Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Phoebe Waller-Bridge interviewed by Tina Fey

Is she the messiah, or a very naughty girl? With Fleabag’s second series, Phoebe Waller-Bridge confirmed herself as many things: chief among them, a genuine once-in-a-generation talent. She’s the writer and star of a dramedy – about a woman traversing one-night stands, family, God and M&S pre-mixed cocktails – that had an impact not seen since Ricky Gervais made a little show about a paper company. In Killing Eve, she created another instant classic, a darkly hilarious and effortlessly stylish thriller about a cat-and-mouse chase between a desk-bound MI5 agent and an haute couture assassin, back for series two this month. And that was just the last year. What’s next? Only the small matter of writing the next Bond film. So who better to quiz the nation’s anointed master of the sideways take than her spiritual American counterpart...

Tina Fey: All right. These are questions, Phoebe, that will, when gathered together, be an interview. Were you once a child?

Phoebe Waller-Bridge: I’m still in that phase, I think.

TF: What kind of a child were you?

PWB: I think I was quite a loud and boisterous kind of joke-making, outgoing, showy-offy kind of child.

TF: Uh huh.

PWB: I think I was a nightmare child.

TF: Did you like school?

PWB: I did like school. I sort of liked school. I really liked the camaraderie of it. I loved that you were around people all the time. You see your friends every day. Homework I didn’t like.

TF: What kind of town did you grow up in? A small town?

PWB: No, definitely London, on the very end of the Central line. Just a really lovely area, with my family, and kids playing on the street, everyone quite open and chatty. It was a lovely environment.

TF: Can you remember the first time you made someone laugh?

PWB: I can actually! I was in my room and my mum had her friends over or something. I can’t remember why we were all talking about Superman earlier that day, but I’d come up with this joke about him. I mean, I must have been about six or seven or something, but I remember thinking, “I have a joke. And I need to tell Mum now.”

TF: Before somebody else gets this joke.

PWB: Yeah, before someone else tells it! I’ve got to tell her my Superman joke! I ran downstairs and was like, “Mum, I have a joke.” And she was like, “OK.” And everyone had to be quiet. And it was not even a funny joke. It was just something about him needing a... I can’t even really remember it to be honest, but it was something about him needing a belt and actually Superman is, like, massive. And his belt holds him. It’s all about the belt.

TF: Which in a way...

PWB: We can relate to later in life!

TF: And that’s Mr Incredible [from the Pixar film The Incredibles].

PWB: Yeah. An early workshop of that.

TF: So if it’s good enough for Pixar... What TV did you watch growing up? It’s interesting to me to know what American things you had and what British things.

PWB: Oh, loads of American things. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a big one, but I think the one that I got really obsessed with was Ab Fab. That was the big TV thing that made a difference for me.

TF: So funny.

PWB: I was just like, “How are they doing that? They’re actually doing that...”

TF: And there’s nothing redeeming about them. It’s a woman who’s maimed her daughter...

PWB: Yeah, exactly! They were just hammered all the time! And then Patsy... They were just doing exactly what they wanted to do. I hadn’t really seen it before. They were just so surprising. People appearing like they didn’t give a fuck really appealed. And they were really the heroines of the day.

TF: Yeah. They also showed The Young Ones in America, on MTV.

PWB: Oh, yeah, yeah.

TF: Which was also just...

PWB: Mad.

TF: Totally nuts.

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PWB: Yeah. And I guess Blackadder as well – that really kind of eccentric humour.

TF: Yeah.

PWB: I think honestly one of the best jokes of all time is “Darling”. Just the fact that he’s called Darling. Like, the main captain’s called Darling. Any serious conversation they have is, “How are you feeling, Darling?” And that’s just killed me for years and years and years. It’s just a perfect joke. You know, that feeling when you know someone’s made a perfect joke and they’re just going to keep rolling it out for you. Did you actively seek out British shows?

TF: For sure. Because we just thought that was better comedy.

PWB: It’s so funny, because there is that myth around. It’s not always great.

