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Carrie Fisher needs no introduction, but she might prefer one. The daughter of singing star Eddie Fisher and Oscar-nominated actress Debbie Reynolds, Fisher was an international star in her own right by her 21st birthday, thanks to her role as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy. Things didn’t go so smoothly after that: Typecasting and Fisher’s prodigious drug use combined to limit her options, which included a part in the calamitous Wizard Of Oz satire Under The Rainbow. But she found a second life as a writer, first as an uncredited script doctor, then as a bestselling novelist whose books, including Postcards From the Edge, Surrender The Pink, and Delusions Of Grandma, bear a strong resemblance to her own life. In Wishful Drinking, Fisher drops the protection of fiction and lays her life bare, telling her story to a live audience; the long-running show migrated to the printed page, then was captured in a performance film that comes out on DVD this week. Fisher recently talked to The A.V. Club about dating Dan Aykroyd, writing her own lines, and the benefits of shock therapy.
The A.V. Club: You don’t make much effort to disguise the autobiographical roots of novels like Postcards From The Edge. What called for the shift to straightforward memoir for Wishful Drinking? How was it different writing about your own life without the protection of fiction?
Carrie Fisher: I like the protection. I’d started doing all these speeches, to give people awards or host evenings, between George Lucas and Meryl Streep and Harrison [Ford] and my mom, so I started to get these routines—I was getting mental-illness awards as well—because the show came [before the book]. There were a lot of Star Wars speeches that I gave, and there was a lot of mental-illness stuff. [Laughs.] So, I don’t know, I just eventually thought I would put them together and make a show.
AVC: How does it change things, performing the material rather than writing it, having direct contact with the audience? How has the show changed for you over the course of its life?
CF: I try to change it up as much as I can, because otherwise I get sick of myself. So I actually prefer the times in the show when I ask for audience participation, because then it gets more dangerous. That’s my favorite way to do it. I grew up around performers, and I really did not want to do that. I started out doing my mother’s nightclub act, and I had stage fright. I never really liked it that much.
AVC: You grew up with very famous parents, but as you say in the show, their celebrity faded over time. There must have been a point where you were more famous than them.
CF: Don’t tell her that.
AVC: Was it fulfilling to pass them in that way, or did it feel unnatural?
CF: Neither of those things. Actually, when my mother, at some point, found out that I’d made a lot of money—which didn’t sustain, by the way—I remember she was disconcerted. But I think that’s common. When you think of Paul Simon, how is his father? If you become that vaunted, then it’s hard to maintain the parental position where you’re giving out advice.
AVC: No matter how successful, or just plain old people get, their parents can’t help but treat them like children sometimes.
CF: No, though there was a little hitch in the proceedings with me and my mom. It changed. It just changes things. My mother’s still telling me what to do. She’s always telling me, “Well, they’re taking advantage of my daughter again. Well, I told you not to do that.” But we’ve gotten to the point where she says, “You know, I did the show and then I needed to lie down,” or “You know what I’m talking about.” So now we do the same thing, in her mind. She doesn’t have to explain herself as much.
AVC: You talk about the intense merchandising of Star Wars, all the things your face has ended up on. Was there a point at which you realized that it wasn’t going away?
CF: Yes. It doesn’t go away in one sense, but it goes away in another. What I’ve realized recently is that the difference between me and Mickey Mouse is, there’s not a man that can go and say, “Look, can you get me in any faster? I’m Mickey Mouse.” Whereas I can go in and say, “Look, could you get me a table faster? I’m Princess Leia.” Which is not a lot of difference in, after a while, how that character is perceived. It’s a cartoon character. And I don’t get any money from the merchandising. That stuff, to me, is funny.
AVC: As you say in the show, what choice do you have?
CF: Yes. Sometimes it’s annoying that all this stuff is made with your image and everything. At the time, there was no such thing as signing over your image. That would be like signing over your foot size. But it did end up being something.
AVC: In addition to the action figures, there are the comic books, and collectors’ plates—
CF: And cookie jars, and stamps and… I mean, it just doesn’t stop at a certain place. It’s insane!
AVC: Do you at least get a copy?
AVC: You don’t get a piece, or a sample?
CF: No. I usually end up finding out through someone. I found out when I did the Oprah Winfrey show that there was a cookie jar of me. So she gave it to me. I had no idea prior to that that it even existed.
AVC: The critics weren’t all kind to the Star Wars trilogy, but the public validation was incredible. What was it like to go from The Empire Strikes Back to Under The Rainbow, which was a critical and commercial flop?
CF: Well, it deserved worse. In those days, I was high, so that accounts for some of it. [Laughs.] I actually got a lot of my acid from one of the midgets on the movie. When they said “Stand by,” we all used to say, “We are standing!” That was probably the height of my drug days, which is perfect.
