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Interview: Dierdre Friel on Her Character of Greta in ‘Physical’ and the Collaborative Environment of the Female-Led Series

Set in sunny 1980’s San Diego, Physical is a TV series on Apple TV+ that follows Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) on her journey to self-empowerment through aerobics while grappling with her body image and how that affects the relationships in her life. One of the most important relationships is that with Sheila’s friend Greta Hauser (Dierdre Friel) who becomes a key counterpart to Sheila’s arc while also finding her own self-confidence and self-expression.

Awards Radar had the opportunity to speak with Dierdre about her character and the transformative arc that she also undergoes simultaneous to Sheila. She comments on the incredibly collaborative environment that the primarily female production team creates in order to create a safe and valued space to express the show’s heavy themes.

Read the full conversation below.

Hello! I’m Danny Jarabek here with Awards Radar, and I am absolutely delighted today to be speaking with Dierdre Friel. She plays Greta Hauser on Physical, a TV series on Apple TV+. Dierdre, how are you doing today? I’m so excited to be able to chat.

Dierdre: Thank you so much. I’m great and I’m so excited to chat with you, Danny. 

So I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Stephanie and Annie over the past couple of weeks, and I am excited to get your perspective because I love this show, and I have talked to a couple people involved behind the camera but now I would love to get your perspective in front of the camera. Of course you played the character of Greta and I want to just start off by asking how you connected with and grew into this character from the beginning of the show onward?

Dierdre: Oh, gosh! What a gift! Greta is such a great character as an actor and there’s a lot about Greta that I naturally connected with like I used to teach a lot. I still do from time to time like I coach, and I always tell young actors to first look at how does the character relate to you? Then you can also see how he or she is different from you and there were several points I could connect with Greta like self-consciousness, self doubt, and being the cheerleader best friend person, I think I cheer on other women. I hope I do to the best degree I can. So, all of that connected for me like I’m not married or have kids, but I, had students. I have my niece so I could relate to the family life. And then, if you’re lucky and your show goes several seasons, the writers, especially our writers, who are just so wonderful and brilliant. They look at you, they look at your strengths, they learn about you, they watch how you work, and so then they write towards you. So there became a point, I remember, with my acting coach in season 3 where I was working on a scene, and I was like, ‘But is that Greta enough? Or is that too, Dierdre?’ He said he didn’t think in this scene they are so different. And I was like, oh, yeah, because that is how I would say it, or what I would do. So, characters can grow towards actors and that’s such a gift and such a cool thing when it happens.

That’s absolutely wonderful to hear. One thing you mentioned, Greta plays a few different roles in this story. She, of course, becomes over time a very close counterpart to Sheila and plays a huge role in her arc, but also Greta finding her own identity, her own expression and self-confidence so, she has these different paths that she’s navigating. How do you navigate that as an actor trying to find your own voice with your own character, but also supporting Sheila’s arc too?

Dierdre: To me all of those things go hand in hand. I always look at the characters I play like a real person, and maybe that’s a silly thing to say. But I, like Dierdre, if I’m navigating my life, I don’t necessarily always have to say, I’m putting on this hat now or that hat, I’m just Dierdre and I’m making choices, and hopefully present with all of who I am in the situation I’m in. I feel like with Greta, such a great foundation was laid for her that it was just, this is Greta in this situation. This is what she’s doing and when you have an amazing scene partner like Rose Byrne, that you get to be in almost every scene with that just becomes extremely easy where I go home and learn my lines, and then show up, and she gives me the most incredible acting 6 inches from my face, and then I just get to act off of it. I’m going to sound very repetitive on this interview, and talk about how incredible this job is, but it’s true. It’s just honestly true.

Of course, you mention Rose Byrne, and this is something I talked about with Stephanie and Annie with their perspective on collaborating with her and how she fits this vision for the story, but from your perspective, as someone who gets to work on camera directly with Rose and the other cast who continue to grow, and their stories continue to expand, what is that collaboration like, and your relationship with these other actors?

Dierdre: On the last day of season 3, we just wrapped the third season, I was just wanting more shows led by women, because we had a female showrunner [Annie Weisman], Stephanie Laing directed all, almost every single episode of all 3 seasons which you also don’t ever get. We had Rose Byrne. Our producing team has been largely female, so there was never a moment on set where somebody wasn’t open to collaborating. If I had an idea about how they wrote towards me and my strengths or my personality as Dierdre, but also, if I had an idea about Greta or something came across, and I was like, I don’t know if she would do that. There was so much open dialogue and collaboration and Rose is 100% also part of that team. Intimidated is the wrong word, because she’s an incredibly warm person, but being on set with her the first day I was like, oh, my God, I better bring my A-plus game to this show, and she looked at me just as much like a cohort like a team member. I’m just very speechless. It just was an incredibly wonderful, positive, collaborative process from every angle here, makeup, wardrobe, sets. I’ve never worked on something where somebody would go. What do you think? Do you like this? Does this feel good to you? And I could come in with my ideas, they’d come in with their ideas. It was so wonderful. It just makes it better when everybody works towards the same goal.

That’s really special. But here, too, and something you alluded to with this being a production that had a female showrunner, female primary director, female lead roles who are telling female stories, too. I wanted to ask if there’s anything you saw in this from the beginning when you were reading the very first script, or it’s something that’s developed over time, just something special that you see in being able to tell the story of heavier material that doesn’t necessarily get represented on screen very well or very often?

Dierdre: I think that was a really important part from my lens of why it was important to have women telling the story, and this especially, and I hate the term from the top down, but for Annie to tell this story, because I think women deal with their bodies and view their bodies and are viewed by others with their bodies, largely differently than men are and even maybe that’s too simplified in terms of non-binary people, transgendered people. But I can only come from the lens that I come from, and I know what my internal self-talk is. I know what it feels like to walk through the world as a plus size woman, and have people go ‘You can’t do that’, or, ‘I mean we can’t have her be the romantic lead or something.’ and going what? What? What? Because nobody would fall in love with me, or that would be too hard for people to accept and I think that’s a big thing. I don’t want to say men never struggle with their bodies, but societally we are talking about women all the time. I remember reading an article like less than a year ago about Rebel Wilson losing six pounds or gaining six pounds, maybe, and I was like this is not okay, why are we talking about this wonderful talented person’s body in this way. I’ve never seen an article where a man went, I gained six pounds, but I’m trying something. It’s just very specific to women and our story. So, I think that’s why that plays into this so well, and it’s hard material, and it’s challenging for people to sit through. But I haven’t met a person yet who hasn’t said when they’ve sat through our show and stuck with the show, even when it’s been hard how it hasn’t impacted them! Not one single person. And that’s an incredibly touching thing. I’m going on and on. But there was a girl. I had an Instacart the other day, and someone delivered some groceries and she was like, Are you an actress? And I said oh, yeah, but like, you know. And she just went, ‘You’re on Physical and just started crying on my street and saying ‘You don’t understand what your show has done for people, and how you talk about bodies and what you’ve done for me,’ and I’m holding a bag of carrots going, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’ She was so impacted, and that’s one of I mean truly, like a myriad of stories I have of people who, I think, feel impacted about what we’ve been able to talk about. 

Well, I can say for myself, I certainly second the impact that this show has had, and that’s why I feel just so incredibly grateful to have a chance to speak with Stephanie and Annie and yourself, and absolutely I’ve felt you know that I hadn’t seen before in this show, and that’s why I have so much enjoyed talking with you all behind the scenes on this. One thing I do want to ask is, from season 1 to season 2, Greta’s character transforms quite a bit, and she has such a huge arc and finds a confidence in herself that allows her to really change her perspective on who she is and the relationships around her. What was it like transitioning from Greta in the first few episodes where she didn’t feel as confident in herself to finding that later on.

Dierdre: Oh, my God! And that’s what I’m talking about is like, I said, when I got the first season of this show and read it, I was like, what an arc. What an arc! I remember even reading the head shaving scene! Sorry spoilers! But if you haven’t seen season 1 by now, thinking I’ll do it. I would do it, but we didn’t end up. I didn’t end up having to do it because of the way we shot the show after we shot that scene. I was going to have to shoot other stuff from earlier, and so there was no way. So, it was a wig, if you can believe it. And all of this under this,  the buzzed wig was unbelievable. But anyway I don’t even know how to talk about the transition as much as I think all actors are people who really want to be actors. I think you hope and pray for a character that moves from point A to point. B. Or point A to, for Greta, to Point X. She went really far, and it changed her a lot. And what’s been fun in seasons 2 and 3 is getting glimpses of old Greta and seeing the other characters deal with it, or Greta going, ‘Wait, I’m not that person anymore, or I don’t need to doubt myself. It’s been so great to have that, because then, in my real life I go, ‘Wait a minute like am I? Am I downing myself? Maybe I should pull a little of Greta, and think, ‘No, I’m great. I’m really smart. I know how to do this. So, this just was an incredible arc, and an incredible gift of a story that I got.

Absolutely, and just a final question. I want to ask where, for you and the actors from your perspective, what were some of the biggest challenges that you faced in telling the story that has a lot of comedic moments for sure, but also a lot of difficult themes and ideas to deal with on screen. You’re interacting with Rose’s inner monologue, I’m sure, it’s something that’s incredibly challenging.

Dierdre: On the technical level how we handled the inner dialogue, sometimes we would say it out loud. More often as we went through shooting, someone would say it out loud and so then Rose would be reacting to it. But sometimes. if it was like let’s say my coverage, we might just skip over it, because I, Greta, wouldn’t be hearing the internal dialogue. So, it might be a pause or something of Greta waiting for Sheila to answer. So we did it both ways and the technical challenge was sometimes I would have to memorize the same two ways like this. These lines are in, or these lines are out. I think, for an actor to just have to go like, ‘Okay? Well, then, oh, maybe we’re skipping over that’ was challenging.  I would say the biggest challenges were things like very candid discussions about eating disorders, about body, image, and things like that and handled really beautifully with a lot of sensitivity. But, like you said, there wasn’t a blueprint for this is how that other show did it, or it was handled this way. It’s very, very candid discussions about things that we don’t sit around at dinner or coffee with a friend often talking about these things. But the way Stephanie and Annie are and lead a set it just became these really beautiful, bonding moments of conversation. As the show went on, those only helped to sort of strengthen the relationships and the trust and the moving forward to the point where in season 3, if I came into a scene with an idea, and Steph or Annie came in and were like, ‘No, do this totally different thing.’ I would go yes, even if I didn’t get it, because I just I trusted them so much. So that was so wild and exciting and it’s special. 

Well, I want to thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed this conversation hearing your perspective on these questions that the show deals with, and just hearing a little bit more about this character, that, as you said has such a transformative A to X type of arc. Tthank you so much for your time and congratulations on this show. 

Dierdre: Thank you so much for having me, and thanks for enjoying it. I hope you like it. Yes, I’m very much looking forward to season 3. I can’t wait to see it.

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Written by Danny Jarabek

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