TF: Did you think of yourself, going to school and going to drama school, as a pure actor or a writer? Did you think of yourself as really interested in comedy foremost or was it secondary to you?

PWB: I always felt like comedy was the most fun way in. And also I always knew I wanted to be an actor. I remember seeing Bugsy Malone. I saw a bunch of kids do Bugsy Malone when I was that age. I was about eight. I think it was at the National Youth Theatre. It blew my tiny mind that they were doing it

TF: Doesn’t everyone start off wanting to be an actor? It’s the most fun part ostensibly, right?

PWB: And it’s the only bit that you can see, right?

TF: There’s this model for you and it’s glamorous. And then you quickly realise that it would be better if I had a little control of what I was saying. Do you prefer to write things for yourself to be in or to write for other people – or maybe you have no preference?

PWB: It’s very instinctual, actually. For Fleabag the play, I was the only one up for doing that at the time and I was the only one up for writing for me at the time. I had to believe in every single sentence. And it made me up my game for myself, I think, because I think the actor part of me was challenging the writer part of me and the writer part of me challenged the actor part of me. I always felt like there would be a line at some point where you’d be like, “I’m not looking forward to performing that bit” or, “I can’t wait for that bit.” My challenge to myself is that I want to enjoy doing every single bit. And I think that was what I found exciting about the challenge with Fleabag. But when Killing Eve came along I just ended up writing myself organically out of the casting. There were conversations about me being in it, but...

TF: Was it initially brought to you with the idea that you’d be in it?

PWB: Yeah, that that would be part of the conversation. But the conversation just went away. The characters had taken me a certain way and I ended up not being right for the casting of it. And I think once I’d realised that was the case, it was really liberating and really exciting. Like, I’m going to take a step back and see.

TF: Had you done a full thing that you weren’t in before?

PWB: No. I’d done short plays. I did some with the theatre company I was in, little short plays, and then there were other drama schools that would ask us to write scenes for their final showcases so I did a couple of those. I really, really enjoyed that. There’s a certain type of thrill to watching somebody else bring it to life.

TF: This is very crude and I’ll regret saying it, but performing something is like a clitoral orgasm. Having actually written something is...

PWB: Deeper?

TF: Butt stuff? I don’t know how the body works.

PWB: And improvisation is...

TF: Improvisation is frottage without fruition. I want to go back to Fleabag, but now we’ve started talking about Killing Eve so let’s talk about that. How much of it had you written before you knew who the actors were going to be?

PWB: The first couple of episodes, I think – certainly the first episode, maybe the first two or three. But then they really came into focus. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience, the moment you know someone is going to be in it just suddenly focuses your mind and you hear their voice and the way that they move. All that kind of stuff just really galvanises the writing of it. With Eve, I felt more connected to that character. There were bits of me. I was writing parts with bits of myself and then being able to let that go, actually, when I first spoke to Sandra [Oh] about Eve [the MI5 detective she plays], she had such an immediate connection to the character. She was like, “I know who this is.” And she would talk about her in ways that I’d just end up writing on the wall, being like, “That’s her touchstone, her point.” But Villanelle [the assassin] was more of a challenge, because Villanelle had to be six different people at the same time.

TF: It’s probably too easy to write a villain as just batshit, front to back, but she’s got things that are pulling at her.

PWB: Yeah, totally. I think finding that heart in her, finding a heart in a heartless character was the fun of it. Finding those things that the audience is least expecting. And then obviously, Jodie [Comer]... I mean, there’s a way that an actress can completely just fill up a role like that. And Jodie has so much heart and warmth in her. Again, that all came for free. It was finding the character’s sense of humour that really humanised her. That’s why humour’s so important in everything, because the moment you realise that someone has a sense of humour, and what kind of sense of humour they have, you feel like you know them. One of my favourite dynamics in it is that Carolyn [played by Fiona Shaw], I decided, doesn’t really have a sense of humour – she’s the head of the Russian section of MI6. She doesn’t really have a sense of humour and she certainly doesn’t share Eve’s. And so much of the fun stems from one not getting it when the other is making a joke. How they make each other laugh is a really easy way for me to map out their relationship.

