Brett Gelman wasn’t supposed to be in the best television show of the year.
A few years back, the actor got a call on a Wednesday from a producer who told him that if he wanted the part as Martin—skeezy brother-in-law to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s title character in Fleabag—he would have to be in London by the following Tuesday.
They sent him an early version of the pilot episode and luckily for Gelman, it was “incredible.” He says he barely “skimmed” the rest of the scripts before saying yes.
The role was originally written for a Scotsman, as opposed to an American, and Gelman is quick to admit he was not Waller-Bridge’s first choice for Martin. “I think if you’re getting a call with less than a week, someone was sacked,” he says with a laugh.
For Gelman, the key to playing Martin is his overwhelming “sense of betrayal” by those closest to him. “He is alone, he is in this failing marriage, he hates himself, he’s an alcoholic, he knows that he is completely fucked up,” the actor explains, adding that he sees Fleabag and Martin as “the two most similar characters in this show.”
“They both are on the outside, they both use humor as a way to act out. And they both have this distinct sense of self-hatred,” he says. “But season two is about Fleabag rising out of that a bit and very much about Martin sinking into it more.”
His simultaneously hilarious and disturbing performance in season two of Fleabag, which was nominated for 11 Emmy Awards this past month, is just one of many that have made Gelman an inescapable face, if not quite yet a household name. In the last five years alone, he has had regular or recurring roles on Adult Swim’s Eagleheart, FX’s Married, Starz’s Blunt Talk, Comedy Central’s Another Period, HBO’s Camping and both Love and Stranger Things on Netflix.
In each case, Gelman has played “different shades of toxic masculinity,” in his words, a trait he has been forced to reckon with in himself. We talk about how he channels some of his darkest impulses into these “toxic men,” whether he thinks there’s any chance of a Fleabag season three and a lot more, including how Kanye West helped inspire what he hopes will be his next comedy special.
How he relates to a character like Martin from ‘Fleabag’
“That line—‘I’m not a bad guy, I just have a bad personality’—I can relate to that. You feel sometimes, Can I change? Is it actually possible to change? I think this is a big theme of the show. Or am I just fucked? Do I just have this personality? Am I cursed? Was I born with this personality and there’s no shaking this? I can relate to every aspect of Martin, besides the full-on aggression towards women.”
On Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s process as creator of ‘Fleabag’
“She’s immediately a person with a vision. You want to get all of her words word-perfect because it’s delicious writing. She rewrote a lot of my scenes in season two, five minutes before we shot them. Because we would show up and she’d be like, ‘This is shit.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I think this is really brilliant.’ And then we’d sit there and she’d use me and a few others as a sounding board and then she’d present the new script and you’d be like, ‘Oh, no, it is better.’”
How he describes the type of character he’s often hired to play
“It’s all these different shades of toxic masculinity. I think that people like to cast me in those roles because I enjoy diving into flaws. I like to think that I humanize these guys and give them some empathy and make people scared that they might relate to certain aspects of them. I grew up loving actors who played these types of characters. I worshipped Danny DeVito when I was a kid. I loved John Larroquette on Night Court. When I got older, I loved Raging Bull. So it’s playing these really flawed, toxic men who are caught in this downward spiral. And there are certainly points in my life, maybe a point every day, where I don’t necessarily go down the spiral, but I see it there. And it’s great to be able to exorcise that in my acting. I don’t walk away from a day in those characters feeling worse, I feel better.”
Would he be up for a third season of ‘Fleabag?’
“Of course! I would do anything [Phoebe Waller-Bridge] asks me to do. Part of what makes her such an incredible artist is that she’s very much in the moment about what she wants to do. So right now, she doesn’t want to do another season. Could she change her mind? Absolutely. Could she not? Totally. I hope that she changes her mind. But if she doesn’t, I hope that she makes something else and puts me in it. I would love to be a James Bond villain. Martin’s a pretty good audition for a super-villain in a franchise.”
How Kanye West inspired his next big comedy special idea
“Kanye West is very inspiring to me, despite whatever happened there [with Trump], which is a very complicated thing to discuss, which I am in no position to discuss. But I love him and I love his work and you hear about these Sunday Services that are going on. And I haven’t seen it, but it sounds amazing. And I was like, why don’t we do Friday Night Shabbat Dinner? Not as a parody of that, but just inspired by that somewhat. Especially in light of the current situation in the world, where anti-Semitism is growing—and yeah, sure, in L.A. it’s fine, but you go to a lot of places in the country or in the world and I am suddenly not white. And so, in the way that he seems to be doing a celebration of black culture and black music, I want to do a celebration of Jewish culture at these dinners. Celebrating Jewish culture through humor the way that Kanye’s celebrating black culture through the music. My dream would be that Larry David and Richard Lewis would get in a gigantic argument at the table.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Star of the new film Brittany Runs a Marathon, Jillian Bell.