HBO’s ‘Run’: Inside the Sexiest Show Since ‘Fleabag’
One of Hollywood’s best actresses (Merritt Wever), most charming actors (Domhnall Gleeson), and most exciting creators (she directed “Fleabag”) take us on the run of their careers.
What we wouldn’t give for an escape hatch these days.
Two text messages and, just like that, Ruby Dixie and Billy Johnson have blown up their lives. Two “send” buttons act as sticks of dynamite that turn escapist fantasies into blissful, then intense, then deeply consequential new realities.
The new HBO series Run, premiering Sunday night, has been described as a rom-com, as a thriller, as horny, as inspired, and, in a particularly clever take, as “part Fleabag, part Hitchcock.”
That should be particularly exciting to anybody who loves good television—the closest thing to an escape hatch any of us are going to get given the current state of things—as the series is created by Vicky Jones, who directed the original stage version of Fleabag, and executive produced by her good friend and creative partner, Fleabag herself Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
In the year since the second season of Jones’ and Waller-Bridges’ baby pretty much redefined “masterful” when it comes to our current age of television, there have been countless proclamations of which series might be “the next Fleabag.” Well, folks, Run is literally it.
They followed different paths—her, a career opportunity and eventually suburban homemaker; him, a cringey but successful life coach—but laid crude groundwork for a future reunion. If one texts “run” at a pivotal moment of their lives and the other immediately sends “run” back, they’d leave everything to fly to New York City and then take a cross-country Amtrak train together while they reconnect.
It’s insane. It’s romantic. It’s sexy. It’s mysterious. It’s ill-advised. They do it.
Vicky Jones and Phoebe Waller-Bridge met during a disastrous theater project more than a decade ago. When Jones was fired as director, Waller-Bridge quit in solidarity. (“We went to the pub—and in many ways never left,” Waller-Bridge once joked.)
Jones would end up directing the first staging of the Fleabag monologue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, and the two have been collaborating ever since, working together on Crashing, Killing Eve, Fleabag, and numerous staged productions.
They’ve had their own “run” pact for years. If one ever sent the word to the other, they’d “take each other’s hands, run out of the place, and keep running,” Jones says. They’d teasingly whisper it to each other in insufferable work meetings and social gatherings. Only once did they use it for real, at a festival to get away from the people they were hanging out with, Jones remembers. “Then we found a party!”
“I think for everybody, this sounds like such a beautiful idea,” says Domhnall Gleeson, phoning from self-isolation in his native Ireland. “But the reality of it is so much messier. There’s so much collateral damage.”
As one can imagine, it is a particular thrill to find out you are being considered for the next TV project from the people who brought the world Fleabag. It’s as if Gleeson had opened the pages of a thesaurus to the word “brilliant” when asked what he thought of the series when he first watched it.
“I remember watching Fleabag and being completely enamored, awestruck really, and kind of marveling at the marriage of actor and material and then realizing that she wrote it herself and being like, ‘Oh fuck,’” Wever says. She met Jones during auditions and Waller-Bridge at the pilot’s table read. “As usual, I was nervous on both occasions.”
But the beauty of working on Run was almost meta in nature. Once everyone was in, it was full-speed ahead, not looking back for one romantic, sexy, thrilling second.
Merritt Wever is a gem. Mention her name to anyone working in television, writing about television, or passionately watching television, and they’ll channel Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes, reflexively shove you in the collar bone, and stare into your soul while declaring, “I LOVE MERRITT WEVER!”
She caught most people’s attention with her deadpan, bashful work on Nurse Jackie, which earned her a surprise Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series win in 2013, which she accepted with a now iconic, and certainly emblematic, 11-second speech: “Thank you so much. Thank you so much. I gotta go, bye.”
In the industry—and, based on that speech, in public too, I suppose—she has a notorious reputation for humility, which is funny because she is also effortlessly profound, incredibly witty, and as keenly observant an anthropologist as she is an actor.
Her work since that Emmy win has been varied in a way that thwarts conventions of Hollywood and its favorite leisure activity of placing people in boxes.
