This Way Up, the first series written by Irish comedian and actress Aisling Bea, follows Aine, a woman who’s reacclimating to her day-to-day life after being in rehab for a nervous breakdown, and her sister Shona, played by Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan. We don’t know quite what led Aine to her nervous breakdown, but we do know that she’s still not doing very well. The most remarkable aspect of the show is perhaps how few hard facts we know about her condition. We don’t know her diagnosis, her prescription, or even whether or not she’s told her friends what happened. Aine performs contentedness for everyone around her, including her sister, who she’s emotionally dependent on. The two spend most of their free time together fooling around, with Aine implicitly reassuring Shona that she’s okay by constantly making jokes. But once she’s alone, she struggles to maintain that same positivity. This dynamic goes both ways, though — when they’re apart, Shona can’t help but track Aine’s every move on Find My Friends.
The show is made endlessly entertaining by Bea’s understanding of humor as a necessary tool for moving through life as someone with mental-health issues. Her character oscillates between cheery and desperately disappointed in herself, but even in moments that skew toward the latter, when other shows have often opted to tug on viewer’s heartstrings, Bea still goes for the laugh. Ultimately, this rings truer to the experience of a lot of depressives: Making light out of small things makes depression a lot more bearable. Ahead of the show’s release on Hulu today, Vulture spoke with Bea about writing nuanced relationships, how watching reality shows like The Real Housewives prepared her for This Way Up, the average person’s experience of mental-health difficulties, and her love of stand-up.
When you started writing the show, were you intentionally trying to make something about mental health?
No, not at all. It started purely as [being about] family and the relationship between sisters. I just realized what I loved watching was sometimes reality TV, with really deep relationships between women, like The Real Housewives and Love Island — also shows like Transparent where there are family dynamics, and you don’t need to be in that family to know their little nuances and nitpicks at each other, and to know that you can’t leave family. For me that was the driving force: the two sisters, and that language between sisters.
Sometimes I was like, God, I thought that was going to happen quicker. Hurry up! I’ve been writing for so many years and waiting to get a TV show off the ground. I remember one of my friends recently was getting a wooden floor — this may seem like an absolute side turn, but to make the wood really nice you just had to wait for it. Time made it better. I actually am glad that I didn’t get a show sooner and that this took a bit of time from when we actually got the original script commissioned and then made a pilot. Months later after the pilot, we finally got the show commissioned, and after we got it commissioned it took months. Each of those [delays helped]: I heard other conversations, and I gigged with all types of people, and I traveled around the world. You just start hearing all kinds of conversations, and it gives you a bit of space to not change your view but give it a bit more depth. The mental-health thing came in naturally as another layer.
How did adding that layer about mental health to your character come about?
It happened a lot more organically. I liked the idea of seeing people with all of their messiness, and that who you are to one person might be very different from who you are to someone else. At one stage, we had versions of the script where it was way further along, and then just in terms of storytelling, I was like, “I think we need to open with checking out from the rehab facility. I think we need to physically see it; the audience needs to see it.” From then on, you don’t need to have as heavy-handed of an approach.
There was an early script where we saw her taking her tablets, and I kind of never wanted to show that. It’s very purposeful that there’s no therapy scenes in it — you only see the one at the very end, and it’s not about a relationship with a therapist. I didn’t want to diagnose her. I can’t tell you I went out like, Today, I’m going to change the way we look at things! People switch off [when something is written like that] because you become a bit of a priest at a pulpit. Stand-up really affects my writing as a fiction writer because you can really gauge when people switch off in the moment. When I’m onstage and I say, “It’s important to talk about mental health!” you can see people go, Okay, I’ll get a beer now, or it feels a bit like a TED Talk, and stand-up isn’t a TED Talk.
I was thinking about how you never see anything about prescriptions, or any therapy scenes throughout, but it’s about how depression can affect your relationships. That’s a lot more realistic to me.
Yeah, and how it can lift you up and crash you. For me, the first episode is a testament to if you’re doing well, sometimes you really need everything to go right. There’s that saying, “You’re only six steps away from homelessness,” so you ideally want to make your life 15 steps away from homelessness. So many of us don’t protect our sleep, our nutrition, how much we connect with people, how much of a break we give ourselves, how hard we are on ourselves. It’s a multipronged approach to get well and stay well and stay with yourself. Sometimes it’s not always therapy, or vitamins, or your medication.
One of the biggest things I realized when I was in America is how medicated it is as a society. I’d say the proportion of medical advertising is maybe 70 percent more in America than what gets advertised in magazines or TV shows. The idea that you could fix yourself with a tablet is problematic to me. It’s multipronged: You do need to talk to people, you do need to take your tablets, but tablets aren’t enough if you’re eating shit in the evening. I think sometimes you could disconnect from [a character] if you think, She has OCD! or She has cancer! rather than thinking about how going through any [health issue] could affect your relationships. I actively didn’t put in tablets, diagnosis, or therapy scenes for that reason.