AVC: I imagine it would’ve been hard to feel sober on that set, in any case.
CF: I don’t think my co-stars were any soberer, either.
AVC: I’ve read that you got LSD advice from Cary Grant. Is that right?
CF: Yes, I did. He was having, at that time, a problem with Chevy Chase, who said Cary was bisexual, and Cary Grant was suing him. So, when I talked to him, I was able to say, “Well, maybe he just has trouble with people named Cary.” Because I wasn’t getting along with Chevy at the time, either.
AVC: Had you broken up with Dan Aykroyd when you played his vengeful, machine-gun-toting ex in The Blues Brothers?
CF: No! That was the height of our being together. [Laughs.] The day we shot it, [John] Belushi went around singing “My Best Friend’s Girl.” And he actually put mascara on for his close-up. You know, Belushi set us up by calling me and saying, “Come down. There’s this thing at my apartment.” And I arrived there, and he passed out and left me alone with Danny. That’s the Belushi blind date.
AVC: That’s a novel way of setting someone up.
CF: It worked!
AVC: You can’t argue with success.
CF: Right. Well, you can. All the time.
AVC: You talk about addiction in the show, and also about bipolar disorder. When were you diagnosed?
CF: I was told the first time when I was 24. It was kind of when I was doing Under The Rainbow. [Laughs.] By then, I was super-crazy. I mean, my behavior was really… it wasn’t just the drugs. I was really nuts then. I think I was taken from that set in an ambulance. That was kind of the cap of the whole experience. I believe I was actually held responsible for it going over.
AVC: For the movie going over budget?
CF: Well, I think it went over schedule, so that would mean it went over budget, but I really think that’s unfair. The whole cast could’ve done it. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s hard to imagine you being the biggest, or the only, problem with that movie.
CF: No, I know I wasn’t. So when I was 24, someone suggested to me that I was bipolar, and I thought that was ridiculous. I just thought he was trying to get out of treating me. But he was also responding to the chaotic nature of my life. And that could easily be attributed to my drug addiction, because you can’t diagnose someone as being bipolar when they’re actively abusing drugs or alcohol. Because chaotically, and correctly, to excess, your behavior mimics exactly that of someone with manic depression.
AVC: That’s why some people take drugs in the first place, as a way of self-medicating an undiagnosed disorder.
CF: I didn’t accept it until I was 30.
AVC: There’s a profound shift when you start to think your problem as neurochemical rather than psychological.
CF: The way I saw it happen was, I went through rehab with an assortment of creatures, and I ended up continuing through all the steps. We kind of all palled around together, and they all calmed down, and I stayed, if not got more, intensely manic. So finally, I was sober and acting loaded. That was the point where I just, “Fuck!” I thought, “I have to go back to therapy now. I’m in AA, and now I have to be in therapy as well.” Then I go to the therapist, and she wants me to go to the psychopharmacologist, and it just was like, “Oh, fuck.”
AVC: Psychiatry is still such a frighteningly young science. You talk about the wonders that Electro-Convulsive Therapy has done for you, but it hasn’t been that long since they used shock therapy to “cure” gay teenagers.
CF: Actually, I was looking up “electricity” the other day, and it actually comes from a Latin word meaning “rubbing amber.” They actually, in the 15th century, used to have people that had headaches and problems like that touch an electric eel or electric fish. [Laughs.] So I think it’s been used more for disorders in the head. I don’t think homosexuality—I think they’ve stopped trying to use it for quashing.
AVC: What is your experience with ECT? How does it change things for you?
CF: It just feels like it sort of takes you back to, like in Monopoly, “Go.” It breaks apart the cement. It gives you an option for a new beginning. It kind of puts the punctuation or period on the end of, perhaps, difficulties that are emotional in nature. It levels the odds.
AVC: Looking back over your filmography for the past 10 or 15 years, there are a lot of small parts, but they’re chosen with a sense of humor and an admirable lack of self-seriousness. What determines when you take a role?
CF: I enjoy taking jobs that make fun of me—or me as Princess Leia, or me as the writer, or whatever, as some idea. I have the ability, occasionally, of being able to step out and see who you think I could end up being. And I like to play with that.
AVC: And is there some sort of therapeutic or self-protective—
CF: No. Therapy is therapy. It’s fun. It makes you feel a little more in charge of it than being at the effect, always, of being Mickey Mouse.
AVC: There are at least three nuns in your filmography.
CF: Actually four, because I played a nun on Broadway.
AVC: Agnes Of God, right?
CF: Yeah, and my mother played a nun. My mother actually has a picture of me that—whatever that guy is that does your sketch when you go on Broadway…
AVC: Al Hirschfeld?
