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Aisling Bea: ‘Bury me in a coffin made out of potato waffles’

<span>‘The idea of “difficult women” is still so prevalent and problematic’: Aisling Bea.</span><span>Photograph: Kate Peters/Contour by Getty Images</span>
‘The idea of “difficult women” is still so prevalent and problematic’: Aisling Bea.Photograph: Kate Peters/Contour by Getty Images

Aisling Bea, 39, was born Aisling O’Sullivan in Kildare. After training at Lamda and landing comic roles in the likes of Cardinal Burns and Dead Boss, she became an award-winning standup and panel-show regular. She took the stage name Bea in tribute to her late father, Brian. She created and starred in the comedy-drama series This Way Up, about mental health and sisterhood, for which she won a Bafta, and has appeared in The Fall, Quiz, Doctor Who and Smothered. She now appears in Channel 4’s romantic drama Alice & Jack, starring Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson.

What appealed to you about Alice & Jack?
It was exactly what I was in the mood for. On my first day on the job, Andrea Riseborough [who stars in the show and is its executive producer] had put Post-Its all over the inside of my car saying: “Good luck!” “We love you!” “We can’t believe we have you!” I was like, how does this incredible, Oscar-nominated actress have the time to write me notes? It came along at a point when I needed a boost, work-wise. Also, I’d just done the all-singing, all-dancing Take That movie Greatest Days and I liked the idea of sitting down for a lot of my scenes [laughs].

With shows like One Day and Alice & Jack, are we seeing a return of TV romance?
I hope so. That’s my wheelhouse. When I was writing This Way Up, I remember thinking: why am I so addicted to Real Housewives and Below Deck? I realised we just love watching people interacting. I always felt like my job was to make This Way Up more interesting than Real Housewives. Just two people chatting is enough. It’s why we listen to podcasts and the radio. We enjoy human stories and struggles.

How did you create chemistry with Domhnall Gleeson?
We bounce off each other like a pair of tennis players, so that was easy. My character, Lynn, wasn’t originally written as Irish but when I got the job, I drew on that experience of being new in London and meeting another Irish person. It’s like you’re part of a club already. You have a shared culture and feeling of home, so you just jump in straight away. I fell in friend-love with Domhnall – make sure you put the word friend in there! – and we’ve become really close.

You do lots of acting with your character’s baby daughter. How was that?
Actor babies are hard to find because you have to cast from a maternity ward, which I always find funny. The idea of a casting agent going round a maternity ward like: “Hi, I know you’ve just had a C-section but I was just wondering if you’d ever thought of getting her into performing? She’s got a great face!” We had a grand time doing all our happy scenes but when the relationship between mine and Domhnall’s characters wasn’t going so well, the baby seemed to pick up on the tension and cried a lot, which I found viscerally upsetting. I’m not sure who’s actually stressed in those scenes, me or the character.

Claire Foy looked like an angel on the red carpet; I hadn’t really washed my hair. I was like: ‘Oh, Aisling, you old farmer!’

You were recently in Monica Heisey’s Smothered as the restaurateur Gillian. Was she fun to play?
Huge fun. One reason I said “Yes, please!” was how much I adored Monica’s novel, Really Good, Actually. I love it when you get fleshed-out supporting characters who convey a whole backstory in just a few lines. That’s the case in both Alice & Jack and Smothered. We gave Gillian a little edge of genuine heartbreak as well as humour, which was a joy to play.

And in one episode the Observer’s own Jay Rayner made a cameo at Gillian’s restaurant launch party…
Yes! I think it was satisfying for foodies to see Jay Rayner and Gizzi Erskine come into this fictional restaurant.

I hear you had an outfit nightmare at the premiere of All of Us Strangers?
Andrew Scott invited me and was like: “Darling, just wear whatever.” I didn’t realise it was the actual premiere. I’d had a day bombing around town, so wore my most comfortable clothes, then got to the red carpet and I was like: “Jeez, this is a lot bigger than I thought.” Claire Foy looked like an angel gliding up the red carpet, while I hadn’t really washed my hair. I was like: “Oh, Aisling, you old farmer!”

