Aisling Bea: Irish people tried to connect my posh English accent to some form of oppression

‘I’m doing a Manchester accent next year,’ says the actor, ‘so hold on to your Twitter knickers’

When it comes to comedy, there is little Aisling Bea can't turn her hand to. After training as an actor, she began performing standup in her mid 20s and quickly became a rising star of the scene, winning Edinburgh Fringe Festival's So You Think You're Funny? competition in 2012 and landing a nomination for best newcomer at the festival the following year.

The Kildare-born comic’s chatterbox charisma readily translated to the screen; Bea soon became a panel-show fixture, while continuing to land roles in sitcoms on both sides of the pond. In 2019 she wrote and starred in her own Channel 4 comedy-drama, This Way Up, playing Áine, an exuberant and quick-witted EFL teacher who struggles with her mental health. The show’s combination of giddy humour and emotional heft was a winning one, and a second, pandemic-crafted series aired this summer.

Television mastered, the 37-year-old is now segueing into film – specifically the new Home Alone reboot, Home Sweet Home Alone, in which she takes on the role of panicked matriarch Carol.

Updated versions of beloved family films from the 1980s and 1990s tend to elicit a strong response online. How have you found the reaction to Home Sweet Home Alone so far?
Everyone's, like, "You're remaking it, you're going to ruin my Christmas!" Oh yeah, because Disney+ deleted the old one so you'll never see it again and then they force you to pay money to watch this on Disney+. I've found the reaction to it really heartwarming and funny. It was sort of what Twitter was created for: people to complain about things that don't matter.


Your character speaks with a posh English accent – something that prompted much heated discussion on social media when the film's trailer was released. Why do you think people cared so much?
There's a million psychological reasons. It was mostly Irish people, and I could see people were trying to connect it to some form of oppression, because it was American people getting me to do an English accent. Maybe because I do standup alongside acting, people think, That's my cousin, that's my friend. But I've been an actor for 20 years; I've done English, Australian and American accents – it's just that I was less known. I'm pretty sure I'm doing a job next year that's going to be a Manchester accent, so everyone hold on to your Twitter knickers.

Your acting career began at Lamda, the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art. Was drama school an enjoyable experience?
Not really, no. I think there's so much work to be done for drama schools. We were given a variety of directors and taught to do whatever they tell you. Then later on, in the industry, people go, "Why didn't people speak up, why didn't anyone say anything?" But if you go to drama school you're trained to do what they tell you. I definitely found it a challenge, but I was really lucky with my classmates: they got me through a lot.

I also think it was a massive culture shock moving to England, but it took me until later to work that out. I still do feel sometimes that it’s like you’re getting something wrong but no one’s telling you what it is: you feel like the essence of who you are is off or weird. Like taking something I’ve said as blunt – when I’m in Ireland it’s not blunt. Or, there’s an idea of what loudness is in [England], and you’re, like, “I’m not loud, you’re just too quiet, so I can’t hear you”. A lot of my friends are immigrants or kids of immigrants. I don’t know if there’s a massive connection there, but if there is, maybe they are more accepting because you felt like you weren’t totally getting something right. I felt like that a lot of the time.

You performed in a sketch troupe at university, but didn't start doing standup until a few years after leaving drama school. Why did you return to comedy?
The one thing I knew coming out of Lamda was I would be a respected National Theatre actress from now on. I didn't have to do comedy any more, I was just going to be serious. And the degree to which that's impossible for me … I came out with no agent, blond hair, no phone calls. I did this Irish soap [Fair City] for about three months. It was not how I thought [my career] was going to be. Then as soon as I started being funny, I started getting jobs. I'd written some short stories that I'd put on Facebook, and a BBC producer who had seen me do an acting showcase said I could write. I was, like, "Can I?" I entered So You Think You're Funny a year after I started standup, and won. I was the first woman to win in 20 years. I was on telly very quickly in a way that had never happened with acting – I gave myself a real hard time about that. I really respect graft, and I felt I hadn't done enough. I thought only through hardship should you get anything – I think it's a Catholic thing. I really felt like saying sorry to everyone that I was doing well.

The second series of your show This Way Up was written and filmed in lockdown – that must have been a gruelling experience.
It was a very tough thing to make the show in January. I was completely burnt out, and everything was done in the hardest possible way for many different reasons. I wrote some of it during the making of Home Sweet Home Alone: I'd go on set and go, "Oh no, where's my son gone, I'm in Japan and he's at home." And then try to rewrite some notes in between scenes. I don't think I'd ever got to that point from work before, where there was still so much work to do and I had nothing left. It has an effect on your personality. I definitely became less nice. I didn't like myself very much. I say this with the utmost gratitude knowing what I get to do, but it was too much for one person. I've put out my hip, I've got repetitive-strain injury, the nerves of my little finger's gone. Woe is me, I'm very aware of that! But it definitely beat the spirit out of me. I never thought when I wrote, "written for anyone who needs a reminder to find hope" [the final episode's dedication] that I'd be the one needing it then – my past self saying it to me in the editing room.

The show portrays mental health in an impressively nuanced and insightful way. Was that theme there from the project's inception?
No, initially it was just myself and [my costar] Sharon [Horgan] playing sisters – that was the core of it. But then when I wrote the article about my dad [in 2017, Bea wrote a piece about her father, who took his own life when she was three], I couldn't possibly reply to all the people who got in touch – there just aren't enough emotional hours in the day. You feel so guilty because you know that it took a lot for someone to actually type that. I think in some way the show became a reply, or a way I could speak about it that felt the most time-efficient.

Many of This Way Up's most powerful moments depict Áine struggling mentally while continuing with her normal life. Was that an important aspect of the show for you?
I wanted to make a show about loneliness. I felt like I didn't always see what most of it looks like. I wanted to challenge drama or excitement. For most people the struggle is the daily-ness, that's where the heartbreak lies. That's what grief looks like most of the time: today it's going to be hard to make a cup of tea. And this sounds like such a tangent, but I realised I love watching Real Housewives, and rather than denounce reality TV, I thought, Why do I love watching those shows? A lot of it was the hugeness of the smallness of life. It's the same in chick lit – I grew up reading Irish authors like Maeve Binchy. Women weren't allowed to have what you might determine as big lives; a lot of the revolutions happened in kitchens and health centres and in your private parts. For me that's the unexplored life that we're only just getting to [own] as women. To go, No, that's my life and it's important.

This Way Up has another recurring theme: potato waffles.
Finally, something I can talk about. I love them so much. I almost had them for breakfast this morning, but I didn't want to have them in front of a journalist. On This Way Up the art department filled a freezer with potato waffles [for a scene in which a character eats them] and me and my sister – who was the costume designer – brought home 12 boxes. It felt like, "Finally, a perk of show business." In fact they're the ideal watch-along food for Home Sweet Home Alone: very 1980s, very retro – they sit somewhere in a comforting memory. But I want this said in print: I've never received a penny from Captain Birdseye. I talk about them because I have to. – Guardian

Home Sweet Home Alone is released on Disney+ on Friday, November 12th