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'Fleabag' And 'Killing Eve' Creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge Is Full Of Surprises

Phoebe Waller-Bridge writes female characters who are flawed, reckless and unpredictable. "As an audience, all we ever want really is to be surprised by things," she says. The actor and writer just finished an off-Broadway run of her one-woman show Fleabag, just as the second season of the TV show is dropping on Amazon.


Other segments from the episode on May 13, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 13, 2019: Interview with Phoebe Waller-Bridge; Review of the film Non-Fiction.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Phoebe Waller-Bridge created and wrote the first season of the hit series "Killing Eve," about a British intelligence officer and the assassin she's tracking. Waller-Bridge is also the creator and star of comedy series that are hits in Britain but are lesser known in the U.S. They include "Crashing" and the more recent BBC-Amazon series "Fleabag." The second and final season of "Fleabag" begins streaming this Friday.

In "Fleabag," Waller-Bridge plays a young, single woman who's a feminist but suspects she's a bad one. She's sex positive but often doesn't enjoy the sex, and she owns a cafe that's in financial trouble. She lost her mother a couple of years ago, and her father's response was to buy her and her sister tickets to feminist lectures, while starting to date their godmother. Her character presents a confident image, but she confesses what she's really thinking to the camera.

"Fleabag" originated as a one-woman show written and performed by Waller-Bridge. She's returning to the London stage in August for a final four-week run. Note to parents - we'll be briefly talking about how the main character's sexuality figures into the series; nothing explicit, but we thought you should know. Let's start with the opening scene from Season 1, which is about sex. Fleabag's at home in the middle of the night, waiting at the front door. She's out of breath because she's been rushing to get ready.


PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) You know that feeling when a guy you like sends you a text at 2 o'clock on a Tuesday night, asking if he can come and find you, and you've accidentally made it out like you've just got in yourself, so you have to get out of bed to drink half a bottle of wine, get in the shower, shave everything, dig out some Agent Provocateur business (ph), spin about the whole bit and wait by the door until the buzzer goes?


WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) And then you open the door to him, like you'd almost forgotten he's coming over. Oh, hi.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) And then you get it immediately.

GROSS: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the Peabody that you just won for "Killing Eve."

WALLER-BRIDGE: Thank you so much. Thank you.

GROSS: I want to start the interview by talking about "Fleabag." So as we just heard, the series starts with sex. So let's start the interview there, too.


GROSS: Your character who you play says - and I'm going to conflate here a sentence from the TV series "Fleabag" and also from your one-woman show. So your character says, I'm not obsessed with sex; I just can't stop thinking about it - the performance of it, the awkwardness of it, the drama of it - the moment you realize someone wants your body, not so much the feeling of it.


GROSS: So describe that kind of sexual obsession, where it's about the drama and the performance, being desired, but not so much, like, the feeling of sex itself.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Well, I think that idea came from a lot of conversations I was having with friends of mine and - about how what their relationship with sex was. And actually, often with the women I'd speak to, when I was really boiling it down with them - and through my own experiences, as well - it felt like the most sort of important part of it was the validation a lot of the time, and less of, you know, what the woman herself desired and more about the feeling of being desired.

And I just thought that was a really - it was kind of sad (laughter) how many women I spoke to felt like that, and that I could relate to that, and that I felt like that, certainly through my 20s. And I just sort of thought that that would really key in - that'd be a really quick way to kind of key into this character.

GROSS: And she kind of describes a problem that that can lead to. She says, I know that my body as it is now really is the only thing I have, and when that gets old, I might as well kill it. Either everyone feels this way a little, or I'm totally alone. So you know, if you placed your value, your identity, on your sexual desirability, and then you passed the age where people see you as sexual desirability being your defining (laughter) attribute then what do you have? I mean...

WALLER-BRIDGE: Mmm hmm. You're screwed.

GROSS: Did you go through that in any way, large or small?

