[This story contains spoilers to the series finale of Physical.]
Across three seasons, Rose Byrne has seen her Physical alter ego Sheila Rubin finally achieve self-discovery and self-acceptance through aerobics, having been drawn initially to the exercise as she struggled with an eating disorder and what very well may be some of the most negative self-talk anyone has experienced — at least on television. From the moment viewers were introduced to Sheila in Apple TV+’s dark comedy, she was also joined by the protagonist’s biting and destructive inner voice that seemingly would stop at nothing to keep Sheila from achieving any sort of happiness within her struggling marriage to Danny (Rory Scovel), her extramarital affair with a Morman businessman (Paul Sparks) and her professional partnership with exercise entrepreneurs Bunny (Delia Saba) and Greta (Dierdre Friel).
By the beginning of the third and final season of the Annie Weisman-created series, Sheila is seemingly in a great place — the inner voice tamed, her aerobics business flourishing and her eating disorder under control. And yet, her relationships with her husband and partners are on the rocks, always resting in the back of her mind as potential triggers. And that’s before the arrival of the gorgeous Kelly Kilmartin, a former sitcom star played by Zooey Deschanel who has pivoted to a prototypical wellness influencer with sights to dominate the burgeoning health and lifestyle industry.
Kelly’s arrival throws Sheila into a tailspin, and suddenly her quieted inner voice manifests itself in visions of Kelly herself — appearing, seemingly in the flesh, to take Sheila down for good. This sets up the final season’s major conflict, one that resolved in the series’ conclusion when Sheila finally achieves a state of self-actualization while also recognizing how her mental illness has impacted the lives of those around her.
Ahead of the SAG-AFTRA strike in July, Byrne spoke with THR about the excitement of acting with Deschanel, the challenges of playing a character with so much nuance and the butterflies she always experiences when she steps into Sheila’s shoes.
As an executive producer on the show, how involved are you in coming up with Shelia’s storylines? Or do you always wait to see what Annie Weisman has in store for you?
I knew some of the shapes [of the season]. Annie and I are always in a pretty constant dialogue about what she’s got in mind, [but] the writers room is evolving all the time. I suppose I knew there was going to be this big addition of Kelly Kilmartin. We had set that up at the end of season two, so I knew that. But there was some excitement of who she was going to be. That was obviously a big conversation. I was so excited when Zooey came on board and agreed to join a crazy show. I was thrilled.
Were there any particular elements of Sheila that you were excited to explore this season?
Annie’s always saying to me, “Is there anything you haven’t done or that you want to do?” And honestly, her ideas are always infinitely more interesting than mine. She throws things and sometimes I’m like, “I’m not sure …” (Laughs.) She’s so unpredictable, incredibly spontaneous, wildly creative — just, like, dangerous ideas that I’ve never been allowed to do before. My job is to keep track of that, to keep all of the logistics of Sheila’s illness in place and in check. That’s always the dialogue we start with: Where is she with her illness with her voice? That is always the most kind of grounding, initial conversation we have. Then, once Zooey joined the cast, [Sheila’s relationship to her inner voice] obviously evolved into a very strange and ultimately very destructive relationship. There were many conversations around that, and I do always weigh in if I think it’s gone too far, or if I don’t understand. I am the actress of 1,000 questions.
Was it a challenge to play Sheila across three seasons, figuring out where you left her and where you’re picking her up?
Always. And every time I was terrified. I’m always like, “Oh, God, I’m gonna screw it up. What am I gonna do?” I always felt those butterflies in my stomach coming back, and season three was no different. In fact, probably more so, because I’d never gotten to this stage of a show, other than Damages — but that was obviously Glenn [Close] and I together? This was a different experience. But I was always thrilled, because it was such a great setup at the beginning of that pilot: Where is this character ending up? And that idea of reverse engineering this wellness industry [plotline] — we’re so bombarded with it every day now in our lives. It’s very normal; we’re so used to it and we probably don’t even notice it. But to figure out where that began and to just hone in on this one character, this one woman, was really a delight to come back to.
Were the nerves about playing Sheila ever a benefit? Because she always seems to be on edge, even if at the beginning of season three we see her in a stable position.
