Interview: Stephanie Laing On Directing Rose Byrne’s Journey in ‘Physical’

Physical is a dark comedy TV series following Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne), a tortured housewife with complex personal ambitions and demons. The world of aerobics becomes her release, but quickly evolves into something much more as she attempts to gain control and empowerment of her life through developing a business model for her exercise routine that adds even more personal and familial challenges to Sheila’s life.

Awards Radar got the opportunity to speak with Director and Producer Stephanie Laing, who has directed 16 of the 20 episodes throughout the first two seasons. She speaks to Sheila’s journey and the intensity and nuance that Byrne brings to the role at the center of the show in addition to how she manages to direct Sheila’s inner monologue that is a primary component of storytelling for the series. Laing reveals how this show has resonated in powerful and surprising ways with a variety of different audiences, and how that inspires her as a director and storyteller.

Hi, I’m Danny Jarabek here with Awards Radar, and I am very excited to be speaking with Stephanie Laing, director and producer of Physical. Stephanie, thank you so much for taking some time to speak with me today. How are you doing?

Stephanie: I’m really good. Thanks for having me here.

I’m a huge fan of the show. I love Physical and I’m glad that it’s going to be coming back for a third season. But I know that you’ve been directing and producing on this show for a couple of seasons now, and so I just want to hear about what is about this show that you’re drawn to. What is it that you just really enjoy about continuing the story?

Stephanie: I think there’s so much to say or so many stories to tell about Rose Byrne’s character. And I think for me, I was really attracted to the series in the beginning because her character is flawed and because it’s very real and it touches a lot of women and men too, surprisingly, with disordered eating and her intrusive thoughts. And I think I just love the way the show has been presented in an honest way. Right. So, like, I signed on in Season 1 to direct four episodes, ended up staying and doing more, and then in Season 2 directed eight of the ten episodes. And I think the story resonates with so many people and I love that. It’s also a point-of-view show. So, everything is very much from Sheila’s point of view of the world. And there’s something really insular about that, but also really relatable. So that’s why and it’s visual and that’s fun for a director because we get to do really fun stuff.

And that’s something I wanted to ask about is I can imagine that because this show and Rose Byrne’s character in particular at the center of it, has such an intensity to it, I wanted to ask how you’ve seen the show resonate with people, maybe specifically with women or with other people in a surprising manner. You mentioned that it also resonated with men in a surprising way, but how have you seen this show in how it has been received from your perception?

Stephanie: Well, I think that I get a lot of messages from people on Instagram that I don’t know that find the show and then message me that it touched their lives in a way that it felt like the first authentic thing they’ve ever seen that looks at disordered eating. But I think we’re so careful with the tone that it’s not presented in this unrealistic fashion and it’s not too bleak. It’s real. It’s like you’re living your life, there’s ups and downs and so through humor, particularly dark humor, we’re able to shine a light on it and maybe a way that another project wouldn’t. So, yeah, I mean, I get a lot of messages. I know some of the cast are approached by people on the streets just saying, this really touched me. And they want a hug because they’re like, they feel seen. And I think we’re also surprised that we get sometimes messages from men saying that they also suffer from some sort of disordered eating, and they haven’t been able to see anything like this.

I completely agree in that it’s such an honest portrait of what a lot of people deal with and may not see represented on screen in a lot of ways, but also from your perspective as a Producer and a Director on many of the episodes. The show, it feels like, grew quite a bit from Season 1 to Season 2. What were some of the things you wanted to achieve and maybe some of the challenges that came with that in how you went about going from the first season to the second?

Stephanie: Yeah, I mean, look, Season 1, she’s on a particular journey. She found aerobics for the first time. There was a lot of stuff back and forth between her and Bunny and her friendship with Greta grew. And for Season 2, she does spiral down to a really dark place, you know, and sees herself in her, you know, in a familiarity with her, the character played by Murray Bartlett and then goes so deep that she does end up in rehab and she does get help. So, I think we were able to take the story just outside of the main characters. Introducing Murray’s character and then really letting Rose and her character hit a certain bottom in Season 2 that she needed, frankly, to hit.