CF: Yeah. There’s a picture of me as a nun in my mother’s bathroom. [Laughs.] A lot of the time, I’ll take the job, but one of the conditions of me taking the job is that I can fuck with the dialogue.
CF: I don’t think it is, “Sure,” like everyone does it.
AVC: No, but you’ve discussed it, and people who’ve directed you have discussed it, and the scenes that you’re in seem to reflect a common sensibility. You’re not just showing up as Prison Guard #3 and saying—
CF: “Here are your lines.” It’s also better for someone who has a bad memory.
AVC: I gather it’s not something you do really anymore, but you did quite a bit of script work.
CF: Yes. But that job, script doctor… Probably there are still people who get the job without having to jump through hoops, but there’s more hoop-jumping now. As maybe there should be, because it’s a very lucrative thing to do, but I don’t like the hoops. And you wouldn’t either, as a writer. They say, “Well, what would you do if you got this job?” So basically, you’re giving them your ideas, you’re giving them your writing.
AVC: For free.
CF: Yeah, and then generally, they go, “Nah, we found someone else.” And they probably always wanted that someone else.
AVC: But now they have a bunch of ideas they got without paying you.
CF: Yeah, so I don’t want to play, and they still have tried to engage me. They still are like, “You essentially have the job. You just have to come in and talk to them.” And you don’t! It’s bullshit. I don’t like being treated like that, and no one does, but I have a particular thing about it.
AVC: Of that script work, is there a job you were particularly proud of?
CF: Well, I liked doing The River Wild with Meryl, because it was taken on right after I split up with Bryan [Lourd]. That was, not therapeutic, but distracting, at least. I don’t know, I did a lot. Working with [Steven] Spielberg [on Hook] was my first job in that area. It’s just nice being treated with a different kind of respect than certainly you would be as an actor. There were a lot of ones that I had fun on. The Wedding Singer. I can’t—again, bad memory. There were quite a few of them that I really enjoyed working with those directors.
AVC: It’s still a secretive process, which is kind of odd. Everyone knows that giant blockbusters are written by 14 people, but the guild has to maintain the fiction that it’s primarily a writer’s creation, as if anybody’s going to see Transformers 3 because of who wrote it.
CF: I think it reflects on the person who turned in the first script. My favorite films are ones that have my lines in it, and I like those lines. And I like to hear them.
AVC: When did writing emerge as something you could make your own? Going into show business, you had big shoes to fill, but you don’t come from writers.
CF: I always wrote. I wrote from when I was 12. That was therapeutic for me in those days. I wrote things to get them out of feeling them, and onto paper. So writing in a way saved me, kept me company. I did the traditional thing with falling in love with words, reading books and underlining lines I liked and words I didn’t know. It was something I always did. Me being an actor was an accident, and not something I wanted to do, because I knew what happened eventually. Yeah, maybe you’d get famous, but then you wouldn’t be famous anymore. Then you’d have to scramble to get back to where you were, and chances are, you wouldn’t. And was that necessary? Well, maybe, but that’s the nature of the gig.
AVC: And as it turns out, they don’t pay you for being famous.
CF: No, not at all. I’m mostly rich because I was in Star Wars. I had a good time certainly doing the Star Wars films—especially with the second two, because we knew they were going to be hit movies. That’s very rare.
AVC: Writing is a powerful tool when your head is full of ideas or feelings you can’t get a handle on. It lets you clear them out and organize them.
CF: I have a mess in my head sometimes, and there’s something very satisfying about putting it into words. Certainly it’s not something that you’re in charge of, necessarily, but writing about it, putting it into your words, can be a very powerful experience. And putting it well, God, there’s no pleasure better than that. What I wrote all the time when I was a kid—I don’t want to call it “poetry,” because it wasn’t poetry. I was not that kind of a writer. I was a rhymer. I was a fan of Dorothy Parker’s, so maybe I wrote poetry to that extent, but my main focus was the humor of it, and word construction, and the slant. Your words, it’s a very powerful experience. They were my words, and I may have had to borrow them from the dictionary, but if I put them together that way, they’re mine.
AVC: Now that Wishful Drinking has been a show, and then a book, and then a show, and now a movie of the show, do you want to keep doing it? Have you closed the book on it?
CF: No, I want to change it. I am. I change it as I go along, which I always have done. Filming it is just catching what it is at that time. The more I change it, the happier I am. What I think I’m probably going to end up doing is to write another show. I like performing. I like partnering with an audience. As it went along, I had a moment where I thought, “Wow, I can do all these different things.” But also, the pressure is, you have to keep doing them well, or else you’re just spreading yourself too thin. That would be the worst crisis of identity.