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Rose Byrne, Rory Scovel and Dierdre Friel are back for Season 2 of Physical on AppleTV+, with Sheila starting on her path to recovery from the eating disorder we saw in the first season, while hustling to build a successful aerobics career.
“I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of when Annie [Weisman] first started to pitch the second season and it was interesting because Sheila's…further along, but she's still slogging it out,” Byrne said. “You see this different side of her, carrying around her cut out, and Greta cheering her on, and going into these kind of rinky-dink gigs where she's trying to hustle and then being shut down by the man.”
“It's a different battle this season, which was really fun to explore, and also this battle of recovery... Obviously it's a rough road, it's not very straightforward, she's still having a secret life and all these secrets from her husband, and a different kind of addiction plays in, replacing the [eating disorder].”
'We're helping kind of dispel this myth that it's really about the eating'
Physical, a dramatic comedy set in the 1980s, made headlines in Season 1 for being a comedy, but also committing to a very raw portrayal of a woman with an eating disorder. This all stemmed from creator Annie Weisman’s personal story, “struggling privately” for many years.
A significant component of the show that carries over between seasons is the voice we hear inside Sheila’s head, her inner thoughts versus what she’s presenting to the world, while in Season 2 she’s starting to fight back against her own thoughts, and the world, a bit more.
“As she starts to recover from her illness and she starts to have other outlets for her difficult feelings, the inner voice starts to feel it's kind of like an abusive relationship, it starts to feel threatened, and it starts to change tactics,” Weisman said.
“It starts to be nice to her, it's something people call love-bombing now, it's because it wants to stay in place, it wants to keep its job.”
Ultimately, Weisman consistently had one goal in mind, to take a very authentic approach to Sheila’s eating disorder and mental health.
“We did have a lot of conversations about staying true to the real effort that it takes to address the underlying issues of an eating disorder,” Weisman explained. “At the beginning of the season, we see her no longer engaging in a lot of the problematic behaviours, we're helping kind of dispel this myth that it's really about the eating.”
“What we see her have to do is kind of get to these core issues that created the difficulties in the first place... We've been true to the experience of suffering from the disorder and we want to be true to the experience of recovering from it as well.”
The show’s stars also praised Physical for really leaning into the uncomfortableness in life.
“Life is uncomfortable,” Rose Byrne said. “I remember last year, I was getting a lot of questions about, how did I feel about playing a relationship where two women weren't on the same team, that women should be empowering each other, and I said, because women aren't always.”
“I'm drawn to things that represent life and are complicated, and are fun and funny in the midst of real tragedy. That's how life is.”
Marriage tensions, expanding friendships
After failing in his political aspirations, Sheila’s husband Danny, played by Rory Scovel, is essentially the stay-at-home dad to their daughter Maya (Grace Kelly Quigley) in Season 2 on Physical, but he also wants to rebuild his relationship with his wife, and be a more attentive father.
“I was very excited to see that the story was going to be taking him in a in a different place, I guess emotionally, no longer in a position to worry about how he's going to be some sort of politician and become some sort of a political leader in the community," Scovel said. "Having to face the fact that he lost an election."
“It was great to realize the challenge of this season would not be just repeating myself from Season 1. I think that's a testament to Annie and all the writers to really give all of our characters something that extends from the foundation of Season 1, it's something kind of new to play with in Season 2.”
For Greta, played by Dierdre Friel, her friendship with Sheila certainly gets stronger in Season 2.
“I've always said to Rose that I think that Sheila is Greta’s best friend and I don't necessarily think that Greta is Sheila’s best friend,” Friel said.
“But I do think this season that they really had more of a partnership, more of a situation of equals, and for Greta to have a little bit more of the ability to feel like she doesn't have to just make Sheila like her. There are even moments where Greta speaks up for herself or disagrees and that was very exciting for me to try to figure out.”
For both Greta and Sheila, a large part of the story, particularly in Season 2, is related to women finding their power in a way that, as Rose Byrne describes it, is “uncompromising and unforgiving.”
“I think for me, being a plus-size actress, oftentimes, especially early in my career, that was a descriptor that meant that I must not like myself or I'm a butt of a joke or something,” Friel said. “That was really a big representation for women who looked like me.”
“Then in this show though, it's very celebrated how I look and I got to be extremely sexy and fun, and funny and empowered. I will be very forever grateful to Annie Weisman for that opportunity to do that.”
Smart comedy on full display
While Physical commits to its drama, it’s equally as committed to the comedy. For Rory Scovel, who has an extensive background in comedy, he loves that the humour is “smart” on the show.
“I think it almost has to be to be able to tackle heavier, darker topics,” he said. “It is jarring when you hear, at least in Season 1 particularly, when you hear Rose talk to herself,...it can be very jarring to hear something so vicious, and then to have a joke at the end of it, I think it has to be smart to pull that off.”
“Annie and the entire writers room carry that over into Season 2, they figured out how to make it even funnier and at moments even darker than what we've seen in Season 1. But as a stand up, I'd say that probably makes me the happiest about being able to be on a show like this. If you work in comedy and you go, ‘oh yeah, I'm on a show that is really funny but it's also not just funny, it's actually really talking about real stuff,’ it feels very fulfilling.”
Murray Bartlett joins 'Physical'
Season 2 also marks the introduction of a new character to the series, The White Lotus star Murray Bartlett as Vinnie Green, described by the star as a composite of all the fitness gurus of the 1980s, like Richard Simmons. He’s technically competition for Sheila, but she also finds comfort in their similarities.
“In a way, they're sort of unlikely friends, but they're sort of kindred spirits in the way [they] both present,” Bartlett said.
“Working with Rose is a joy and then being able to play these characters that are kind of clocking each other and being like, I can't hide from you because you're a person that is similar to me in ways that are a bit confronting.”
Bartlett added that this is also a fascinating period of time to look at in terms of women discovering and realizing their power.
“I saw my mom kind of grappling with these concepts that Sheila is grappling with about body image and about female empowerment,” he said. “She was kind of brought up in the model of, you marry and you have kids, and then you become a housewife, and that's it.”
“She, as the ‘80s went on, realized that there are a whole lot of other aspects of her that were unexplored and that she wanted to explore.”
'The circumstances of the culture are as challenging as ever'
The unwavering commitment in Physical to show each character's flaws, where even the lead character can be rather unlikeable, is unmatched in the TV landscape. It's a show that by design, won't be for everyone, shining a light on our personal struggles and neuroses, and mental illness and intense societal pressures to conform. But if we let ourselves take in the uncomfortable and the harsh reality being depicted, it's not only an entertaining show but one we can all learn from.
While Annie Weisman identifies that there has been a large amount of growth in the understanding and treatment of eating disorders and mental illness, she also highlights that new challenges have developed since this 1980s timeline depicted in Physical.
“One of them is just the proliferation of images,” she explained. “40 years ago there wasn't social media, there weren't digital photographs.”
“So I think things have evolved for the better in a lot of ways in understanding and resources for people struggling with eating disorders, and other mental illnesses, but I think the circumstances of the culture are as challenging as ever.”