February 21, 2011
Near the end of breakfast in a New York hotel, Ruby Wax interrupts the path of our conversation, which has become very intense — focusing on the depressive episodes during which she dramatically withdrew from the world and the cruelty and ignorance of her parents — and says, slowly: “It’s really important to me that you write about my show. I would hate this to seem to people like: ‘Oh, she’s nuts, or was nuts.’ This show is not about feeling sorry for me. Or about me thinking I’m the only one who’s ever had a mental disease, or that I’m using that disease to go on stage. Once you have three episodes of depression you have it: it keeps coming like herpes. No matter how successful you get, you have a weakness like an epileptic.”
Contrary to reports, the show, Losing It — on now at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory — does not focus on her supposed bipolar condition (“I’m not bipolar: I have no idea why that was said”), but rather these depressive episodes and is a mix of personal experience, observations garnered through years of therapy and the experiences of patients at various Priory clinics which Wax, 57, and her co-performer Judith Owen have performed in, and where Wax was a patient six years ago. “You hear the best things in the smoking room,” she says in that familiar laconic, wise-ass tone.
“This show is not a meander down Self-Indulgent Lane,” Wax insists, though she is a brazen self-publicist. “It’s really funny and pulls everyone in. I talk about the Priory patients who steal food from the anorexics who are fine about that, and the woman who screams: ‘I’ve got a Communist in my back molar.’ One in four people have this thing [depression]. After the show, when people come to talk about their experience of depression, or a friend’s, I know I’ve found my tribe.” She met Owen on a plane. “I once dated her husband Harry Shearer [multi-voiced Simpsons actor]. I thought the plane was going to crash, but it was just turbulence. I held on to her, she told me her life story, including that her mother had killed herself. She was in shutdown for 16 years.
“Everybody has a malaise. We’re all outsiders. We’re all winging it. I’m just gambling at being an adult. Everyone is being driven a little bit nuts by things that are amusing which are kind of dark, like reading a celebrity magazine and wanting everyone in it dead.”
The show moves from childhood to how people “imitate” television when they get married, “finding yourself saying ‘Hi honey, I’m home.’ You go to sleep a normal woman and wake up the next day a mother. I remember seeing my daughter one sports day and instead of running she stood there at the starting line. It gave me a hideous flashback to how I was at her age and this awful fear kicked in she was going to turn out the same. But of course she started running.”
This measured, thoughtful Ruby Wax is unfamiliar: she is better known as the loud, nosy interviewer, grilling public figures like Imelda Marcos or Liza Minnelli. Indeed, today dressed in black leather jacket and black trousers, she confesses to missing primetime life and its perks. But the mind is her new obsession. She goes into companies like Deutsche Bank and advises on team dynamics and interpersonal skills. She is at Oxford studying for a Masters in cognitive therapy, science and psychology. She intends to write a “Bill Bryson-type book . . . less self-help, more a journey into the mind. People want to know how this machine works,” she says, “and you can learn how to regulate it if you learn how hormones and chemicals work. It doesn’t feel as if the machine is controlling you.”
Wax hasn’t been in therapy for six years. “I’m not sure what it does, although I watched how the big boys did it.” Of her own childhood, growing up in Chicago with her father Edward Wachs (her original surname), a Jewish sausage manufacturer who had fled the Nazis, and mother Berta, Wax says: “I didn’t come from two stable people. I didn’t have a stiff upper lip, I had clinical depression. Every time I got hit with it I would go gormless, null and void, like a deep hibernation. My parents thought I had a fever or I was drugged. My mother was running down the street, wildly trying to find answers, writing cheques to window-cleaners.”
Wax recalls her father locking her mother in the trunk of the family car: “My dad thought if you didn’t obey him you should be punished. That could have made me quiet: it made me more aggressive. My dad would say I was pathetic because I would sit like a lump doing tongue exercises telling him some day I would join the RSC.” The shame her parents felt for her was “tremendous”.
“My mother was a mathematician, she spoke languages. They were aggressive alpha immigrants and they have this thing for a daughter. They blamed themselves.” At school, she was “the funny girl. I worked to keep myself out of the house.” She expressed her fears “in a screwed-up way and it made people laugh. For some people comedy is survival.”