WALLER-BRIDGE: Oh, yeah, I did, totally, in my 20s. I would feel like - I felt very frustrated because I could also - I could intellectualize my own neuroses about it, and I could say, this is - I can see this feeling that I'm having is a wrong feeling, and it's going to totally screw me up later down the line. But yet, this - I could feel the pressures of it. Maybe it's also because I'm an actress, and I see - you know, you can see that a lot when you're growing up; it's just very, very beautiful women on screen and with media and the pressure and adverts. I mean, I went through phases of just - you couldn't open - I couldn't open a newspaper, and it would just be women in their bras, like, advertising mortgages.


WALLER-BRIDGE: I mean, it didn't even make any sense, you know. It's just like, why are we always naked everywhere? And which - you know, which I struggled with, as well, because, you know, I don't believe that - I don't - I'm not a prudish person, and I'm not - and I never want anyone to feel, like, censored, and I never want to be censored myself. But I just felt like it was being commodified, like, the female body and the female - and not for our - not in any way that was healthy or made anybody happy. And that really, really frustrated me. It made me kind of angry and rage-y (ph) in my 20s. And so I think that's where a lot of that feeling came from.

GROSS: I think one way that you deal with that kind of dissonance between, like, the sexual desirability you want to represent and you're thinking, like, that's ridiculous; I shouldn't be defining myself that way - you deal with that in part by having the main character kind of narrate the story of her life to us, the audience. Because she's always kind of turning away from the action, facing the camera and telling us what she's really thinking. And I think you handle that really well and, typically, very humorously.

But that always makes me think about, what it would be like to, in real life, have an audience who you could always, like, tell things as a side - as asides, and they'd always be on your team; they'd always be on your side because you're narrating the story. They're seeing things through your eyes, and they're going to applaud you when it's over.


GROSS: Anytime, you know...


GROSS: Or tune in next week. So is it - like, tell us why you wanted the character to always be, like, removing herself from the action and turning to the camera and talking directly to us.

WALLER-BRIDGE: I feel like a lot of what the narrative structure was - in that, the device of looking to the camera or, in the play, it was just all, you know, direct address - it allowed me to play with the idea of control of her own narrative. So she has - you know, she puts forward this image of herself and this attitude that she has for you, you know, the audience. When she says, here I am, I'm fine. Come into my life. This is going to be hilarious. You're going to - I'm going to show you these hilarious, like, sexual encounters that I have. I'm going to be really funny. I'm going to keep the energy up for you.

And this promise that she has at the beginning, which seems like fun; it feels like a kind of complicit friendship. And she's like, you know, come on in with me. And the idea that, if that's where we start, that's got to break down because that can't be - that's such a difficult thing to maintain for anybody because it's a front. And I feel like that idea of a front, you know, I can recognize in my own life. You know, you go out, and you put your lipstick on, you know, do your hair, and you put these clothes on, and you know, you put yourself together so you appear to be, like, a together person. You go out into the world with this sense of, like, I'm totally fine; I'm totally in control of all this.


WALLER-BRIDGE: Underneath, of course, it's like, oh, my God, like, what's going on? I don't know what I'm doing. I'm really sweaty. I don't understand (ph). And so it was that kind of dichotomy of experience I really wanted to play with, as well. So she's trying to convince you that she is fine, and actually, the relentlessness of being witnessed means that she eventually - that has to break down because she can't keep that up the whole time.

So I think at the beginning, you know, the idea of having an audience watching you and watching your every move and being there for you so you can turn around, and they'll laugh, and they'll clap, at the beginning sounds quite fun, but actually, in reality, it's a nightmare because you feel like you have to constantly perform to them. And this idea of this constant eye on her felt like it was the perfect pressure for her to then crack under because she wasn't being honest and she wasn't being truthful. I think that her journey was to have the front eventually slide so we can see who she really is and what she's really hiding.

GROSS: So I want to get back to sex.


