From show creator Annie Weisman, the Apple TV+ original half-hour dark comedy series Physical is set in San Diego in the 1980s and follows Sheila Rubin (brilliantly played by Rose Byrne), an internally tortured and unhappy woman who maintains the facade of a dutiful housewife while supporting her husband (Rory Scovel) as he pursues a spot on the state assembly. Deep personal demons and an unhealthy relationship with her own self-image unexpectedly send Sheila straight into the world of aerobics and she decides to set her sights on finding success as a female lifestyle guru.
During a virtual junket for the series, co-stars Byrne and Scovel spoke to Collider for this interview about taking on such complex and challenging material, telling a story that was so personal for their showrunner, the ‘80s looks and aerobics fashion, and finding the tricky balance between the humor and exploring serious issues. Byrne also talked about why she lucked out when it came to her time working on Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, early on in her career.
Collider: This show has layers upon layers of complex material. Going into this, what did you see as the biggest challenges of taking on these characters?
RORY SCOVEL: When you read a script that’s really great, and then you read the next one and you go, “Oh, man, this is an incredible story that’s funny and dark, but it’s also very real,” I think the challenge is just doing a service to the story and making sure that you’re able to embody the character the way that it needs to be, in order to support the story. I found that to be a challenge because, just in talking about my character in particular, he’s not likable in really any way whatsoever, and yet there’s still a moment where you have to try to show people that he does really love his wife and he does love his kid despite being incredibly absent-minded towards their needs and not very supportive of them. The challenge is, how do you do you do that and service the story and make sure it’s the proper balance for the story that we’re telling with Sheila, so that people see what she’s going through, but they really do believe that these two people must’ve had something and now they’re at a breaking point. I love that we meet them at that exact moment where things are starting to change greatly.
ROSE BYRNE: I agree with Rory. It’s such great material. I read the pilot and I was just so invested in not screwing it up. I was like, “Okay, how do I not fuck this up?” That’s the main task, as an actor. Aerobics is a huge part of the show and we take it quite seriously, and that’s hard. It’s not, not funny. Aerobics is just inherently funny. But for Sheila, it’s a way out. That, to me, was always like, how does that look? How do we depict that? I leaned very heavily on (show creator) Annie [Weisman]. It’s a personal story for her and the for the depiction of Sheila’s addiction and illness. I trusted her and (director) Craig Gillespie. Visually, Craig brought such great storytelling to that, with the urgency and the tension. It’s not something you see depicted a lot, particularly not in this way, which is pretty honest and raw, but it’s never lurid or exploitative, I don’t think. It’s a look at an addiction, like we’ve seen with many addictions – alcoholism, drugs, sex, whatever it is. It’s trying to represent it in a way that resonates.
Having been in dance companies when I was a kid, I’m very familiar with what it’s like to wear leotards and unitards and lots of spandex, and it’s something that will forever give me nightmares for the rest of my life. What is it like to do those scenes? Is it an experience you’ll never forget? How do you feel about spending time in spandex?
BYRNE: It’s so funny, back then, they made their leotards. They didn’t have access to athleisure wear or celebrity [clothing] lines. That didn’t exist. All of this stuff was from the ballet store. This fabric was all new and they were hand-stitching stuff. You would’ve thought I was in a Marvel movie. I have epic fittings for these leotards, within a millimeter. It was like, “A touch higher. A little more in the butt. Thicker with the strap.” It was so specific. Kameron Lennox, our costume designer, was truly brilliant and obsessive. This period is hard because it can easily be a parody, and you’ve gotta be authentic and make it feel like you’re not just parading around in costumes being retro, but that it feels like time. It’s hard because you look at the images and you’re like, “No, that’s too much. They can’t do that. That’s way too much.” But no, that’s actually what they were wearing and that’s what the hair was like. What time did they get up in the morning? How did they do that?
How did you guys feel about the whole ‘80s era aesthetic, wardrobe, and design? Was there anything that you enjoyed or wished you still had around?