TF: That makes complete sense to me. I find that in real life I use humour constantly to assess other people’s intelligence or their world view or whatever. Until I can figure out what makes someone laugh, I’m unsettled with them. Right?

PWB: Yeah. And that’s the first thing you think when you meet somebody?

TF: Yes. Kind of like, “What’s your deal?”

PWB: And then you do a test. Because I think making a joke, in real life, is one of the most dangerous things you can do. And I think, especially in a social situation, it’s a risk every single time. Saturday Night Live is like the extreme version of that, because it’s to the nation.

TF: Yeah.

PWB: I think this whenever I see people having a little go at something at a cocktail party or whatever. I’m like, “Come on!” There’s something so fragile about the moment just before and after a joke that feels so human. I think that’s why. Then, when writing characters, it’s not always about whether or not the character is funny or the moment in the show is funny. It’s just how it lands with the other characters. That makes them all feel really human. But yeah, I think I agree with you. I feel the same.

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TF: With comedy people it’s like trying to sleep with a sex addict. What it takes for it to work for them is so layered and elaborate. I have a friend who was a college roommate who would only laugh at human behaviour that has actually happened. Doing something like Fleabag, it’s about sex addiction. It’s about sex. And because it’s your series you don’t have to worry about feeling conflicted, because why would you?

PWB: No, I didn’t. I was really sensitive as an actor coming out of drama school about how often [sex] would be in comedy, particularly that it would be the butt of the joke, which is like, “It’s hilarious. He wants to fuck you!” or, “It’s hilarious. He doesn’t want to fuck you!” Basically, to be fucked or not to be fucked is the ultimate demise of any female character in comedy.

TF: Yeah, the only two options.

PWB: It feels like those are the only two options you can see at the time outside of things like Ab Fab. But those are writers and actors just going, “We’re going to take it back and we’re going to be the monsters that...”

TF: That hire Idris Elba as a rent boy. I think that happens in an old episode. I’m pretty sure it’s Idris Elba.

PWB: Can we please watch that?

TF: I think the women get too wasted and they can’t go through with it.

PWB: Instantly funny. Other way round? Very, very dark. [Laughs.] I felt like I was really aware of that, reading parts and stuff. I just wanted a job so badly. And I didn’t even feel like it was aggressively sexist in the room when we got scripts like that. I think it was just the status quo.

TF: And then you stop thinking about it.

PWB: Yeah. No one really knew, not even the people who are creating it.

TF: Is there a part that you remember you wanted so bad that, in hindsight, you’re like, “Why did I...?”

PWB: I mean, my first ever acting job. I had a comedy sex montage where I had to wear a moustache and be naked and spank a man and demand to be called “Uncle”. I had to wee on him.

TF: This was on stage?

PWB: No! It’s out there. It’s a TV show.

TF: Oh, what show?

PWB: How Not To Live Your Life. The clue’s in the title. But it was a really successful show, really nice people working on it. But I was reading it with a good sense of, “Oh, of course. Of course there has to be a sex montage because, you know, I’d have to do that if it was Pride And Prejudice nowadays.” Right?

TF: Yeah.

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PWB: But then, I guess, I met Jessica Knappett, who writes a show called Drifters and is one of my best friends and an amazing comedy writer as well. She’s, like, flipping out that I’m having this conversation with you, by the way, as am I. But that’s fine. But we both met on How Not To Live Your Life and we were like, “Nice to meet you!” And then suddenly we were in underwear. In the final scene we’re both in underwear. We had just been getting on like normal, like two girls on the job. And then the doors open, some panda comes in, loads of guys are running around, and we’re in this really sexy underwear and we’re lying there. Because it was both of our first jobs, we’ve always had that as a touchstone. That was the basis of it. And the show was really fun; the whole point of it was that we were kinky posh girls or whatever. But it was funny that after that I was like, “I don’t really want to do that every time.”

