Nasty women: A chat with Catastrophe's Sharon Horgan and Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge
If you are the kind of television watcher who takes your comedy sharp, complicated, and with a surprisingly emotional punch (with a healthy sprinkling of witty Britishisms to boot), then Sharon Horgan and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are just your cup of tea. If you don’t know them yet, you will: Horgan, 46, along with Rob Delaney, is creator, writer, and costar of Catastrophe (season 3 is available April 28 on Amazon Prime), about a couple whose one-week stand leads to marriage and children. Waller-Bridge, 31, is the creator, writer, and star of last fall’s pitch-black Fleabag (also on Amazon Prime), based on her 2013 award-winning one-woman play about a damaged woman who’s grieving the death of her best friend in none of the standard Kübler-Ross ways. Both are currently highly in demand: Horgan is the creator of HBO’s Divorce; is working on a new series, Motherland, for the BBC; and is about to begin filming her role in Game Night, costarring Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams. Waller-Bridge, meanwhile, is adapting novellas by Luke Jennings into Killing Eve, a series for the BBC, and has a part in the latest from the Star Wars franchise, the untitled young Han Solo film, out next year. Despite their busy schedules, they managed to squeeze in time to talk weird Hollywood parties, juggling projects, and deadlines. We tried to get some questions in, but after EW asked about their first meeting, these two TV multitaskers were off to the races.
PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE: A few years ago I got “the call” [to first meet Sharon]. She asked me to come in for a general meeting. I’d always wanted to meet her.
SHARON HORGAN: It was very sad because we [at production company Merman] just missed the Phoebe boat. We were really hoping to work together, and you were about to start Fleabag. We’d read the play and knew you were the one to meet. But we didn’t get in there! But then we were together at that Emmys party [in 2016].
WALLER-BRIDGE: That was a very surreal event. Everything was white and linen. Everyone was famous, pleasant, and walking very slowly.
HORGAN: It was the kind of venue where you wafted. Fleabag had just launched, right? Everyone is nuts about it. As much in the U.S. as they are in the U.K.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Well, right back at you. I can’t have a conversation with anyone about work without mentioning Sharon. I am f—ing loving Catastrophe‘s third season. We have a watching group, me and my friends and in-laws. [The U.K. premiere was in late February.] It’s so brilliant. One of my questions for you is: How do you start? The thought of the “big idea” really scares me.
HORGAN: It’s the fear that drives me, the fear to make sure we’re not repeating ourselves, or fear that we might outstay our welcome. Our big feeling with season 3 was: What is it about? We know the characters now. In some ways, it’s easier to write for them now. In a weird way, it started off with the more secondary characters this season, and we built out from there.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Do you and Rob designate scripts to one another?
HORGAN: No, we sit side by side like a pair of weirdos. You’ve got a writers’ room at the moment for Killing Eve, don’t you? Are you enjoying writing with other people? Do you get lonely when you write on your own?
WALLER-BRIDGE: I think it’s less fun. It takes years and years to get a shorthand with other people. I’d always worked closely with Vicky Jones [who directed Fleabag the play]. I don’t think I’ve written anything ever if it wasn’t for her and that collaboration in the first place. But that’s taken years of friendship and getting drunk with each other. It’s quite intimidating to go in a room with other people. There are so many terrible drafts and ideas along the way. Trusting people not to jump off the ship is big. And then to encourage people to get on your ship as well — I could metaphor about this for ages.
HORGAN: I usually use food ones.
WALLER-BRIDGE: I’ve gone nautical!
HORGAN: When you wrote Fleabag, did you have half a mind it would become a series?
WALLER-BRIDGE: I didn’t think of anything beyond the play at that point. It took me a year to adapt it because it was so close to me as a play. I learned hard and fast.
HORGAN: Do you take notes on your phone?
WALLER-BRIDGE: Yeah, I do drafts of emails. What’s the last one you’ve got?
HORGAN: Should I tell you? It says [holds up phone to screen], “Sat beside a pornographer.” [Laughs] I was invited to a dinner, and I asked, “What do you do?” He was a pornographer. Things sometimes land in your lap, you know?
HORGAN: His wife was sitting opposite from me, and she worked in wine.
WALLER-BRIDGE: What a chic couple.
HORGAN: Here’s something I wanted to ask: What I think is so extraordinary about Fleabag, apart from everything, is that it’s not wearing its stylish tone on its sleeve — it just has a look that feels so sophisticated.
WALLER-BRIDGE: I have an incredible director and director of photography, and we all felt ambitious from the start. If [protagonist Fleabag‘s] subtext is always a mess — emotional mess, physical mess, f—ing all the time, eating in bed, all that — some would think the show needs to look grimy. Like, have pizza running down her t–s! I always thought, no, we need to do the opposite. I always knew that an essential part of the character is that she is desperate to give the impression she’s in control. [Pause] Are you good at deadlines?
HORGAN: I give myself false deadlines, and I give other people false deadlines, too.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Do you stick to your own?
HORGAN: I try to.
WALLER-BRIDGE: I’m very impressed. I leave everything till the last minute. I’m a terrible, terrible — wait, I should not be saying this. ‘Cause, honestly, this is the opposite of what I’ve been telling my producers. [Laughs] You know when you know that it takes half an hour to get to town on the tube? But there was that one day when you did it in 25 minutes, so for the rest of your life you’re like: It takes 25 minutes! Once, I wrote a whole episode of Fleabag overnight. And I always think I might do that again. But I’m still drafting the first episode of Killing Eve and it’s been years! I don’t think I’ve been satisfied with a script that I’ve written. Or looked at something I’ve written and thought, “Done!”
HORGAN: That’s the best way to be. I have never felt like that either, and I think that’s why you are so good at what you do.
WALLER-BRIDGE: What I love about Catastrophe is the glory of peeking behind the curtain of a married couple’s lives. Something we always said about Fleabag — it has to be the glory of being a woman. And I think that is so strong in everything you’ve made. Everyone carries darkness so close to the surface, yet we’re all laughing, pissing around, getting off, making friends, and getting married. You always shine the light on the glory of it all. Do you ever feel like you didn’t know what your show was about until people start articulating it back to you?
HORGAN: Yes! You know what it means to you, but really it’s the people on the outside and how it made them feel and their experience of it. And then you’re all like, bloody hell, really? I feel like you must get this all the time from women who tell you what the character meant to them, how it reflected something from their lives. Then you think, “S—, I have to keep making this show for that woman!”
Season 3 of Catastrophe arrives on Amazon Prime on April 28; season 1 of Fleabag is currently available on the same service.