The Bafta-winning show is about to return for a second series, and while its dark themes and near-the-knuckle sense of humour are still present and correct, there are a few notable changes in the second outing.
Among the biggest of these is the arrival of actor Andrew Scott – best known for his film roles in the likes of Pride and Spectre, as well as portraying the villainous Moriarty in Sherlock – who plays a key new character, which he tells HuffPost UK was written with him in mind by Phoebe.
“Phoebe and I were pals already, we did a play together about 10 years ago at the Soho Theatre in London,” Andrew explains. “And so she gave me a call out of the blue last summer. I knew it was about Fleabag, and we went and had a big catch-up and a three-and-a-half-hour walk around Soho.
“She talked about the character and we talked about where we were in our lives, and what we thought about religion and love and all that kind of stuff, and the character that was forming in her mind. It was a very special, memorable day.
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“And at the end, I was like, ‘yep, I’m going to get myself involved in that, I’d be delighted to’. I hadn’t seen the script but I love Phoebe so much and I obviously loved the first series enormously, along with everybody else. So I was delighted to sort of jump in.”
Andrew’s character is perhaps an unexpected new addition to Fleabag, as he’s playing a Catholic priest, who is unexpectedly thrown together with the title character at an excruciating family event in the first episode, only for the unlikely pair to end up hitting it off.
“I think we were both very, very interested in representing a priest that isn’t just a stereotypical idea of what we see as a priest now as millenials, because it’s very easy to just…. dismiss the priesthood or dismiss people who are religious” Andrew explains. “What we wanted was to create a chemistry, no matter what type of chemistry it was, we wanted these characters to have an extraordinary kind of connection.
“And it’s obvious right from the beginning, as soon as they see each other in episode one, you don’t quite know what it is, in the way that we don’t when we first meet people, but we just connect with some people and we don’t so much with others.”
We don’t want to give too much away about what’s in store, but with a character called The Priest taking centre stage, you can probably work out for yourself that there’ll be something of an exploration of religion in series two.
Andrew says: “Organised religion has been rejected for a lot of people of our generation, and I think with this crazy, social media, highly-connected world, young people do feel overwhelmed with opinions and just the turbulence of living in the modern world.
“So I do think there’s a hunger for peace and just a still space for ourselves, and I think organised religion doesn’t occupy that space so much for young people.
“So I think young people do have a fascination with religion, and what that means in relation to being a sexual, dynamic, young, engaged person, while still possibly having faith.
“I think that’s what the series explores this time around,” he adds. “And it’s certainly something I really relate to, the idea of living a life that’s possibly less ordinary… [and the idea that] you don’t have to be religious to be a good person, you don’t have to be purer than snow to be part of a community. Things are fluid in the world, you know?”
This is a subject with which Andrew does have some experience. Born in Dublin in the mid-1970s, he was raised Catholic and educated by Jesuits, but acknowledges that he now has “issues” with the religion.
“I think that at this stage of my life I wouldn’t describe myself as a Catholic at all,” Andrew says. “You know, certain people in my family and some friends of mine are still, and you respect that, but I’m really pleased that I’m able to gently put that down, rather than the outrage I might have had before.
“To a certain extent it was righteous anger, because the abuses of the Catholic church in Ireland when I was growing up were profound, so sometimes anger is misplaced.
“I do have a lot of... you know, issues, with the Catholic church, but I suppose my job with this was to put my own feelings aside – not completely aside – but to look at what this particular man’s attitude towards the Catholic church was.”
Because of his own history with Catholicism, he was able to contribute a lot to the character, revealing that Fleabag’s creator and main star Phoebe Waller-Bridge is always keen to make the show’s set a collaborative one.
“She always includes the actors in what she’s saying, gives you options and allows you to make suggestions as well,” he explains. “What’s great about Phoebe is sometimes you’re on a set, when you don’t have somebody who’s in control, it actually doesn’t lead to a particularly happy set.”
He continues: “She’s extremely hands on, I don’t think she could be any more hands on, but I absolutely love it. It’s a way of working that I really respond to.
“I think it’s important to prepare to a certain degree, but the most important thing is to be alive in the moment, and things can change a lot.
“I really embrace that... and certainly in our scenes together, we just created things on the day sometimes, maybe not from scratch, but we changed things, and so we were prepared to be playful. Sometimes that can be lost on certain sets, but people forget that that’s what you’ve got to do, you play the part. You play. And I think she’s got a very playful attitude towards creating her drama and her comedy, and that’s absolutely the way it should be. I absolutely adored working with her, and I hope we get to do something together again.”
