Aisling Bea is ovulating, right now, live from her home in London. She has volunteered this information by way of explaining what she learnt about herself since being diagnosed a couple of years ago with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), news she says was a surprise “to scientists absolutely nowhere”. The doctor who diagnosed her said he remembered seeing the Kildare comedian, actor and writer doing a Live at the Apollo show a few years ago and thinking “oh, she’s got ADHD”. “Could have f**kin’ emailed me, mate,” Bea says now with mock indignation.
She says, and a quick consultation with Dr Google confirms, that high levels of oestrogen during ovulation can make ADHD symptoms more manageable, so she has deliberately scheduled a lot today.
She knows, hormonally speaking, she will be more likely to perform at her best. “ADHD manifests completely differently in women and is made worse by lack of oestrogen, so full disclosure – and you can put it in The Irish Times – I’m ovulating and that’s why I am completely happy to talk to five journalists today…” She knows, watching herself back doing live television, the times when it went well. “I bet you I was ovulating because when I am, there is no limit to how funny I can be, how many tasks I can manage.”
We’ll come back to how ADHD manifests for her later, but in many ways, the project she’s here via Zoom to talk about is equally hormone-driven. Greatest Days – a movie musical based on Take That songs – follows a group of teenagers obsessed with a band called The Boys. After a childhood tragedy the friends lose touch, only to reunite 25 years later to see the band perform in a concert in Athens.
Bea plays Rachel, an Irish nurse living in London, having moved from her childhood home of Clitheroe 30 miles north of Manchester, where much of the film is set. It’s a jukebox of a film – if you liked Mamma Mia! you’ll be very much on board – exploring friendship, grief, teenage joy, adult regret and how at a certain age, a crotch-grabbing, key-changing boy band can comfort you through some of the worst growing pains.
It’s Bea’s first lead in a movie, having first come to prominence as a stand-up, winning the prestigious So You Think You’re Funny award in 2012. A graduate of London drama school Lamda, she has been a regular, sharp-witted fixture on most of the UK comedy panel shows and starred in the annoyingly under-appreciated Dead Boss with Sharon Horgan. She wrote and starred in two series of her own acclaimed Channel 4 show This Way Up, also with Horgan. Her star has been slowly rising internationally too, with a wonderful turn in Netflix series Living With Yourself in which she played Paul Rudd’s wife, and there was a part in a Home Alone sequel, Home Sweet Home Alone. Greatest Days, her first lead in a movie, is yet another step up. How did it come about?
A few years ago, comedian Jayde Adams, “a pal of mine for years”, sent her a WhatsApp message with the news that she’d landed a part in a Take That movie. When Adams explained the plot, a group of former friends coming back together to see their favourite boyband, Bea said “I wish I wrote that… Then after two years, everyone else was very busy and they asked me to be in it, and I also came on as script editor… so put your manifestations into your WhatsApp, ladies. That’s my big piece of advice.”
Bea jokes a lot about manifestations. Or maybe she’s not joking, as she does seem to be quite good at this manifesting lark. The last time she spoke to The Irish Times, she appears to have manifested her role in Greatest Days, confessing that after the gruelling process of writing the second season of This Way Up during the pandemic she wanted her next project to be more straightforward and less taxing. “I’d love a big f**king easy famous job,” she said. Mind you, in the same interview, she specifically requested a role in a Marvel movie, which hasn’t yet materialised. “Must be something wrong with those crystals,” she says.
It’s her first movie lead. Does that feel like a big deal? “It’s a big deal… it will be watched,” she says, contrasting it with previous gigs, more indie projects or even This Way Up, which she doesn’t mind admitting was a struggle in terms of promotion and getting audiences. “You know, here’s me with my little thing, trying to get people to watch it, to get word of mouth,” she says. “But with this it’s not a hard sell.” The film is adapted from a Take That stage show and executively produced by band members Gary Barlow, Mark Owen and Howard Donald, who have a charming cameo as buskers in the film.
