In the pilot of her new 1980s-set comedy-drama series Physical, Rose Byrne establishes everything you need to know about her character in three minutes flat. Byrne, in a ringleted wig and patterned kaftan, assesses herself in the mirror with a downturned expression of complete self-hatred, dabbing concealer onto a stubborn spot on her laugh line. The voice in her head prods at her insecurities with a sneer: “You really think you’re pulling off the disco sex-kitten look at your age? You’re not fooling anybody with this shit.” There’s a knock at the bathroom door. The actress calls out in a sunny, singsong tone that utterly clashes with the harshness of her internal monologue.
And just like that we know Sheila – she’s outwardly content but secretly consumed by shame and is, as we soon discover, silently battling against severe body-image issues and bulimia. Byrne skilfully embodies this duality, especially in Sheila’s painfully lacerating voiceover (“You used to matter”, “Nobody wants you”) that becomes the revving engine that drives the show. How did the actress find recording this unforgiving, judgmental narration? She lets out a throaty chuckle. “I’m laughing because it’s uncomfortable!” she says over Zoom from Australia. “It’s uncomfortable but people relate – everyone who’s heard it has. It’s the human condition unfortunately. Sheila is an extreme example of it, but I felt very seen when I first read it. I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is a really raw look at things.’”
Byrne has enjoyed an incredibly varied career thus far – bringing her signature malleability to horror movies, musicals and action flicks – with this show the latest string to her bow. She started out in dramas, winning the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 2000 Venice Film Festival, then appeared opposite Glenn Close for five seasons of the Emmy-garlanded show Damages. Nowadays, she is best known for her comedic chops, and has been upstaging veteran comics through scene-stealing parts for the last 10 years (according to The Hollywood Reporter she is the genre’s “most in-demand supporting actress”).
Who could forget her role as the Cockney pop star in Get Him to the Greek, dancing suggestively and singing about her nether regions to the tune of Ring A Ring O Roses? Or the brittle, tightly wound maid of honour in Bridesmaids, lacing every seemingly pleasant remark with pointed passive-aggression? Byrne demonstrates her immense versatility in Physical: as Sheila, she is a vulnerable, self-flagellating bundle of anxiety, grimacing at the mottled icing on a greasy cinnamon roll, squirming at the nauseous revolutions of a lazy Susan at an Asian restaurant. As the series progresses, we see a woman coming into her power – straightening out her apologetically slumped shoulders, standing up for herself when pushed around. Sheila finds this inner strength through aerobics.
The actress trained “for months in advance” to convincingly pull off her character’s hip-circling, high-kicking moves, which helped her understand the endorphin-boosting appeal of exercise – though she doesn’t much care for it herself. “It’s an addictive thing, it gives you this rush,” she says. “I have friends who dedicate their lives to it and I admire that, I see how much of a priority it can become. I’m a little bit lazy... I’m not that good. We Australians are outdoorsy but I do have to motivate myself.” Sheila’s first foray into the leotarded world of aerobics is shot like a coup de foudre, with the lights dimming in the pink-walled studio and her rhythmic breathing overtaking the pulsating electropop soundtrack. She is, for once, at one with her body. “We meet her at a breaking point and she finds this unlikely way out through aerobics,” says Byrne. “For her, it’s about harnessing this illness and this horrible dialogue in her head, and instead making it motivate her and push her to success.”
Unlike her character, thankfully Byrne has managed to maintain a pretty healthy relationship with food, something that is far from guaranteed given her fame, and the mean-spirited tabloid scrutiny that can accompany it. “Look, I’m as self-conscious as the next person and of course this business is tough like that,” she admits. “You just have to navigate it. As I’ve got older, I’ve got better at it. But it’s hard, particularly as women. We have to be like Ginger Rogers: she just did what Fred [Astaire] did except backwards and in heels. Growing up, my sisters and I were lucky enough to always be surrounded by good foods and we were encouraged to eat. I was never was exposed to body-shaming, but that’s pretty rare. It’s a hard thing to avoid.”
She did well to dodge it, since the language of fatphobia is, regrettably, inextricable from the pop-culture landscape. The writer Anne Helen Petersen recently described it as “a vernacular of deprivation, control and aspirational containment” that persuades us to normalise hunger and police our alimentary needs. “There is so much irresponsibility in diet culture,” says Byrne. “I have such a tortured – not tortured! – difficult relationship with social media because it can be so destructive. Everyone has a platform for this or that. Our series is deeply personal for [the showrunner] Annie Weisman. Disordered eating is not depicted that much onscreen and is either a punchline or a Lifetime movie. Its presentation in the show is never lurid but it’s tough to watch – it’s this awful, destructive cycle.”
Interspersing euphoric workouts with self-loathing comedowns, Physical zeroes in on the punitive feelings of inadequacy that we have been taught to suppress, and exposes how damaging they are to our health. “It’s all about connection,” says Byrne. “The more you focus on your relationships and your friendships, and the things that are real and exist, the less you are dominated by the pressure to look perfect.”
The first three episodes of ‘Physical’ will be available to stream on Apple TV+ from Friday, after which the episodes will debut weekly.
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