An edited version of this story on Phoebe Waller-Bridge first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is nominated for four 2019 Emmys, which puts her high in the ranks of all of this year’s nominees. And two of those nominations are for Outstanding Comedy Series for Fleabag and Outstanding Drama Series for “Killing Eve,” an impressive twofer that only Frank Rich and Georgia Pritchett (producers on both “Veep” and “Succession”) can match among this year’s nominees.
Plus, she received acting and writing nominations for “Fleabag” — and she’s right up there with “Schitt’s Creek” co-stars Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara on adventurous TV viewers’ lists of reasons to think the Television Academy got it right this year.
All of this gives Waller-Bridge a Drogon level of hotness this Emmy season, and makes her the only hyphenate who can give Emmy queen Julia Louis-Dreyfus a run for her money. (Granted, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s pretty fab, too.)
And while “Killing Eve,” which she created and executive produced, landed nine nominations, “Fleabag” is what put Waller-Bridge at the top of must-see lists this year. Its six-episode second season is a darkly funny examination of sex and love and religion and their unfortunate collision, as well as a deconstruction of sorts of the show itself.
And it came almost three years after the first season aired on BBC Three and then Amazon in 2016. “I thought I wasn’t going to do a second one, which is why the gap was so useful,” said Waller-Bridge, who plays the title character, an angry young woman in London looking for sex (definitely), romance (maybe) and family connections (not really).
“The character arc of the first season was quite intense, and having that space allowed me to grow a bit and evaluate the next stage of her life. I think it’s underestimated, taking time between seasons.”
The first season focused on the relationship between Fleabag and her family, with the show’s signature style coming when Waller-Bridge would break the fourth wall and turn toward the camera to share sly asides or quick glances. But when she started thinking of a second season, Waller-Bridge said that that style was the first thing she wanted to change.
“I really wanted to find a new, fresh idea of how Fleabag could engage with the camera,” she said. “My first idea was that she would be with a man in a café, and she would turn to the camera and he would say, ‘What was that?’ And once I discovered that new way to play with the camera, I was off.”
She searched for additional ideas in the notes she’d been making while working on Season 1 of “Killing Eve” and found to her surprise that they had a common thread. “I had been writing lots of things about love and religion, and I didn’t know that until I looked at my notes,” she said.
The exploration of religion turned into the character of a priest, played by Waller-Bridge’s friend Andrew Scott, with whom Fleabag has an uncomfortable relationship that veers between the spiritual (she’s not a believer) and the sexual (he’s not allowed).
“I knew she had to meet her match, but I didn’t want it to be classic rom-com fare,” she said. “She meets somebody who does the exact same thing she does, only she speaks to the audience and he speaks to God. The priest was the perfect amalgamation of all my ideas.”
Of course, for a while she was afraid he might be too perfect. “That was my worry,” she said. “It could almost be too obvious, tropey or sitcommy in a way that could just be played for the hilarity and absurdity of it all.
“It was really important to ground him as a real man. It was important that when we first see him he’s in his civvies, and we meet him first and foremost as a man. I really wanted the journey to be subverted for the audience, and I would never have written this role if it had not been for Andrew.”
“Fleabag” had an Emmy breakthrough this year with 11 nominations, including five for actors Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw. (Nothing, shamefully, for Scott as the hot priest.) But that hasn’t prompted Waller-Bridge to think about another season — at least not for a while. “This is the last season, as far as I can see,” she said, and then paused. “Maybe when I’m 50.” (She’s currently 34.) “I’d be interested to see what she’s up to then.”
She’s also stepped away from day-to-day chores on “Killing Eve,” turning that over to writer and producer Emerald Fennell. “I was there for the beginning of the season, and Emerald and I worked closely through the first two episodes,” she said. “But once those were down and she was happy, then it was all about letting her fly and really getting out of the way, I realized that a good executive producer is someone who gets out of your damn way.”
Waller-Bridge has also done work on the script for the next James Bond movie, adding to a screenplay originally written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. But she has no idea how much of her contribution will make it to the screen: “I’ve finished my writing duties, and I guess I won’t know until I see the movie myself,” she said.
And what did she try to bring to Bond? “The same thing I’d want to bring to anything, really. Just truthful, witty, sexy characters with a heart.”
Read more of the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.