‘Loneliness comes from being your own worst enemy’
For Aisling Bea, the best way to star in a funny sitcom was to write it herself. Here, she talks about her father’s death, social activism and not always trusting her own head
By Eva Wiseman in The Guardian August 4th, 2019
The day before I meet Aisling Bea at her home in London, she gets in touch to ask my biscuit preferences and I reply, with a journalistic sigh, knowing this is destined to be a puff piece. Except, when I arrive, she serves me tea with a milk chocolate digestive (not on my list, obviously) because, “Princess,” my list was ridiculous, and I will get what I’m given. The disappointment is a relief, because it releases me from the shackles of love and allows the scathing hatchet job to follow. Buckle up!
Though This Way Up, the tender, funny sitcom Bea has written and stars in is yet to air, you will already recognise her from the telly. As a regular panellist on game shows and a standup on Live at the Apollo, and an actor in dramas including The Fall, she has been elegantly circling fame since she moved to London from Kildare, and enrolled in drama school. It was the kind of drama school where they learned “historical dance”, and had to spend an hour pretending to be mud – it turned out to be great training for a comedian.
After a role in Sharon Horgan’s sitcom Dead Boss she tried standup, and in 2013 was nominated for best newcomer at Edinburgh, with stories about her family, Ireland, feminism and death. If she got bad reviews, she’d remember her mother Helen’s advice. Helen had been a jockey in Kildare who told her that when she won everyone would compliment the horse, but if she lost, they’d say it was her fault.
Bea was raised by women, eight aunts, one nun – her father died when she was three. Ten years later her mother told her he’d taken his own life. She had waited for two reasons: the first, she didn’t think her daughters were ready to hear the truth, and the second, suicide was only decriminalised two years after her husband’s death. There was a time in Irish history when if you attempted suicide, you were punished by hanging. Bea suddenly hated him. She vowed never to talk about him again. So it wasn’t until 2017, aged 33, her career bubbling to life, that many of her friends learned the details of his death.
She wrote about it for the Guardian, partly because she wanted, “to put a beginning, middle and end on my experience,” partly because she didn’t want it thrown at her in an interview later and partly to reach out to people who were suffering. She was not prepared for the reaction, but we’ll come to that.
“Eat your biscuit,” she says, firmly. We are drinking green tea in her living room, where a piano and trophy shelf compete for space, and through the glass doors her “lady garden” is alive with bees and jasmine. She has been working too much, she feels a little mad. After writing, then filming six episodes of her show, she moved to Rome to shoot a romantic comedy, but worked on edits in the evenings – this is a rare afternoon, when she can sit on her own sofa, under no pressure to make strangers laugh.
In This Way Up, Bea (who took that stage name in memory of her dad, Brian) plays Aine, a foreign-language school worker who’s recovering from a “teeny little nervous breakdown”, with her sister, played by Horgan. “When I started writing the characters, I’d think, what’s their loneliness? Is it being the only person in an environment that does a certain job, or is it the relationship they’re not happy in? Is it being an immigrant?” Loneliness is something she thinks about a lot.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with being alone. I’ve never really been alone. I have an amazing family, amazing friends, I’ve been in amazing relationships…” In recent years, she has been snapped on red carpets with boyfriends including Michael Sheen and Andrew Garfield. “But loneliness,” she says, “for me comes from being your own worst enemy. In not being able to trust your head sometimes, and what it’s going to do next. That’s a wound and a gift.”
She’s not afraid of an audience booing. “I’m afraid of myself. What if I am not on my side that day?” That’s why she has a pint before a performance. “It’s not for confidence, it’s to stop getting in your own way. To forget you’re on stage before the other you realises you’re there. To me, that is a really lonely feeling. Because it’s just you and yourself in that little battle.”
Peppered throughout our conversation are references to books about the brain and the body, which perform, in 2019, as self-help guides for people, like Bea, who are constantly striving and constantly questioning. “The biggest constant in terms of my friends is to do with the plastic-ness of their brains – who’s working on themselves and who will admit that they’re idiots sometimes? We’re all having these mini-breakdowns, some realisations and then some expansions.”
One such expansion has been her increased activism. Bea was a supporter of the change to Ireland’s abortion laws: she and Horgan dressed in Handmaid’s Tale bonnets urging people to vote, and wrote a comic essay published in a collection titled Repeal the 8th, which explains the mystery of women.
One of Bea’s gifts is to slide politics in when you’re not watching, like vegetables, chopped up very small. Her standup is broad and jolly, with outbreaks of jokes about women’s safety. Her Instagram looks glamorous, but includes credits for ethical fashion and charity-shop tips. She is a regular on the Guilty Feminist podcast. And, while it looks as though she’s gamely chuckling on panel shows, she is also taking notes.
“There are only a few regulars who are female. And still, no one has ever come to us and asked our advice on how to make them easier for women. Which I find interesting, not being asked: ‘What makes this space dangerous for you?’ It’s the little moments.” The time spent in the makeup chair, or if there’s another woman onstage and if so, where she’s sitting, and how many women were in the writers room, and panellists not interrupting those who speak softly.
“It’s another comedian allowing you to make the punchline, not assuming you’re setting up a joke for them. But it’s like, if someone doesn’t think you’re fit enough to be on the pitch and you’re going for the goal. They run on and go, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got one for the team.’ But you knew you could score. It’s not just about visibility. Diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is feeling you belong.”
She talks very fast and with great precision, about her belief in quotas, in listening, in admitting when we get things wrong, and then she stops, slumping slightly. “But, nobody wants to walk around being angry any more. I don’t want to have to talk about this. I’m bored talking about it. This is probably the least funny I can be, talking about gender and comedy. I can’t be as joyful. It gets in the way. It’s exhausting. And it doesn’t allow me to do the thing I’m supposed to be doing. You just want to go into your game, you don’t want to worry about walking home.”
