Physical on Apple TV+: Interview with Rose Byrne, Rory Scovel, and Annie Weisman
Often fleeting, little, and ever so faint, most of us have inner voices. Not all the time, but it has happened before. The funny part is that at times, they are the antithesis to the voices we express so openly. Call this nano-second trip a psychotic switcheroo or an acceptable case of phony; but logically, it's understandable when us, humans have long learnt to adapt to social cues, societal expectations, and self-censorship. Basically, what people would deem completely functional.
Well Apple TV+'s latest dark comedy, Physical, takes this occurence to the extreme with Rose Byrne as the main protagonist/antagonist (in this case), playing Sheila Rubin. Set in the 80s of San Diego, Sheila is a supportive, submissive housewife who conceals a vicious inner voice, beside an ignorant husband, Danny Rubin (played by stand-up comedian Rory Scovel) embarking on a political career, With an inner monologue leading the half-hour dark comedy, the conflicts between the battle of self and society start to escalate, while exposing a complex set of personal demons. The series follows Sheila as she stumbles onto aerobics and ultimately her release and recovery with fitness and empowerment to start a revolutionary business as a lifestyle guru.
"I was interested in exploring the time [in the 80s] when it was still quite taboo for women to have their own entrepreneurial ambitions. It was interesting to me to explore this fitness space, because it was one of the spaces that was available to women," explained Annie Weismann, creator of the show. She had incorporated her personal experience of suffering from an eating disorder in the past, adding: "I tried to express life as I live it, a constant dance between what's painful, what's hilarious, what's tragic, and what's ridiculous. A core idea of the show for me was to accurately express the disconnect between what a lot of us project to the world and how we're feeling inside."
Below in a roundtable with Buro. Singapore, Rose Byrne and Rory Scovel shares more about the series, while delving deeper into gender roles, mental health, and the magnitude of aerobics in the 80s.
What attracted you to the role of Sheila Rubin?
Rose Byrne (RB): It's a great way to look back at how far we've come from the 80s where exercise was considered a luxury where now, everyone is an entrepreneur, an innovator, and an influencer. And it's an examination of that. It's very much about Sheila, a woman with an addiction and an illness who finds a way out through aerobics, which sounds kind of unconventional because it's retro and funny to us. But back then for Sheila, it's a way out of a pretty dysfunctional marriage and where she's at a breaking point in her life.
How much did you have to learn about aerobics in the 80s?
RB: Doing research was really fascinating because what most people remember when it began was that it felt like a cult. All these women in LA with huge hair turning to people saying: "Have you heard about this thing? There's this place where you go and it's an incredible thing." And we really wanted to capture that. Visually, it was really interesting to show because she's in this dull dysfunctional marriage and then the aerobics world is like freedom and emancipation. It was great to be so specific and authentic without making fun of it. Women back then would make their own leotards and it really was the beginning of such a huge change for wellness era.
In your own words, what do you think is the problem with husbands like Danny Rubin?
Rory Scovel (RS): I think it primarily starts with ego, and maybe that ego comes from a perception that a lot of men are raised with. Maybe lesser now, but still quite a bit, and definitely in the 80s. It's a supported ego that you're a man, you're meant to do this, and you have the right to do this. This is the expectation of who you are in the household and the role you play in society. It's unfortunate because it causes others to not become the full potential of who they actually are, in this case - Sheila is not supported in that way. She has to find it on her own and overcome her own insecurity without anyone supporting her to do so. So yeah, he's not a likeable guy.
This show takes place in early 80s. But somehow there are many dynamics between men and women that unfortunately, haven't changed that much. How much did you realise that after such a long time, we haven't moved on?
RS: Yeah, I think it's unfortunate. I think it's sad that that there's so many aspects of the inequality that almost still exist. It's almost surprising and you almost want to not believe it. And when you step into this role, and you do these scenes, there's a part of you that wants to go, "Well this is 1981, so that that was then", but there is a part of you that goes "but this is still how things are at least with the inequality between men and women, and the expectation of who they are in the workplace or who they are in the home, or what their body image is supposed to be and how much that affects people mentally". It's disturbing. I know that in my collective space, this type of treatment and perspective is seemingly absurd and the new hope is that this is expanding, just that you can't really tell. And that you hope with a show like this, maybe people will see it and it makes them more aware.
How did the show tackle something like mental health and eating disorders in a time set in the 80s?
You know, the illness like that informs everything and informs every decision. You're living in a space of lies, shame, and seediness. There was no place in the 80s to articulate that. There was no language around it and it was always dealt with as an adolescent issue. As with may things with the female condition. Sheila didn't have that space to go get help and like any good addict, every time it happens, it would be the "last time", and it's very dangerous. Craig Gillespie, our incredible director of our pilot brought such a visual tension to that addiction, which was very specific. The urgency, the sense of desperation she's in, we made her at a breaking point and as it goes along, we see her trying to claw her way out.
As the series progresses, it becomes clear that Sheila's inner dialogue and criticism of other people is not so much rooted in maliciousness, but it's more of like, a projection of how she's feeling about herself. Did you find yourself empathising with her in any way?
RB: I did. Hurt people hurt people. She's in isolation, she's so in this illness, and the opposite to isolation and being in pain is to connect. So as she slowly starts to connect to the other characters while finding that aerobics offers her a way out but at the same time, could turn into potentially another addiction, it was a very uncomfortable place to explore. And like any great character in a series, they're compromising, but you want to root for them. Because women are just held to a higher standard and we have to appear to have it all, be on top of it, be okay, have a sense of humour, and also look really good. So much of women's destruction, I think is inside rather than outside.
Physical is available to stream on Apple TV+ from 18 June.