Byrne plays Sheila Rubin, a San Diego housewife circa 1981 in Apple TV+’s latest series. On the outside, she’s got it all: conventional good looks, an adequate if insecure and underachieving husband Danny (Rory Scovel), and a cute toddler. But inside, Sheila constantly battles a monster of self-loathing. Her inner monologue is a vicious tirade of hateful thoughts and feelings, a relentless stream of insults that belie her obsession with weight loss.
Sheila is ill. Every morning after dropping off her daughter at school, she skips the parking lot chit-chat with the other moms, speeds towards a drive-thru, and carries three burgers to a hotel room where she binges and purges in a highly ritualistic manner. It’s a secret she might not be able to conceal, were her husband even the slightest bit attentive to anyone but himself. Seeking an outlet for her pain, Sheila becomes fascinated with Bunny (Della Saba), a fitness entrepreneur who owns an aerobics studio at the local mall. There, Sheila embarks on a journey to reclaim power over her own body, which eventually leads her toward career ambitions that begin to take over her life.
Created by Annie Weisman, whose past credits include shows like Desperate Housewives, The Path, and Almost Family, Physical can be difficult to watch. Its half-hour runtime is a blessing, mostly because walking in Sheila’s shoes takes a mental toll on viewers. But it’s also compelling, a rare example of a seriously unlikable woman in a TV landscape that touts their existence at every turn. Ahead, the showrunner explains how her own experience with an eating disorder shaped how she approached depicting one on screen.
Refinery29: What was the inspiration behind this project?
Annie Weisman: “I’d been struggling through much of my adult life with eating disorders, and for me, it had been a very, very private struggle. No one in my life knew about it. I’d certainly never written about it. And there just kind of came a time where I had it, and I was ready to do something, and I decided to put pen to paper. I think in order to give me that distance, I set it in 1981, which is on this hinge from the ‘70s to the ‘80s. It becomes the story of this woman who’s fed up with this divided life and starts to try to unleash this power inside of her. And it coincides with this shift in the culture at the time. Why not set it in the world of aerobics? It’s a story about finding connection to your body and, through that, your voice.”
You initially wrote this show eight years ago. Why did it take such a long time to get made?
“I wrote it because I wanted to write it. I didn’t have a huge expectation that I would get to make it on this level with this caliber of people. It was just something I needed to write, and then I put it aside. I got the opportunity through a longtime colleague who ended up at Apple who had read it early on. Next thing I knew, I’m making this labor of love series with Rose Byrne and Craig Gillespie and all these incredible collaborators. It never happens that way. “
The reason I ask is that back then, women-centric projects tended to be very girlboss-y. The empowerment threaded within Physical is pretty complicated, and laced with intense self-loathing.
“My earliest conversations with Rose were about just that. I’m not interested in telling the easy empowerment story, like, ‘You go girl. By the end of the pilot, you’re on your way.’ It’s all complicated because it comes from the real journey of recovery, which is a complicated and difficult one with steps forward and steps back. I was coming from an honest place in my life, and it is honest about how difficult it is. We’re going to get the chance to go on this journey with her, but we’re going to be honest about what it takes to get there and all the stumbles and obstacles — including the fact that her embrace of her body and aerobics is its own obsession and its own redirecting of compulsion and impulse. It came from me wanting to tell the truth about the distance between what I was projecting to the world and how I actually felt inside.”
What were the conversations like around how to depict Sheila’s eating disorder? Was there any talk of using trigger warnings ahead of some of the episodes?
“We do have trigger warnings and resources on some of the episodes. For me, since it’s so much about my own experience, we talked a lot about how to represent the behavior and the feelings with honesty and sensitivity. I felt really strongly that I wanted it to feel accurate in a way I hadn’t seen it portrayed before. What that looks to me is the emotional truth of it, what drives it, rather than focusing on the uglier aspects of the behavior [and] the act. So, that was a detailed conversation with the director and with Rose about depicting what it takes, that this is a harmful, dangerous, private ritual — like any addiction — and it has an intensity and stakes that you see in portrayals of alcoholism and drug use. It’s a ritual that contains unbearable feelings for people.”
It’s interesting you talk about addiction. One of the things this show hammers home is how this consumes every aspect of Sheila’s life.
“That was my experience and something I heard from a lot of people with eating disorders, that sense of being hijacked by this behavior, and the voice kind of represents that. You’re watching her in a wrestling match with this illness that’s represented by this voice. She’s really playing multiple characters in one, because the illness really does come through this voice that’s hijacking her better self. That was how it felt to me at my worst, and that’s what we’re going to try to see her gain control of.”
What do you wish audiences gain from watching that journey unfold?
“I hope people get a better understanding of what that experience is like, and how divided some women feel. Even someone as seemingly perfect as Sheila, you might not know the turmoil under the surface.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.