20 Questions for Carrie Fisher

The prolific performer talks about her experiences with bipolar disorder and addiction -- plus what it's like to reach a happier middle age.

From the WebMD Archives

Carrie Fisher burst onto the big screen in 1975, when she starred opposite the magnetic Warren Beatty in the hit Shampoo. Playing Princess Leia in the Star Wars trilogy -- the first film was released in 1977 -- sealed her claim to fame, but since then she has starred in a wide range of films (including Austin Powers, The Blues Brothers, Hannah and her Sisters, When Harry Met Sally, and Wonderland).

A talented writer, Fisher's 1987 book, Postcards from the Edge hit The New York Times bestseller list and won her the Los Angeles Pen Award for Best First Novel; she has published three bestsellers since. Most recently, Fisher has turned her memoir Wishful Drinking into a one-woman play, as well as an HBO special. Fisher took the time to sit down with WebMD the Magazine to answer questions about her experiences with addiction and bipolar disorder, her writing career, and how the character of Princess Leia will be with her forever.

Your hit Broadway show and best-selling memoir, Wishful Drinking, is now an HBO special airing in November. What's been toughest: living it, writing it, performing it, or watching it?

Living it. I haven't watched it yet. I don't like watching myself because I'm overweight. I'm an overweight over-sharer. But I'm not so immature or vain as to think watching it is worse than living it. So living it!

You're hilariously frank about your misadventures: the pills, the men, plus growing up a celeb-u-spawn of the Brad and Jen of their day, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. If you could change any of it, would you?

I always think those kind of questions are weird. It's implausible; it's not an option! Going through challenging things can teach you a lot, and they also make you appreciate the times that aren't so challenging … The only regret [I have with] my difficulties is making my daughter go through them.

You were born into celebrity royalty, then married and divorced music legend Paul Simon. And you're an icon, too, famed for your star turn as an intergalactic princess. Was it tough to get past the infinite space of Star Wars?

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Have I gotten past it? I wasn't aware that I had! I am Princess Leia, no matter what. If I were trying to get a good table, I wouldn't say I wrote Postcards [From the Edge, her best-selling first novel]. Or, if I'm trying to get someone to take my check and I don't have ID, I wouldn't say: "Have you seen Harry Met Sally?" Princess Leia will be on my tombstone.

Actor, writer, funny lady, bipolar disorder. Is it unsettling, empowering, or a bit of both to be considered a poster child for this condition?

Well, I am hoping to get the centerfold in Psychology Today. It's a combination of everything. It was out there, anyway; I wanted my version of it out there. Now, it seems every show I watch there's always someone bipolar in it! It's going through the vernacular like "May the force be with you" did. But I define it, rather than it defining me.

You were officially diagnosed at age 29, after initially being told you were an alcoholic and drug addict. Did your addictions mask bipolar behaviors?

The first time they said the word bipolar to me was when I was 24. The diagnosis when I accepted it? I was 29. But I was still loaded [then]; if you're on drugs, you look bipolar anyway.

And once you first got sober, did these behaviors immediately amp up?

Everybody I came into rehab with, we hung out, going to meetings that first year. They all calmed down; I went in the other direction. I was a year sober and I was pretty crazy. I thought once I got diagnosed [as] an alcoholic, and that was the problem, that was it. Well, yeah, that was part of it. But it was the solution, not the problem.

Without the leveling effect of medication: are you more manic or depressive?

Mostly mania. When I got older, depression became more of an issue. Mania is not that unpleasant, but … it's a spin of the dial, you don't know what you're going to get. It turned into what they call agitated depression. I would get really impatient. I was going much faster than everything else around me, and it drove me crazy. You feel out of step with the world.

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Is there still a stigma attached to mental illness and to seeking help for it? Have we as a society made strides in this arena?

Of course there's still stigma, especially when it comes to shock treatment [which Fisher experienced, and openly discusses in her memoir]. But it's getting better. I think there's more understanding now than there was, depending on what part of the country you're in, or what part of the world.

You're a mom to Billie, now 18. Do you embarrass her, does she embarrass you, or are you the rare mother-daughter team that stands united, never horrified by the other?

I embarrass her! I inspire a lot of eye-rolling. I have a manic personality. I don't act my age by any stretch. I'm not a master of the appropriate.

What parenting tips did you steal from your mother, and which ones did you kick to the curb?

My mother worked a lot. I swung in the other direction and was around probably too much. My mother, she loved us and demonstrated that. Whereas my father may have loved us, but he didn't demonstrate it. What I've learned over a lifetime is that love is an action … so I grew up feeling loved on one side and not on the other, which did not make me into the most confident of people … Billie has been shown love on both sides and it's an amazing difference.

Is humor essential to good health? How often do you belly laugh?

Yes! I laugh a lot, actually. A lot. I've gotten to an age where I enjoy my life. I've spent enough time struggling with it, and at this point it's living on one side of the magnifying glass; I stay on the side of making big things appear small. I enjoy myself and I have a lot of good friends, good relationships. You learn to get there. Having gone through a lot of stuff I've gone through -- I don't want to do that stuff anymore. I take care of myself best as I can. I do the best imitation of maturity I can possibly muster.

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What's your guilty-pleasure, high-carb, forget-the-diet-I-just-don't-care-anymore food escape?

I eat Peanut Butter Balance Bars to the point where they should have a support group for me.

How do you atone for it afterward?

Well, I don't have a problem exercising if I'm staying in one place. But the last couple of years I've been traveling a lot, which makes it harder to maintain. I did regularly exercise for 14 years. I started back when I was in my first mental hospital. But lately travel and work have made exercising tough.

If you were stuck in a hospital room for a month and had to share confined quarters with anyone from history, who would it be?

[The poet] Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was manic-depressive, too.

You're a renowned Hollywood script doctor. What does it take to heal bad dialogue?

Make the women smarter and the love scenes better.

Of the five senses, which do value most, and why?

Either hearing or seeing. I like listening to music. I like to read.

Your TV work is so ruthlessly funny. You were fantastic during your brief bit on HBO's Entourage this season as a nasty Hollywood blogger, and you were nominated for an Emmy in 2008 for your portrayal of TV writer Rosemary Howard on 30 Rock. Will either of these characters be making a comeback to the small screen anytime soon?

When I was little I didn't want to be an actress. I can do it, but my personality always comes along with me. I'm not an artist like Meryl [Streep, Fisher's close friend] or Cate Blanchett, people who disappear into their roles and express their art. That is not what I do. I'm a writer and it turns out later in life, a performer. I'm a persona more than a person. I'm designed more for public than private.

You appeared at the Orpheum Theater, here in L.A., at a star-studded tribute to John Lennon to celebrate what would have been his 70th birthday. How did you get involved?

I'm actually very close with Sean, whom I met through my stepson Harper Simon. Sean has lived at my house for a long, long time. Through Sean I became friendly with Yoko. We spent both New Year's and Christmas with her last year because I was working in New York [doing Wishful Drinking on Broadway].

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Why do you think we human beings so need to be entertained?

To distract them from pain or boredom -- the latter I've heard described as "unenthusiastic hostility" -- and to get their minds off their own difficulties.

On that note, what's next for Carrie Fisher? Another bestselling memoir or novel? The stage, the screen, HBO?

I'm finishing another book [her second anecdotal memoir]. I adapted my novel The Best Awful for Lifetime Network with Meg Ryan; my good friend Bruce Cohen produced it. And I'm doing my show Down Under.

WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 03, 2010

Sources

SOURCE:
Carrie Fisher, August, 2010.

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