As a fan of the show as well as one of its new cast members, Andrew credits Phoebe’s writing as one of Fleabag’s biggest draws.
“It’s incredibly original and daring and it’s told in Phoebe’s completely unique voice,” he says. “It’s just that idea that sexuality and humanity aren’t mutually exclusive things. And I really relate to that, because everybody in the world is interested in sex. Whether they participate in it or not, they have an attitude towards it.
“And I think it’s very interesting that we can talk about that, and sometimes the problem in religion, certainly in more rigid Catholic teachings, is that sex is something you absolutely can’t talk about, it’s the unsayable. And that’s why people have rejected it. But you can’t desexualise people, it’s part of human nature.”
He goes on to acknowledge the unfortunate “dearth of female voices” within the art of storytelling, but is quick to say that both Fleabag and Phoebe’s successes are far from “tokenism”, insisting we shouldn’t “underestimate the actual work”.
“People respond to good work, that’s what they want,” Andrew says. “They want an authorial voice, whether that’s a man or a woman who’s gay or straight or black or white or whatever it is, they just want someone to be authentic.
“And so I don’t think in this case it’s about sort of tokenism, to any degree. She is absolutely a feminist, but then any decent human being should be a feminist, you know, that’s not a particularly radical thing about Fleabag to my mind.
“I think it’s just that she’s speaking and she’s representing all of humanity, and I certainly think it’s something that women really enjoy, but I think men really, really enjoy it as well, because it’s demystifying sex for them too.”
It’s still not immediately clear what form the bond between Fleabag and The Priest will take over the course of series two, though he is established as an object of our heroine’s desires in episode one, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge having already commented that the characters are part of “the most significant relationship” in the new episodes.
Because of this, Andrew’s casting as The Priest is an interesting one, as it comes at a time when there’s a lot of conversation in both film and television about whether straight and cisgender actors should take on characters that identify LGBTQ+.
As this is, in many ways, the inverse of that, does Andrew feel it’s important for gay actors to be cast in straight roles, to help show that LGBTQ+ performers are able to play roles outside of themselves?
“Absolutely, yeah,” he says. “It’s not remotely difficult for me to have chemistry with Phoebe Waller-Bridge and that goes for a lot of women I’ve played opposite. It’s ludicrous and almost insulting to say otherwise. The most important thing is that you have a real chemistry with the person you’re playing opposite.”
He continues: “There hasn’t been a particularly level playing field with regards to who gets to play what. I can only speak for myself, but I think it’s very important that all of us are able to imagine acting is about being empathetic: what is it like to be in someone else’s shoes?
“So, I think it’s dangerous territory to go down sometimes to think that we’re only allowed to play our own – not just our own sexuality, but our own nationality or identity – that we’re only allowed to… represent things that are within our experience.
“That’s not what audiences go to see. When you go to see a play you’re thrilled that somebody is pretending to be somebody else, that’s the magic of it. So otherwise it’s just a form of well-shot reality television.
“I think the joy of storytelling is that ‘this is not real’, it’s something that we love from when we’re kids, we love transformation, and that’s how it reads for me, and I think it’s very important we don’t talk in absolutes when it comes to casting. I think we have to look at every individual situation and make sure everyone gets the chance to play all the different parts. But I think going down the road of ’a person is that they have to play that’, is dangerous.”
When it comes to his Fleabag character, Andrew says what he enjoys most is “playing love”, noting: “I love the idea of what love is, and how it presents itself, and how it presents itself in a kind of unusual way sometimes.
“Because people who love and are good people still say ‘fuck’ and still make mistakes and are still messy and leave their plates in the sink and forget to charge their phone. Sometimes love is portrayed that you have to be incredibly virtuous and perfect, when of course we’re all trying to love... even though we’re all fucked up.”
On what else we should expect from series two, Andrew says Fleabag has avoided “stepping in the same river twice”, saying: “I think it goes deeper. There was a beautiful depth to series one, but I think [series two] is very assured and goes off in unexpected directions.
“Of course, it still concerns itself with sex, but I think what’s sort of overlooked about the quality of Fleabag, is how much humanity is in there. And this central relationship that happens between our characters is a really beautiful one.
“It’s very funny and it’s pretty transgressive, and unfolds in the most exciting and, I think, very moving way. So I’m incredibly excited for people to see it. I’m so proud to be involved in it, I really am. I think people are going to absolutely adore it.”
Fleabag series 2 debuts on BBC Three on Monday 4 March, also airing on BBC One that same night at 10.35pm. Watch the trailer below...