Rose Byrne gets ‘Physical’ as an ’80s aerobics teacher, but admits she’s ‘essentially lazy’

·4 min read

She plays an aerobics instructor in Apple TV+ series "Physical," but don't expect Rose Byrne to lead your next workout class.

"Absolutely not," Byrne jokes of her exercise skills. "I think maybe when I was shooting it, but it's been many months since we stopped and I'm completely back to my normal lazy self. I'm essentially lazy, I think that's really the problem."

"Lazy" isn't a word you'd use to describe Sheila (Byrne), the discontented, Type A housewife at the center of "Physical" (streaming Friday). Set in 1980s San Diego, the half-hour dramedy follows Sheila Rubin as she juggles raising her young daughter with helping her husband, Danny (Rory Scovel), a former professor, campaign for state assembly. But walking through the mall one day, she happens on an aerobics studio and soon asks for a job teaching classes, hoping to utilize her dance background.

The show was created by Annie Weisman (Fox's "Almost Family"), who wanted to explore how women use fitness as a tool for empowerment.

"Specifically in this time period, you were really seeing this transition happen between the last vestiges of ’60s idealism kind of moving into the Reagan era," Weisman says. The idea "is rooted in women like my mom, who felt the political movement of women's (liberation) had failed them and they were finding new ways to feel powerful. One of them was through fitness and physical strength."

The 10-episode first season is an endless parade of garish leotards, teased hair and ’80s needle drops from Depeche Mode to Stevie Nicks. Equally crucial is Sheila's withering inner monologue as she bullies herself for her weight and appearance. ("Do you think you’re pulling any of this off? The disco sex kitten look, at your age?" she says in one of her less explicit voiceovers.) It's part of her secret battle with an eating disorder, as she binge-eats and purges food in moments of extreme anxiety or frustration.

The narration is "deeply uncomfortable, raw and honest," says Byrne, 41. "Obviously Sheila's an extreme example – she's battling this illness – but for me, it's also about being a woman. Particularly back then, it's not always safe to say what you think. Then there's that idea of appearances. On the surface, Sheila looks incredibly together: She has a family and she is privileged in many ways." But on the inside, there are insecurities, "which is what we all live with. The human condition, if you will."

Weisman drew from her own struggles with body image and an eating disorder, and wanted to convey the "emotional truth" of that experience.

"The illness is really good at making you adept at hiding it from the world," she says. "There was such a distance between what people thought about me and what I felt about myself and what was happening inside. So we really try to focus in this show, not just on how she evolves physically, but in how she starts to (own her feelings) and tap into that voice. At first, she turns it on herself and is really self-bullying, and then it becomes something powerful that she can turn outward and unleash on the world."

"Physical" is set in the early years of VHS tapes, so Sheila seeks to monetize her newfound passion by shooting workout videos. Weisman was inspired by fitness superstars Kathy Smith, Denise Austin and, of course, Jane Fonda, who created an aerobics empire in the 1980s with her series of top-selling exercise videos.

"There's an obvious nod to Jane Fonda and Thomas Hayden," a social activist and Fonda's second husband, Scovel says. "I thought about him quite a bit and who he was as a person, but I didn't want to lay too much into trying to be him."

One of the season's most lighthearted scenes shows Sheila attempting to shoot a test video on a windy beach, kicking sand in her face and punching the air when she's not trying to wrangle her daughter. Byrne, whose breakout role was playing Glenn Close's protégé in FX legal drama "Damages," tapped into her comedy past in "Spy" and "Bridesmaids" for the blundering moment.

"The test video was funny because it's her first attempt and she doesn't get it right," Byrne says. "We wanted to make it as messy and full of many small fires as we could. I'm always looking for the jokes, so any opportunity I get to do a little bit of physical comedy like that is fun."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rose Byrne: 'Physical' explores 'emotional truth' of eating disorders