Aisling Bea was raised by wolves. And by wolves, I mean women. Her mother raised her, she helped raise her sister, and her eight aunts were there along the way to seal the feminine deal. There also may have been a nun or two running around in there.
Aisling was born in County Kildare, just south of Dublin. Her Irish blood is thick, and her accent is thicker. She’s got the charm, the aggression, and the sudden softness that make up any proper Irish woman. The Irish are filled with the spirit – holy and whiskey. It’s the paradox they’ve got down.
That paradox is exactly where Aisling Bea lives, between mundanity and magic. Take a moment to compare one of her stand-ups to the essay she wrote about her father’s suicide. She’s unafraid to go there, or rather, unafraid to be in between. She proves time and time again that humour and hurt don’t live so far apart.
Her work is an invitation to the space we don’t have words for. Or maybe rather what we only have words for. You decide…
Square Mile: What’s your favourite quote?
Aisling Bea: I don’t know who said this but, “No one will ever love you the way you want to be loved.” It’s the idea that you want to be loved a certain way but you have to accept how people can or are loving you.
Then I have this one on my board here by Mark Twain which goes, “20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did.” So I don’t regret murdering that guy, because 20 years from now, I’ll only be disappointed by the things I didn’t do! Ha!
SM: Best Irish slang word?
AB: Gee, which is Irish for vagina. So like “Ah! My gee!” That sort of thing. There’s a street in East London called Gee Street and Irish people will always go there to take a picture under it, and that’s how you know that person’s just moved here.
SM: What’s the best thing your mum has ever said to you?
AB: Oh my god. “Fuck it.” She said that to me once when I was really upset and getting in my head about what people thought and she just said, “Aisling, sometimes, you have to just think ‘Fuck it. Just fuck it. Fuck it!’” And she’s not a massive curser – she doesn’t have a filthy potty mouth – but it summed up how I felt. She’s given me huge bits of advice, and is a very kind loving person, but in that moment I really needed someone to say, ‘Fuck the lot of them!’ – and she did.
SM: Best thing you’ve said to your mum?
AB: “I bought a house.” I realise that’s a real privilege and something not everyone gets to do, but I got to tell my mum: “I bought a house.” She was here to view it and give her sign off on it. She was just so proud of me. It’s a sort of pride that parents can understand.
It can be hard to see success in creative arts – in writing or acting. But to have bought a house off the back of it is something tangible, and to have been able to do it on my own is something I’m truly proud of.
SM: What is the first thing you bought for the house?
AB: I have too many bits of shit. I’ve sort of become a hoarder. I have way too many plants that are outgrowing the house.
SM: What’s the oldest thing in your house?
AB: My baby blanket. The blanket that my mum brought me home in from the hospital.
SM: What’s something you should never say to any woman?
AB: ‘I don’t usually find women funny, but...’
SM: Best pick-up line?
AB: My current boyfriend asked me out without any pick-up lines and it was so nice. He came up to me and just said, “By the way, let me know if you want to go for a drink sometime.” This also gave me an out; it was just cards on the table.
SM: What’s something new to your life that you’ve recently been enjoying?
AB: Below Deck’s new season is a bit of a stretch. I’ve been with Below Deck on Bravo for a year now. It gives me so much joy. I love the intricacies. I love when they show the parts of the boat where the washing up liquid is, and where the crew have their sandwiches between the drama. It’s like, ‘I’d kill you if I had the chance!’ and then it’s like, ‘What time are the sandwiches?’ I think that’s how I live my life, between mundanity and drama.
SM: What is it that you most like talking about in interviews?
AB: I love questions I don’t normally get asked. I love the weird shit. I know some people are like, ‘Why am I getting asked about what I would be if I were a cooking utensil when I’ve just done Shakespeare?’ But the idea that I’d get asked ‘What’s the oldest thing in your house?’ is enlivening.
In the Observer Magazine, they do a questionnaire that I always read and you get the most interesting answers. When did you last cry? What is a song you’d like played at your funeral? You get to see to so much more about a person.
I love Desert Island Discs on Radio 4. They have some incredible interviews. It’s ‘What five songs and why you would bring them to a desert island?’ You have to listen to the Tom Hanks one – it’s fascinating.
