Phoebe Waller-Bridge: a confrontational tour de force

As the film industry is forced to confront its dark side, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has emerged into Hollywood as a tour de force of confrontational, taboo-shattering art that could see her reign in Tinseltown for generations to come

Few stars can claim to have captivated Hollywood in the manner Phoebe Waller-Bridge has in recent years. From writing, directing, and starring in one-woman play Fleabag, which, of course, evolved into a smash-hit TV series, to taking the helm for the equally successful small-screen spy thriller Killing Eve, she has gone from struggling playwright to the toast of LA. Indeed, in the midst of awards season, with win after win and photo after photo of the 34-year-old in varying states of euphoria, armfuls of trophies clutched to her chest, it’s hard to escape Waller-Bridge’s hold on the current entertainment landscape.

Just weeks ago she was awarded two gongs at the prestigious Critics’ Choice Awards, dressed in a sheer black Dior gown, having previously picked up two Golden Globe awards, wowing crowds on the red carpet in a couture tuxedo from Ralph & Russo. But in typical British fashion, Waller-Bridge is blasé about her stratospheric success. “I just wrote a character that I would love to play, who was basically this dark, contradictory, lying, acerbic sex addict,” she says of the unnamed lead character of breakthrough Fleabag.

“I thought that would be fun, and people really related to that. She’s an amplified version of my own cynicism at the time, which is somebody who really believed that her main value in the world should be measured by how attractive she was. There’s an honesty and a brashness to her insecurities.” Waller-Bridge says, however, that she was always confident that she had something to offer, and that at some point her work would find an audience. “I was aware that this is not an easy industry to break into and, as a writer and actor, I knew that it could take time before I would break through.”

“Honesty” and “brashness” certainly made BBC-produced and relatively low-budget Fleabag punch well above its weight. Eleven Emmy nominations resulted, and Waller-Bridge emerged from the second, final season into a world where she was on top of the Hollywood pile. In between series of Fleabag, she found time to write the first series of Killing Eve, winning her and the cast another mountain of awards in the UK and US and catapulting Jodie Comer to stardom.

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Phoebe Waller-Bridge - Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy - Fleabag (@bbcfleabag). Video by Alexi Lubomirski (@alexilubomirski). #GoldenGlobes

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“I was so proud of them, seeing them rocket off, with Sandra Oh’s success, and Jodie Comer being the new iconic actress of our time,” recalls Waller-Bridge. “I love when you can feel an actor really starting to own it, and as the series went on, particularly Jodie was just flying, and the character became hers. And in working so closely with Sandra, we would just endlessly talk about the script and the character. It’s a very fulfilling experience, working like that.”

Oh took the role of British intelligence officer Eve Polastri, while Comer played her nemesis, psychopathic assassin Villanelle. “What is really fun is working out who has the upper hand, and why – that idea of power,” says Waller-Bridge. “Each of them has a different superpower, and that really made it easier to measure the changes between them. Eve’s superpower is that she’s a super empath. She feels things very deeply and sees through people very quickly. Villanelle is the exact opposite, with her psychopathic traits.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sandra Oh & Jodie Comer at the 2019 Golden Globe Awards

There’s little doubt that Waller-Bridge would never compromise her feminist nature for anyone. Indeed, she has much to thank for it off-screen too, after a chance moment of sisterhood with playwright Vicky Jones proved to be the start of her success.

“I met Vicky after she was fired from a play she was going to direct me in, and I quit out of solidarity,” she says of collaborator and best friend Jones. “It was the best thing that never happened to us. We didn’t really know each other, and we got absolutely hammered talking about what we love, about what we do, even though no one would give us a job doing it.” Jones, she says, encouraged her, and inspired her to believe in her work – and in herself. “When I wrote the first 10-minute monologue for Fleabag I really focused on how me and Vicky really speak to each other, how much we confide and trust each other. I thought, ‘What if I spoke like that to an audience, but with the promise that I’ll make it funny every single step of the way?’ And that’s what kind of unlocked it.”

As is the case with several stars who have ventured into the realm of semi-autobiography on screen, it’s easy to conflate Fleabag’s central character with Waller-Bridge herself. Perhaps that’s a deliberate choice given her own privacy about her relationships. She was married to filmmaker Connor Woodman from 2014 to 2018 and now dates Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri director and Oscar-winner Martin McDonagh. But in spite of her reticence over matters of the heart, she is exuberant in her discussions of female friends like Jones and former co-star Jessica Knappett, who form part of her creative cabal. “We meet up and have these aggressive chats till 4am, but we’ve started switching from booze to tea around 11pm because we need to remember the conversations. It’s one of those really lovely trusted groups where you can just go, ‘Am I crazy or...?’ If you’re lucky, it might turn out that you’re not.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the Emmy Awards 2019

Waller-Bridge will not discuss her current relationship but does admit to being wary of intimacy. “Oh gosh, it’s so frightening, isn’t it?” she said in a recent interview with the Guardian. “Putting yourself out there, and just rolling with the punches and taking that energy from it in a positive way would be an amazing way to live. “But it’s so hard. And even though we all know it’s the right thing to do, I think that we all have a complicated relationship with ourselves. We see ourselves in lots of different ways and I think that there’s probably a scared person inside of us who just doesn’t want to be seen that often.”

Waller-Bridge was born in Ealing to a middle-class family with close links to landed gentry. On her father’s side, she is a descendant of the Rev Sir Egerton Leigh, 2nd baronet and Conservative MP for Mid Cheshire. Her maternal grandfather was Sir John Edward Longueville Clerke, 12th baronet of Hitcham, Buckinghamshire. Her father Michael Waller-Bridge founded the electronic trading platform Tradepoint and her mother Teresa Waller-Bridge works for the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers charity. She has a younger brother Jasper, a music manager, and an older sister, Isobel, a composer who wrote the music for Fleabag. Although her parents divorced, Waller-Bridge is effusive about her happy upbringing, saying: “I was raised in a really lovely area, with my family, and kids playing on the street, everyone quite open and chatty. It was a lovely environment.”

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An amazing sweep! Congrats to the #Fleabag cast and crew for winning 6 #Emmys Awards! @televisionacad @bbcthree’s fleabag is on iplayer now.

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Next up will be her debut as a big-screen writer for the 25th Bond instalment No Time to Die. She is also considering writing a further movie, although she is keeping the title and subject matter to herself for now. “I might say it out loud and it might be a terrible idea,” she laughs. “It’s quite nice having it in the back of my head for now.” And then there are the calls for her to revisit Fleabag in spite of its relatively recent conclusion, the final season’s apparent open-endedness not being enough to convince the show’s creator of a need to return.

“It felt like the most beautiful way to say goodbye to it, actually,” she says. “It does feel like the story is complete. It is so nice to hear that so many people loved it, maybe she shouldn’t have waved goodbye at the end… but it feels like the right way to end it, to go out on a high.”