GROSS: So your character in "Fleabag," She knows how to bring herself to orgasm, although her partners don't necessarily know how. And this seems to be the first period where women writers are actually writing about masturbation. The act itself is not a new thing, but I think being written about in comedies that are on TV, I think that's new.

You know, it's interesting because in male coming-of-age movies and men stand-up comics are always talking about the subject - well, always - like, so frequently talking about this subject, but not so much, rarely if ever, in movies or TV shows about women until recently.

WALLER-BRIDGE: I know. It's so funny, isn't it?

GROSS: It's like it was a secret.

WALLER-BRIDGE: It's so funny how shocking - yeah, it is like a secret. And it's like the shock of it. Like, I remember when "Fleabag" first came out and the idea that she was - 'cause a funny reaction happened to "Fleabag" was - the TV show - was that people were talking about it like there was an awful lot of nudity in it or very gratuitous sex in it. And actually, there's no nudity in it. And you don't see any sex. Like, you don't see it very graphically. But the language is very graphic. And the fact that, I think, I'm looking straight down the barrel of the camera and that you stay on her, she's talking you through these moments.

So when there's a moment when I'm masturbating with my boyfriend next to me. And it just feels like really, really intimate, I think, because we held on it. But then the show was written about like it was the filthiest, most, like, exposing, like, couldn't leave how much nudity there was in it. I had - kept having to correct everybody like, no, no, I haven't.

And I can't - like you say, I cannot count on my fingers and toes how many scenes I've seen of, like, men on TV since I can remember. I mean, especially in comedy. But it just seems like this thing - that it's just like an everyday occurrence for men that we all kind of understand and we all kind of see that it's kind of adorable like these poor guys have get on with it.

And, you know, for women, it's this, yeah, transgressive act of, you know, of something naughty or in some cases something dirty, I think. You know, the - that women pleasuring herself was like a deeply selfish act, whereas a man having to do it was just he had to get something off his chest or wherever else it comes from.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, I'll tell you what. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Phoebe Waller-Bridge. And she created, wrote and stars in the comedy series "Fleabag." Season 2 starts streaming on Amazon this Friday. She also created and wrote the first season of "Killing Eve." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She created and wrote the first season of the BBC America series "Killing Eve." She also created, wrote and stars in the BBC Amazon series "Fleabag." The first season is available on Amazon, and the second season starts streaming Friday.

So let's continue talking about "Fleabag" since the second season is about to start. We were talking about how your character kind of defined herself by her sexual desirability. But in Season 2, which I've had an advance look at, she decides to stop having sex or at least to stop having so much of it. She says sex didn't bring anything good. It's, in fact, brought some things that were very bad, which we won't get into. We won't spoil everything for people who haven't seen it all yet.

But in the meantime, she desires a young, handsome, witty priest who's going to perform the wedding ceremony when her father remarries. And she desires him so much she looks up celibacy on Google to see if there's any way around it (laughter) - there isn't. But she's still going to try. And I want to play a short scene in which she's visiting the priest, who's played by Andrew Scott. He recently gave her a Bible which she's been reading, and so she's talking to him about it in this scene.


WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) So I read your book.

ANDREW SCOTT: (As The Priest) OK. Great.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) It's got some great twists.

SCOTT: (As The Priest) True.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) But I just couldn't help but notice...

SCOTT: (As The Priest) Come on. Just spit it out.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) ...Just one or two little inconsistencies.

SCOTT: (As The Priest) OK. Sure.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) So the world is made in seven days. And on the first day light, came. And then a few days later, the sun came.

SCOTT: (As The Priest) Yeah. That's ridiculous.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) But you believe that.

SCOTT: (As The Priest) It's not a fact. It's poetry. It's moral code. It's for interpretation to help us work out God's plan for us.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) What's God's plan for you?

SCOTT: (As The Priest) I believe God meant for me to love people in a different way. I believe I'm supposed to love people as a father.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) We can arrange that.

SCOTT: (As The Priest) A father of many.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) I'll go up to three.