She “couldn’t really learn” but liked psychology and went to the University of California at Berkeley to study it, but dropped out “and came to Britain to become a classical actress”, first in Scotland, then at the RSC. “But I was thrown out of every audition because I sucked.” Her parents thought her career a “real letdown”. Her father recommended she “marry someone and set up my own linen business”. She was “totally shy and withdrawn”, lived in a bedsit, “made no friends for two years.” She became fat “because I was so miserable”. Was she sexually confident? “Never. Everything was terrifying. I couldn’t talk to boys. I never really dated. I was too shy. I asked some guys recently why they hadn’t liked me. They said: ‘We did but you didn’t respond to us.’ I was completely shut down, frozen, my head was filled with the voices of a hundred thousand devils.” Still, Wax’s fame began to grow, first in shows like Girls on Top, where she met her husband Ed Bye, then as a collaborator with Jennifer Saunders on Ab Fab (“a true work of genius”), and as an interviewer. “I wasn’t attracted to Ed at first, but he became more attractive. He was there, available,” she laughs. “I asked him to marry me by saying I had an opening in my diary.”
Her parents thought Wax’s success was a fluke. “They’re laughing at you, not with you,” they said, telling Bye: “If you have any control over her, you’ll stop her doing this.” (Bye would reply: “Oh, I’m directing her.”) She loved interviewing figures like Donald Trump (“He told filthy jokes, but was terrible on camera”), Zsa Zsa Gabor (“hours of madness”) and Imelda Marcos (“I treated her like an 8-year-old sociopath”).
Wax’s depressive episodes continued: as a teenager she would “go to sleep”; as an actress at the RSC she would leave Stratford for days and check into an hotel, “in a haze, just stare, lying in my room. If I could have read or watched TV it would have been great. After sleeping and waking, sleeping and waking, I would go back to the RSC.” But she insists: “I am not a depressive. It’s a little piece of me in a trillion cells. I have a tiny area of the frontal left cortex which sometimes doesn’t do what it should, like other people have things which occasionally attack their immune systems.”
Pregnant with her third daughter, Marina, now 17, Wax “shut down”, though she claims the episodes didn’t affect how she and Bye bought up the children. “When they were young, we hid it: Ed told them I was on holiday. He was amazing. Some men come to the fore when their wives are ill. He wasn’t going to run when the going got tough. I’m too funny. He can’t afford to lose that,” she smiles. Did she ever want to leave him? “Where can you run to when you can’t leave the house?”
Later, they were open with the children. Max, 22, is studying physics, Maddie, 20, sociology, and Marina “is too young to know what to do”. What if she wanted to act? “I would say get another career up your sleeve,” says Wax. “Your brain goes very quickly and you need something for the long haul. Actresses aren’t that interesting unless they have something else. The fascinating thing is the children don’t seem to have depression. I don’t think it’s genetic, but I think some children of depressives can have the proclivity, although I was a very different parent to my own parents. I was totally nurturing and supportive.” Is she relieved her children don’t suffer from it? “Oh yeah, that’s my greatest accomplishment,” Wax says seriously.
Did her parents recognise that? “They were too far gone, they couldn’t see outside their own parameters, they didn’t notice my children. My dad got a gold Cadillac when he was 97 to drive across America. They weren’t curious about who I was. I’m endlessly curious about my children. They’re so healthy mentally, it’s a miracle.”
Wax’s last attack of depression came three years and one month ago: “It wiped me out. I said: ‘Never again.’ The attacks were becoming more frequent, and I knew it was accelerating. My mother was almost mad as she got older.” Wax began to read up, and with a psychopharmacologist deduced the right cocktail of anti-depressants, whose only drawback is that they leave her mouth dry.
Does she miss being on TV? A long pause. “It isn’t applicable to me: I’m interested in this show,” she says. She seemed to have liked fame. “Yes, it was like covering a tumour with a bandage. It feels really good, like a party where you get high, but the next day you can’t remember anything. I can make people laugh by getting the right rhythm, or saying ‘f***’ a few times, but this show is more pleasurable.” On TV, she enjoyed interviewing ordinary people, “where every line is out of a great novel. That’s what I miss about TV, that kind of stuff before ‘celebrity’.” Fame made an outsider like her feel “even more outside”. She liked primetime, “but I’m not the right kind of narcissist for reality TV. I’m not interested in brushing my teeth in front of cameras.”
Wax feels healthy and safe now. “I meditate. I lower my heartbeat before every show and never let my adrenalin go past a certain level.” She doesn’t drink and doesn’t do drugs. “I’m on enough medication,” Wax laughs. “You could lick certain parts of my body and be out of your mind.”
How about ageing? “Love it, embrace it,” Wax deadpans. “No I don’t: who does? At least I have a career.” Has she had plastic surgery? “No, but I have Botox once a year.” What about more radical surgery? “I don’t think about it. That way madness lies. If you want to put someone to sleep, talk about your weight, age, kids.” She laughs: “And, if you really want to score out, your mental disorders.”
In farewell she asks where to buy good boots in New York. Saks Fifth Avenue, I suggest. “That’s the way out of depression,” Wax says, grinning. “Shop.”