to watch porn, I'm not going to watch porn." 

Then she decides she's going to watch a film and it's got Zac Efron in it and she's like, "I'm gonna stop watching this film." She stops watching the film, tries not to watch porn and then she's like, "I'm gonna watch the news, I'm gonna do that because that is going to completely take my mind off everything and it's going to be boring and informative and it's going to make me a better person."

Then the first thing she clicks on is Obama and she's like, "Oh f---. I'm just going to wank now."

So he just tipped her over the edge. And then basically because everyone said that was the juiciest bit of the joke, we just took Obama out and put him in the show. 

On there being a lot of sex talk but no nudity:

Yeah that was really important that for me that it was all about the language of it. I think if she's talking so explicitly and then you see the explicit act that she's talking about, I'm not sure what's left for the audience.

For me it was more about language and the power of it and the fact that she's looking straight down the barrel in a close up. That kind of intimacy with the audience and that kind of openness about sex and that sexual candor — it's not just about her being honest. It's also about her commanding attention from the audience. She's like, "Yeah I'm just going to say that. I've said it, you've listened to it and I bet you sort of know what I mean."

It's about her control. That's why I kept telling myself, if she's the person controlling the camera — if she's the person telling the story — she wouldn't necessarily want you to be right up there.

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