Ruby Wax Asks, What’s So Funny About Mental Illness?
From treading the boards in Shakespeare alongside the likes of Alan Rickman, to interviewing Russian mafia wives while eight months pregnant - American born comedienne, actress and author Ruby Wax has enjoyed an extensive and diverse career.
Wax is perhaps better known for her presenting and writing work in the United Kingdom, where her television credits include reality documentaries, such as the phenomenally popular 'Ruby Wax Meets' - a gig that saw her share a home with celebrity icons such as Madonna and Fergie - and guest roles and writing contributions on Jennifer Saunders' campy hit comedy, 'Absolutely Fabulous.'
There is, however, a darker side to Wax's comedy. She has been an outspoken activist for mental health awareness, after publicly disclosing her own battles with bipolar disorder. Subsequently, Wax has combined comedy and mental health education with her new show, "Out of Her Mind," which comes to Cambridge, MA, this Tuesday and Wednesday. By her own admission, she tries to keep the show 'funny in the dark.' Edge caught up with Wax ahead of her performance at the Oberon Theatre, to discuss mental health, comedy, and camp icons.
EDGE: You have built a career over in the UK - what prompted that decision and how did you get started? Is there something about British humor that you find more accessible?
Ruby Wax: Well it wasn’t really a choice. My parents survived the war in Europe, but brought it with them to Evanston, Illinois. They were angry that they had to abandon ship, and I didn’t really understand the war, so they brought it to the kitchen! I guess you could say that they left Austria in kind of a rush, because they have an allergy to death. There was no real reason why I was there (in the US), and I felt as though I had no talent at all, but then out of nowhere I thought I’d become an actress, and my Father thought that it would be cheaper than sending me to an asylum, and he said go ahead and try. So I got into Glasgow, Scotland, which is like an ashtray with traffic lights! You wouldn’t want to go to Glasgow, but I got in, and I worked so hard exercising my tongue to have the English accent. And then I got into the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I thought that would shut my Dad up, but of course it didn’t. And then I went on to build a career just to mess with him. He would never acknowledge that I did alright. I also just went to Oxford, and I graduated with a Masters degree.
EDGE: You have long time writing partnerships with celebrities such as Alan Rickman and Jennifer Saunders. Can you speak more to those experiences? For example you worked with Saunders as a script editor on ’Absolutely Fabulous,’ and I imagine that would have been a lot of fun!
Ruby Wax: It was really cool. I mean Jennifer would have had huge success without me, but she actually gives me a lot of credit, and would send the scripts for ’Ab Fab’ over the night before they were filming. She’s not that interesting in real life, and the night before it is filmed, she’d channel some of the funny stuff and I’d help her with that. And as for Alan Rickman, well he wasn’t famous when I worked with him, but he can do comedy like nobody’s business.
About ’Ab Fab’
EDGE: ’Absolutely Fabulous’ is incredibly popular with queer audiences in particular, why do you think that is? I mean obviously it is an incredibly campy show!
Ruby Wax: Well these are two women who can be drag queens. They are so grotesque and kind of over the top! Not that I am saying drag queens are grotesque... But Joanna Lumley could be a drag queen.
EDGE: You are something of a camp icon yourself, especially in the UK, you must have a large gay following?!
Ruby Wax: Not really no, but gay people do like me. When I was really famous, if there was a gay steward on the plane I would automatically be upgraded, and they would like put the peanuts in my mouth for me! With the heterosexuals stewards I go straight to the back of the plane (laughs). So yes, I think they definitely prefer my sense of humor. And then I moved to this super gay neighbourhood in South Africa, and I was worshipped in all the coffee shops. So I have always been enjoyed by gay audiences.
EDGE: You are also a talented actress, having appeared in theatre earlier in your career, notably numerous productions of Shakespeare. What do you enjoy more? Acting or comedy? Or can’t they be compared?
Ruby Wax: I wasn’t a particularly good actress, so even when I was on stage with the likes of Alan Rickman, the director would kind of give me death stares or whatever, and it was so awful. I was so bad. And Michael Gordon, well I was playing his girlfriend once in ’Love’s Labor’s Lost,’ and he said to me ’I’m so ashamed,’ and he actually said that to me on stage. But I didn’t care, because I was there! And I was good at playing the country wenches, because Americans are good at the West Country British accent. So then I started writing my own shows, and they were much more successful. And big names like Wannamaker, and Rickman and Suchet would come into this bedsit, and we would just act. And one of the plays actually went to New York, and that was about my mother. But I am much better at comedy, although I never did stand up.