I think that’s something that really resonated with me in Season 2 was the expansion of some of the stories with some of the supporting players, because obviously, this is, as you mentioned, from Rose Byrne’s perspective and her character. But the expansion of John Breen and Bunny’s story very much changing from Season 1 to Season 2. What was it like directing in closer contact and more just expansion of the story for some of these other characters?

Stephanie: Well, there’s two moments that I really love. Like, I love the Bunny storyline and I love the Breem, of course, because that’s just weird and goes off into some very strange places. And Paul Sparks is an incredible actor and the way he chooses to deliver his lines with, like, weird pauses makes me so happy. But in particular, I love Rory’s storyline this season. In Season 2, Danny is really trying. He’s really trying to make an effort. There’s a scene where he sees Sheila in a new way and joins her in the living room to do aerobics with her. That’s just like I remember when we were filming it saying to Rory [Scovel], I think this is when everybody is like on Team Danny in this moment because you’re really, really trying. So that journey with him is really nice because where he starts in Season 1 and ends in 2, it was like such a shift. And then Deirdre Friel, who plays Greta, my first scene with her in Season 1 was her joining Rose’s class that she was teaching for the first time that she left class and Greta was not in her body and didn’t feel comfortable with her body. And I remember saying there are these hip rolls and these movements, like, just, you’re going to try, but then you’re going to get embarrassed, and you just can’t do it and fade into the back of the class. And so, Season 2 really sees Greta kind of step up, feeling more comfortable within her own body with her relationship with her husband and kind of watching that journey. And so, you look for the character and the performance. And then for me, also doing so many episodes of the show, in Season 3, I did nine of them. So now I’m like 24 of 30 episodes, which is I feel like these characters live in my head and I know them so well. But it’s really great to show it visually as well. So, we can call back to something that Deirdre did in her performance with the hip rolls, for instance, in Season 1, and then carry it forward to Season 2. And that’s been really fun for me.

I love also seeing Danny’s arc because naturally I’m going to identify with the character I share the name with. But, yeah, no, I want to talk about Rose Byrne, too, because she’s, of course, the heartbeat of this story and she brings such a passion and intensity in Season 2. What is it like just working with her? Because I think she just gives such an incredible and layered presence to this character. And I think that’s what helps people resonate with her so much because she is so honest and layered and complex. So what is it like working with her and how she brings the story to life?

Stephanie: I mean, Rose is incredible. She’s such a great example, just even just being number one on the call sheet and always being there and always being ready and also being so trusting. We have such a collaborative environment between her, myself, and Annie where we’re not afraid to try things. She’s not afraid to try things and really go to some emotional places that I think are totally, really earned for us in Season 2. And she’s, as you said, incredibly nuanced and like the master of a microfacial expression. It can shift very subtly with her. And she just portrays Sheila honestly, which is, again, back to that relatability. And as people can, she makes bad choices sometimes. She’s really selfish. Her character, not Rose, but Sheila as a character, makes bad choices and you want to cheer for her. And then you also are upset with her when she lies to Danny in Season 2, which is a crazy shift because before you were like, get away from him. And now you’re like, don’t lie to him. He’s really trying when he confronts her about her disordered eating in that scene and she closes the door on him. I just think we’ve all been in circumstances with people that we can relate to in the way that Rose portrays this character. I think she’s phenomenal and she can flip that comedy and physical comedy to drama like I’ve never seen anyone do.

And part of her character, too, and part of the story as well, the way the story is told is her inner monologue with herself. And I’m curious to hear your perspective about how you direct with that in mind, because it’s something we receive as the audience, but not necessarily something that’s actively happening on set. So how do you direct with that in mind?

Stephanie: We read it. So, we read it and it’s harsh. I mean, you’ve seen it. Sometimes it’s really harsh. A couple of lines where we’re like, oh, God, are we really going to say this? And the crew is like, oh God, that’s what she’s thinking about that person or herself in this moment. And we’re like, yeah, because we’ll do it without the voiceover. And then we’ll step in and just read it. And sometimes we yell it on set as a surprise to her just to get her reaction to what her inner voice is saying to herself. Right. So, we’re pretty careful and pretty mindful of it. We do sometimes change it in the edit, but it can be really harsh.