“The guy who wrote it [Tim Firth] wrote Calendar Girls. It knows who it’s after in terms of the cheese sandwich.” The movie has the Take That juggernaut behind it, and therefore the band’s still loyal, now middle-aged, fan base of course. There is also the lure of some seriously good Gary Barlow bangers: Shine, Never Forget, Back For Good and Patience. There’s a dream-come-true element for Bea, who knew from an early age she was destined to perform: “If you told 16-year-old me what it would look like when I was in a movie, it would have been something exactly like this, me dancing around and singing and being wagga wagga, showy, show thing, do you know?”
Bea got Covid just before filming, which made singing more of a challenge. “They trained my Covid lungs back,” she says. The singing was a joy. “I had forgotten how much I loved it.” Her favourite song to perform was Patience – she went “full Dolores O’Riordan”.
She wasn’t a massive Take That fan herself, having been a teenager in the Spice Girls era. “There was something about these women who had big personalities, who felt the spaces they were in were too small and they had to come out through their clothes and their voices. That’s how I always felt. I felt like the size of me was too big for the inside of me and had to bleed out.” She’s glad they were on her walls, rather than a boyband. “There’s something about loving a boyband which is great, but they don’t show a version of you. Whereas with a girlband you can explore your personality; I loved the loudness of Geri and Mel B, the idea that they were taking up as much space as they wanted to.”
The movie’s friends-reuniting storyline in the movie resonated. During filming there was a slice of art imitating life when one day she rushed off set, changing from her nurse’s uniform into her glad rags for an Irish schoolfriend’s wedding outside London. “They’d have known all my life how much I wanted this job, to be an actor, they knew I never wanted to do anything else… one of my friends had just told us she was pregnant and it had been a bit of a journey to get there. It felt filmic in itself, we’d all come together to be there for our friend. It felt like a moment.”
Bea had a big say in who got to play her younger self in the movie. The plot of Greatest Days moves back and forth between the teenage and adult versions of the four friends. She had already decided her character would be Irish, even though she has a typical actor’s ear for accents. “I felt it would give me more groundedness… on a tough, long day when you are in your own accent, sometimes it just feels a bit more truthful. So that’s one of the things I worked into the script.” She had seen Lara McDonnell in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast – a memorable scene involving a stolen Turkish delight. “When the tape came in from her I was so excited, and I loved working with Lara.”
Full disclaimer: I’m a wuss. I tell Bea that I found myself tearing up during the film’s rousing final scenes where the cast sing Never Forget. (Bea points out something I never knew. The line is “Never forget where you’ve come here from,” not “Never forget where you’re coming from,” as so many of us have belted out at social gatherings over the years.) There’s another scene where the teenage friends sing Back For Good alongside their adult counterparts, the classic tune landing differently when sung by female voices. A running theme through the movie is the notion that reconnecting with our younger selves can provide a bit of a lifeline. Lyrics such as “in the twist of separation, you excelled at being free” and “want you back for good” take on a new poignancy. So, what would Bea tell her younger self?
“I’m 39, and there is something about nearing 40 and wanting to go back and say ‘Oh my God let me hold you and hug you and your acne is not even that bad and sure who’s looking at your back and cleanse properly, for God’s sake.’ If you could go back and hold yourself a bit more, I think that idea does bring up feelings in people.”
A big reality TV fan, talk of feelings sets her off on an entertaining but related tangent about a useful phrase that comes up a lot in programmes such as the Real Housewife franchise. “People say to each other, ‘I felt like you felt some type of way’, like ‘I felt like you felt some type of way about me marrying your ex-husband’ and I love that phrase. It’s a really good way of gently talking about feelings without naming them.”. She doesn’t drive, but from bingeing on episodes of reality series Below Deck feels she has picked up enough skills to expertly dock a superyacht. Despite this love and appreciation for reality TV, she insists her most recent assignment in Dublin, filming Last One Laughing Ireland, was not part of that genre: “I had that in my contract. It’s not reality TV, it’s more like Taskmaster.”
The premise of the show, which will hit screens next year, is a load of comedians and funny people trying to make each other laugh without cracking so much as a smile themselves. The winner is sent laughing all the way to the bank to pick up €50,000 for their chosen charity. Other members of the cast include Amy Huberman, Deirdre O’Kane, David McSavage and Jason Byrne, with Graham Norton hosting, and it’s made by Irish company Kite Entertainment for Amazon-owned Prime Video.
