In Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show Wishful Drinking, now at the Hobby Center, nothing in her life escapes her sharp-witted self-analysis, from the diagnoses that she’s bipolar to her movie star parents to the fact that long after she leaves this Earth her likeness will be still be emblazoned on Princess Leia Pez dispensers and sex dolls.
Wishful Drinking delves into the blessings and curses of acting, fame, and celebrity, but it’s Carrie Fisher the acclaimed and best-selling writer who shines as a star throughout the show, as she transforms the many painful scenes in her past into comic catharsis. The Sarofim Hall stage is set like a living room and she invites the audience into her home on stage for conversation and questions, seemingly comfortable blurring those already smudged lines between her public and private self.
"Carrie Fisher the actor was almost an accident. I never wanted to be an actor, never thought of myself that way, don’t think of myself that way, don’t play parts that are far away from me. I’m more a personality than an actor."
A day after her opening performance, Carrie Fisher sat down to talk with CultureMap about how she turns the pains of the past into comedy worthy of roaring standing ovations.
CultureMap: How did this play begin? What was the initial spark?
Carrie Fisher: I had been giving people awards and hosting evenings for George Lucas and Elizabeth Taylor and my mother and Meryl. Over time I had this material that was evolving because I was doing so much of it. There would either be the Star Wars material or getting mental illness awards, so doing the mental illness material or the Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds material. Anything I talk about in the show, it already existed, so it was a question of putting all of it together and organize it.
CM: Why keep this material as a live performance, instead of a book?
CF: I was good at it. I liked it. It suited my personality’s scope. There’s a line in Postcards from the Edge: "I was made for more public than private." It was the right size for me.
CM: Did you know from beginning that you would bring in the audience?
CF: I don’t know that I knew that, but it’s so much more fun that way because otherwise it’s so lonely. That’s always the best thing in it for me.
CM: This work seems like it would be the pinnacle for any actor, to write your own show and then perform it alone and then bring in the audience. For me that would be terrifying but for you?
CF: No, no. You get a huge adrenaline rush. You have to be so alert. You have to really be present to do that. You can’t let your mind wander at all. So that’s a really good exercise.
CM: Is it helpful for Carrie Fisher the actor to have Carrie Fisher the writer with her all the time during the show?
CF: Carrie Fisher the writer is who’s around all the time. Carrie Fisher the actor was almost an accident. I never wanted to be an actor, never thought of myself that way, don’t think of myself that way, don’t play parts that are far away from me. I’m more a personality than an actor.
CM: How has the play evolved? I’m sure with the audience it’s different every time, but are you also always fiddling with the material?
CF: Yeah, it’s organically very fiddle-able. My life changes as it goes, and I become more and more interested in the four-hour erection and then that becomes my focus.
CM: This is essentially a memoir on stage, which you also turned into a book, and then you have a new memoir which came out recently, Shockaholic, but many of your novels are also loosely based on your own life. What’s the distinction you make between writing fiction and memoir?
CF: It’s more comfortable to write ‘Faction,' stuff that’s loosely based [on life] but that you can take license with and you don’t have to adhere to the truth. I don’t have a good memory. I’m not an ideal candidate for writing a traditional memoir, at all. And you do kind of need a good memory to do stuff like that. I’m not suited to that form.
CM: So the fiction is close to the faction?
CF: It’s close to me and yet I can take license. I don’t have to worry that I’m not remembering exactly as it happened, because I’m not. I’d rather go back and do third person fiction, loosely based or whatever. My daughter wants me to write from the point of view of a slave. She wants me to venture further out and have nothing to do with my own life. So I’ll try to do what she wants.
CM: This is a slight tangent, but I have to ask. During the show last night, you mentioned the Funeral Museum in town. How do you know about the Funeral Museum?
CF: It’s in this book, and I going to it, and I’m obsessed with it now.
CM: You’re going to go visit while you’re here?
CF: God yes. I’m obsessed with it. It sounds fantastic.
CM: One of the major themes of Wishful Drinking seems to be about using time to turn pain or tragedy into comedy. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between pain, perspective, and comedy in your work?
CF: In order to be funny about something you have to have perspective and usually you don’t get perspective until you have some time, but the trick is to get as much perspective as you can in as short amount of time as you can. But it’s the ultimate alchemy, of being able to transform something that was really painful into something that’s funny because other people can identify with it. You’ve been able to take it that distance from something that profoundly hurt you to something that makes other people laugh.
CM: Why turn it into comedy instead of turning it into. . .
CM: Just tragedy.
CF: A shitty memory you have? Because that’s why. Because the ultimate transformation you can involve yourself in, is to take something that hurt you into something that people can identify. It’s something that people can laugh at.”
CM: And that’s how you make the connection with the audience?
CF: Yeah, because either they identify with it or you can put them in that position. . . I can tell you very much what it’s like to be me in a bad situation, i.e You. I don’t think I’m much different. I’m just less disinclined to talk about, I think, because I’m in show business and I’m more of a public person. It’s easier for me to be public about private things because I grew up as a spectacle.
CM: You’ve worn a lot of professional hats, writing, acting, producing. Is there one endeavor you feel more comfortable in?
CF: Writing. I don’t just like wordplay, I do it anyway. If I can get paid for something I do anyway, I’m going to do it. I’m going to look at a sentence and I’m going to fuck with it and I’m going to take syllables out and make it into another word. That’s what my brain does organically, so I’m glad that there’s a profession where that’s useful.
CM: Houston is the last stop on the tour, so what’s next for you?
CF: Nothing. I want to write another book and then I want to go back and write screenplays again. I haven’t done that in a while, so Yea!
CM: So first the Funeral Museum and then screenplays?
CF: I’m going to write about funerals and I’m going to write some eulogies, or riff some eulogies, my own included and that’s it.
See the Carrie Fisher interview on Channel 11's Great Day Houston: