In Apple TV's 'Physical', Rose Byrne Brings Back the '80s (and Those Leotards)

CUL_PS_Rose Byrne
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"The era is documented so much and it's parodied so much, it's easy to be funny. There was always a conversation of just keeping it as authentic as we could."

If you had to pick one thing that defined the 1980s, you'd likely include aerobics. From leotards to Olivia Newton-John's "Let's Get Physical" to Jane Fonda's iconic fitness videos, aerobics became a cult-like obsession, and Rose Byrne's new Apple TV+ series Physical (June 18) recreates that time. "The era is documented so much and it's parodied so much, it's easy to be funny." Byrne plays Sheila, a wife and mother who finds purpose in her life, and eventually fame and fortune, through the world of aerobics. "She has ideas, she has ambition, she wants to sit at the table. Yet she's also harboring a horrible illness and an addiction and this secret life full of lies. We meet her at a breaking point." As for whether Byrne was influenced by any of the icons of aerobics in the '80s, Byrne says she was more focused on the world that writer Annie Weisman created. "I really wanted to just have a clean eye about that, and I didn't want to sort of lean on any particular exercise queen, if you will."

Rose Byrne Brings Back the ’80s (and
Episode 6. Rose Byrne in “Physical,” a new dramedy from creator Annie Weisman, premiering June 18, 2021, on Apple TV+. Apple TV+

What first attracted you to Physical?

I was really arrested by the pilot in many ways. The writing was deeply personal, very uncomfortable, very dark, very funny. I was in the middle of shooting Mrs. America, and I realized Physical was a kind of a chronological companion piece in many ways. Sheila would have been a child of that movement, she would have looked up to the Betty Friedans and Gloria Steinems. And yet we meet her, and she's quite disillusioned and stuck for many reasons, as we discover. But it was interesting to kind of, in a broader sense, really reverse engineer how we got to now—we're so saturated in the wellness market, we're so saturated with influencers and innovators, and everyone has a brand or this and that—to really source the beginning of that is in the early '80s. So all of those things combined really, really intrigued me.

In what way does Physical show the advancement of women's rights in the '80s?

The ERA was not ratified. The movement really splintered off into lots of new sections and intersections and so on. Ronald Reagan was elected president. So it was a backlash from all of those values that had been carried through the '60s and '70s. Like it always is; I mean, we've just been through it following the Obama administration with Trump and seeing that collectively, globally, this conservative push. It's all cycles, and this was a huge one. And the change, I think for women specifically, was a lot of women were really seeking empowerment through economic independence. And for Sheila, she can't even articulate that. She has ideas, she has ambition, she wants to sit at the table.

Rose Byrne Brings Back the ’80s inPhysical
Episode 3. Rose Byrne in “Physical,” a new dramedy from creator Annie Weisman, premiering June 18, 2021, on Apple TV+. Apple TV+

Did you love the '80s fashion on full display?

Kameron Lennox was our costume designer, and she's just brilliant because the era is documented so much and it's parodied so much, it's easy to be funny. There was always a conversation of just keeping it as authentic as we could. It's hard because you look at the pictures and you cannot believe how big the hair was, how that's literally what the fashion was. So when we meet Sheila, she's in the '70s and it's like that great evolution of her slowly getting exposed to the character of Bunny (played by Della Saba) and the underworld of aerobics. It's almost like a cult. And back then women made their leotards, they didn't have access to online shops, you would actually get this fabric and it would take a long time; they would get it from ballet shops and fit within a millimeter. You'd think I was doing a Marvel film with the amount of fittings I had. Just the detail of the proportions. But as a result, it just feels authentic. It doesn't feel like a costume. And it's the same with the sets. They were just pitch-perfect.

How much of the show was shot over the pandemic, and what was that like for you? How did you hold up?

It was a new experience. We did go back in the pandemic. Look, I've been so safe and lucky. I felt lucky to go back to work. I looked at 200 people back at work, and we all wanted to be there, but it was not without challenges. What I took away from it is how much everybody loves their job. In a way, it was a relief doing a piece set 40 years ago because we didn't have to unpack the chapter that has been COVID.

Did you watch any of the Jane Fonda workout videos of the era, and did they influence your performance?

It's a deeply personal story for Annie Weisman and she was always my touchstone. [Sheila] is not famous, she doesn't have access to any of that, she has no platform, she doesn't even understand when an agent approaches her. There's a naivete about her and a kind of hunger, but she doesn't know where to put it. I really wanted to just have a clean eye about that, and I didn't want to sort of lean on any particular exercise queen, if you will. When I've spoken to people who were there at the time, they say it felt cult-like. 'Have you heard about this place where they do this thing? It's amazing.' That kind of secret, unbelievable, new thing. It's hard to see because 40 years ago is a long time and it's hard to imagine. I look at my mom and exercise was a luxury, something you wouldn't even think about. It was a complete luxury to be able to do that.

Rose Byrne Brings Back the ’80s inPhysical
Episode 2. Rose Byrne in “Physical,” a new dramedy from creator Annie Weisman, premiering June 18, 2021, on Apple TV+. Apple TV+

It's the 10th anniversary of Bridesmaids. Are you surprised at the impact that film had?

It was such a wonderful experience. I hadn't had an experience like that since I did Mrs. America just recently, working with a female cast. That alone is so huge. You don't get that, where it's all-female roles. I can't believe it was 10 years ago. I'm delighted when people compliment it as a classic. At the time I was really naive about it. I didn't know that all I would be talking about was, 'I can't believe women are funny.' I didn't think twice about it. But that became this kind of obsession that people had which is still baffling to me. But it's become so beloved. And I adore all the girls and love them and we're still in touch. It just tickles me that people still really delight in it and enjoy it.