That’s interesting to hear, though, because I was just very curious. I was like, thinking, how do you work with plugging these voiceovers that are constantly running in her head? But you may not hear it on set, but that’s super interesting to hear. One other thing I want to ask about is something that drew me into the show so much from the beginning was the world that is built and it’s this 80’s San Diego SoCal vibe and it’s got this sunset haze to it all and the neon spandex and just this whole world feels so lived in and I feel like I’m over in San Diego when I’m watching it. What was the vision behind building that and how you embed that into the story?

Stephanie: Annie, who created it, grew up in that area, so we are constantly pulling reference photos from her childhood, just always talking about like, it’s beachy, it’s never cold. Take the coats off the background. Make sure people are tan. All of her wardrobe from Season 2 onward is done by Ernesto Martinez who is built for Rose. And then the background is very carefully chosen as well. So, we’re really kind of telling a progression of her characters through the wardrobe. But also yeah, I mean, just looking to film at the beach and kind of constantly reminding ourselves that we are in San Diego. And also, it’s not LA. There is a difference. And I think when we talk about the 80’s specifically, we don’t want it to be a caricature of the 80’s. Right. So, it’s never a scene about a phone that we see in the wall that we remember and love for nostalgic reasons. It’s just that has to feel real and be present and so super mindful of that. And also, if you watch it and you see a scene at the mall and want, like, a hot dog on a stick, then that’s great because that’s what that represents from the things that you remember. And that’s what we’re hoping for.

Sure. And you mentioned Annie too, of course, as a creator for this show. What is your relationship with her and how you collaborate together and collaborate with other directors too. Because you’ve done most of the episodes, but there’s some other voices in there too. So, what is that collaboration process?

Stephanie: Annie is the most incredible person I’ve ever collaborated with. Honestly. She’s like, it’s a dream. I think we share the same brain because we’re able to tag off of each other, you know what I mean? And she writes these scripts and then my job is just really to elevate it and continue to elevate the material and to kind of never be lazy about the way we’re presenting a shot or doing something that we haven’t tried before. So, she’s very down to take a risk. Yeah, I feel like we share the same brain. And I think when it comes to the other directors, the trick is just them understanding that it’s a point of view show so we can’t just throw in B camera for a shot. It won’t make sense. Who is watching that? Whose point of view is that?

And so, I’m assuming, with that in mind, a lot of this is single-camera work, most likely, from her perspective. Is that correct?

Stephanie: Yeah, we’re like 90% Steadicam. And that’s the other thing. People are like, you could do this shot on a crane or a dolly and it’s like, yes, you could. But there’s a movement and a fluidity to Steadicam. And our camera operator has been with us in Season 1, Mark Moore. We call him Mark the Shark because he can hold that thing for hours and through resets. And he really is a character within the show. He’s the closest to Rose. And I think it’s interesting because sometimes guest cast will come in and they’ll be like, not quite understanding. It’s new for them. If there’s a scene at a table, I think in Season 2, there’s the sushi scene. Rose and Roy are here at the table. Mark is here, and the cast in the scene with him are at the next table behind. So, you’re having to really perform to this lens, and I don’t think a lot of shows do that. So that’s been a lot of fun to play with.

Of course, there are two seasons of the show out and a third season is coming. Is there anything that you’re allowed to share about what we can expect for season three of Physical?

Stephanie: I think the only thing I’m allowed to share is that Zooey Deschanel joins us because that’s been announced. And I will say that it is big. It’s a very big season, and I think it goes to very unexpected places. So, we’re really excited.

Well, I certainly join you in that excitement. And I’m very curious to see what Zooey Deschanel will be bringing to the season as well. Big fan of New Girl here, so how can I not be excited for her to join this cast? But thank you so much, Stephanie. I really appreciate you taking some time to speak with me today. And I look forward to seeing Season 3 of the show as well.

Stephanie: Yeah, thank you so much. It was really nice chatting with you.


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Written by Danny Jarabek

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