“We were in there for 10 hours in total, the 10 of us, all trying to make each other laugh. Oh my God, it was so much fun. Myself, Jason Byrne, Deirdre O’Kane… I felt like I was sort of being wrapped around my culture for a little bit and I loved it. I didn’t expect to have fun because I do so many of those things and a lot of them are, you know, they’re ‘the job’, but I genuinely left feeling a little bit lighter.”
Bea is used to mixing the light with the shade. Away from acting or comedy, she is on what might be viewed as the progressive side of most conversations. She has long been an advocate – on Instagram and elsewhere – of eco-friendly fashion. She kept a green set on This Way Up. Lately, she’s been eager to address inequalities in terms of how crews are treated on television and film sets. She has felt these issues even more keenly having recently directed a friend’s music video – a song from Mark Prendergast of Kodaline’s solo project, Man Alive.
It is such a small, subtle way of describing someone, a way to push them out of employment, and is nearly always attached to women— Aisling Bea on use of the word 'difficult'
It feels as if there is no issue Bea hasn’t reflected on. When the subject of bodyshaming comes up, she mentions that it’s something friends are grappling with at the moment, if not herself personally. “My mother was a jockey. My dad was a tall, lanky person … weight wasn’t something I struggled with… but I’m very interested in the conversations, especially listening to my friends and their own journey to embrace it.” Her father, a vet, died by suicide when she was three and her younger sister Sinead was just three months old. She has written eloquently about this, and is not keen to revisit it at this time. But it strikes me that her sensitivity and empathy probably owe something to this difficult life experience. I ask whether her passion for social justice can be exhausting, and if so, how she manages that.
She describes it as a “triple-edged sword”. “One edge is where I have had to learn lessons myself on how to be better, that always makes my brain sit in the guilt of how I could have helped more or cared more or been less ignorant, and that has really tormented me in the dark of the night.” She finds it difficult to forgive herself if she has let someone down. “I hold people to high standards and hold myself to even higher ones, which is tough because I am often disappointed in people or myself.
“The second edge is that at times it has definitely truly and utterly broken my spirit, and I have found myself incredibly frustrated with some companies or teams or people when their actions don’t match their words at work, when I know they could have done better or been more supportive or kind.
“The third edge is that I have been so uplifted to learn from others or see when people really put their money where their mouths are. God, there are so many hard-working, kind and generous, enthusiastic people out there. Or those who have owned up to their stuff, I really respect that, I think most people do.
“I have seen it be particularly depressing for my friends working in the industry who are not white, knowing that while sometimes space is being made for them, the space does not feel welcoming and there is no effort to understand their needs and how alienating it can feel… but then my own responsibility is looking at myself as a privileged white person who has a voice and more power than I would have had five years ago, and sometimes I feel a disconnect between being inside the system and outside the system.”
She talks also about the risk of incurring wrath for being “difficult”. “It is such a small, subtle way of describing someone, a way to push them out of employment, and is nearly always attached to women. I have heard it about people myself and I often wonder how many times someone who was described as ‘difficult’ was not listened to or pushed down before they became ‘difficult’, because sometimes ‘difficult’ is the only option. And that fear of being a ‘difficult woman’ is a great way of stopping people making changes and keeping things as they are. We all want women to be ‘easy and nice’. I want to be ‘easy and nice’, but sometimes it is not possible, and that becomes more evident the higher up on whatever ladder I think I am climbing.”
It took me a while to speak on stage about it, I wanted to know it was totally in my own voice and I didn’t want to sound like I was ‘confessing’ something…— Aisling Bea on ADHD
Bea felt “a bit like Gandalf” on her latest film, working with so many younger actors and passing down nuggets of wisdom – “if snow is yellow somebody has probably pissed in it” – but also learning from them and enjoying how their “internal voices” are much healthier than hers would have been as a younger woman. She says the Manchester Arena attack was very much in her mind while filming, and while the grief in the film is handled sensitively, she wonders whether I’d bring my 14-year old daughters to the movie (I would). She’d be “afraid you’d upset people who are going in for a good time and a dance around… I’ve a group who follow me on Instagram, from 15-year-olds to 50-year-olds, so I’m always conscious of how to pitch things.”