EDGE: You have a successful presenting career in the UK, notably working on the show ’Ruby Wax Meets,’ where you interviewed icons such as Pamela Anderson, Madonna, and of course Fergie. Can you talk about some of your favorite and least favorite interviews? It can be a difficult job sometimes!
Ruby Wax: I actually did a really interesting documentary series called ’Miami Memoirs,’ which was based on the stories of ordinary people. So, for example, I was made a wizard by the Ku Klux Klan, and I went to Russia when I was eight months pregnant. And I met some extraordinary people with incredible stories. It was interesting reality television - it isn’t like now when people just talk about their cuticles. I was very lucky in finding people. I had a girl who did my nails, and she was actually the wife of a famous mafia guy! She explained how he had killed people, but that he also loved animals, which I didn’t expect to hear. They really were fascinating stories and people. So after that was successful I started talking to celebrities. And I ended up living with these celebrities in their homes for three days. It was really interesting because you had to kind of push them to drop the narcissism. In those days I could stay with them for three days- there wasn’t all that security around them.
My favourite experience was probably being with Imelda Marcos. She fell in love with me because she found out that I was on the cover of Hello magazine, and she took me to Parliament and cried out that I was famous. And I am pretty sure she has a proclivity for women...
Open about struggles
EDGE: You have talked openly about your struggle with mental illness, and you have tackled the issue in your stand up in the past, and you also presented a successful TED talk on the issue. And obviously socially and culturally, mental illness is an issue that is still unfortunately rather taboo. Do you see signs of that improving? Do you think the issue is handled differently here in the US for example?
Ruby Wax: Well it has shifted over here (the UK), and the show I am bringing over there says, it isn’t all about the mental illness, it is about everything else, and I take you on a little journey in the second half through the darker stuff. But I keep it funny in the dark. Actually, the only reason I did that show was because Comic Relief used my picture to raise money for their mental health charity, and I thought it was going to be small, but they put a giant poster of me up that kind of said ’this woman has a mental illness’. So I wrote a show coming off of that, and I put the show on in a mental institution.
And I spent two years traveling to mental institutions and putting on this show, and I loved the audiences. The crazy people loved the show, and then it went to real theatres. It went to Australia and Cape Town and LA, and the audiences get to talk in the second half, and all around the world the same questions were asked, and it was kind of touching, because a lot of people don’t have a place to talk about it. So the theatre becomes evangelical, it becomes like a church - they get some kind of release. In the UK I feel like we handle mental illness in a more civilized way, you aren’t just shipped off to an institution. We have the National Health Service, and there is easy access to medication and stuff like that. But I met members of parliament, and several of them stood up and said that they had a mental illness. So I kind of pressured the government and explained that if you don’t put money into brain research then you’ll have a host of problems later on - more sickness etc. And it has also been revealed that depression affects more people than anything else, after backache.
Back in the U.S.
EDGE: You are coming to Cambridge MA for a show entitled ’Out of her Mind’ at Oberon on Nov. 12th and 13th - are you excited to be on home turf in the USA? And what can fans expect from the show?
Ruby Wax: It is funny, but also really dark. I think it is a roller coaster ride, and people have reacted really well to it. I am also really excited to do my second show, which opens in Cape Town in January. So maybe they’ll let me do a reading of the second show after I do the first. The second show is kind of a manual if that makes sense. But I also want people to know that this show isn’t just about depression, it goes way off track. I talk about marriage being the ’negotiating deal’ and stuff like that.
EDGE: I know that you will be touching on the issue of mental illness again, and the way that your illness has shaped and impacted your life. Is it sometimes difficult being that candid?
Ruby Wax: It comes naturally. I mean, I wouldn’t say certain things, and before this show I kept my mouth shut because I was scared of getting fired. And I talked about this in my book ’Sane New World’ -I was interviewing people with depression, and they could tell that I was suffering too. This one time I was interviewing someone, and I had sweat down my brow and I was shaking with anxiety, and I was taken to the institution straight after the interview.
EDGE: After you tour with the show, what is next for you?
Ruby Wax: Well I have the second show coming out in Cape Town next year, and right now I am trying really hard to plug my latest book, which is called ’Sane New World: Taming the Mind.’ I am really pimping it! So I hope you all head to Amazon and buy it!
Ruby Wax appears on Tuesday, Nov. 12 and Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013 at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street (Harvard Square), Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the Oberon website/
To purchase Ruby Wax’s new book ’Sane New World: Taming the Mind,’ visit Amazon.com.
To learn more about Ruby Wax, visit her website.