That’s included a wild run in the past few years that’s seen her as one of The Walking Dead’s most beloved characters, in the Netflix Western miniseries Godless (winning her a second Emmy), as the cathartic comedic relief in Marriage Story, and inspiring and breaking hearts in equal measure with the steely resolve she lent to her performance in Unbelievable, based on a real-life serial rape case.
They’re unique, diverse projects. And here she is again in something new—a sexy, zippy thriller with a distinctly different vibe. She was asked to audition for Run, and at first was skeptical. She wanted to go for it, but, a product of Hollywood, was conditioned to think that, as she told the Los Angeles Times, “girls like me don’t get parts like this.”
“Since you talk about ‘vibe,’ I do remember that by the end of the audition process, I had been shooting Unbelievable for several months,” she tells me. “And the energy of that story and that character was so tight—it was unrelenting and driven and taut. And I remember really craving getting to work in a different energetic space. This material felt like it had room to breathe and play in. I’d been holding myself so tightly for months and this somehow felt like an energetic antidote.”
Run plays with all kinds of permutations on the trope of the cat chasing the mouse, whether it’s Ruby and Billy, Ruby and her life at home, Billy and his professional mistakes, the two of them and their guilt, their actions and the law. But especially early on in the series, we’re meant to question what it takes for a suburban family woman like Ruby to make the decision to, in the purest sense of the word, “run.”
“This is unforgivable” and “I know, I’m awful” is how Ruby assesses her actions. How are audiences supposed to wrap their heads around it?
“I never saw it as a choice she could control,” she says, cautioning against the impulse to judge Ruby. “I think this is somehow a matter of survival for her. I don’t know how much longer she was gonna make it in her current situation. I think she’s been dying on the vine and this is a sudden chance to come alive again.”
Jones and Waller-Bridge were frustrated that so many of the female characters they were seeing were limited. “The guy would get the funny lines and get to play the clown, or behave in ways that weren’t intuitive, or self-sabotage, and just were more complex,” Jones says. They wanted Ruby to be all of those things.
“I thought of her as someone who is starving,” Wever says. “And I think when someone has been starving for a good long while, it can be impossible to resist the thing you’re craving once it’s finally offered.”
That’s not even necessarily Billy, either. Or the passion, or physicality, or whatever there is to indulge in once they reunite. She may just be craving her former self, the time in life when she felt like she was most vibrant, powerful, and, as Wever says, “impossibly potent.” She wants the chance to feel that way again, but wonders how much of that feeling is inextricably connected to him.
When you put it that way, how is Ruby not empathetic?
“As much as this is, in one way, about ‘going back,’ I always felt that it was also, on a primal level, about her moving forward,” she says. “For the first time in a very long time. And I think that’s brave. Even if it’s messy. Particularly if it’s messy.”
The tallness. The Irish brogue. The jawline. The easy charm. The red hair. The tenderness. Again, the tallness.
When trailers of Run started circulating, memes were made to memorialize the swoons. “How hot is Domhnall Gleeson in Run?” tweeted critic Carrie Wittmer. The answer came in the form of a Vin Diesel movie quote: “The words ain’t even been invented yet.” Another fan posted, alongside a collage of photos of Gleeson from his time in the new Star Wars trilogy, “I think we can all agree that Domhnall Gleeson…”
When your crush on Gleeson began is a sort of Choose Your Adventure through Hollywood genres.
Yes, of course, there’s the Star Wars films, in which he plays General Hux. If you like your franchises more fantasy than sci-fi, you may recognize him as Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter movies. Should Irish gingers in period garb be more your thing, there’s Brooklyn, Anna Karenina, and The Revenant to whet your appetite. And if you happen to be a child reading this, yes, that is Mr. Thomas McGregor from Peter Rabbit.
Like Wever, Gleeson was coming off a “heavier type of job” when his agent sent him the script for Run. “It seemed like something I hadn’t done before,” he says. “I had done romance before and had always really enjoyed it, and always really enjoyed the way it made me feel going to work. You’re just thinking about love and what love is, and that’s a nice way to spend your time. It had that, but was also zippy and fun in a way I hadn’t ever seen.”
