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'Physical' star Rose Byrne: 'I had more costume fittings than I've ever had in my life!'

Rose Byrne with a bouncy hairdo and silver hoop earrings, wearing a sequinned purple leotard, as Sheila Rubin stands in a brightly lit aerobics studio to shoot a fitness video
Rose Byrne as Sheila Rubin in Physical (Image credit: Apple TV+)

Rose Byrne stars as a troubled housewife who finds personal and financial freedom through her love of aerobics in her Apple TV Plus Original series Physical — and after embracing the 1970s for her role as celebrated feminist Gloria Steinem in the FX/Hulu miniseries Mrs America, this time Rose is in full 1980s mode to play Shiela Rubin, a fictional frustrated former activist.

But rather than poking fun at permed hair and legwarmers, the series takes an acerbic look at the rise of the fitness industry in that era, as well as exploring the dark, self-destructive instincts within Sheila caused by years of disordered eating and toxically low self-esteem.

"When we meet Sheila, she's really at a breaking point," says Rose. "She's in an incredibly dysfunctional marriage, she's ambivalent about motherhood and she has a horrendous addiction that's ruining her life. As an audience, you kind of wonder, is she going to make it? As the chapters unfold in the story, she starts to do some pretty compromising and ruthless things, like any interesting character in a fiction that you're drawn to. For me it was about rooting for her, and figuring out how the audience would root for Sheila."

The series offers an uncensored look inside Sheila's head by means of a voiceover that articulates her inner thoughts — which are almost always savagely critical of her own body and her lack of self-control when it comes to eating and exercise.

Sheila (Rose Byrne) in the aerobics studio, smiling, with permed hair and wearing a short-sleeved top with purple, green and pink chevrons. Next to her in the mirror we can see women in leotards warming up for an aerobics class.

The aerobics studio becomes a second home for Sheila. (Image credit: Apple TV+)

"It was deeply uncomfortable to play," says Rose. "Sheila's destructive, she has a terrible illness and an addiction, and Annie [Weisman, creator and writer of Physical] didn't pull any punches with that. But when people see it, it really resonates, it just does — it's the human condition, unfortunately."

Once Sheila finds herself through aerobics and begins her transformation from a housewife into a pioneering lifestyle guru, she leaves behind her comfortable clothes and is more likely to be seen sporting tight leotards — and Rose tells us that the show went to great lengths to get her look just right.

"There's a lot of pieces set in the 80s, so it was about making it authentic," says Rose. "Women back then didn't have access to athleisure-wear online, they made their own leotards — they hand-stitched these things and slowly it would evolve into the French cut and all that. It was a very different time, even for fashion, and Kameron Lennox, our costume designer, fit me within an inch of my life! Every millimeter on those leotards is specific. I could have been doing a Marvel movie — I had more costume fittings than I've ever had in my life!"

Physical launches exclusively on Apple TV+ on Friday June 18.