‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ Author: Watching Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes Play My Characters ‘Felt Like Fan Fiction’

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel “Fleishman Is in Trouble” received critical acclaim upon its publication in 2019. A marriage story, a tale of divorce and a commentary about journalism rolled into one, the book chronicles the unraveling of the marriage of Toby and Rachel Fleishman, a high-powered New York couple whose squabbles over the location of their apartment and the insufficiency of Toby’s doctor job, among many things, contribute to their decoupling. Beneath the surface of their divorce lie secrets only brought to light when the novel’s narrator — Libby Epstein, Toby’s old college friend and reporter-turned-stay-at-home-mom — unearths details that bring the story of Toby and Rachel’s relationship into clearer perspective.

These are all nuances transplanted from the book into its limited series adaptation by FX, which premieres on Hulu on Nov. 17. Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes star as Toby and Rachel Fleishman, respectively, while Lizzy Caplan plays Libby and Adam Brody takes on the role of Seth, Toby’s womanizing friend who yearns to settle down. (Seth of “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is not to be confused with Seth from “The OC,” whom Brody also portrayed.) Seven of the eight episodes were penned by Brodesser-Akner, a highly regarded journalist known for her profiles of Tom Hiddleston, Bradley Cooper and Gwyneth Paltrow. 

Brodesser-Akner told Variety that she initially thought her book wasn’t adaptable for television, because it didn’t have “that much plot.” “I changed my mind when suddenly people started bidding on it,” she said. The dynamics of the bidding war changed, however, when she said that she wanted to write it herself. “Immediately, 10 bidders dropped out.”

It was Brodesser-Akner’s attachment to the project, however, that appealed to the cast. Brody said that the book is “marvelous” in its ability to be “navel-gazing and completely cinematic and sweeping.” Caplan called the writer’s celebrity profiles “art,” and noted that she liked the story, because it felt true to the life stage that Caplan is at right now. “It’s nice to read something that’s just about examining how it feels to be this age in the world without any explosions.”

“It seems like a lot of stuff right now is distilled into this black and white, good versus evil,” she said. “That’s just not how I see the world. I don’t think that’s how the world is, and this [project] lives in a world of nothing but nuance.”

Brodesser-Akner said that watching the cast play characters she created sent her into a trance-like state, much like Brett from “Seinfeld.” “It almost felt like fan fiction, or like fan fiction with your Barbies — like, what if you got your Barbies to be these famous people? I can’t even describe it.” 

The majority of “Fleishman Is in Trouble” focuses on Toby Fleishman, a harried doctor who becomes increasingly panicked when he realizes that his theater agent ex-wife, Rachel, has disappeared and left him in charge of watching their two children. Fleishman, in the first flush of his post-divorce dating life, has to perform the herculean task of juggling his career and various sexual engagements with his responsibilities as a father in the wake of Rachel’s disappearance. As the series progresses, however, one pivotal episode changes the narrative, and forces the audience to reconsider the perspective from which the show is told — and who is truly in charge of the story. 

“The great gift of being an actor,” Claire Danes said, “is that you get to extend your love to a character who you see is suffering from the lack of love.” While the Emmy Award-winning actor said it was “slightly scary to play somebody who is going to alienate audiences,” she recalled expressing her affection for the character of Rachel to Brodesser-Akner in their first conversation. 

Eisenberg, whose other notable work includes his Academy Award-nominated performance as Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” said he appreciated the story’s reversal of the narrative surrounding “knee-jerk male sympathy” — a concept he says his wife told him about when he was acting in a different project.

“I was acting in something that I think she thought was perpetuating the idea that anything that happens to a man is heartbreaking, and anything that happens to a woman in a story is of her own making,” he said. Eisenberg added that he’d noticed this trend from reading other scripts, and liked that Brodesser-Akner’s story “shifts perspective” and, in some sense, flips the question on the viewer. “How complicit are you as an audience member in your narrow view of where your sympathy should lie?”

It’s this sort of question that tethers “Fleishman Is in Trouble” more closely to its author, who, as a journalist best known for her profiles, uses both the novel and the show as a vehicle through which to comment on the very act of profile writing itself. Brodesser-Akner is currently on leave from New York Times, but confirmed to Variety that she’ll be returning to work at the publication after the show finishes its run on Hulu. She said that much of its inspiration came from “the anxiety [she has] as a profile writer.”

“Do you ever notice, like in any story, the first person mentioned, even if you give more words to the second person, gets the sympathy?” she asked. “I feel like that happens a little in that amazing story that went around from the New York Times Magazine, where I work — ‘Bad Art Friend.’ Who is the bad art friend?”

“It matters so much who you talk about first,” she continued. “The minute you tell someone’s story, you are creating sympathy for them, even if you make them into a giant jerk. What is there to do? That’s a crisis for us, isn’t it?”

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