The butterflies are part of every job — part of every role and every scene and every part that you embark on. Sheila is wound so tight, and the stakes are always incredibly high for her. She’s battling so many different elements in her own psychology that she’s trying to get under control. I have great sympathy for her; it’s a struggle for anyone with that kind of illness. It’s, it’s sad, it’s a lot. I was thrilled when you do meet her at the start of this season — and even [where we left off] at the end of the season — she feels like she’s come so far. Even with Dierdre Friel’s character, Greta; [she was so timid] we first met her in the pilot and [three seasons later is] this incredibly successful head of a flourishing fitness empire.
As we get close to the end of the third season, both Sheila and Greta have a handle on the better parts of themselves and figure out how to extend or encourage that sense of empowerment in others.
Yes, absolutely. I think that both stepped into having that, being comfortable with what you know and having a sense of control and power and all those things that you have to have to run a business. It’s funny what success does, right? I think it really doesn’t change people, it sort of just reveals them more. And I feel like this show, particularly this season, really examines that.
Similarly, when Shelia’s inner voice finally quiets down, it’s only replaced by the visions of Zooey Deschanel’s Kelly as her tormentor. Was it easier to act against another person who was representing Sheila’s inner saboteur rather than having to think about adding in voiceover after the fact?
It’s funny, because it starts sort of innocently — we all have conversations in our head with whoever it may be in our lives and in our own personal dramas. I really tried to capture that, and one of the huge parts of this conversation is: Where is the breaking point? Where does it start to become deeply unhealthy and more of a psychosis? It was challenging doing those monologues — a technical kind of challenge. I’m one of those strange actors who love ADR and fixing things and changing things [in the edit], but [having Zooey there] was just refreshing. I loved it. She’s so unique and unpredictable and spontaneous with her performance, and even her cadence and her humor. There’s just nobody like her. In a way, selfishly, it was probably easier, because acting is reacting.
Zooey plays a double role, in a way: there’s the real Kelly, and the one in Sheila’s head. Did the two of you approach those scenes differently?
We did, and there were a lot of those conversations about trying to define [the visions] and be very clear about that about the real Kelly. With the fake Kelly, it gets very complicated because Sheila lives in a state of being completely out of body. The hardest was when there were a lot of other characters around, because that was like, “What does that look like, when someone’s having a conversation with somebody who’s not there?” And we see that every day, right? You know, a person at the supermarket who’s starting a conversation with someone who’s not there? Or they might just be on their phone. (Laughs.) We all walk around having conversations in our heads. Trying to [depict that] can be challenging, but also really fun.
From a technical standpoint, how did you achieve that grounding? Was it trial and error on set?
There was one particularly difficult scene, the dinner table at Sheila’s house — it was Sheila and Carlos, played by the wonderful José Zúñiga, and Zooey. It was just a super, incredibly fast-paced scene [with the] momentum and tension, and Sheila getting increasingly uncomfortable and more distressed. It’s like a piece of music or something, trying to figure out all the different [rhythms]. And Sheila’s trying to keep a lid on it. At that point, she’s self aware that what she’s engaging in is unhealthy.
Once you get over the technical challenges of shooting a scene like that, where does the psychology of the character come in? Do you have to process why Sheila is having visions of Kelly — even when she’s in the room with the real Kelly?
It’s a fine line, and that’s what I was very obsessed with. When’s the tipping point, you know — when does it become [a situation in which] you’re aware enough that what’s happening is not good, not healthy, and you need to keep a lid on it. And it’s starting to verge into territory where it’s all your bad behaviors and all your demons [rise up and you] start to fall off the cliff. And if that was pretty early for [Sheila]; it comes and goes, and I feel like it’s triggered by other external stresses and disappointments in her life. Those demons start to replace that voice that she had — you have one bad habit, you replace it with another kind, and then all of a sudden, you’re doing all those same patterns again. That was something that she starts to realize about halfway through the season, and [she tries] to not fall down into that black hole again. And I felt it was clever to [use] a visual storytelling instead of just the voice in the head.
In the series finale, Sheila covers all of the mirrors in her studio, finally realizing that it’s her own mirror image that plays a role in her illness. But that’s also a move born out of her newfound confidence and control, not defeat — and her acceptance that she cannot control her image as a public figure.