SM: Well, now you have to tell us…
AB: My five songs would be: the 12-hour Brown Noise for Sleep podcast. Just kidding. Maybe. I would bring ‘The Island’ by Bob Brady because it reminds me of Ireland and my dad. I would bring the Beyoncé remix of ‘Mi Gente’ that she did at Coachella. That song always makes me get up and dance. I would probably bring a Hozier song, because he’s my friend. There’s a song called ‘Movement’ that I love. Then I’d bring the Whitney Houston Kygo remix of ‘Higher Love’ because it reminds me of my good friend Ginger Gonzaga who is an American actress that I love very much. That song got us through a bad winter. And then, Dolores O’Riordan’s ‘Dreams.’ That’s my five.
SM: Song that you have on repeat right now?
AB: Oh! It’s Hozier’s new song Francesca. He’s one of my besty pals and his new album Unreal Unearth is absolutely stunning.
I also went through a bit of a Beyoncé binge, and my Spotify wrap last year told me that I was in the top 5% of listeners.
SM: Can you tell me one of your favourite memories from your childhood?
AB: I remember my uncle bought a car garage and all the cousins under the age of ten helped run it at one stage. Now, we were selling cigarettes, we were filling up cars with petrol, we were taking cash. I remember my sister had to get one of the customers to come around and grab the cigarettes because her arms weren’t long enough to reach.
My cousin Greachán started collecting hubcaps. He thought it would be funny to start stealing them from some of the cars. He was around 15 at the time. And these cars were on their way to different cities, so they weren’t coming back. I remember when my uncle found them he was like, ‘What have you done?’ And we were just like, ‘We don’t know. We’re just tiny business people!’
SM: Favourite place you’ve ever travelled to?
AB: I recently travelled to Sydney, and went to a beach called Manly Beach that was so clear I couldn’t get over it. The water was clearer than my bath water. I couldn’t believe that in such a packed city with loads of boats and everything that the water could be so clean.
SM: What was your favourite thing about growing up in Ireland?
AB: It was the loudness, the over-familiar loudness of people. A lot of my friends are Irish, Caribbean… people who come from louder cultures. The levels are just different.
It felt a bit like coming from a country of ravers into a classical opera environment.
SM: When you moved from Ireland to London, what was that experience like?
AB: I love London. I love England. I found myself in this country. I found out a lot more about myself and became an adult here, and I’ve gone out with far too many people from this country. I’ve felt very held by London. But I think I just got a culture shock initially.
A lot of that was being from one place all my life, and not being from a country that didn’t have loads of different people in it. London has given me so much more perspective, it’s given me a brilliant life.
SM: Do you embrace your Catholic background?
AB: What’s been good is I’m part of the group of people where things changed. I’m not sure how much damage it did to me in the ways that would have for my mother or my grandmother. I think of all the people who didn’t get their abortions or who hid their kids in shame or didn’t know that there was absolutely nothing wrong with them if they were gay. I don’t think I had that.
I grew up in a bit of a microcosm. My country was religious but my family wasn’t in the grasps of it. My mother is certainly spiritual, and I am too. I believe in people, and manifesting, and connections and stuff like that. And Santa Claus, obviously, my guy. But it didn’t fuck me up the way that it could have, or has done, other people.
SM: When you were little, what did you love first – comedy or performing?
AB: Performing, always. That’s still true. I don’t really like comedy. I just like making people laugh. I’m a big fan of reality TV.
I really like things about daily lives. I remember reading an interview with Andy Cohen who runs the Real Housewives franchise. He was saying that the one thing they have to leave in the show is everyone’s food order. He said you can’t leave it out. They might be in the middle of a fight because someone’s slept with someone’s husband but then they’ll be like, ‘Can I have the Cobb salad, and can you put the dressing on the side?’ They’ll go into this detail about the order and they always leave it in because people love the intricacies. It’s something I use a lot as a writer, little things can reveal character traits.
SM: I’ve heard you say you really wanted to be a serious actress – why did you want to be taken ‘seriously’?
