In the first moments of “Physical,” a new series debuting June 18 on Apple TV+, Sheila (Rose Byrne), a homemaker in San Diego, Calif., looks in the mirror. She doesn’t like what she sees. “Look at you,” she says to herself in a vicious voice-over. “I mean, seriously. Do you really think you’re pulling this whole thing off? The disco sex kitten look? At your age?”
A kohl-black comedy about keeping up appearances, “Physical,” which begins in 1981, tracks Sheila’s discovery of aerobics. The exercise offers her a new way to inhabit her body. (Is a way that involves leg warmers a better way? Debatable.) The series explores the continual pressure exerted on women — and the particular pressure that women exert on themselves — to achieve an impracticable ideal.
“It’s not just about body size. It’s not just the pressure to be thin,” said the creator Annie Weisman (“The Path”). “It’s telling the truth about what it takes to maintain a certain look and body, and that’s something I’m really interested in.”
While elaborating on empowerment and its illusions, “Physical” is the rare series — comedy or drama — to take a profound look at disordered eating. Though she presents as SoCal breezy and poised, Sheila contends with severe bulimia. “The project is to really take it as seriously as a lot of cable shows take other addictions,” Weisman said.
On a recent weekday — evening in Weisman’s Los Angeles, morning in Byron Bay, Australia, where Byrne is currently living — creator and star joined a wonky video call to discuss ambition, trauma and sweating it out in some extremely high-cut leotards. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Annie, how personal is this story?
ANNIE WEISMAN I came to a point in my life where I realized I hadn’t really written about my own shameful secrets. The most shameful one was this decades-long eating disorder. I hadn’t really seen it expressed in the way that I experienced it — as a secretive, dangerous, difficult illness. I went away for the weekend and sat under a tree and cried. And then I started writing the script.
How long were you in recovery before you started writing?
WEISMAN A lot of things resemble recovery. I fell in love and got married. I felt better for a while. It came back. I became a mom. I felt a lot of the power of my body. And then it raged back. It’s really good at self-perpetuating because it keeps on telling you these lies. Like, “If people find out about this, everyone will reject you.” That’s just not true. It wasn’t really until I started to write about it that I felt liberated, recovered. The opposite of any kind of addiction is connection. That was the real recovery for me.
Rose, what can you tell me about Sheila?
ROSE BYRNE We meet her at a quiet crisis point. She has been battling this shameful illness. She’s in an incredibly dysfunctional marriage. She’s ambivalent, at best, about motherhood. We meet her at this juncture where she’s in a pretty bad conversation with herself.
Your last role was as Gloria Steinem in “Mrs. America.” Did that inform any of your thinking about Sheila, a woman who seems pretty far from liberation?
BYRNE “Mrs. America” finished in 1980. “Physical” picks up in 1981. For me as an actor, it was really informative, having been through that decade and really learning about the movement. Sheila is a child of the movement but ultimately is disillusioned. She has ideas. She has ambitions. She has these desires that she can’t put into practice.
The show captures Sheila’s cruel internal monologue. Why do you let us hear her self-talk?
WEISMAN A lot of the really natural feelings we have, we are told they’re unappealing in women, like, anger, rage, ambition, appetite, desire. These are things that girls are taught, from a very young age, are taboo. They get contained inside us. The journey of this character is to try to learn to harness that really, really painful self-talk, discovering that it’s actually a power that you can unleash on the world if you just stop inflicting it on yourself.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders didn’t add eating disorders until 1980. In 1981, how do you think Sheila understands her eating disorder?
BYRNE Back in 1980, there was not really anywhere to go to talk about it. There wasn’t a safe space. Now there’s obviously a language around it. There’s a dialogue around it. There’s so much more acknowledgment of it, whereas back then you didn’t have that.
WEISMAN She is just inside this compulsion. She knows that she needs to do it. And like many addicts, she is convinced every time she does it that it’s the last time. She will never do it again. So there’s no problem. There’s just a bad day. And tomorrow, it’ll be better.
What fascinated you about aerobics?
WEISMAN It’s about endorphins. It’s about strength. It’s about sweating. It’s about power. When Sheila discovers aerobics, it becomes a source of connection to her body; it’s an antidote to a lot of the values fueling her eating disorder. Growing up in San Diego in the ’80s, I was in that first wave of women discovering the workouts — a big part of my early adolescence was cresting that wave. Aerobics is a place where you pound your feet on the ground and make noise and get bigger, and it’s really wonderful to think about women doing that together.
BYRNE Growing up in Sydney in the ’90s, I did the Cindy Crawford workout in my living room. That was my relationship with aerobics until I started training with [the choreographer] Jennifer Hamilton for the show. And it was addictive. Aerobics does give you that rush and that high. I did find myself understanding it just purely physically. Talking to people from the time, they just kept saying it was like a cult. That’s how it felt.
How much training did you do?
BYRNE I’m really uncoordinated! Jennifer Hamilton was very patient with me. I was in Byron Bay, and she was in Los Angeles, and we would do Zoom sessions, two or three times a week before I came back to start shooting. I mean, it was hysterical. Bobby [Bobby Cannavale, Byrne’s partner] would walk past me in the living room, and I’d be fully into it, so out of breath. The cardio, it’s amazing.
Did you keep doing it when shooting wrapped? Are you hooked?
BYRNE No. Are you kidding? I’m so lazy.
What’s it like to perform a role that’s mostly leotards?
BYRNE I’m fitted within a millimeter in those things. So trying to figure out all the proportions was quietly an epic experience. As it progressed to the very extreme high-cut stuff, I did wonder how people did really big aerobics sequences in those things. But those dance tights, the compression tights, they’re incredible. You put them on, and you’re covered up and you’re held in, like a corset for the legs, the waist, all the way up. As long as I had those on, I felt prepared.
WEISMAN Our costume designer, Kameron Lennox, is from Southern California. She did a deep and detailed dive into the evolution of workout wear. There was no real uniform for it yet. The materials didn’t even exist. People were making their own leotards, and the leotards in the show are handmade with period materials.
And what was it like living with Sheila’s glorious perm?
BYRNE To be honest, initially I was taken aback by how big it was, and then by the end, I was like bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger. I really embraced it.
WEISMAN I just felt like we needed to really fill up that frame with her hair. This is a deep dive into the mind of this woman, and it happens to be surrounded by a big head of beautiful curly hair.