Aisling Bea "I made my second series during the pandemic, and it broke me on every possible level. I think I'm only just coming out of that now. Doing press the last few weeks has been interesting because I think it's something that probably a year ago would have crippled me. I would have needed twice the breaks and half the interviews. It's often the small things that have the greatest impact."
Will Macnab | 29/06/2023
Sat in my London office on an almost too sunny day in June (too sunny to be sitting indoors, that is), Aisling Bea joins me via Zoom call. Making the most of the glorious weather as she strolls outside, we spend the next 45 minutes or so discussing her latest project, her own portrayals of mental health, and even her firm hatred for carrots—an unequivocal declaration she made herself, without a shadow of a doubt, 100% not fabricated. Aisling Bea is an artist who needs no introduction to the world of comedy. Making an indelible mark as a rising star and going on to win the Edinburgh Fringe’s So You Think You're Funny? From there, she quickly became a fan favourite across panel shows with her chatty charisma and quick wit. Not one to become pigeonholed into a single focus, she transitioned into the world of sitcoms in both the UK and the US. Taking her talents one step further, she wrote and starred in her own Channel 4 comedy-drama, This Way Up. Over the last few years, the Kildare-born comic has been expanding even further on both big and small screens. Her latest adventure sees Aisling centre stage as leading role, Rachael, in Coky Giedroyc’s latest film adaptation, Greatest Days. Based on the Take That musical of the same name, Greatest Days takes the band's greatest hits from the past three decades into an uplifting slice of summer escapism. With Greatest Days' recent release just a few days ago, I wanted to delve straight into how Aisling has been doing throughout its release. We jumped into the interview to talk about the film’s premiere. “The premiere was grand, but definitely busy! I have a lovely stylist and team who I’ve worked with for years, so that’s always nice. Those things are really work nights out though, you know? I remember saying this when I won a BAFTA during lockdown.” Jokingly, she adds, “Yeah, don't worry about it.” As Aisling continued, it was clear this was how events like these were meant to really feel. “What made it special was that I could really let it sink in because it was all online. I was in my garden with a sort of broken arm, and ten friends were over. There were no thoughts of interviews, talking to the press, having pictures taken of me with someone there, or bumping into someone from work. It wasn't a work night; it was a day to celebrate. It was such a relief, having been in lockdown for ages that we could even have people in our gardens again.” When back to ‘normality’, despite what is and will always be an amazing celebration, it feels like the magic seems to have been slightly worn off. “The next time around, it becomes a work event. You have a team coming in; there’s hair and makeup—who are lovely—and you're wearing high shoes and suck your tummy in, worried someone's going to take a terrible photo of you that's going to be in the front of something the next day. They become very much work events.” Given the camera-heavy environment and the spotlights on everyone, I ask if she has grown used to being in such situations. “Yeah, and you know how to do it, especially with the comedic part of my career. It means I'm okay with being thrown in, given a microphone, and asked to speak. But there is always this underlying feeling of, ‘Oh God, is there a wrong way to answer this?’ It's not a safe space; it’s a guarded space, put it that way.” As viewers, we often overlook the buildup leading to a film's release and the gap between completing a project and its actual debut. “You create something, and it feels like the job is done. But in reality, you work on something one year, and it won’t be out until the next. You're a whole different person by the time it airs.” Aisling recalls when she saw a trailer for Quiz, a TV drama in which she starred, focusing on Charles Ingram unexpectedly winning the £1,000,000 jackpot on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. “I saw the trailer and thought, ‘Oooh, I want to watch that; that looks good’. I'd forgotten I was in it! I had such a good time filming Quiz, but it was in the middle of promoting This Way Up. I was pushing the first series of that really hard, and during the daytime, I'd go and film with Stephen Frears. I had such a good time, I sort of forgot it was work. It can throw your head. When you're pretending to be someone else, it doesn't always attach to you in a way that maybe writing does.” Aisling is joining me for her last interview on this PR run, and she tells me how the experience has been promoting her starring role. “Yeah, this is my first and only interview this week, so you're getting a good version of me. It’s my very last one too; last week was quite intense. It's been about a year and a half since I've been talking about anything. You know, you're answering the same questions all the time.” Something you never think about is the exhausting process of having to come up with and repeat the same answers multiple times a day, over and over. “Over the last few years, what’s been different has been interviews like these ones. They’re nicer because you're talking to someone, and it's a whole collection. It’s like, 'Okay, there's a nuance there.’ But it’s the clipped interviews that get you. Someone comes in for eight minutes, they film it, and you are constantly thinking, ‘Oh, what version of this clip might they use?’ Everything just gets used as content, which is obviously designed to be much more grab-able or clickbaity.” I'm curious to know if she has experienced such tactics being used on her in the past. “In Ireland, I jokingly mentioned to one of the camera guys during an interview, ‘I've legally banned my age from being mentioned anywhere; are you taking this out? You better edit that out.’ A few days later, I see The Sun published a headline: ‘I banned my age from being mentioned, says Aisling Bea as she fights back at the industry.’ We talked about how there's a younger version of me in Greatest Days, and that’s when I use it as a bit of a filler joke, that’s all. Then suddenly it turns into this big thing. Of course, that's the nature of the beast.” It's a parasitic beast that distorts people's words into attention-grabbing headlines. Even as readers, you read through half a piece before releasing what you were told has been completely twisted. “You know, ‘Aisling Bea reveals what it was like working with Take That, and then halfway through the piece, you reach “Aisling says, Oh, we only met them for 20 minutes. They seemed very sweet.” Or, ‘Aisling Bea slams award ceremonies for not honouring comedy actors’. And the truth is more “Oh, it's a pity the BAFTAs have no supporting comedy actor awards.” “It’s just lying, essentially, about what you said or how you said it. If we talk for 40 minutes and I bring up carrots once. Then this whole thing leads with ‘Aisling Bea talks carrots and nothing else’. You’d think I sound like a fucking mad woman. It’s an environment you're supposed to feel safe in, you know? I understand it's silly, but it’s more the fact I worry about the people who the thing is supposedly about and what they are supposed to think when they see it. I mean, I understand having to try and sell my work, and I do understand most people are at this point where, do you fight it or just try and play ball?” Going back to interviews that try to build a connection with the interviewee, Aisling says, “Those are the ones that are more interesting to read anyway; you don't feel like you've read them a bunch of times already.” Stepping away from frustrating click-baiters, Aisling’s job revolves around constantly embodying different identities, so I ask her whether she finds that she is able to find the time to switch off. “I’m not very good at it. Some people may go to work, then come home and be done with it all. Maybe it’s because of the hours and scatty schedules, but so much of my life is work. I caught myself clenching my jaw so tightly that I ground away a tooth. It seems that being constantly tense has become my comfort zone.” With the exception of next month, she rarely has the time to take any time off; this is the first long break she has had in over a decade. “I can go to random things I don’t normally have time for, like physio appointments, or just taking it slow. If you've made a lifetime of living a certain way, it doesn't just change the next day. It's like a diet of energy or a diet of focus, really. The idea of being unscheduled is just so nice for a while.”
Sympathising with Aisling, I share a moment from a few years ago when a friend of mine told me to go have a bath just to try and relax. I remember responding, confused, ‘Okay, well, what am I supposed to do in the bath? Should I be doing something?’ “Yeah exactly! Is there a checklist of things to accomplish while in the bath? As a freelancer and writer, you're constantly looking for content. You think, ‘Oh, maybe I could write something about baths.’ As a freelancer, what’s the difference between being at work and being on holiday? Ah, it sounds like a joke here, but there is none; you’re always anxious. There’s no time where an idea isn't flowing.” I discover that there is one way to get Aisling to almost wind down—through the magical powers of reality TV. “I watched so much Below Deck and so much Real Housewives. Why I love reality TV so much is because it has nothing to do with me. I just watch it; I’m never going to be in it or try to make it. It's like what we were talking about earlier—what people are looking for is content to fill the space. We've lost our ability to focus, and I'll include myself in that. We need to have hits of dopamine because our attention spans are getting shorter. So, Aisling Bea slams carrots for being too orange when they're supposed to be purple!” This brings the conversation back to Aisling's latest film, Greatest Days, which exudes a cheerful and lighthearted tonality. Sometimes, amongst life’s heaviness, you crave something light. “I think that's why I kind of signed on to it.” Reflecting on reviews of the film and how they have come in all shapes and sizes, she compares the film to a bag of chips. “If someone brought you out for a date and you thought they were going to propose, but they gave you a bag of chips, you'd think, ‘Are you fucking serious?’ Two stars. But if you've had a long day at work on a Friday and someone brings you home a bag of chips, you'd think, 'Marry me now, please.' I can't imagine anything else. I want salt, potatoes, and fry, whatever the taste of fry is. Five stars! And that’s what it is—a comfort food, not a threat to everything we know. It’s an art form in itself to be able to do that and feed people, bringing them a different type of joy through food. Obviously, this is a metaphor, but I haven't had any lunch yet.” There’s a certain snobbery that seeps into all forms of creativity, such as film and music. People often overlook the joy and happiness certain genres bring. After all, isn't that what it's all about? A momentary escape from everything else that's going on. “Take That, Harry Styles, boy bands—they make people throw their arms up in the air. Paul Rudd flew from London, where he was filming Ghostbusters, to America just to watch a Taylor Swift concert with his daughter. He referred to her as a Trojan Horse—someone who can put on a three-hour, beautiful concert, and the kids and young people are throwing their hands up, wiggling, and experiencing pure joy. I think life has taught me that if you're snobbish about these things, it’s probably coming from a place of fear or insecurity, that maybe you're not pursuing your own passion, you know?” I take a moment to express my deep appreciation for Aisling and her own writing in her hit series This Way Up, a show in which she portrays a woman putting her life back together after a nervous breakdown. What’s so beautiful about the show is its sensitive portrayal of mental health. The way in which it accurately captures its complexities, showing both the highs and lows with authenticity and avoiding the trap of presenting it solely as a bleak and hopeless existence. Instead, it beautifully highlights the often-overlooked everyday struggles faced by individuals dealing with mental health issues. “I was asked if I wanted to create a French version of the show. And I had to say no because the pitch included the title translation from This Way Up to Fragile. And I thought, ‘Oh, no’, because if you already think the title is fragile rather than upward, it misses the whole point. It is about starting from a broken place and gradually rebuilding yourself, rather than focusing on someone falling apart.” “I wanted to make the first series like a war, and the second series reflects a state of peace. I wanted to capture the essence of peace by showing the ordinary, the sometimes boring aspects of life, when you’re not the centre of excessive worry anymore. There’s a shift where the people who are caring for you get on with their own lives a bit more.” Continuing our conversation, she shares about something she had written that got made into a pilot in America. “I didn't have any say on one scene that had someone reaching for pills. I was so embarrassed by it because that's how it's shown in the media. They need to show the madness. It’s all shown as the worst outcome, or being completely fine the next day. It is just insulting to the people who are trying to get on with life.” I’m interested to hear more about Aisling’s own mental health and how she feels it has developed over the last few years. “Well, I think it didn't improve because of the pandemic, like the same for everyone. I made my second series during the pandemic, and it broke me on every possible level. I think I'm only just coming out of that now. Doing press the last few weeks has been interesting because I think it's something that probably a year ago would have crippled me. I would have needed twice the breaks and half the interviews. It's often the small things that have the greatest impact. The buildup of things like too many commitments, not having enough time off, missing an appointment and feeling foolish, or simply missing the point. It happens, and it's how you react to these situations that matters.” As comedians, part of your job is to project a specific persona and energy when performing or in character. I'm curious to know whether Aisling feels there is an expectation for comedians to be constantly happy and upbeat. “Personally, I don't feel pressured to be happy all the time. At the end of the day, it’s your job to make other people happy when you're on stage. Perhaps you’d find it more so if you're a funny person in other environments when people expect you to be funny in the office, let's say. If people aren’t entertained, then I haven't done my job well. I feel the pressure to maintain a constant state of being 'on' is more connected to a rising celebrity. People approach you in public, and there's no clear indicator to show whether you're working or not. It's a pity because some days it's an absolute joy when people come up to me—and generally, they are very kind and sweet. Then there are also times when I don't even want to leave the house because I don't want to be looked at. It's like living in a small town; there's a high assumption that a lot of the people in town will know a story about you, but then there are other times you walk into a shop and no one gives a shit or knows who you are.” For Aisling, the key is discovering individualised ways to cope with the anxiety. “Sometimes I go and see the odd psychic, and it can feel almost like attending therapy. It doesn't matter if it's true or not; you just want to hear someone say, ‘Oh my god, it's all going to be okay.’ Whether you believe in it doesn’t really matter. Someone is just offering advice to be cautious of certain things or watch out for situations. It's similar to star signs in that sense.” To finish up our interview, Aisling elegantly ties it all up. “To slowly come full circle, with the film, the idea of it is like, is this Shawshank Redemption? No.” I have, however, seen one person say this is their Citizen Kane. “Is it something people might leave with the sum of its parts making them happier than the details of it? Yes. And that's kind of what psychics are. Someone walks away from it with a sense of reassurance, saying, ‘Hey, listen, you're going to be alright. Maybe keep an eye on that, but you’re okay.’ To be honest, when I got on Zoom, I didn't think I'd be fighting so hard to defend psychics.” Interview Alice Gee Words Will Macnab Photography Charlie Clift Styling Hope Lawrie Makeup Justine Jenkins Hair Narad Kutowaroo Photography Assistants Betty Oxlade-Martin & Oli Spencer