Phoebe Waller-Bridge: offbeat and in demand

Thomas URBAIN
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Actress and screenwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge, pictured in February 2019, has seen a meteoric rise, propelled in part by her sharp writing style

She's made a killing in the US with "Killing Eve," is storming back with a second season of "Fleabag" and has been called in to polish up the new James Bond script: Phoebe Waller-Bridge is seemingly unstoppable, propelled along by her offbeat humor and piercing pen.

The British actress and screenwriter is hard to miss, standing tall -- literally, at five feet 10 inches (1.77m) -- in the television landscape, with her brown bob, ready laugh and elegant nose as sharp as her wit.

That wit is on full display in "Fleabag," the hit series based on the one woman play of the same name that "PWB" wrote in 2013. The show, whose second season starts streaming May 17 on Amazon, plays with convention by having the protagonist break the proverbial fourth wall and talk directly to viewers in her deep, staccato voice.

In "Fleabag," Waller-Bridge serves up a cocktail of unfiltered humanity, along with dark, irreverent humor and sex -- none of it gratuitous.

"My original inspiration was to say the things that I feel like women normally only say in the shadows," she said in a March interview with the website Broadway World, ahead of a run of soldout performances of the "Fleabag" play in New York.

"We sort of pretend that we're innocent and adorable and like these perfect little creatures," she said, "but actually we have many, many other layers."

Titular character Fleabag, a young woman battling against the rules -- and with herself -- has a screw (or several) loose, and can veer self-destructive, but never becomes a caricature.

Instead, the character is a very British blend of impeccable manners and a keen sense of derision, just like her creator.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is "not apologetic about having a flawed heroine," Andrew Scott, one of the main characters in Season 2, told AFP. Scott is best known for an unhinged performance of his own, that of James Moriarty in the BBC’s 2010 version of "Sherlock."

- 'Understanding of humanity' -

All that has been enough for Waller-Bridge to be hailed as a feminist heroine, regularly compared to American screenwriter Lena Dunham, though their universes are fairly far apart.

"Because it's written by a female, people point out that it's a feminist show, but I think sometimes that just undermines the actual work," said Scott. "I think her grace and gift is her understanding of humanity."

But the feminist theme is reinforced by Waller-Bridge's propensity to offer fellow actresses equally dense, complex roles, such as in "Fleabag," in which Olivia Coleman, who won an Oscar for "The Favourite," delights as the heroine's passive-aggressive stepmother.

It's also clear in the offbeat thriller series "Killing Eve," written by Waller-Bridge and starring Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh, who won a Golden Globe for her work in the lead role.

With new "Fleabag" episodes on the horizon and the second season of "Killing Eve" streaming on BBC America for the US, Waller-Bridge is gearing up to teach an old spy new tricks.

She's been called upon to liven up the script for the 25th installment of James Bond's adventures, at the express request of 007 himself, actor Daniel Craig, who wanted to inject more humor into the film set for release next year.

Beyond that, she has been signed to executive produce a new HBO series, titled "Run," about a woman given a chance to break with a humdrum existence and reinvent herself -- written by PWB's longtime associate Vicky Jones who directed the "Fleabag" play.

As for "Fleabag" the series, it's most likely winding down, Waller-Bridge has hinted, after a slightly less abrasive second season.

"It's kind of deeper in a sense," said Scott of the six upcoming episodes. Scott plays Fleabag's love interest, a priest who ponders returning her affections.

"We wanted to just try and tell an unusual love story and to talk about religion in a way that appeals to people of our generation," he said.

Waller-Bridge has also foregone some of the more unsettling aspects of the first season in favor of deeper emotions, though still armed with her favorite weapon: humor.

She "plays on the comedy of embarrassment like nobody else," said British actress Fiona Shaw on the online radio show SiriusXM. Shaw appears in both "Fleabag" as the main character's therapist, and "Killing Eve" as a section head for MI6.

"Just when you're laughing, it will say something very sad, or just when you're sad it will say something very funny," she said. "So you're absolutely punched in the stomach all the time."