SCOTT: (As The Priest) It's not going to happen.

WALLER-BRIDGE: (As Fleabag) Two then.

SCOTT: (As The Priest) OK, two.

GROSS: So after putting your character in the first season in the position of just wanting to be very sexually desirable and defining herself in some ways by that desirability, why did you want to kind of neutralize that in the second season?

WALLER-BRIDGE: Well, she had to change in some way. Between the two seasons, there had to be a change because she'd - because the first season is really, at its heart, about grief, I think, and about guilt. But I felt like at the end of the first season, there's a revelation, a secret of hers that comes out. And so the front that she had that we talked about before, the front that she had towards - that she was using to hide behind to the audience suddenly dissolved because she confesses. And then you realize who she is underneath it all.

And so when I came back, I realized when she looks and turns to the camera, she can't have the same ryeness. She can't have the same kind of neediness for their laughter or their, you know - it had to be a different kind of relationship. And so in some ways, that led me into thinking she's tried to improve herself now that she's kind of gone through a little tiny mini-rebirth by telling the truth at the end of the last one. She's now trying to live a good life to see if it helps her become a good person, and she's still dealing with all the feelings of, like, guilt and grief from the last ones, but she's really facing them head-on in a constructive way rather than just sort of falling, spiraling down in a destructive way as she was in the last season. So it was a - kind of an upward struggle for her in this one, and she'd slightly plateaued. I mean, she's eaten a lot of avocado and rye bread.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: And she's tried jogging and all those things that people say are going to turn your life around. And she's slightly plateaued, and so I was sort of more interested now in finding somebody who challenged her philosophy for life, really.

GROSS: So in putting the priest in this position, I'm sure you had to think about what goes through a priest's mind when they're dealing with celibacy. Say they desire somebody. So what did you have to do to write that character, the character of the priest?

WALLER-BRIDGE: Well, I spoke to a monk (laughter) quite extensively, and he'd also been a priest. And it was very important to me that this priest - the priest in "Fleabag" - was portrayed as a fully multi-dimensional person and that his - that we could really feel his struggle and we really believed in who he was. And a big part of that for me was addressing that he's a sexual person because, you know, he's human and that he will have some relationship to sex, and he will have some drive, I believe, this character.

So - and I think it's really important to consider that about every person - like, (laughter) everyone in the world. And when I spoke to this - Father William about it, he was incredibly, incredibly open with me. And it was a really powerful and moving conversation because he said it was a daily struggle, and it's something that he's very - that it's part of the struggle for him that makes him feel like he's really getting closer to God. The moral - that grapple is a conversation he has all the time with God, and he made it a very real, day-to-day sort of live thing for me in my mind for this character 'cause he was saying - he basically was saying it's a bloody nightmare (laughter).

And actually, you know, for me, there's - I'm not sure if it's a good thing that priests have to be celibate, and actually, the show - when it came out in the U.K., there were a few articles written about whether or not this is starting up another conversation about it in the modern world. But what was interesting also for me - you take that one thing away from this man, that he can't give that to Fleabag, and that's the one thing that she wants basically from most men - is at least the potential for it. And from the moment they meet, he says there is no potential; we're going to have to connect on a new level.

And actually, Father William said that a lot, you know? He said you do - once you take that out of the equation, you do find other ways to engage with the world and with people, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's completely out of his mind or he's at peace with it. So both him and Fleabag share a struggle with their relationship with sex. He's got a system to support him, and she doesn't.

GROSS: So you've been performing "Fleabag" again. You recently performed it in New York, and you're going to soon start performing it for - what is it? - like, 30 performances in London, and that's it. You said these will be your final performances of your one-woman show version of "Fleabag." So there's the TV series, and there's the show. The show, the play was the first version of it. So you seem determined to say this is it. Like, I'm - you know, I'm not doing any more of the TV series. I'm going to perform the show for this one last brief run, and then it's over. Why do you want to - why are you willing to do it this one more time, and why do you want it to be the final round?