Her confidence doesn’t come naturally to her initially, and there is a woodenness and a self-consciousness that is, I think, kind of amusing, like any awkward performer. It’s not until she really, truly finds the confidence in that to be watched and to be to be seen like that, to be to be projected on like that. [When I played] Gloria Steinem in Mrs. America, I read her work, and she’s incredibly candid and open about her lack of confidence, initially, when she was becoming in the public eye and becoming the face of the women’s movement. She’s very open about how it took her a long time to get used to that and to be OK with that, to be confident with her voice, her pronunciation, her projection, all those sorts of things. I just remember that resonating with me — and with Sheila, and how that for her it’s not a simple transition. The pedestal that she has Kelly on, and the way she is so intimidated and threatened and intrigued by her; I just love that examination. I don’t know if I hadn’t seen that before between two rivals.
And it’s not that they are really rivals — Sheila creates that, at first, in her head.
And it’s a really hard thing to admit if you have those feelings about people in your own life, whether it’s someone from the business or someone from your personal life or whatever. Sheila just has no framework for it, or way to cope, and it becomes this insurmountable kind of thing. But I love that, and I think we tried to really lean into a lot of the humor of that, of her being so intimidated by her and her putting her on that sort of pedestal and approaching her at the fitness Expo, those sorts of things. Like that humiliation of being dismissed by somebody who is farther ahead of you in the game. There were a lot of opportunities for us to find the humor in that.
Sheila struggles throughout the series with honesty, particularly about her illness. In two moments this season her facade cracks: First when she reveals her eating disorder on camera while trashing the burgeoning wellness movement; the second when she finally fesses up to her husband, Danny, that she has lost the torch for their daughter’s Statue of Liberty costume. We watch a weight fall off her shoulders in both instances, and you can see how her body language changes. How did you modify your physical performance in those scenes?
I love both of those scenes that you mentioned, because they were sort of watershed moments for her. Particularly when she’s doing her confessional on television, it was performative, but also very raw. So, it was this very fine line of balancing: How would one confess something so shameful to her? To your point of her issues around the truth, it’s so much self preservation but also so much shame. She’s finally pushed to a point when she has a confession that she just cannot live in that anymore. She’s trying to break it, she’s taking responsibility. And in a way, it’s a little bit childish, because it obviously jeopardizes the business and all the hard work that Greta has done. But, you know, Sheila has blind spots in her behavior, unfortunately.
In terms of the physicality of it, I remember it was incredibly important to be poised and to have that idea of she still is on television, she still is performing. I leaned into it being self conscious and being still quite wooden. We didn’t ever want it to be her just breaking down — it was always about restraining and containing.
Exactly. It’s the same in that scene with Danny. It’s obviously very funny, and so domestic — there’s things that you just are not willing to concede. For me, it was sort of her pride. After all that they’ve been through in the last two seasons, and the years before that in their marriage, [Sheila doesn’t want to] admit the deep selfishness that she can have. Like, it’s just a torch, but ultimately there’s pride that she’s trying to contain from him. There’s a rich history of resentment between them. But it’s also really great when she finally reveals [she has it], and there is this sense of relief. We did want to make it comic with her holding it up — it’s another explosive reveal.
My last question for you: As you’ve played Sheila, have you also found the same sort of empowerment around exercise? Has the show changed your own perspective about strength and how you live in your body?
When you’re sort of so immersed in this world, I think it can work both ways. It taps into all sides of yourself. It really truly was a physical experience during the show, not to make a pun; I trained so hard every time every season. Jennifer Hamilton was a wonderful choreographer on the show, and she became my cheerleader in many ways. [I would go into] training months in advance, and I’m not a high impact exercise person. I had to really relearn, and then conduct classes with that confidence. It’s deeply challenging for me to talk and move [at the same time] — that absolutely was an experience I’ve never had before and has changed me. And then the reverse engineering of the wellness industry has been such a fascinating part of this job, to look at the wellness industry from a very different perspective and really understand where it started, how [the women behind it] did it bit by bit from grassroots beginnings. And Sheila was really extraordinary. I feel very grateful and indebted to Annie, to be a part of that narrative.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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