Funny girl Aisling Bea steps up to serious drama

Award-winning funny girl AISLING BEA only went into comedy because she couldn’t find work as a serious actress. Now she has achieved plan A – playing it straight in new BBC crime drama Hard 

Aisling wears jumper, Ally Bee; skirt, Stella McCartney; sandals, WTR; jewellery, Nectar Nectar
Aisling wears jumper, Ally Bee; skirt, Stella McCartney; sandals, WTR; jewellery, Nectar Nectar

If rising television star Aisling Bea had stuck to her original plan to become an actress, we probably would never have heard of her.But this country girl from ‘the middle of nowhere’ in County Kildare, Ireland, has become one of the shining lights of the British comedy scene, along with her ‘comedy sisters’ Katherine Ryan and Sharon Horgan. Her witty observational stand-up has won her several comedy awards and turned her into one of the most popular panellists on shows such as 8 Out of 10 Cats, Never Mind The Buzzcocks and A League of Their Own.

So when the 33-year-old started popping up in serious television dramas – BBC Two’s critically acclaimed The Fall and ITV’s The Town – and went on to win a major part in the hugely anticipated BBC One crime drama Hard Sun, the questions she suddenly found herself answering were: ‘Why have you switched from comedy?’ and ‘When did you discover you could act?’

‘It makes me laugh,’ she says. ‘I actually trained at a highly respected drama school [the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art] and my intention was to become a serious actress. But two years after leaving [in 2010], I was living in a pokey flat in North London with no money. I had no work and I spent most of my time being either rejected from auditions or sitting at home watching back-to-back Come Dine With Me. I can, hand on heart, say that I have seen every single episode made during that period at least once and very possibly two or three times.’

Aisling on stage at Latitude festival
Aisling on stage at Latitude festiv 
She tried everything she could to get noticed: knocked on doors, worked on accents, even danced flamenco (something she learned at drama school) while working as a waitress. She bleached her dark hair blonde and bought a ticket to Los Angeles, only to be told by a producer there that she needed to ‘shift a few pounds’ if she wanted even to be considered for work.

‘I was madly in love with my then boyfriend and had gone on the pill, which changed my body shape to a size 12. I thought it was hilarious because it was such a cliché to be told to lose weight. I got on a plane straight back to London with zero intention of going on a diet and the realisation that I was a slightly too tall, white Irishwoman – and no one could be bothered to look at me twice. I had to have a long think as to what the hell I could do to get noticed.’

Dress, Body Frock by Melanie Davis; shoes, Jimmy Choo; earrings, Jenny Bird; ring, Maya Magi
Dress, Body Frock by Melanie Davis; shoes, Jimmy Choo; earrings, Jenny Bird; ring, Maya Magi

It was her initial failure as an actress that drove her down the comedy route. Much of her stand-up is about disastrous events or major mishaps in her life – ‘all of them absolutely true’. In person she rarely stops talking. It is no surprise that her change of direction came at a casting audition when a producer pointed out to her that her greatest asset was her natural wit.

‘Getting a laugh was what I’d been doing with my family and at school since the age of three,’ she says. ‘I grew up in rural Ireland; we only had a few TV channels and had never even heard of sketch shows, but it was completely natural for me to tell jokes and stories. The revelation was that maybe I could get paid for it.

Aisling with her father Brian, who died when she was three
 ‘I started to audition for comedy shows [she appeared alongside David Walliams and Matt Lucas in Come Fly With Me and on the sketch show Cardinal Burns] and then I decided to have a go at stand-up.’ She did her first show in a tiny club in London’s East End. ‘I wasn’t nervous – I loved it,’ she says. ‘I made my friends come with me and just stood up and talked. I talked about what was going on in my life, made jokes about getting stressed and drunken nights out. People laughed. They clapped. I got booked again. I decided that comedy was going to be my plan B.’

Since plan B took over, Aisling has won The Gilded Balloon’s So You Think You’re Funny? award at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe and Best Female TV Comedian at the British Comedy Awards in 2014. Suddenly in demand as a guest (and team leader) on TV comedy panel shows, she was also given a prime live slot in front of 20,000 fans at the O2 Arena as part of Channel 4’s Comedy Gala.

There’s a great sisterhood in comedy. We all have each other’s backs

Aisling, who has a degree in French and philosophy from Trinity College Dublin, has turned herself into a hot property. She can write, do stand-up and serious drama. In Hard Sun, the new six-part BBC crime thriller by Luther creator Neil Cross, in which two police detectives uncover a plan to end the world in five years, she stars with actor Jim Sturgess and former model Agyness Deyn. ‘That was a big deal for me,’ she says. ‘It’s a great part and an incredible script. Jim and Agyness are honest-to-God brilliant.

She is also the protégé and writing partner of Emmy nominee Sharon Horgan (Motherland, Catastrophe) who, like Aisling, couldn’t get work as an actress until, in her case, she started writing her own shows. After being cast by Sharon in her TV show Dead Boss, the two stars have their first joint writing venture: a comedy about two sisters, which is currently in production with Channel 4.

Aisling is on a mission. ‘I want to break America,’ she says with a serious look in her pale blue eyes. ‘I have stood on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and looked up to see a huge billboard of my friend Sharon advertising her show Catastrophe and while part of you is thinking, “How crazy is that?” the bigger part is thinking, “Well, why not me too?”’ Since 2013, Aisling has spent a month every year in Los Angeles flogging her way round network pilot auditions in search of her big acting break, and is planning her next trip.