WALLER-BRIDGE: To be honest, I think I've milked this character as far as I can take her.


WALLER-BRIDGE: I feel like things should come to an end, and I feel with this particular character, I owe her so much. And this whole process has been so wonderful, but I really do feel like there's - when there's something that's that - a story that is that intense, that it's a good thing to end it, and it's healthy to end it and to know for myself as well that this is the end of this chapter. Also, I'm getting a little bit older than...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: ...Fleabag originally was. There's a line in the original play when she goes - in quite an emotional bit, she goes, I'm 26 years old (laughter). Now I'm, like, 33, and my director was like - Vicky Jones was like, you can get away with it. And I was like, I don't know. Like, the first night when I was like, I'm 26 years old, the audience were like, yeah, OK, honey. We'll just - willing suspension of disbelief and all that. But I think it's actually - she has grown up, and I think I've grown up with the character. And now I think it's - yeah, it's time to say goodbye.

GROSS: My guest is Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She created and stars in the BBC Amazon comedy series "Fleabag." The second and final season starts streaming on Amazon Friday. After a break, we'll talk about the series "Killing Eve." She created the series and wrote the first season. And Justin Chang will review the new movie "Non-Fiction" about two bickering couples who work in and around the Parisian literary community. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, created and stars in the BBC Amazon comedy series "Fleabag." She plays a single young woman who says she's not obsessed with sex, she just can't stop thinking about it. But she's also thinking about the cafe she owns which is in financial trouble. Season 2 starts streaming on Amazon Friday. Waller-Bridge also created the series "Killing Eve" and wrote the first season.

Let's talk about "Killing Eve." How would you describe the basic story of "Killing Eve" to someone who's never seen it?

WALLER-BRIDGE: "King Eve" is a story about two women. One of them is a very charming psychopathic murderer, an assassin. And she works for a mysterious company. And she sort of - spy goes around the world murdering people in these big, glorious ways. And she adores her job. And then somebody who kind of works out that this - that there have been multiple assassins happening and thinks it might be a woman is a very bored MI5 sort of desk jockey at - in London. And she starts putting these kills together.

And she starts believing that it might be a woman because of the type of kill - the way that these people are being killed and the environments this person's being able to get into. And then from there on she starts investigating. And the two women cross paths, and they become very interested in each other. And it's a sort of cat and mouse between the two.

GROSS: So let's hear a clip from Episode 5 of Season 1. And this is an episode you wrote. And this is the first full encounter between Eve Polastri, re the British intelligence officer played by Sandra Oh, and Villanelle, the female assassin who you just described who Eve has been hunting. Both women have become obsessed with each other.

So Villanelle has recently killed Eve's partner. And one day, Eve finds that Villanelle has actually just showed up uninvited in her house. Villanelle is played by Jodie Comer. So Sandra Oh as Eve speaks first. She's telling Villanelle some of the things she's learned about who she really is.


SANDRA OH: (As Eve Polastri) I know you are Russian. I know you were in a prison in Moscow for five years until someone broke you out. I know you are exceptionally bright, determined, hard working.

JODIE COMER: (As Villanelle) What else?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) I know you are an extraordinary person.

COMER: (As Villanelle) What else?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) I know something happened to you.

COMER: (As Villanelle) What else?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) I know you're a psychopath.

COMER: (As Villanelle) You should never tell a psychopath they are a psychopath. It upsets them.

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Are you upset?

COMER: (As Villanelle) A stupid word.

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Are you here to kill me?

COMER: (As Villanelle) Or just watching you.

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Who? Who do you work for? Why are you killing these people? Do you not know?

COMER: (As Villanelle) Do you know who you work for?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Yes.

COMER: (As Villanelle) Really?

OH: (As Eve Polastri) Yes.

COMER: (As Villanelle) Really? I think if you untie enough, you'll probably find we work for the same people.

