‘What Is Jesse Eisenberg Doing Here, Saying These Things I Wrote?’

Taffy Brodesser-Akner on stress dreams, the beauty of long scenes, and translating her novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, to the small screen.

A black-and-white photo of Taffy Brodesser-Akner
The Atlantic; Heather Sten

Novelists aren’t often given the chance to adapt their own work, let alone creatively control each element of the process. Whether this is an envious or excruciating position to be in—or both—is a question Taffy Brodesser-Akner can now answer. A well-known profiler of celebrities (quite memorably of Gwyneth Paltrow and Bradley Cooper) and the author of the best-selling 2019 novel Fleishman Is in Trouble, she has just finished work as the writer, showrunner, and executive producer of the limited-series adaptation of Fleishman, which premieres this week on FX/Hulu.

Brodesser-Akner is a longtime friend, and I wanted to know what it was like to go from inventing the world of Toby Fleishman, a sad-sack doctor on the Upper East Side navigating a divorce, to actually being on set and lying on Toby’s bed. What was it like to see Jesse Eisenberg bring Toby to life, stethoscope around his neck and phone dinging with dating-app notifications? Or to watch Claire Danes, who has the difficult role of Toby’s wife, Rachel Fleishman, rely on her facial expressions to grab more and more of the viewer’s sympathy over the course of the series?

As a novel, Fleishman plays with perspective, exploring how a marriage can fracture when two people experience it in vastly different ways. Translating those dueling perspectives to the screen does not seem obvious or easy. This was just one of the challenges for Brodesser-Akner, who had never been the boss of anyone before she became showrunner—at one point during production, she texted to tell me she couldn’t believe she was in charge of what felt like 300 people on any given day. In the weeks leading up to the series premiere, we met for coffee near Central Park. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Gal Beckerman: Why did you decide to adapt Fleishman Is in Trouble yourself?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Because every time I thought about not adapting it—I had multiple bids on it, and these great writers wanted to do it—I felt very jealous. But I also have a job. Also, I don’t think that a novelist is in the best position to adapt her own work. So I would listen, and they would all have these ideas. And I would feel this panic—you know, this panic that rises within you when you’re like [growling voice] That’s not it. You become this monster. I guess the answer is I should do this.

Beckerman: Was writing for the screen an aspiration of yours?

Brodesser-Akner: I actually went to school for this. I have a degree in dramatic writing from NYU. But I went into journalism after college because that’s who listed jobs in the want ads (remember those?). But I don’t know about aspirations. I never took journalism classes in my life. It’s just sort of something you can learn by watching. This was a little different. I had these two producing partners, Sarah Timberman and Susannah Grant. They’re both legends of the industry. The first time I spoke to them, they said, You have to write it. This is your voice. We’re going to help you. And these two women sat with me through 30 drafts of every episode. They are the ones who got it over the finish line. That’s what really happened. It wasn’t that I was so good; it was that I had people who were so good at protecting me, both from other people’s very rightful concerns about someone doing this for the first time and from my own bad instincts sometimes. But there’s a transitive property to approval and confidence. Those two believed in me, and then the people who make bigger decisions did too. Am I using “transitive property” correctly?

Beckerman: Maybe? I want to hear about the rookie mistakes, though. What was the learning curve like for you?

Brodesser-Akner: You’re sitting there writing, and you write a first draft with a hundred scenes in it, because you’re trying to establish things. And then someone has to gently explain to you, “Do you understand that every time there’s a new scene, they change their clothing, their hair, everyone moves to a different location? And you’re in this one location so people can have a two-sentence exchange?”

But I fought for it, for this sort of chaotic vision of the first couple of episodes, and they were supportive. By the time I wrote Episode 5, we were shooting the show already, and suddenly I understood: This is going to exhaust everyone. So starting in Episode 5, the scenes get longer and fewer. The other thing I learned is, for all my time that I’ve spent with actors writing their profiles, I did not really understand what they were capable of. I didn’t understand how they could absorb your writing, the words themselves, if you give them more time to be in a scene—that they could become the scene.

Beckerman: Seeing actors—and such great ones—transform into the characters you created in your head must have been a really strange experience. You spent a lot of time with actors before, but I wonder if this brought you to a new understanding of them.

