Exclusive: Aisling Bea talks insomnia, nervous breakdowns and This Way Up

Posted by for People

Comedian and actor Aisling Bea is bringing her unique and vital take on life and mental health to the small screen. 

“What I like to do is find tiny holidays within a day. A free biscuit is like a tiny holiday.”

I’m two minutes into a coffee and conversation with comedian and actor Aisling Bea, 35, and she can’t contain her joy about the little piece of shortbread that’s come with her latte.

Every interview I’ve read with Bea says how talkative she is; they’re not wrong. She’s open and great fun to be around. She is, as my mum would say, a Chatty Cathy.

But it’s coupled with a steely ambition and talent. This month, the excellent sitcom she has both written and stars in launches on Channel 4. This Way Up is about Aine, an English teacher who is trying to put her life back together after a nervous breakdown, and her sister Shona, played by Sharon Horgan.

Irish-born Bea is a classically trained actor who decided to try her hand at stand-up in 2011. It was, to be blunt, a raging success and she went on to win the prestigious So You Think You’re Funny? competition in 2012 before guesting on every TV panel show in existence.

This year is hers for the taking, with a role in a major Netflix show coming this autumn, Living With Yourself alongside Paul Rudd, and Love, Wedding, Repeat, a Netflix film she has just made in Italy with Freida Pinto and Eleanor Tomlinson.

“We got a bit sick of the pasta so our favourite restaurant in Rome for five weeks was the sushi place next to our hotel. Our joke was always: I’d open the door and say ‘when in Rome’ and we’d go in and have our sushi.”

One thing I found particularly interesting about This Way Up is that Aine has been through some tough times, yet we don’t find out why. Is that purposeful?

Often with mental health, people go, “There has to be a cause”. People need to know ‘that’s the why’. But we’re such complex, messy little bags of meat. Everyone has their flaws and weirdness. This isn’t a show about someone falling apart. There are loads of amazing shows about people who break down, and by the end it’s like, “What now?” I wanted this to be hopeful, that things will get better, but it’s graft. You talk about physio with a body. But if you’re in any way not well and recovering from something it takes the same amount of physio.

You described the show as your baby. What is it like putting that baby into the world?

It’s like putting a picture of your baby on Instagram and there’s going to be some people go, “Is this your baby? It looks like it’s got a football head,” and you’re like, “Oh my god, but I still love my baby but fuck off.” At this stage I’m very used to people [online] telling me they love me and they want to kill me at the same time, it rolls off me. Mhairi Black the politician made a lovely speech where she said: “Why should we get used to putting up with [abuse]?” Which made me think, ‘Yes maybe I have done that’. Because you do get used to it. I hope maybe girls who are 15 years younger than me don’t fucking put up with it and change the law.

What is the feeling you get when someone laughs at something you’ve written or said?

It’s totally addictive, it is a soul food. And no one looks more attractive than when they laugh. If you can make an audience forget they’re supposed to look a certain way, and they do a big laugh and give themselves a double chin, it’s like: I’ve made you forget.

You gig a lot as well as writing and all your acting projects. Are you a workaholic?

I’m giving myself tiny holidays with a biscuit! What do you think? The biggest thing in terms of the show and mental health for me is when to stop and focus on sleep.

I’ve had insomnia for about nine years. I read Arianna Huffington’s book on sleep and one thing she spoke about is how being “very busy” is a medal of honour rather than going, “Oh, no, I sleep eight hours a night,” which we need to function. I definitely got a bit of burnout; I didn’t realise things like having weekends and evenings enable you to do your job better. It’s a false economy, to live like that. But I love what I do so bloody much. Sometimes I think I could go on a holiday, but if I can do a job that would be nicer.

What do you do to deal with your insomnia?

CBD oil is the first thing that has helped cure it. It tastes like absolute arsehole, but if I was analysing things too much [at night] thinking: ‘Oh my god I had an interview with Helen, did I speak too much?’ It helps you wind away. It lets you go to sleep yourself, whereas a tablet forcibly knocks you out.

Does reading help too?

I have this book called A Poem A Day. It’s really good, because I’m getting my eyes lasered in a few weeks, and I can’t read much at night, especially after being on the computer all day so I just read a little poem. There’s this lovely poem I have as my screensaver by John Masefield called An Epilogue. It’s all about being surprised in life when you think things are going badly. “I have seen flowers come in stony places and kind things done by men with ugly faces, and the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races, so I trust, too.”

So, you enjoy poetry?

I do actually. That book is good because it’s tiny little reflections. And then there are poets like Rupi Kaur who’s really radical. I discovered her book in New York. I’m doing a Netflix show, out in the autumn, and they flew me over to New York for my chemistry recall, and I’d had a breakup that last summer. I’ve been an actor for 17 years and I’ve always been the person who’s down to the last few but ultimately doesn’t get it. I couldn’t believe that I was the person who someone goes, “Yeah fly her out”.

I was early for the audition so went to a shop and saw Rupi Kaur’s book of poetry, which was little snippets about break-ups, and this amazing jacket. I thought, ‘If that audition goes well, I’m going to come back and buy this book and the jacket’. That was my book in New York when I moved there. Sometimes when my brain is too busy to read, just a tiny little story about that size feels manageable. And every time I put the jacket on, it’s the ‘this is the you will get the job jacket’.

You were a vocal supporter of Repeal the 8th and have talked about the situation for women in Northern Ireland on social media. Is enough being done?

Northern Ireland doesn’t have access to abortion or gay marriage despite being part of the UK, and people forget about that. It’s a British issue but loads of English people have no idea what’s going on in Northern Ireland. It’s always like a sad cousin in the corner but Northern Ireland is the crux of whether Brexit will happen happily or not. The only thing on television that has anything to do with [Northern Ireland] is Derry Girls. And it’s a fucking disgrace. What’s it going to take for people to start going, “Right let’s explore this”? People are so far behind, it’s almost scary.

On a different note, I know you’re a fan of Love Island, let’s discuss…

I’m in a WhatsApp group with Scarlett Curtis, Deborah Frances-White. Lena Dunham’s on it. We had a screening of the show the other Sunday after a show I did at the Royal Albert Hall and Hannah Gadsby came. Hannah has never seen the show and was asking about the premise. “Well Hannah they have to sleep in a bed together until someone else couples up and then another person comes and then they can swap each other round.” It was hilarious. It was also the night Craig David went in to DJ and I was saying, “Hannah, wouldn’t it be really funny if they sent you in to do Nanette for the Love Islanders?”

This Way Up will air on Channel 4 at 10pm on Thursday 8 August. Aisling Bea will be appearing at Stylist Live LUXE on Saturday 9 November

Photography: Joseph Sinclair 

Images: Instagram

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