GROSS: That was a scene from "Killing Eve," written by my guest, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. And we heard Sandra Oh as Eve and Jodie Comer as Villanelle, the assassin. What did you see as the most interesting potential in writing about two really strong women characters? One is an intelligence agent and the other is a psychopath, an assassin.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Well, I was really attracted to the idea of this - of a kind of action story with these two very real women, even though one of them is kind of extraordinary. I just - I love the idea of their inner lives, and again, the life that they that they project and then the life that they're living on the inside. I mean, Eve is, you know, she just - she leaves her washing out for way too long. And she microwaves the wrong thing. And, you know, she just forgets to wash her hair for like a week. And, you know, she's all of us.

And her life's kind of hit a plateau. And then the idea that the one thing that lights her fire is the fact that there's a woman out there who has, you know, flipped the bird to all the rules that we all accept in the world and has said, actually, I'm just going to do it my own way and is murdering people and is doing it for money and is living this extraordinary life and has absolutely no apologies to make about it. And that's the thing that gets Eve going. That was really exciting. That just immediately told me that there's - that there are so many depths to this - to Eve.

And then, you know, contrary to that, we have Villanelle, who is leading this unbelievably free life in many ways. She gets to do what she wants to do. She gets all the thrills she wants. She gets the clothes and the money and everything she wants. And yet she's really drawn to this deeply empathetic woman who is the kind of absolute opposite to everything her life represents. And this pull between the two of them was the thing that really excited me 'cause I didn't feel like I had seen that before.

GROSS: The story has comedic parts. How did you figure out how to make parts of it funny?

WALLER-BRIDGE: I wanted both the characters to be charming. I find it very hard not to write jokes. And I also think that comedy and drama actually live very closely with each other and complement each other. And so I wanted these characters to be witty. I wanted there to be wit in the show. And Villanelle is so out there. And she does everything that she wants and says anything she wants into the real world, unlike Fleabag, who says it, you know, to her secret camera friend. Villanelle just messes with people, and it cracks her up. And she's very irreverent.

And so I thought that comedy lent itself to that very, very easily. And I know that that's the quickest way to make people love a character is to - if the character makes them laugh. And then they can murder somebody and you'll go, oh, it's OK 'cause she's funny.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: And I've felt, with Eve, she - I mean, Sandra's just such an exceptionally brilliant comedian. But also, I feel like, again, the same thing. I felt I wanted her to be clever. And I think wit is a real sign of somebody being clever and lovable in that way as well. So it was important to me.

And the tone - shifting tones is always exciting for me because I just think, as an audience, all you ever want really is to be surprised by things. And I think somebody making a joke or - when you least expect it or people being, you know, hungover after karaoke when they're supposed to be in a really serious scene about, you know, who killed this Russian politician - just those little things rubbing off against each other that just make the world seem a bit more real to me.

Because, to me, that is how I - my life has always - been in a very serious meeting or situation, there's always something like a pigeon flies into the window or something - something always, like, ridiculous happens because this is the world.

GROSS: My guest is Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and she created, wrote and stars in the comedy series "Fleabag." She also created and wrote the first season of "Killing Eve." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Phoebe Waller-Bridge she created and wrote the first season of the BBC America series "Killing Eve." She also created, wrote and stars in the BBC Amazon series "Fleabag." The first season is available on Amazon. And the second season starts streaming Friday.

Let's talk about your formative years (laughter).


GROSS: So you went to a Catholic school for girls. How did the sex segregation work for you? And was this - like, how old were you when you were in Catholic school.

WALLER-BRIDGE: I went there when I was 11. My mum had felt it was very important from day dot that we had boys around (laughter), as well as our brother. And - 'cause my brother had his sisters around the whole time. And we had him. But it's something about actually socializing. And so mum was really, really good about making sure that we had boys and girls around the house. So I had a lot of, like, guy friends growing up because of that. But then I also really love the camaraderie of being around girls. And I still do. You know, I think that - there's something very special about that feeling. But looking back, it does feel odd. The exclusivity of it is - does feel odd.