TF: Yes.

PWB: Unless I’m writing it myself and there’s a kind of a self-awareness about it, which I think is where that came from.

TF: Yeah. And then it also sometimes comes down to like, “It’s my thing, so I also have control of the cut.”

PWB: Yeah. Oh, yeah. That’s a massive deal. I think that’s so important, the filming of it and how you tell that story, especially with sex and women on screen. The first series of Fleabag, when it came out in the UK, the British press were like, “This is the filthiest, most overly exposed, sexually exposing show ever.” They made out like I was naked the whole way through. I was like, “There is not a moment of nudity in the series.” I just say stuff about my arsehole straight down the barrel. I think that makes people feel so naked, but the language was more naked than the actual performance.

TF: It’s so thrilling in Fleabag when you turn to camera. And those fantasy moments on the Tube. It’s not like you invented a new kind of comedy, but it feels so incredibly fresh. Had you done that on stage? Did anyone try to persuade you not to talk to the camera? How did it come about?

PWB: I think it was because in the play the relationship with the audience was paramount for me, because the idea was to invite people in and make them feel like they’re watching a stand-up-esque story, but make it feel like relentless jokes and that her whole reason for being there is to make you laugh. And you love her because she’s making you laugh. And then, at the end, the dream was that you’d feel betrayed by her, and that she tells you the secret and you’re not sure how you feel about her any more. And then at the very end, she asks you, “What did you find funny about my horribly painful life?” That was going to be the twist and that relationship with the audience was really important. Looking down the barrel at the beginning and being like, “Come into my life. It’s sexy. It’s funny! I swear it’s gonna be fun.” She has control over the edit and everything. She cuts people off in the edit.

TF: Yeah.

PWB: I always thought that was her doing that. And then as she loses control of the story and the subject of the story, the camera starts to become a bit looser. It begins to hang around longer than she wants it to hang around. It’s like when someone asks you to hang out with them and it’s really intense really quickly and they’re like, “We’re best friends!” Then you’re starting to ask a bit too personal questions and they’re like, “Actually, I’m not ready for this relationship.” That’s like the end of the series. The idea that she feels like we’re too close and that she wants to get away from us. It felt like the TV version of what I’ve experienced.

TF: Did that come naturally to you? Because it sometimes takes people a minute to learn that it’s just a different language to be using than with stage acting. It seems you went into it very clear about how you wanted to tell the story with cameras as opposed to on stage.

PWB: I had one or two really strong instincts about it. Even though I was still learning. Things like: this scene should not be handheld; this needs to be very still. And when she’s drunk, I didn’t want the camera to be drunk; I wanted the camera to be more judgemental, so that it’s still when we see her. Stuff like that.

TF: With Killing Eve, were you shooting and writing at the same time?

PWB: Yeah.

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TF: I like that. You learn from what you’re seeing.

PWB: Yeah. And, again, the performances really affect it. Villanelle really grew in my mind watching Jodie, because the more playful she got, the more I was like, “We can go anywhere with this actress.” Then she’d start putting on this swagger. Around episode four or five, Jodie just started doing this swagger. I was just like, “Where did that come from?” And I realised it’s when she goes back to Russia, her home country, that she’s got this other personality there. And that really inspired how we wrote the final few acts. I remember reading you saying that with Mean Girls you were allowed to do all the drafts yourself.

TF: Yeah.

PWB: In America, there’s a culture that people will come in and do two weeks... And then do they give it back?

TF: Sometimes. I mean, it depends. But yeah, the culture’s that you might write something that you care deeply about and then they just go to some other people who do whatever they want to it, at least in the studio system. Have you ever worked in a writers’ room? If you’re the one who built it, it can be the greatest thing ever. It’s like a shopping spree.

