'Physical' director drawn to humor that comes from pain of reality

Rose Byrne's "Physical" returns for its third and final season on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+
1 of 5 | Rose Byrne's "Physical" returns for its third and final season on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

NEW YORK, Aug. 2 (UPI) -- Physical director-executive producer Stephanie Laing says the 1980s-set comedy about a woman with self-image issues who creates her own fitness empire was totally in her creative wheelhouse.

"I like humor that comes from the pain of reality. Life is hard and we are our harshest critics," Laing told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. "I gravitate toward those projects that have something to say and want to say that through some dark humor."


Premiering Wednesday on Apple TV+, the third and final season of the show follows Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne), who becomes a star aerobics instructor while supporting her politician husband, Danny (Rory Scovel). Zooey Deschanel, Dierdre Friel and Paul Sparks co-star.

"When I read the pilot episode -- which I didn't direct; Craig Gillespie did -- I was really overjoyed at the honesty and the approach to such difficult subject matter," said Laing, who has since helmed 16 of the show's 30 episodes.


"I'm obsessed, like a lot of other people are, with that time period and also had known Rose Byrne previously and just think she's such an incredible performer," Laing added to her list of reasons why this was the perfect project for her to tackle after directing episodes of Veep, Dollface, Made For Love and Mammals.

While Laing didn't create the characters of Physical -- that was Annie Weisman -- she did direct more episodes than anyone else, providing depth and continuity the cast and viewers appreciate.

"I've really been able to track their stories visually, as well as little physical quirks and things that performers do," she said.

The show works as well as it does because Byrne is so good at walking that line of comedy and drama.

"In one frame, you're laughing about how ridiculous she is or she's pulling a wedgie out of her leotard and now you're in tears for her," Laing said. "She's vulnerable and fearless and so collaborative. It shows on screen. She just embodies Sheila."

In addition to being a talented artist, Byrne is also a good leader on set.

"She's No. 1 on the call sheet and she sets the tone for everyone," Laing said.


Being the one tasked with ending a series' successful run is a privilege for a filmmaker, she said.

"We've had such collaborative and amazing partners with Apple, who have been really supportive and let us do largely what we wanted for three seasons and let us experiment with something that is not broad," she said.

"It is difficult and [the studio] let us show that in an authentic way. We always knew we were going to have three seasons and being able to wrap up the story the way we wanted to is a gift."

Filming the finale was, of course, bittersweet for the cast and crew.

"No one really wants it to end. We're all excited about what comes next for all of us, but we had such a good time making it," Laing said.

Had a fourth season of Physical been ordered, the writers would have found more stories to tell and Laing likely would have been there to bring them to the screen.

"We always have ideas," Laing laughed, hinting she would be interested if the show was revived at some point.

The first episodes were filmed during the social distancing times of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.


The series is coming to a close as the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild are in the midst of a labor strike, demanding better wages, working conditions and control over their likenesses.

In addition to impacting the artists who made Physical, these stressful anomalies might also impact the way the viewers perceive the show.

"Season 1, we did the last episode in a mall with 100 women in aerobics gear in the height of COVID in groups of 10 that had to be released if someone had COVID," Laing recalled.

"The show represents a lot of real life for women and we are certainly living a lot of real life right now."

With most Hollywood productions shut down because of the labor stoppages, Laing is not doing what she loves to do at the moment.

"It's hard to feel inspired right now because the fight is so important," the WGA member said.

"It's such a weird time and weird to be talking about the show, but also wanting to celebrate the show," she added. "We're very excited to get Season 3 out for people to see and we hope it touches people in the way that Seasons 1 and 2 did."


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