The therapy scene the show does have at the end is not even what you would think of as a typical therapy scene. It doesn’t explain what is troubling her.
The show is a work of fiction. There are bits of my life in it, but I don’t go into what bits are real and what bits aren’t because I want it to stay as a work of fiction. But if I was to say one thing, I think the last scene is kind of the most connected to me. It’s me speaking in some ways to the audience and the people watching, as a sort of, “Ah! Keep going.” In Fleabag, the way Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] speaks directly to us, or in some shows you can sense that someone’s speaking to the audience, that’s the closest [I’ve come to it] within the type of shows I’ve written. I wanted to be very plain.
Do you think it’s easier to write about someone with mental-health issues for TV than in stand-up?
No. I suppose one fed the other because I gig every week. I wasn’t [thinking of it as writing about mental health]. I was writing the character, and one of the parts of her is that she isn’t well. It’s almost like if you’re writing a story about people who are traveling: It’s not about the car and the gas station; it’s about Route 66; it’s about what’s happening to the people in the car and how they relate to each other. But it’s not about, “Oh, you should really know some road details,” but knowing that bumps happen. There are garages, sometimes you might run out of gas, and that serves the story and the characters. That’s how I feel about mental health. It’s the road and the car; it’s not the actual people.
If you look at Real Housewives of New York — yes, I’ll mention it again — they have so many issues going on, and their issues make their relationships entertaining. You can see the girls and the boys on Love Island who have daddy issues, and it’s not a show about daddy issues, but essentially it is because they’re all falling for bad men, or falling in with good women, or falling in with bad women or good women. It’s an undercurrent that you can see, and about gender and respect for women. That’s actually the huge foundation of shows like Love Island, but it’s then very entertaining people in bikinis doing it.
What’s it been like being in charge of a show, as someone who has been an actor for a pretty long time now?
I absolutely loved it. All the things you know are wrong, or you don’t like — when you’re an actor and you’re on set, anything you want to change is almost impossible to. There are things I found really important that might not have been at the fore for Sharon [Horgan] and Clelia [Mountford, the heads of Merman, the production company that produced This Way Up], but are really important to me. We made a green set, and we got our certificate from BAFTA, so it was certified green and a plastic-free set. My sister designed the costumes, and she publishes this thing called the Costume Directory, which she does with BAFTA, to make the costume world more ecofriendly because it’s naturally a very wasteful world.
TV and film kind of land somewhere for a day and leave a plastic trail. People are only working with each other for two months; you don’t necessarily get a run at putting your ideals forward. So I can go on a stage as a stand-up, or say as an actor, “We need more representation for women, for nonwhite people. We need to have a more environmentally friendly policy on set,” but what can you do? You’re just an actor chatting away and then going and pretending to be a clown or something. It’s very hard, whereas with this, in the preproduction stage, that’s where those conversations happen. Suddenly I could actually make a difference since I was in the driving seat. You can change things in a bigger way. It feels more real and important.
I heard you say in an interview that you think it’s an Irish sensibility to put death and humor right next to each other. Did you have any hesitancy when you realized it was going to get to American audiences directly on Hulu?
For me, America is less worrying than Britain. I moved to the U.K. when I was 21 to go to drama school, and I found a real culture shock. I couldn’t tell you what it is, but Ireland and England, we approach things very differently. I felt like I was always doing something, but I didn’t know what it was, that wasn’t totally kosher. I just couldn’t totally work it out. It’s almost like coming into a house where everyone always takes off their shoes and you kind of walk straight in with your boots on. You just don’t know, no one says anything, but you know you’re doing something wrong. I do not feel that in America. I started going out to L.A. five years ago, and I often think if I’d arrived in America when I was 21, I don’t think I would have ever left, and I think a lot of Irish people feel that. For me, I’ve been more worried about the accents and people not being able to understand our accents clearly enough, because there are more Irish people probably in Britain than there would be on American TV. They’re more used to listening to us.
You have a couple of big upcoming roles that’ll be released this fall. Do you hope to continue to do stand-up along with acting and writing?
Oh, yeah! I’ve hired myself for This Way Up, which is a bit of an egotistical move, but who knows how many series that could run for. You’re always waiting to get hired as an actor, but the one thing I know is that I’ll do stand-up as long as Joan Rivers did, without a doubt. My greatest love is not doing stand-up for TV — that’s sort of a career thing, like the Netflix special. You’re doing that for the audience in the room, but also TV cameras, so you’re not playing it for either or you’re playing it for both, which isn’t always ideal. I love the idea that even if I do the same bit of material for a lot of gigs, the idea of one particular gig is just for that night, for those people, and there’s a beginning, middle, and end. As a creative idiot, that’s the purest form of creativity.