PWB: I think they did that on the second series of Killing Eve, even though I was doing Fleabag at the time. I think they’re doing it a bit more. And at the same time, I have really close collaborators. So Jenny Robins, who’s the story producer on Killing Eve, and Vicky Jones, who was in the first series of Fleabag, I hash everything out with them. I really need to talk things out. God knows, my team knows I need to talk everything out. I can’t just dig a hole and go and write. So it’s really them, even though it’s not an official “room” room. I would love to experience that at some point, when people know how the system works. But there is a kind of chaotic order between me and [Fleabag director] Harry Bradbeer, the bit with the visual sentences. I do have my little mini room.

TF: Do you like to do one project at a time or can you jump back and forth?

PWB: Well, the last five years there’s been overlap between the shows, which I’ve always thought was quite intense and that maybe I just keep looking forward to the time I can only do one thing. But then I just worry about what happens when I stop. Are you good at stopping?

TF: I’ve gotten really good at stopping. I worked in TV [on 30 Rock]. It was like seven years of absolute madness.

PWB: Absolutely.

TF: It was 70 to 80 hours a week and 22 episodes a year. That was just insane. And I had a young child at the time. I really don’t know how I did it. I feel like I was your age and I had more strength.

PWB: Oh, my God. Were you in the office the whole time?

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TF: We’d start writing in the summer, try to get as many stories broken, because we’d start shooting at the end of August. And then once we were shooting, I would be on set and then check in on the writers’ room. And then the writers would work all day and then come back to my apartment at nights and stay up as late as we could stand up... Anyway, 22 episodes is too many, too many things.

PWB: Does it get to a point when you’re like, “I don’t care any more”?

TF: I mean, I cared so much about that one. There are ones that are like, “Oh, it doesn’t matter if that one got away from us a little bit.” But yeah, I think it’s a window of time that your brain and your body will do it that intensely. Both Fleabag and Killing Eve are such naturally feminist pieces of writing. Do you feel pressure as your “actual” self to be an exemplary feminist? Do people try to pressure you to get your take on issues?

PWB: Yeah. I feel like on one level, Fleabag’s done me favours because she articulates it. She’s indecisive, confused and feels under pressure herself as an individual, and that she might be a bad feminist. I think that was the best articulation of how I feel about that conversation. And then actually writing the play and realising how important it is to show women, specific women, I’m never going to be like: this is womanhood. I want to show specific women with specific stories that hopefully people can relate to. The act of writing that play and the act of writing Killing Eve and all these characters and Fleabag the TV show as well, that is my articulation of how I feel and what I want to see and I work it out through those things. And I feel like sometimes, when I’m asked questions about it, I just want to point at the work and go, “That. That’s what I feel about it.” But I’m also really proud that the work has led people to ask me questions like that. And that women – and men, but more often women – want to come and talk to me about that stuff. But you can feel as if there’s a clickbaity, kind of “hot button” stuff around it where they want to trap you. They want you to say something controversial. The idea that you can be a role model is already baiting people. You’re baiting the press to try to flip you. And that’s the depressing thing: they want to constantly reveal you as being the enemy of women, because you don’t have a perfect answer. But I feel like so many people are part of the good fight now, in the industry anyway. And it’s more about complexity than hammering agendas.

TF: What are your feelings on fame as a side effect?

PWB: It can be quite fun, can’t it?

TF: Yeah.

PWB: I think that what we just talked about is the scary side of it.

TF: Yeah.

PWB: And the kind of two-dimensional side of who you suddenly become to some people. The best feeling’s when people come up and go, “I really enjoyed that.” Something really simple.

TF: Yeah, something specific to what you’ve made, as opposed to, “You’re on TV. Can I take a picture of you?”

PWB: Exactly.

TF: And I think you get a sense of that, even if they have not ever watched a frame of what you make.

PWB: I mean, that’s a real difference. When people go, “You’re... tell me who you are?”

TF: No! You gotta get there.

PWB: Yeah, yeah. I feel like the photo taking and all that kind of stuff is, like, really odd. And people on the Tube, with the surreptitious camera. Like, “I see you.”

TF: You hear people say your name. Like, “I can hear you.”

