“Oh my god, you binged the whole thing in one night? Do not do that!” Phoebe Waller-Bridge sounds simultaneously gleeful and mildly horrified that anyone would sit through her painful, painfully hilarious British TV series Fleabag in a single sitting; it’s the sort of response that you could picture her character punctuating with a conspiratorial look at the camera, widening her eyes and grinning. Following an awkward single woman dealing with a personal tragedy via filthy humor and fourth-wall-shattering asides, Waller-Bridge’s cringe-comedy became an immediate cult hit after Amazon started streaming it in September – and quickly established the 31-year-old as a new spokeswoman for antisocial small-screen behavior and sublime anal-sex jokes.
A playwright and actress (she played a barrister in the second season of the U.K. mystery Broadchurch; check out her sitcom Crashing, a warped anti-Friends currently streaming on Netflix, ASAP), Waller-Bridge traces the show’s origins to being peer-pressured into performing for a friend’s “storytelling” night in 2013. “It was basically stand-up comedy, which terrifies me,” she says. “But my friend kept saying, ‘Well, you’ll be sitting down, it’s completely different!’ Someone had dropped out last-minute, so I filled in as a favor.” Waller-Bridge imagined a young woman relaying her tales of drunken hook-ups; she dubbed the character Flea, based on her own family nickname. The next thing she knew, the actress had been signed up to perform a longer one-woman-show version at the Edinburgh Theater Festival. “I had three weeks to mine a lifetime of humiliation,” she jokes. “But luckily, I’d been magpie-ing a lot of stories and characters and jokes for ages. It was just a matter of condensing a lot of it into a single hour.”
Critical kudos and a West-End theatrical run followed; soon, Waller-Bridge found herself with a BBC deal and a chance to bring her self-destructive, sexually obsessed antiheroine to TV. Though she’s fleshed out Fleabag‘s story to include other characters – a passive-aggressive stepmother (played by her Broadchurch co-star Olivia Coleman), a perv brother-in-law (Brett Gelman), an out-of-her-league on-off boyfriend (Ben Aldridge) – it’s still a showcase for the creator’s singular sensibility regarding late-night booty calls, morning-after bad choices and a certain presidential fantasy.
“Ah yes, the masturbating-to-Obama bit!” she exclaims, referring to a tone-setting scene in which Flea is caught en flagrante delecto with herself while watching a POTUS press conference. “That was in the play. Originally, she was looking for something to distract herself from having a bad wank so she turns on the news and, well…” She laughs. “I mean, it’s Obama, can you blame her?”
Since the show’s airing on both sides of the pond, Waller-Bridge says she’s been a little surprised by how “this little detour I took” has struck a nerve with a variety of viewers. (A second season seems inevitable, though its creator says she has not started thinking about where she might potentially take the character: “It’s just a matter of figuring out her arc, but I’d love to do it.”) The actor confesses that she’s now regularly approached by Fleabag fans who’ve adopted the show’s flawed, fucked-up female character as a sort of next-gen Hanna Horvath. “It starts with, ‘I love your show,'” she says, “and ends with them grabbing one of my limbs, pulling me in very close and intensely whispering how much they relate to her. And if it’s a woman, it usually ends with a rage-filled yet happy air-punch and both of us yelling, ‘Raaaa!’ Like, you know, we were both Vikings. Lovely, lovely lady Vikings.”