Early press will likely be devoted to the morality of Ruby’s decision to leave her life behind, but there’s surprising twists to Billy’s circumstances, too. At first it seems like he wants to spice up a life made boring by a career he no longer believes in. He feels like a fraud. Ruby might make him feel real again.
“If you love somebody, that’s a wonderful thing,” he says. “If you need somebody, that’s not always as great. He has made Ruby the answer to all his problems, and no one person can be that.”
“Men get pigeonholed too,” Jones says. “We wanted to write about a guy who had a huge amount of internal complexity and, on the one hand, could feel very confident and gregarious and, on the other, we see him beset by his need and his vulnerability and his love for this woman.”
You have a man who looks like Domnhall Gleeson and has all of his natural charms, and he’s going along with this outrageous, escapist, exciting idea. And yet he’s not a Prince Charming to run away with.
“I think he probably knows what the male role typically is in a romance,” he says. “What they’re trying to do in a way is have a romance. The pact by its very nature is like a movie. It’s a huge romantic gesture. Stereotypically, the man in those stories is shown to be this really strong person who’s very certain about everything. And I think the truth should be way more complicated than that.”
There is a pleasure like no other in watching two actors with firecracker chemistry do that thing where they stare intensely at each other, typically from a distance—across a doorway, across a room, or, in this case, across an Amtrak train aisle. It’s so sexy it’s as if the lingering gaze fornicated in seven different positions on its way from one smoldering set of eyes to the other.
It may be why movies and television exist, and will always exist. It’s a whole thing. Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson have that thing.
Gleeson practically blushes through the phone when asked about this. “Well, you know, Merritt is an extraordinary actor,” he says flustered, as if that’s the only way someone could feign sexual attraction to him. But he uses it as a jumping off point. “Really, truly a phenomenal actor. Everybody in the business, certainly, and now I think the world knows that. So I never needed to worry about the chemistry with her.”
As for Wever’s tricks for mastering the sexy-as-hell glare, “sadly, I have mastered no such thing,” she says.
She goes back to the work. The two actors were paying close attention to each other through the whole process. They had to. How she behaved as Ruby, second to second, was very much contingent on how Gleeson was behaving as Billy. It’s silly to compare acting to the monumental decisions these characters were making, but it was a similarly exhilarating exercise.
“It’s interesting—we come at the work differently and that discrepancy ended up forcing me, for the first time, to examine and define the way in which I work, in order to communicate around it and ultimately, hopefully, protect it,” she says. “Was that answer sexy? Did I do it right?”
Many TV viewers might still be catching their breaths and calming their libidos after being introduced to the Hot Priest in Fleabag’s second season. His connection with Fleabag was so crackling and intense it felt almost voyeuristic to witness, even with barely a moment spent on the characters in the bedroom.
The sexual phenomenon of Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott in Fleabag and the electric pairing of Wever and Gleeson in Run prove just how vital it is to cast actors capable of triggering audiences’ imaginations, letting that take them where it will, Jones says. The first time Wever and Gleeson read together for Jones and Waller-Bridge, the women looked at each other with giddy amazement. “They were going to make our writing look so good.”
When Ruby and Billy first reunite, it’s fireworks—but more like those unsanctioned, black market ones that are a little unsettling and dangerous, but kind of more thrilling because of it. They’re feeling each other out, both relieved that the other showed up and suspicious of why. They flirt. They accuse. They separately excuse themselves to masturbate in the bathroom. They’re grateful, they’re scared, they’re excited, they regret.
Gleeson says that tension is the best part. “Are they running towards each other, which is the most romantic thing in the world? Or are they running away from something else, which is not as romantic and in a way might be seen as using the other person?”
Run isn’t just a frothy not-so-much-strangers on a train rom-com. Once the cross-country train starts moving, the narrative careens just as fast, blending new genres as quickly as if they’re landscapes whizzing by out the window. It moves so fast, by design, that it can tend to leave viewers slightly breathless. It felt that way to shoot, too.
“Vicky said she wanted an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances and my job was to stay as honest as possible within increasing madness,” Wever says. “But t’was a frantic task.”