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PWB: Yeah. My friend Vicky, my only friend, who I talk about always, Vicky, she’s got a hyper awareness about if people recognise me. I have no awareness of it at all.

TF: You have to let it go.

PWB: Totally! Also, it’s a nice thing. It’s not like you’re an actor on a massive show like Game Of Thrones, when people just want to take a bite out of you on the street. People just want to come up and be like, “I really like that take on whatever in the play.” And I think Vicky gets quite protective. She’s like, “There is somebody at the end of the Tube who is looking at you in a certain way.” Maybe they just like my coat. But that kind of protectiveness I really feel from her. And I think there’s a sense that the Fleabag fans have always been really nice. Mostly, it’s like when I was in Edinburgh the first time. It hasn’t really changed. It’s usually people just going, “Fleabag!” down the street.

TF: For some reason, people think Maya Rudolph is me.

PWB: I have that with Jessica Knappett actually. She was in The Inbetweeners Movie and they used my photo in all the press. It was like I was in The Inbetweeners Movie and it was the picture of us in our underwear on the bed, doing our thing!

TF: There you go. I’m going to be googling that. You’re also in Solo: A Star Wars Story! Congratulations. The lifelong dream of every person born after 1970.

PWB: Yeah. You should be in Star Wars.

TF: That’s what I keep saying! What’s it like? Are you at Pinewood working, but you can’t tell anyone what it is?

PWB: Yeah. And they put massive hoods over you if you want to go outside, which is hilarious. I was in a robot costume that was really obvious. You could see my robot legs poking out the bottom, as I was lumbering to the loo. Ka-dunk, ka-dunk, ka-dunk. “I’m playing the new romantic lead!” When I first arrived, everyone is so excited to be working on Star Wars, even the people who’ve been doing it forever. You get there, they’re like, “You’ve got to come round. We’re going to show you the creatures workshop!” And then all the people who create the creatures are so excited that they got to make the creatures. You get this whole energy behind the scenes; everyone’s weirdly hysterical the whole time. It’s like “We’re doing it!” Then there’s the Millennium Falcon – the first time I got into the Millennium Falcon was really cool. Because you can actually get into the spaceship and there were guys underneath who pull a lever and you’re just going, “Whuuuur.” And there’s a screen. They were really excited about the screen because it was the first time they’d had it. Normally it would just be green screen and everyone would have to imagine they were flying through space. We did not have to imagine we were flying through space because they press a button and the guys wiggle the ship and then on the screen in front of us you’d have space. I remember when we went into, er, hyperspace?

TF: Yeah, hyperspace.

PWB: Yeah, we actually went through it, all together, and that was really cool.

TF: Is it weird to know that you will be fetishised by Star Wars nerds?

PWB: Yeah.

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TF: Like, surely there’s a new subreddit of porn with you in it? Fan fiction of you as a robot?

PWB: When Donald [Glover, who plays Lando Calrissian] and I were doing press, people were asking about us. They were asking innocent questions like, “What do you think the reaction’s going to be about this new romantic couple?” And our conversation just naturally spiralled out of control and we were trying to rein it back and eventually Donald just said, “I think the internet will do things for these guys that the film could never do.” But yeah, I’d quite like to see that.

TF: Yeah.

PWB: I wish them the best. Though now she’s actually in-built, in the ship, he’s got a bit more on his hands. In his hands.

TF: Anyway, are there other things that you want us to talk about? I’ve had a nice time. Are you putting Fleabag to bed?

PWB: The stage show? Yes. Maybe.

TF: What about the series?

PWB: The series, the second series is it. It has definitely ended.

TF: Do you know what you’re doing next?

PWB: Yeah, I do. And I’m really excited about it. I’m going to go away and secretly write it.

TF: Oh, great. Well, it’s been lovely talking to you.

PWB: You too.

TF: I hope this has recorded.

Now read:

Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Killing Eve: ‘There were bits of me in Eve’

Phoebe Waller-Bridge: ‘The first time I got into the Millennium Falcon was really cool’

Simon Pegg: ‘I don’t think you ever really lose your demons’

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