Brodesser-Akner: To watch them become these characters was profound for me. Back when I wrote about actors, I was really more interested in their celebrity than in their skill. And now: I would be there watching them, and they would just become this thing. I sat on this director’s chair, and I had a screen in front of me. And I almost couldn’t evaluate it. The directors will say to you, “Is that how you thought of it?” And I was almost in a trance. Like, what is Jesse Eisenberg doing here, saying these things I wrote? That also was a crisis for me, to cross that Rubicon.

Beckerman: Which Rubicon?

Brodesser-Akner: To be in the company of actors and not be writing about them. I had this anxiety dream about Jesse about a week into shooting, and this is what it was: His whole thing is, when he’s talking to you, he’s the most curious person you’ve ever met. And he just asks questions about you. And in this dream, I’m still at GQ, and I write a profile of Jesse Eisenberg. But it’s the best profile I’ve ever written. And not only that, but I wake up, and I remember the profile. And yes, it’s the best profile. And here’s what it is: It’s just a list of his questions. With his responses to my responses, which are also questions.

Beckerman: Which is totally how you would do a Jesse Eisenberg profile.

Brodesser-Akner: I woke up, and I still had this moment where I was like, I kind of wish I could write that profile. I wonder if anyone will let me write that profile? The answer is no one should let me write that profile.

Beckerman: Tell me about the writing. What new challenges did writing for television present that you hadn’t encountered before?

Brodesser-Akner: Dialogue and constructing scenes came more easily to me than the structure of an episode. You have this thing that’s eight episodes long, that has to have an arc over the course of it. But each episode also has to have its own arc, lest you be accused of being someone who just chopped your book up into eight episodes. Each one has to have a big idea, but these ideas did not come naturally to me. They come naturally to me in a magazine story. But it was awkward to conform the action to the idea, since the action already existed in the book.

Beckerman: I mean, the show comes across as quite faithful to the book.

Brodesser-Akner: It’s so faithful. I had a budget. And I had space limitations. And I have just this one brain that produces these outcomes for this particular story. But also, if the book didn’t exist, I would have done things so differently for the sake of our production needs. The first thing that I would have gotten rid of is Toby being a doctor, because you know how hard and expensive it is to shoot in a hospital? We had an incredible production-design team that was busy all the time, because it was constant. It was constant. Once I saw that, I think I would have been happy to make him a lawyer, or something that would have cost less to shoot. But in the end, the book worked, and the book made the decision. The gig wasn’t writing a TV show; the gig was an adaptation.

Beckerman: But what about control? I’ve always imagined that, as a writer, the collaborative process of making a movie or television show—not being able to determine everything—would be hard.

Brodesser-Akner: You would think that, but here’s what else you don’t know. So you write this book where everyone’s so rich, and the first time I was brought to the set of the insanely rich apartment building where Rachel lives, I cried, because our production designer knew exactly what to do. I wrote this book because I was so broke. When I picture rich people, I picture Scrooge McDuck diving into a pile of coins. I did not know what an apartment like Rachel Fleishman’s would actually look like, the details. I wouldn’t have thought about the ceiling or the shampoo; I wouldn’t have thought about the make of the toaster.

So you would think that my job would be to say, “I don’t think this works.” But the truth is that it was constant awe at the fact that I put these things down on paper, and these people picked it up and brought it to life in the most glorious way.

Beckerman: So they were coloring in elements of the story?

Brodesser-Akner: No, they were drawing over it and making it bigger and even more specific. And I’m still really in awe of it.

Beckerman: Can you see yourself doing more TV after this?

Brodesser-Akner: Now that I’ve done all of this, what I can say is that my favorite form of writing is a magazine story.

Beckerman: Still?

Brodesser-Akner: I just know that it’s the perfect size and shape for the expression of a thought to me, and all these things are expressions of thoughts. But I am excited to see what happens next. It’s like the way I think now about writing books. The journalist and novelist Laura Lippman once told me that writing your first novel is like riding a bike for the first time: You can’t believe how free you are. And now I see that the subsequent books are the understanding of the bike as a vehicle. Learning what it can do.