High-Cut Leotards, Aerobics and Zoom Rehearsals: Choreographer Jennifer Hamilton on Apple TV+’s “Physical”

July 12, 2021

Apple TV+’s dark new comedy “Physical” delivers on exactly what the title suggests: campy 1980s aerobics à la Olivia Newton-John, complete with legwarmers, highly puffed-up hairstyles and even higher-cut leotards. The show follows Sheila, played by Rose Byrne, a downtrodden wife and mother who finds a passion for teaching aerobics. The woman behind Byrne’s hip rolls and grapevines? Choreographer Jennifer Hamilton, who drew on memories of her mom’s Jazzercise tapes to channel those iconic ’80s moves.

What drew you to this project?

When my agent brought it to my attention, I thought it was awesome because it’s based in the 1980s, it’s all about aerobics, and Rose Byrne was starring. But it’s also a dramedy, and as I was reading the scripts by Annie Weisman, the show’s creator, I realized it had so much substance. So much of the show is about female empowerment and women’s struggles with our inner voice, with our self-confidence and self-doubt.

What was your research process like?

I grew up in the ’80s, and I remember my mom doing Jazzercise in our living room, so it was fun to go back and really research it. I looked at Kathy Smith and Judi Sheppard Missett. I kind of stayed away from Jane Fonda, just because she’s the ultimate. I didn’t want it to become clichéd or be identical to something else.

I also watched a lot of 1980s music videos, just to get myself back in the time period of movement. On set, we’d be filming to Eurythmics, A Flock of Seagulls, Aretha Franklin—that music really transports you to that time.

How did you tailor the choreography for each character?

What’s so cool about this project is that the aerobics are part of the whole journey. Sheila is a very unhappy housewife at the time when we meet her. She’s damaged and flawed and has some inner struggles with body image and her self-confidence, so her movement starts out cautious and not so in-your-face. It starts light and delicate, but she doesn’t end the season that way.

Then Bunny, who’s played by Della Saba, has such a fiery attitude. She’s this tiny little person who’s like a firecracker. Her movement needed to have a lot of spunk and a lot of accents and hits.

Jennifer Hamilton sits on a floor in a black dress, looking away and pointing one toe forward.
Courtesy Bloc Agency

Is there a difference in how you approached working with nondancers?

When you’re teaching a nondancer, whether it’s dance steps or aerobics, you really have to pay attention to that individual and tailor things to them. I couldn’t just spit out a bunch of moves and expect the actresses to pick it up.

We didn’t really have the luxury of time. If there was something that didn’t look good, I’d be like, “You know what? Let’s do something else.”

But the great thing was Rose and Della cared so much about these characters and about this project. They’re such great actresses and they picked up the movement very well.

What was it like working with Rose Byrne?

I can’t say enough amazing things about Rose Byrne. She brought her A game to rehearsal and set every single time. Due to COVID-19, we held all of our rehearsals over Zoom, so I had never met her in person prior to our first day on set. Sometimes she would be like, “Yeah, maybe when I see you in person, we can work on that move.” Then we’d get to the set, and we’d have a little rehearsal time on site, so she’d be able to see me and understand the movement.

Any favorite memories from your time on the set?

I’d always look forward to what the next leotard was going to be. The costume designer, Kameron Lennox, really killed it with all these leotards. We’d joke, “Is this one going to be higher cut than yesterday?” The leotards were definitely a character of their own.