GROSS: So right before you went to Catholic school when you were 6 until you were around 10 - and correct me if this is wrong because this is just something I read - that you dressed as a boy. You shaved your head and called yourself Alex. Now, looking back on those years, do you understand why you wanted to do that?

WALLER-BRIDGE: Yeah. And I still have the same impulse all the time. I mean, I feel like when I was - I remember growing up up until I was about - when I was about 11, 12 was when I started dropping Alex, and I was Phoebe again. But I just thought they just had more fun. I just wanted to be out climbing the trees and wearing comfortable clothes. And, you know, it didn't feel like it was for me. And a lot of my friends were really into the dresses and the dolls and all that kind of stuff. It just wasn't my bag. And the only - and it just seemed so - you kind of had to choose one or the other at that time. And I just definitely wanted to be climbing the trees and that kind of thing. So I had a friend called Maria (ph). And we both had really short and, yeah, shaved it at one point and wore boxer shorts and swimming trunks. And we were just boys. I remember going into Gap once when I was about 7 and the guy coming up to me when I was with my mum and said, so what does the young man want? And I was like, yeah - convinced.

GROSS: (Laughter). Do you think if that was happening today that your parents would wonder if you were trans?

WALLER-BRIDGE: I think my parents would've been exactly the same. You know, and they never had an issue with it. They never - they were just sort of like, sure. You're Alex. Let's take you to Gap, Alex (laughter). And I just remember it never being a problem. I mean, there's, you know, the tomboy kind of thing. I mean, I wonder now if I had back then - if I had - because I was very, very fervent about it when I was younger, as well. It was like I just desperately wanted to a boy more than anything else. If it had been taken seriously maybe by my school or something and I'd spoken about those options - those options had been given to me - I probably would've jumped at it. But I don't think my parents would've been any different. I think they're just like, live and let live. And so I was very, very happy being a girl dressed as a boy as long as I was allowed to express myself that way and allowed to change my name and stuff. They were like, yeah, whatever makes you happy.

GROSS: So...

WALLER-BRIDGE: And then one day, I turn up, and I'm like, I'm Phoebe now. And they were like, welcome home (laughter).

GROSS: What made you change? When you went back to Phoebe, were you also changing the way you dressed? 'Cause The nice thing about when you're a girl or a woman - you can still wear a man's clothes. And, you know, 'cause what are there? There are pants and jackets and shirts, you know, and T-shirts.


GROSS: They're just kind of standard. When a man wears a dress, that's making much more of a major statement than when a woman wears, like, jeans and a T-shirt, which both genders wear.

WALLER-BRIDGE: So unfair. So unfair. This is just such a basic form of expression - just what you wear. And I do feel like that's the irony - is that now it probably feels more limiting, clothes-wise anyway, to be a man than it would be to be - I mean, it's massively more limiting. What changed it? I don't know. I went to a boarding school for a year and a half, two years. And then I think I was just in the kind of, like, middle middle range then. Like, I wasn't thinking either being a boy or being a girl. But then I discovered boys in a big way. And one in particular - I remember meeting a boy and then suddenly becoming really aware that I looked sort of boyish myself and that he probably didn't like that. And that was the kind of crossover point. And then I was like, wahey.


WALLER-BRIDGE: I was like, this stuff is fun. And then I just dressed like such a little tart for years and years and years. Actually, that was the one thing that my - I do remember one conversation my mom being, like, you know what? I can't tell the difference between your bras and your T-shirts.


WALLER-BRIDGE: I think it might be time to have a conversation. So I really - yeah, I really - then I went super, super - not sure if I'd describe it as feminine (laughter) the way that I dressed. But it was definitely not boyish anymore. But I still feel more comfortable in, like, a hoodie and jeans than I ever do in, like, little kitten heels and a flowy skirt.

GROSS: How did you know you wanted to act?

