How Physical Got Under Rose Byrnes Skin: By The End, I Was Having Bad Dreams

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

The glamorous heroine of Physical has a morning ritual. Sheila Rubin (played by Rose Byrne) kisses her husband goodbye, drops her daughter off at nursery school, purchases a sackful of cheeseburgers, and checks into a seedy motel. There, she strips off her clothes, gorges on the greasy food, purges, and slips back into her clothes, as if nothing has happened.

Sheila radiates intimidatingly flawless housewife vibes in this new Apple TV+ dramedy, set in 1981 San Diego. But her grim and sometimes nasty internal monologue makes it clear that she is in a pitched battle with herself. That's the last time, she tells herself crisply after one of her disordered-eating bouts. You're done. Tomorrow I will eat clean, healthy food. I will find a new dance class. What she finds instead is the burgeoning world of aerobics. America will soon be awash in leg warmers, candy-colored spandex leotards, and Jane Fonda workout videos, with Olivia Newton-John's Physical video satirizing and sexualizing the whole phenomenon.

An aerobics class at the mall transforms Sheila. A Berkeley graduate, she has been funneling all of her intelligence and resourcefulness into the career of her husband, former '60s radical Danny (Rory Scovel). She sees in aerobics a chance to dominate, riding the entrepreneurial wave of the 1980s. Along the way, she is willing to lie, steal, and undermine to get what she needs.

Physical pushes Sheila deep into antihero territory. Her internal monologue throbs with rage, and the camera seems to zoom in on her visceral bodily disgust. Creator Annie Weisman grew up in Southern California in this era and drew on her own serious struggle with an eating disordersomething that's still largely a no-go zone in pop culture. Marti Noxon's controversial 2017 Netflix movie To the Bone, for instance, was criticized for showing anorexia in such graphic detail that it risked triggering relapses in survivors and providing a roadmap for newbies. Weisman says she thought hard about how to depict disordered eating as they were shooting Physical, explaining that she tried to convey the emotional truth of the experience while staying away from anything that feels too lurid.

On a recent video call, Weisman (from Los Angeles) and Byrne (from her native Australia) discussed aerobics, body image, and the '80s backlash against feminism. ishonest: Annie, what drew you to this era, and specifically to the aerobics theme?

Annie Weisman: In the 1970s turning into the '80s, my parents went from being Berkeley radicals to Reagan voters, and I wanted to explore that shift. I also wanted to write in a truthful way about a woman struggling with a problem that I struggled with for a very long timean eating disorderand to explore recovery in a way that we hadn't seen before. Women in groups finding physical strength, sweating, pounding on the ground, endorphins, community, all of those things. And so [aerobics] becomes this unexpected place of liberation and healing for this character.

Rose, you recently played Gloria Steinem in Mrs. America, and Physical chronologically starts where Mrs. America left off. In the 1980s there was a real backlash against those feminist gains, as well as the kind of 1960s radicalism that Sheila's husband Danny represents.

Rose Byrne: It did feel like a companion piece to Mrs. America, almost subconsciously. This is very much a woman who would have been part of the movement. She went to Berkeley, she married a man who had these ideals and was fighting for these causes. I feel like Sheila would have been following Betty Friedans and the Glorias. And yet she still feels very stuck and she can't articulate that.

Weisman: Danny is someone who, in public, would be very progressive in his views and would support the political change that the women in the movement depicted in Mrs. America were looking for. But we are looking at him in the domestic space, and one of the contradictions we're exploring is how so many of those seeming allies, in private, were really regressive in their gender dynamics. They still wanted women to be in that supporting role at home. So I think Sheila's really sort of disillusioned...and so she's now discovering a different way to have autonomythrough physical strength and through economic power.

I think of aerobics as part of the broader self-help and self-optimization movements, which really went against the '60s radicals' idea of collective revolution.

Weisman: That's absolutely right. This is about a show that takes place in this inflection point between the We decade and the Me decade. It really is about this abandoning of the collective towards: What you really need is to improve yourself!

Sheila's internal voice in the show is so brutal, and probably recognizable for many women. It seems like that would be hard to shake off at the end of the day.

Byrne: We [shot] the domestic storyline all together in one block, and by the end, I was having bad dreams. I was not sleeping well. It was starting to get under my skin. I love Rory Scovel; he couldn't have been more of a delightful person to work with. But it's a dysfunctional marriage, and it's a dysfunctional place to be in it every day for 12 hours. I did find that hard to shake.

Weisman: There were such uncomfortable and truthful moments that I dug out from my own history and life that I would sometimes have to go to my car. Byrne: I'd look around and go, Where's Annie? Weisman: I just had to hide for a little bit because it was so real, you know? Did you worry that some of it might be triggering for people who have eating disorders? Byrne: There will be warnings at the start of the show, and we're working with organizations to make sure there's a number to call. Weisman: I tried to depict it in a way that I would have wanted to see it when I was really suffering and lonely, because this was a time period when there wasn't a lot of shared public understanding about eating disorders. I think, for me, it would have been really healing to see myself depicted honestly, and with sensitivity and compassion. In the '80s, one of the first depictions was in the 1981 TV movie The Best Little Girl in the World, starring a young Jennifer Jason Leigh. Weisman: Yeah, there was an after-school special feelingit was just portrayed as an adolescent problem. I don't know that we saw it in adulthood in that real way that a lot of people experience it, as sort of like a lifelong struggle.

Byrne: There was no language around it at all for someone like Sheila to even recognize or be able to articulate it. She's so in it, and like any good addict, she is always saying, This is the last time.' We were trying to really capture that cyclical nature of addiction, which is really very scary and very real. [Director] Craig Gillespie brought a great visual tension to it, without it being exploitative in any way. It's a hard thing to bring to life, visually. The hope is that peoplenot just people who have this particular form of addiction, but anybody who struggles with a part of themselves they have shame aboutrecognize our capacity to lock away these desires and feelings that we're told are unappealing or shameful.

As we get deeper into the season, Sheila starts thinking about making aerobics videos. Is the series building towards her embrace of entrepreneurialism? Weisman: That's right. She'll take that rage she's turning onto herself and unleash it as this entrepreneurial drive, starting a new business in this female space, at a time when people weren't just handing out business opportunities to womenunless their husbands sort of cosigned on the loan. She's also very ruthless. In recent years, there's been a lot of discussion about embracing imperfect or unlikeable female characters. Weisman: It's really in the DNA of the show that that's who she is. She's someone with unexpected complexity and un-likability under the surface that she's able to conceal so well.

Byrne: And I think when you have this illness, you're so disconnected. You're already living such a secretive lifeso what's another lie? What's another thing you're doing to cheat someone out of this or that? It's all part of that same thing. Do we want to root for her as an audience, even though she's doing these things? I think it is an interesting conversation because we understand it to be her only recourse in so many ways, since she doesn't have access to conventional power. So she has to find ways to manipulate circumstances to get it. A great thing about these streaming platforms is you really do get to explore that bit by bit, and there's a great unfolding of her self-realization, her business materializing, all of those things.

Annie, you just mentioned that you were hiding in your car occasionally during some of these scenes. Was there any cathartic element to seeing it played out?

Weisman: I think when you have these really persistent disorders, they really thrive in the shame and the secrecy. The more you keep them to yourself, the more they perpetuate. So I found it personally really liberating to dig into things that I was ashamed to talk about and share. Even though it's so uncomfortable in the moment, it is so freeing on the other side.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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