AB: For me, a serious actress could be doing comedy. But it was about having a serious career in acting. Acting is getting someone to suspend their belief. There can be a risk when people get to know you and your voice so well as yourself, that they’ll stop believing. That’s always been my fear.
SM: Bravest thing you’ve ever done?
AB: Write the essay about my dad’s death.
SM: What made you write it?
AB: It was twofold. One was the conscientious side of the issues. The other was getting a little bit more famous, or ‘known’ for want of a better word… maybe more ‘interviewed’ than ‘famous’. I realised that I had this big thing I was trying to avoid all the time, like a secret and I was so deathly afraid I would get asked a question and someone else would write it without my words, or someone would take my story, which is so personal to me, and turn it into a quote.
Even after my article, people would take bits of it and squash it together in weird ways, and I felt like I wanted to run to their house and punch them in the head. You don’t get to take the nuance of something so nuanced and misquote it. It has an effect on my family, on other families. I had been hiding from the subject matter – for the amount of time I could go around saying ‘Hey guys, we should talk about feelings and mental health,’ yet I was not addressing something that was so huge for me. So, reason one was to get ahead of the idea by making sure it was in my own words.
The second was to practise what I preach. I always felt that the narrative around suicide is like you can’t have a joke in the same sentence or it ruins the conversation, or it has a maudlin quality to it. I wanted to make an article that was readable and funny, and for people to get to the end of it and not feel devastated, but hopeful. I grew up where there was nothing to read about it. There was no knowing what it was, what people do, or how people grieve. There was no access to any information.
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SM: What were the most memorable responses to that essay?
AB: I still get so many. What surprised me was the number of female stories. I expected the male. I didn’t expect the reaction, I still don’t. It still gets reposted places on World Suicide Day. People talk to me about it, and I sometimes have to put up a bit of a barrier because it can ruin your whole day. You wouldn’t just ask someone about their divorce if you knew about it. Just because you’ve turned something into a piece of writing doesn’t make it a product, it’s still your life.
But the variety of people that got in touch was what really stuck with me. We all know the male rates; the women were the ones that were surprising. But all of it – the sheer amount – was the takeaway.
SM: What do you think is missing from the conversations around mental health today?
AB: Solutions. People actually doing anything. You can talk, and talk, and talk but unfortunately there is a lack of access to anything free that people can do. I think that people like to talk and post, but what are you actually doing about it within your own work space? I’ve seen a lot of mental health initiatives, and very few of them are things that I know people would actually use.
We need to keep trying to see what works. And rather than focusing on mental health, focusing on mental wellness. If I’m just like, ‘You need to get healthy because you’re sick.’ You’re like, ‘Er, OK.’ But if I’m like, ‘How are you going to live well?’ Then you’d address everything. Probably being with good friends, probably eating something nice tonight. You’re focusing on wellness, rather than not being sick. If we move towards, ‘Do people feel happy to come to work?’ that’s probably going to do more good than, ‘Oh, we’re going to do a big mental health week in the office!’
I don’t totally know what the answer is. But I know people don’t have access to services. People knowing that they’re safe does a lot of the hard work, and people do not know they’re safe any more. People don’t know when they’re going to be able to eat, or turn their electricity on or pay their bills. Then the government will put money towards something else, when really, is that the answer?
SM: What was the thing you most wanted to say with This Way Up around mental health?
AB: Just to show someone funny, struggling, and getting to the other side of it. I wanted to show someone on the other side. It wasn’t about going down hill. Even with the title. Someone wanted to do a different version of it and translated it to ‘Be Careful, Fragile’. I was like, ‘No, no, that’s not it.’ First of all, from just your translation of the title, you don’t get that it’s about going forward and showing that you can go forwards and up. It’s not about being broken, it’s about rebuilding yourself. It’s about going in with that intent with every scene. It’s about recovery.
There’s a quote from Morgan Freeman from the movie Deep Impact, where he’s the president, and he goes, “The waters took so many things, but the waters went away.” Everything is about this idea of receding. This thing came and punched us, but then it went away. Then the water went away, and we’re still here. You’re still in the game, so keep playing.
See Aisling Bea in the new Take That movie Greatest Days, in cinemas from 15 June. Seasons 1 and 2 of This Way Up are available now to stream on All 4, channel4.com