WALLER-BRIDGE: It was such a strong instinct from early on. I just knew I wanted to be in plays. I knew I wanted to be part of a story. I loved telling stories. I loved telling jokes. I loved watching movies. I just - I think that there was an - I was extroverted. I loved expressing that. And at school, it was just the most fun thing. You were allowed to swear in drama class, which was a big deal. And it was really social. And I just remember that feeling of being on stage. I played - I remember my first ever job - she says - at my school.

My first job was in - I think it must've been about - it wasn't a job. It was just a play at school. I must have been about 8, and it was "Pygmalion." And I really wanted to play the lead. And I was cast as the butler. And I was furious. And I remember getting the script. And I had, like, three lines. And I went on stage, and I just thought, I'm just going to make this funny because I've got to make a mark because I've only got, like, three lines on stage. So I just made my voice really low and just spoke really slowly and kind of screwed this whole scene up for everyone else. But I remember, like, three people in the audience laughing. And I was like, I found my (laughter) reason for living. Yeah. And I just remember that feeling of just the - how exciting it is to be able to tell a story in front of people.

GROSS: Do you remember the three lines?

WALLER-BRIDGE: I think it was something like, (in deep voice) you have a visitor. (Laughter). Like, I just was, like, a creep. I was just a creepy, 8-year-old old butler. But I do - I really viscerally remember the feeling of, oh, I love being on the stage. And I like - I heard those three at the back. And I want more of that.

WALLER-BRIDGE: You're nearly 6 feet tall. And I'm wondering if that gives you more of a feeling of a sense of power. I say this from the perspective of somebody who is under 5 feet. And I literally have to look up to everybody who I talk to, just physically have to look up to them. I can't see the tops of most shelves. I can't reach things at supermarkets. What's it like for you to be 6 feet tall and to be a performer, too? Does it give you more of a sense of, like, owning the stage or having, like - you know, being physically more present in the world? Because I know on the other hand, some people try to kind of shrink themselves because they feel like they're too tall, and they stand out too much. So what's it like for you?

WALLER-BRIDGE: Yeah, I - do you wish you were taller?

GROSS: Yeah, I sometimes do because it would be a more practical way of getting around in the world. Like, chairs would be more comfortable. I could reach things at markets - you know, all that stuff.

WALLER-BRIDGE: But in terms of how you sort of feel, like outside of the practical way - the fact that you're always - like you said, you always having to literally look up to talk to people, and people look down to talk to you. Does that affect it, do you think?

GROSS: I don't know. It's not, like, a major thing in my life. But I know it's there someplace.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Yeah, yeah. I feel it's the same with me. I probably take for granted that I can just see further in crowds than other people can.


GROSS: That's another thing. In theaters, there's always, like, a head in front of me.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Yeah. Like, there's things that I take for granted. And that I can reach things. And I think it is. You know, I do - I've never been, like, incredibly aware of it. I've known that I've been tall. But I've always enjoyed being tall. My mum's tall. And I guess like being able to see her through a crowd. My sister's slightly shorter than me. My brother's very tall. So we're quite - but we're quite a tall family. It does make me feel sometimes - you know, sometimes, on a bad day and I've got PMS, I'll be like, oh, my God. I'm so huge. I'm an ogre.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WALLER-BRIDGE: But that's just, like, occasionally. The rest of the time, I don't think it has really affected me. But I do like it, I think. Yeah, I do like it.

GROSS: Well, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, it's really been great to talk with you. Congratulations on the success of "Killing Eve" and of "Fleabag." So, you know, thanks and congratulations on the Peabody that "Killing Eve" just won.


GROSS: Yeah.

WALLER-BRIDGE: Thanks so much.

GROSS: Phoebe Waller-Bridge created the series "Killing Eve." She created and stars in the BBC Amazon comedy series "Fleabag." The second and final season starts streaming on Amazon Friday. After a break, Justin Chang will review the new film "Non-Fiction," which he describes as a head-spinning comedy. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "NIGHTMARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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