We talk more about ADHD. She says the reason why a lot of women in their 30s and 40s start seeking a diagnosis is “because things that were a little bit annoying or quirky in your 20s are still there as you get older, and you have a full-time job and it starts to get worse, especially going into perimenopause and menopause. The lack of oestrogen starts making things that were a little bit scatty become crippling, it makes you gaslight yourself… but if you understand it then it’s so easy to work out how to balance your dopamine… If there’s dopamine or interest in the thing you are doing, you’ll be able to do it at 17 times the speed of anyone else. But if you’re bored, it feels like grief in your body, and that’s not an understatement. Then you might read a book or see a new episode of Below Deck and you can be pulled out of the grief with a dopamine boost, like a jump-start for a car.”
She lists all the things she can do when she’s on top form: an impressive list, from nailing all her scenes in a TV show, needing fewer takes on set than everyone else, not missing a single line and after a long day, going on to headline a comedy gig and getting up at 6am the next morning. “It sounds like I’m bragging about what I do… but the other side of it is you might have an email looming for four months, that you just can’t take in the information from, and that’s the bit that makes you feel stupid... I was going to write a stand up show called Stupid Genius.”
She hasn’t spoken much about it before to journalists, which is maybe why the information is tumbling out of her now. “It took me a while to speak on stage about it, I wanted to know it was totally in my own voice and I didn’t want to sound like I was ‘confessing’ something… there’s so little information or support out there. Sorry, this is the classic thing of over-explaining, but I really want people to know that if you take time out of your day to support people [with ADHD], you will get so much back. It’s like Bitcoin, you just have to put in a couple of quid and you’re probably going to make 1,000.”
She talks about choosing work depending on how the condition is affecting her, taking on more editing work on days when she’s “in a slump” so she doesn’t burn out. “It’s a blessing and a curse sometimes… and it sounds a bit like a baby, where you’re like, I’ll only do what I want… so much of the narrative around it is so negative, even the name, there’s the word deficit [in ADHD], but there’s a whole purpose and reason for this type of brain. And if you know how to harness it, it’s the most magical form of genius that you can possibly have, and there’s like no limits to certain things. And then you’re so limited in other ways.”
There’s a sense that Bea is honing in on work she finds satisfying, and not just for herself. She’s been “disillusioned” in the past by seeing how crews were treated, or by doing jobs where people are put under so much pressure “they break, and that’s definitely happened to me at times”. One job she can’t talk about, which she worked on after Greatest Days, was a small budget, indie TV series which will be out later this year which ticked all the boxes. “I jumped out of bed to work on it every day… so going forward I want to focus on how a job will feel.” If the Marvel manifestation came true, for example, she’d want “to use my sway” to make things better for other people on set.
Light and shade – a conversation with Bea seamlessly straddles both. Earlier, when talking about the Spice Girls, she relayed an anecdote about her sister Sinead, a Westlife fan at the time, and her mother: “My mother was cleaning out the house… it was just before my sister’s wedding. And she found an old copy book of Sinead’s and she rang us up and said ‘Girls, we’ve always been focused on your writing, Aisling, and I worry now that I never really focused on Sinead. And I’ve just found this beautiful poem in Sinead’s copy book that she’s written out. Listen to this. It’s called Flying Without Wings.’
“And she starts to read out the lyrics to Flying Without Wings by Westlife, and we let her. She actually thought Sinead had written the ‘poem’. She read out, ‘You find that special thing, you’re Flying Without Wings, ‘Now isn’t that great’?” Bea cackles.
And finally, back to the boyband of the moment, Take That. There’s a moving funeral scene in Greatest Days where Bea’s younger self conjures up The Boys to console her as she grieves. Which Take That song would she like played at her funeral? “I think I’d choose cremation and have them do Relight My Fire.”
That’s Aisling Bea for you. Even funnier while ovulating.
Greatest Days is in cinemas nationwide from June 16th
Photography: Charlie Clift. Stylist: Hope Lawrie. Wearing: Simone Rocha. Makeup: Justine Jenkins. Hair: Narad Kutowaroo