Actress and comedian Aisling Bea talks to Sophie Goddard about love, loss and why she’s definitely not the new Fleabag
Aisling Bea is, in her words, ‘living a circus life’. The writer/actor/comedian is currently in Rome filming Netflix rom-com Love. Wedding. Repeat, starring Sam Claflin, Olivia Munn, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jack Farthing and Freida Pinto (Aisling Bea plays Rebecca, a friend of Eleanor Tomlinson’s character). Apparently, six weeks filming away from home is a doddle. ‘This year has been nuts,’ she explains. ‘I have a house in London – that’s “home” – but a year ago I was in LA. Then I moved back to London, then New York in September. Then I came back in January and now I’m in Rome.’ Most of us would be flagging by this point, but Bea, 35, is impressively chirpy. ‘It definitely feels normal now – when I was 18, I moved to Dublin for four years, then to London. I suppose I haven’t been near the house I was brought up in for 17 years. It’s sort of in my bones.’
Within seconds of talking to Aisling Bea, you realise why she’s so good at what she does – storytelling is in her blood (quite literally. Her grandfather was novelist and poet Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and her great-aunt was playwright Siobhán Ní Shúilleabháin). ‘Making people laugh is the greatest love of my life, and it has been my favourite thing to do since I was a kid,’ she tells me. ‘My cousin showed me a video of me hosting “the cousins talent show”. I swear to God I was nine, stood on a chair in this hotel function room, with 40 aunties, cousins and uncles. My granddad used to love it when we’d get up and sing – it’s not too far off my persona now.’
Brought up in Ireland’s Kildare by her mother, a teacher and former jockey, with younger sister Sinéad, Aisling Bea’s father Brian, a vet, took his own life when she was three years old. Bea (real name Aisling Cliodhnadh O’Sullivan) changed her surname to Bea in memory of him and wrote an article about the experience of loss in 2017. I say how touching I found it. ‘It is very odd when someone talks about it because it is a piece of writing, and I am a writer,’ she says, thoughtfully. ‘On one hand I’m like, “Thank you very much, that is a lovely thing to say about a piece of work”, but on the other it’s like, “I still feel like I am getting my head around it”.’
Aisling Bea’s latest project involves working with some familiar faces. ‘I’ve known Sam [Claflin] from when we did our first audition for drama school together [Claflin and Bea trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art]. Jack Farthing was the year below us,’ she says. The others have become firm friends, too. ‘Eleanor Tomlinson, she’s one my best friends here, we’re like two little peas in a pod. We went to an aerial yoga class this Saturday and it was genuinely one of the worst things I have ever done in my life, like, “This is hell, when will this end?” Eleanor has never done yoga before and the first version she gets is hanging from the air. It made me start laughing uncontrollably while we were upside down.’
‘To say I’m not confident would be ridiculous. I can go on stage in front of 6,000 people. But self-esteem is something I’m trying to work on’
One of the biggest misconceptions about Aisling Bea is that she was a comedian first, who ‘fell’ into acting second. ‘I had been an actor for a long time before stand-up took off,’ she explains. ‘I was an actor my whole career, but it’s only in the past year that people describe it as “taking off”. Something can’t take off when it’s been slowly in the air for 17 years!’ Clearly, she’s not too shabby at it, either. She has just wrapped another Netflix project, Living with Yourself, opposite Paul Rudd, as well as writing and starring in comedy This Way Up with friend Sharon Horgan, in which Bea plays a teacher trying to pull her life back together after ‘a teeny little nervous breakdown’. Other acting credits include Hard Sun, Gap Year, The Fall, Damned, Trollied and Dead Boss. ‘I love pretending to be other people. When I was doing The Fall, I was going through a break-up and remember loving going in, putting on a nurse’s outfit and zipping up as someone else for the day. To get an escape from yourself, in a lovely and creative way.’
Stand-up, though, has been a whirlwind. In 2011, Aisling Bea became the first woman in 20 years to win the So You Think You’re Funny? stand-up competition, before selling out her debut solo show at Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. Bea’s stand-up is observational, sharp and witty, poking fun at both herself and those around her (watch her ‘fat-thin’ routine on YouTube ASAP if you haven’t already). In 2014, she won a British Comedy Award for Best Female TV Comic, and in 2016, landed the first female captain seat in 8 Out Of 10 Cats, appearing on everything from Live At The Apollo to James Corden’s A League Of Their Own and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Alongside her acting projects, she’s currently starring in The Comedy Lineup on Netflix. ‘It went from nought to 60,’ she agrees. ‘I was on TV a year and a half after I started stand-up. I felt like I’d been picked up by a tornado.’
Does she feel pressure meeting people, being the ‘funny’ one? ‘No, actually,’ she says. ‘I’m not a shy person, so I don’t. I was talking to my therapist about this recently – about the difference between confidence and self-esteem. If I were to say I’m not confident that would be ridiculous. I can go on stage in front of 6,000 people and walking into a social situation I’m never nervous. But self-esteem is “what do those 6,000 people think of you?” Someone might have amazing self esteem, but not the confidence to get up there. I think a lot of performers have low self-esteem; I definitely fall into that category. That’s something I’m trying to work on.’
Then there is the small matter of attention on her personal life, something that Aisling Bea (who dated Michael Sheen and was most recently linked to Andrew Garfield) is still navigating. ‘What is odd, is when you meet someone for the first time and you can be Googled. Or they can,’ she considers. ‘We are all becoming more in the public eye, but you do start to care less and less. One great thing about being a stand-up is that I can address it on stage. It must be hard for people who don’t get to use their voice. I can always take that back with a microphone, even for 60 people in a small comedy club. I feel lucky to have that element of control.’
Thankfully, Aisling Bea has the support of her ‘comedy sisters’ – Roisin Conaty, Katherine Ryan and Sharon Horgan. ‘After one panel show went awfully, I rang Katherine and Roisin crying, and they were in terrible moods about it, too,’ recalls Bea. ‘You’re not looking for people to have a bad time, but by connecting over real experiences, you feel calmed. Like, “Oh, I am normal”. We are a very tight community.’ The notion of ‘competition’ between the women doesn’t factor, either. ‘There was a long time where people didn’t believe in the universal law of abundance – that there is no limit to how many women you can put on TV, because TV expands,’ she explains. ‘When there was a limit to TV and there were too many shows, Netflix got developed. When Netflix got overwhelmed, YouTube developed. Then Facebook TV started. There is no limit to how much space there is, because if you make a story people want to watch, they’ll find it. I’m not the new Fleabag, Fleabag is not the new Girls, Girls is not the new Sex And The City – they are all separate things, and there can be many. Maybe it’s because I grew up with women, but I really believe in an abundance of women.’ Amen to that.
This Way Up will air on Channel 4 in August, and Living With Yourself will be on Netflix later this year.