SCOVEL: I personally loved it. I thought it was awesome, stepping into the wardrobe and getting the hair and make-up, and getting that look, and then stepping onto the set where you truly feel like you are in the ‘80s because it’s all done so well. I don’t know what, in particular, I would miss from the ‘80s. Maybe my fantasy that one day we would have a hoverboard, but that hasn’t happened yet. I really loved how we looked. There were days, early on, when we thought we looked a little ridiculous. But the more we kept going, we fell in love with these outfits. I, for one, was like, “I think I would actually wear this. I think I can do it.”
Rose, obviously a lot of people are going to have a reaction to your character being convinced that she’s fat and gross, but when you have an illness, it doesn’t matter what you look like because it’s more about the perception of what you look like. What most helped you in understanding the mental side of it and really understanding that internal life that she has?
BYRNE: It’s a deeply personal story for Amy Weisman, who created and wrote the show. She grew up in the ‘80s in San Diego, and she was my touchstone for a lot of this. I know her mother was also an inspiration for the character. A lot of the women of that time, female entrepreneurs who were finding a space in the fitness and wellness world, started businesses. It’s not something you see depicted much on screen, this kind of battle that Sheila is having and that we all have, to an extent. It’s the human condition, wrangling this experience we’re having and trying to harness it for good. Obviously, Sheila is losing that battle deeply and to devastating effects. What was interesting was the turning point in aerobics when she realized she could harness that anger and hunger and desire and energy, and all of those things, to become a great teacher and leader. That was quite challenging, figuring that out.
It seems like such a tricky balance to find because there are really serious issues going on with her.
BYRNE: Yeah. Aerobics is funny, but it’s also a way out for Sheila. That was always the tone that we had to figure out whilst we were doing the show. It’s about appearances. It’s always about appearances, particularly for women and particularly back then. Women who were ambitious or who had appetite were things that, back then, were maybe seen a bit as unappealing or unseemly. I feel like the show really examines that. Now, there is far greater representation of that and women have access or liberty to do those things. But in the ‘80s, it was contrary to the feminist movement which had just happened. There was a lot of disillusionment after that. Sheila still doesn’t have any agency. She has no way out.
Rose, looking back on the earlier part of your career, one of your first Hollywood roles was playing a Padme double in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. What do you remember about being in a massive movie like that, so early in your career? Were there things that you took with you from that experience, into the rest of your career?
BYRNE: Well, I think “role” is a little generous. It was a supporting extra in the background. I was thrilled. So many people were passing out on that movie because they didn’t have any air from the massive head things they were wearing. Guys were just going down, left, right and center. I had the snood, so I had a great time with my “role.”
Rory, what was it like to come from a comedy background to a show like this? Were you able to find some humor in playing somebody who you described as unlikable?
SCOVEL: There’s an excitement to it, when you’re doing a comedy like this, that’s also surrounded by so much darkness. Not so much my character, but what Sheila’s going through, and knowing that’s in the script and that’s the story we’re telling, it’s a fine line to walk, to try to pull off the comedic moments. If you go too far comedically, you maybe lose people’s trust on how serious you’re taking the dramatic stuff, and vice versa. There’s something I enjoyed about the challenge of having an unlikable character and having to portray one that wasn’t necessarily given these moments of comedic release to try to win people back. There is something that’s fun about trying to carve out those spaces on your own and figure out where they can go and what they are. But then, there’s also something very satisfying about not releasing the tension and not being funny when you’re expected to be, and not letting a joke come out or a type of delivery come out when you’re supposed to, to relieve the tension. The word for me is exciting. I was very excited.
BYRNE: It was very hard to find Danny because of that. It’s such a self-centered character and we had to find someone who was just innately charming and likable and vulnerable. Rory just is those things. It’s very hard to find someone who can do that, and you still wanna root for them.
Physical is available to stream at Apple TV+, with new episodes on Fridays.
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