Rose Byrne follows up her role as Gloria Steinem in the FX series Mrs. America by playing fictional aerobics guru Sheila Rubin in Apple TV+'s Physical, out Friday. Byrne said her new '80s drama follows the '70s-set Mrs. America thematically.
"Physical felt like such a great companion piece because Sheila is a young woman, but definitely has come up through the '60s and '70s," Byrne said in a Television Critics Association Zoom panel. "So she's a child of that movement, and yet she's become quite disillusioned by it, under the surface."
Physical opens with Sheila leading an aerobics video in 1986. Then, flashbacks to 1981 show Sheila struggling with her marriage to Danny (Rory Scovel). Sheila and Danny were '60s radicals who participated in the 1969 Berkeley protest at People's Park. Now, Danny is a college professor and Sheila is a housewife. They have a daughter.
Byrne said the Rubin marriage shows how a progressive couple still could struggle with their roles in a relationship after movements like feminism in the '70s. Danny still dismisses Sheila's warnings and takes credit for her ideas.
"I think that the contradiction of that is what was so interesting to me," Byrne said. "[Danny is] this sort of a brilliant, progressive guy, but yet incredibly insecure, and there's a desperation in him."
Physical creator Annie Weisman said that Sheila's pursuit of aerobics will make her successful, leaving Danny behind. Weisman said that although Danny means well, he inadvertently resents his wife's independence.
"At the beginning of their marriage, he was so much at the center of the culture," Weisman said. "Now, the culture is starting to shift away from him and so we start to feel that backlash."
Scovel said he believes some couples still experience this dynamic in 2021. So, he understood how his character could struggle to support Sheila.
"Backlash can come from people that you would think would be the most supportive," Scovel said. "Insecurity is for everybody."
As Sheila becomes a fitness guru, Byrne said, the series portrays how some women struggled to live up to feminist ideals of independence. In 1981, Sheila still depends on Danny to make money for the family.
"Her real source of empowerment is to have financial independence, to have economic independence," Byrne said. "She has no agency and she has no way to do that. It's still a very challenging time for women to find that independence."
The aerobics craze of the '80s offers Sheila one option. During that decade, Jane Fonda's aerobics workout videos introduced many people to that exercise.
Sheila first tries aerobics as a way to lose weight. Byrne provides a voiceover of Sheila's thoughts, in which she criticizes her age, acne and weight.
Sheila also exhibits bulimia. She binges on cheeseburgers in a motel room and then vomits them, while her inner voice criticizes her for skipping workouts. Byrne said those self-doubts are universal.
"There is no exclusive person. There is no rule of who or who doesn't feel like this, or has personal demons -- no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you're from," Byrne said.
Weisman said Sheila's environment makes her feel like she's not good enough or thin enough. Even though Danny still calls Sheila sexy, she criticizes herself.
"There's so many internalized feelings of self-hatred," Weisman said. "It's not about what you see in the mirror, but it's about what you've absorbed from the culture, from your family and from your experience."
For the show's aerobics scenes, Byrne said the workouts involved choreography like a dance or fight scene. Byrne said she also understood the appeal of the cardiovascular exercise.
"It gets you out of your head because I'm so focused on trying to do the moves or the choreography," Byrne said. "It's actually quite liberating, so I can see why it is so addictive and empowering."
Performing the choreography in tight-fitting leotards was another challenge, Byrne said. She said costume designer Kameron Lennox fit the tights snugly on her body.
"Those leotards are just within an inch of their life," Byrne said. "It's like a Marvel costume."
Physical premieres Friday on Apple TV+
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