Do you think Irish actors and Irish culture are having a moment?
I do. Given our population size, we’re not doing badly. There’s definitely been a shift in the last decade or two. There’s a confidence in our own accents, our own storytelling ability and our presence around the world. An Irish person rocking up somewhere isn’t the craziest thing now. Cillian Murphy, who’s been grafting for 25 years, now has enough status to be attached to massive movies. Look at Nicola Coughlan, who’s the lead in the new season of Bridgerton. We haven’t won the lottery, we worked for this. We deserve to be here.

You seemed deeply affected by Sinéad O’Connor’s death last year. Was she an important figure for you?
Massively. A lot of Irish women were very moved by her loss. The church, the patriarchy and the media tried to drive her into the ground repeatedly over the course of her lifetime. She had an extraordinary career, but the joy of it was robbed from her. Sinéad was a beautiful person and so ahead of her time. Culturally, she represented the bridge of time between old and new Ireland. The idea of “difficult women” is still so prevalent and problematic. Everything she did was seen as “difficult”, like standing up for black artists before allyship was even a thing. All kinds of Irish women who didn’t get to have a whole existence saw themselves in Sinéad.

Do people still contact you about This Way Up and the mental health conversations it opened?
Very much. Not in a big, jazzy way. People reach out quietly and delicately. Waiters write messages on receipts. There’s one I’ve kept in my diary. Even thinking about it now, I find it incredibly moving. You hope to connect with people but it really does floor me. It’s so personal, that private pain. Those messages aren’t always easy to receive, but I wouldn’t swap them for anything.

Do you have more writing plans?
I’m trying to bang out a new show at the moment. I’m also writing a comedy film. I mainly write in bed. I’ve never a met a writer who goes: “Every day I sit at a desk, work 9 to 5 without panic, then hand it in on time.” I write in bed, eating popcorn. I enjoy my own company so much, I have popcorn to watch myself!

You recommend books under the hashtag #aislingsbookclub. What would you suggest at the moment?
Over the years, you kind of work out your demographic. My followers are lots of people called Niamh and Saoirse, plus voracious readers. I’d love everyone to read Hanako Footman’s stunning debut novel, Mongrel. It’s about three British-Japanese women, set across different timelines. You can imagine it as a Chloé Zhao-directed, Oscar-winning movie. The way she writes blew me away. It reminded me of reading Sally Rooney for the first time, her voice is so unique.

You’re a vocal activist on social media, whether it’s about Gaza, the fight to repeal anti-abortion law in Ireland, or food poverty. Is it important for you to balance creative work with campaigning?
I do take the use of my social media voice quite seriously for someone whose job is admittedly sometimes “a clown”. If I can use my platform to fundraise or highlight the work of people who have less access to an audience, then I’d feel sort of sick with myself if I didn’t. But it’s also finding the balance of how many causes you can amplify while ensuring the intent is to engage people, not just make yourself look good. I hope it’s of some use. It’s so minimal compared to the real work people are doing out there.

How do you relax when you’re not working or reading?
I love cooking. I especially love saving Instagram recipes, then still cooking the exact same thing I always do.

I know you are a big fan of potato waffles. How’s your consumption at the moment?
I’ve had my head turned. There’s an Irish company making similar things with cauliflower and sweet potato. You just put them in the toaster. But I’ll be a potato waffle fan till I die. Bury me in a coffin made out of potato waffles.

When did you last cry?
This sounds weird but I got two massive injections in my shoulder last week which reduced my pain for the first time in two-and-a-half years. I got knocked off my bike during the pandemic. I’ve been in severe pain and had chronic migraines since. It affected my ability to write, to type, to hug, to hold my niece. But I recently had shoulder reconstruction and intense physio, then these anti-inflammatory jabs. I woke up, realised I wasn’t in pain and wept with happiness. So thank you to the doctors and the nurses.

  • Alice & Jack airs on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 9pm on Channel 4. The full series is available to stream