‘I’ve written two films and five television shows – thousands of pages of scripts – and only one is commissioned, but it makes everything worthwhile,’ she says. ‘As yet I’ve had nothing in LA, but I still go because I believe it will work out. I do my stand-up while I’m there, which I love. I know that the harder you work the more you learn, the more connections you make. You’ve just got to be prepared to keep putting yourself out there. You have to make it happen.’

On the surface it appears that Aisling – who left Ireland at 21 to do her postgraduate degree in drama – is just another bright new thing in the celebrity firmament: a girl who turned lemons into lemonade. But that does not fully explain her drive and determination. This, she says, comes from her mother Helen who brought up Aisling and her younger sister Sinead (a costume designer who worked on Beauty and the Beast) after her father Brian, a country vet, died when Aisling was three years old.

She describes her childhood as ‘very, very happy’. Helen, a former flat-race jockey, put her girls first. ‘She was the best mammy,’ says Aisling. ‘She worked nonstop. We were surrounded by women. My mother has seven sisters and I had two aunts on my father’s side. Everyone did lots of different jobs to keep everything going, which taught me about hard graft. I never felt we missed out on anything.’

Except a father. Aisling nods. Last November, she took the decision to write about her dad. When she was 13 (the tenth anniversary of his death) her mother told her daughters that Brian had taken his own life, which Aisling hadn’t known before. It was something she kept to herself for two decades and, as tears well in her eyes, she explains how hard she still finds it to ‘talk out loud’ about him. ‘When I wrote about him, I chose every word very carefully,’ she says, ‘because it was so important to talk about it in the right way.’

Dress, Mariana Jungmann; earrings, Nectar Nectar; ring, Ekria
Dress, Mariana Jungmann; earrings, Nectar Nectar; ring, Ekria

Aisling’s story traced her emotions from anger to sadness and compassion. ‘When I was younger, I felt he had not been “taken” from us, he had left,’ she wrote. ‘I didn’t care that he had been in “chronic pain” and that men in Ireland don’t talk about their feelings, so instead die of sadness. I didn’t want him at peace. I wanted him struggling, but alive, so he could meet my boyfriends and give them a hard time, like in American movies.’

As she grew older, she began to come to terms with his death and realised that it has helped her become the person she is today. ‘My father’s death has given me a love of men, of their vulnerability and tenderness…’

When she changed her name from O’Sullivan (there is another Equity actress called Aisling O’Sullivan) she chose Bea (as in ‘B’) after his name, Brian. He told jokes and stories and made people laugh. Growing up, she did the same, but was aware of the ghost of her father as she was told again and again that she was just like her dad. I ask if she worries about falling victim to depression like her father and she shrugs. ‘It’s generally thought that the flip side of being funny is that underneath you are sad. But that isn’t always the case. You need to have humour in life.

‘The reason I wrote about my dad wasn’t to explain anything about myself, it was more to talk about the issue of suicide and depression and all those feelings that go with it. I never talked about it as a kid. You have all these feelings of shame and guilt. And it is always kept so private.

There was a girl at my school whose brother had taken his own life and I really wanted to talk to her about it but I never did because it just wasn’t something you talked about. By writing my story I wanted to start a conversation, and I had an incredible response. I felt it was the right time to put it out there.’

It is clear that Aisling has been left with a desire to make her mark on the world. She would rather be asked about where she sees herself in five years (America) than whether she wants marriage and children (‘Why is it something women have to be measured by?’). She regards rejection as the first step on the ladder to acceptance.

‘When I’m in LA, I’m part of the Irish community out there and I just love it. Last time I was there I went to a very cool restaurant with actor Chris O’Dowd [Bridesmaids, The IT Crowd] and Nick Murphy [writer of Sky’s comedy Moone Boy, which starred O’Dowd] and we sat and ate sprouts together, which is the in thing there, and we laughed because we’re all Irish kids of farmers whose grandparents used to feed sprouts to the pigs, and there we were paying a fortune to eat them.’ She laughs, then says seriously, ‘But the big thing for me is that I was in LA. In Hollywood. You have to believe anything is possible.’

And Aisling has made it possible to work in both comedy and drama. Likewise, her Hard Sun co-star Agyness Deyn started as a model and now acts. ‘I’ve got a lot of respect for Agyness because she’s put in the graft,’ says Aisling, ‘and has worked in the theatre and done a lot of films. She and Jim were incredibly popular with the whole crew. That’s when you know you are working with people who have their egos in check.’

In the midst of making the series last March, the cast had been filming around Westminster Bridge immediately before the terrorist attack that left five people dead and 50 injured. ‘We had just left as the incident started,’ says Aisling. ‘We were seconds away from being caught up in it. We were incredibly lucky to get out of there when we did.’

Beyond her career the most important thing in Aisling’s life is her family. She speaks to her mother – who since 2003 has been with a new partner – every day and her sister lives just a few miles away. ‘I create families wherever I go,’ she says. ‘Sharon has become family and there’s a great sisterhood in comedy. Katherine Ryan, Sara Pascoe, Roisin Conaty – we all have each other’s backs. We’re all each other’s greatest cheerleaders.’ With such a strong support network, we are sure to be seeing much more of Aisling Bea.

Hard Sun is on BBC One on Saturdays at 9pm