Rose Byrne has a good idea how actors playing Marvel superheroes must feel.
As an aerobics instructor in the new series, “Physical,” she was constantly turning up in leotards which, she says, “are within an inch of their life.”
Considering the number of fittings she had – “an inch here, a pinch there, a lift here” – she actually liked them. “I feel incredibly secure in them.”
Her character, Sheila Rubin, deals with personal demons by exercising. That, in turn, leads to starting a business and becoming a lifestyles guru during those nascent years of video aerobics.
“The show really tracks her journey when she discovers this new source of joy and power in her body,” says Annie Weisman, executive producer. “She’s also in this moment when video technology is really starting to boom and she catches a wave and comes up with this great idea to put this kind of liberating physical exercise onto videotape.”
Set in the 1980s, it’s about paving the way for wellness and lifestyle gurus who “are now sort of a dime a dozen," Byrne says. “But, back then, they were groundbreaking.”
While Byrne, one of the stars of “Damages,” “Bridesmaids” and “Neighbors,” never followed any self-help gurus (“I’m Australian – we have a healthy skepticism about anybody who’s telling us what to do”), she did warm to the series’ story of growth.
Just off playing Gloria Steinem in the limited series, “Mrs. America,” she says the new project felt like a great companion piece. “Sheila has definitely come up through the ‘60s and ‘70s as a child of that movement and yet she’s become quite disillusioned by it. It’s still a very challenging time for women to find that independence and it doesn’t necessarily come from the feminist movement of that time in all ways.”
Sheila, instead, finds empowerment in financial independence. “But she has no agency and she has no way to do that.”
As the business grows, she grows.
While executing those aerobic moves in front of a class, Byrne says she found freedom from things that usually clutter a mind. “The aerobics aspect of it is so physical it gets you out of your head. I’m so focused on trying to do the moves or the choreography, I found it actually quite liberating.”
Weisman, who created the series, says she borrowed aspects from her family. “In my family and in so many in the culture around me, the rules were still very traditional. It was interesting to explore how, even in a very progressive environment, women still were so often taking a back seat and were still in supporting roles.”
Byrne says those roles still haven’t changed in many places. As progressive as Sheila’s husband is, he’s “incredibly insecure. There’s desperation in him.”
Instead of support, Weisman says, “there’s resistance and fear of change.”
Adds Rory Scovel, who plays Danny Rubin, “Backlash can come from people that you would think would be the most supportive. Insecurity is for everybody.”
While Sheila looks like she has it all, there’s an inner turmoil that bubbles, Weisman says. “It’s not about what you see in the mirror. It’s about what you’ve absorbed from the culture, from your family and from your experience.”
"Physical" airs on AppleTV+.