She sips her tea. “There are two schools of thought. One is survival of the fittest: if you’re good enough, you will get there. But, you are being good enough within someone else’s realm. And the fact of the matter is, if you create a shouty environment that’s all about competitiveness, you are rooting out a different type of person. So on panel shows people who aren’t as loud don’t get to speak.” In March, she stood down as a team captain on 8 Out of 10 Cats.
When Bea was 10 and she learned the truth about her dad, her story was set. “The narrative was, I’m not supposed to talk about this.” It continued throughout her life. “If I do, people will know I’m sad and they won’t find me funny any more. I’ll be the person known for that thing. And I’ll upset my family. And I am the way I am because there’s no men in my family. And I have got to where I am in spite of childhood tragedy. But actually, none of that is true.”
There were many myths, she realised recently. One was the idea that, not only had her father abandoned them, but, as he didn’t name Bea in his suicide note, he had forgotten her. Then, 20 years later, a parcel arrived. A box of his things, including the photos he had been looking at when he died – they were nearly all of her. In her Guardian article she wrote a letter to him, which ended: “I am your daughter and I am really fucking funny, just like you. But, unlike you, I’m going to stop being it for five minutes and write our story in the hope it may help someone who didn’t get to have a box turn up, or who may not feel ‘in their right mind’ right now and needs a reminder to find hope.” When the piece came out, it felt like she had finally buried him.
Then the letters started coming – from people who had felt suicidal and from people whose loved ones had killed themselves, and from her dad’s friends, who had disappeared after his death.
“I went over to meet them, to help them talk about their mental-health issues. And I’ve still got a comedy career, I think. And I don’t think people find me any less funny because of it. And I realise, I’m so bolstered and helped by the men in my life. All the messages, on so many platforms, can be a bit of a punch to the tummy sometimes. But the variety of types of people who write in, like I’m a radio show, absolutely built up my empathy muscle. And it’s allowed me to stop thinking I was the only one with that story…” She is trying very quietly not to cry. “Oh, I hate getting all upset. And this is why I wrote the article because I just get wobbly talking about it. Right…” She takes a dramatic breath. “The true narrative is there are a million different stories, and maybe the one you think is real is not the real story.”
Once, she went to see a psychic and was upset when the woman couldn’t get in touch with her dad. “I’m like,” she snickers, ‘Are you even a real psychic?’ But the psychic replied, ‘Maybe it’s just that your dad’s death doesn’t define you.’ “What if,” Bea thought, then, “I was able to let that go?” Would she still be able to write? She pauses. “These are all realisations I’m having now I’m in my ‘white lady expanding’ stage.” She offers me another bad biscuit, which I eat.
There is a Whatsapp group that consists of, among others, Lena Dunham, Richard Curtis, and Aisling Bea, where the sole topic of conversation is Love Island. “IT IS A COMPLICATED THING AS A FEMINIST AND PERSON WITH A BRAIN AND I KNOW IT IS TRICKERY, BUT IT IS ALSO ANTHROPOLOGY AND TALES AS OLD AS TIME,” she emails me later, caps lock on.
Telly is important to her, in part because of what it reveals about what we need. “I’m not surprised shows like Queer Eye and Marie Kondo are capturing people,” she says, tucking her feet up on to the sofa, “because it’s about communal ideas of help, as well as getting rid of your old shoes. Money isn’t going to fill us up so what’s the thing? Each other. And that sounds cutesy-cutesy, but we can feel it on a big level at the moment. If we’re relying on fucking Boris Johnson to fix things for us, that won’t happen in our lifetime. And it’s awful. It’s fucking awful that Help Refugees has to go over to Calais with a lot of fucking comedians. That people have to take it upon themselves to leave food outside Waitrose to help their fellow man because the government isn’t doing anything about it. But the cavalry are not coming.”
When she left drama school (after an earlier degree in French and philosophy) she expected to be playing Medea within a week. “But as Sharon Horgan always says, waiting around for great female parts doesn’t work. So you have to write them. This idea of the giant parental system looking after us just isn’t happening. So in the interim, we’ve got to step up.” I must have narrowed my eyes, preparing to unleash a gob of cynicism, because she leans in: “Demanding more at a small level means that the bigger people start realising there’s a business in that. And we send the message back up the supply chain. Yeah, petitions don’t work when it’s seven of us. But they might work when there are 200,000 of us. That little girl did that.” She’s talking about Greta Thunberg, of course. “With Repeal there were sweatshirts, with Greta Thunberg there were pigtails!”
With Bea, it’s humour. Apart from the earlier biscuit terrorism, it is very difficult to find a single crack to poke criticism into. I continue to try, because journalism. The appeal of Bea and, with This Way Up, the thing that will no doubt propel her from Dave stalwart to artist (much in the way Catastrophe took Horgan’s subversive voice mainstream) is the way she combines her jollity with that forensic exploration of melancholy. The idea of her “narrative” is one she continues to dissect, and question. “I definitely used to think happiness was like, every night being a night in a nightclub. Every meal is going to be delicious. Every time you have sex, it’s going to be great. No – sometimes it’s just grand. Not living in a mansion but…” she gestures around her home, “living in a house where someone can stay over, if they need to. The aim now is to get to that state of ‘grand’.”
I have drunk a lot of tea, but I leave the recorder running when I go to the bathroom. Transcribing the next day I am treated to a message hidden beneath the interview.
“Just while you’re in the loo,” she whispers, “I do think petitions work. They’re part of a million-pronged approach, of course. And also I think this interview’s gone really well. And I think you’re great. And remind me to talk to you about a retinol that doesn’t dry out your skin. OK, all the best. From Aisling.” That cow.
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