Mental illness isn't funny. Or at least, it's not supposed to be. Depression doesn't exactly call up visions of roaring laughter. But on FX's You're the Worst, some of the funniest jokes hang on the darkest topics. You're the Worst is a comedy about a relationship between two truly terrible people—Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere) and Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash). Both are narcissistic assholes who meet at a wedding and end up stuck together.
In season two, though, the show revealed (spoilers) that part of Gretchen's behavior stems from her latent and fairly untreated clinical depression. In season three, Aya Cash has to play a depressed struggling woman and make her funny. Fortunately, Cash is unstoppably funny, capable of making an entire scene with just a glance or a nod.
I chatted with Aya Cash on the phone last week about acting depression, being a woman in Hollywood, and whether or not she washes her legs.
Playing Gretchen is your first starring role for television role. How did you know this was a role you wanted?
I wanted it before it wanted me. I read the script and thought it was a really great opportunity to play a very interesting dynamic female character. Those are sort of few and far between. The truth is, I would have taken much less at the point when I was auditioning for this. I feel like I lucked out when I got this job. I would have done some sloppier stuff.
Gretchen has obviously had depression since early in the second season. We saw her crying in her car at night. How early on did you know that that’s what this role would entail?
I didn’t know until i read the same exact cliffhangers that the audience got. I didn’t know anything until I got to the point where she’s crying alone in her car. And i said to [show creator] Stephen [Falk] “wait what?” So he gave me a heads up about what was going to be happening. I learned pretty late. I learned a week before shooting.
Gretchen is certainly a flawed character, but not necessarily in the cute manic pixie dream girl way we’ve come to accept female flaws. A word that gets thrown around a lot with female characters is “likeability.” Do you think that matters at all?
I think we live in a world where everyone wants to coin a new phrase and I think likeability has become a talking point at this point in our culture that kind of doesn’t apply. We act like it’s a new thing to have “unlikeable” characters, but those are just anti-hero protagonists. But it’s not new. Think about Seinfeld, no one on that show is a “likeable” character. I think it was rare to see women as “unlikeable” characters. But we did have one. Think about Weeds. You have the ultimate anti-hero in a pot dealing mom.
I think there has been kind of a swing. We were in sort of a phase of being interested in sweet nice girls, and now we’re having more representations of women in our media. You’re the Worst happens to be one of the first of this new wave along with Amy Schumer and Broad City. It became sort of a rebellion against what we had been seeing in year’s previous.
Do you think that rebellion is a good thing?
Yeah. I think the more representations of women we see, the better. I just read something great. I think in Lindy West’s book. There was something about representation. I believe it’s from Shrill, but I’m not 100% sure. But it was about representation and about how representation matters, and how fat representation helped her get over being hateful of her body. Looking at positive images of fat women. All that to say, representation matters. It’s why diversity in casting matters. It’s why we need more representation of minorities because when you only have one, people believe that that’s how one race behaves, or one sex behaves. And that’s never true.
It’s so easy to fall into playing a stereotype. How do you make your character real for audiences?
Luckily the writing does most of it for me. I think ultimately every actor tries to approach their character with empathy and pathos and that’s how you create a character. I basically just did kind of the same thing I would do with someone who is not struggling with depression. Whether you struggle with clinical depression or not, it’s easy to understand. I’ve had depressive bouts before, myself, even though I’ve never been on medication.
Did you have any hesitations about performing mental illness?
Not really. This is not going to be everyone’s idea of depression. But my experience of clinical depression is very similar in terms of the rage that she feels and shows. That’s actually very identifiable for me.
I was worried more that we were a comedy and people were going to be mad at us. But now thinking back, it’s distrusting of our audience in a way.
Is there any individual scene that you’ve filmed that resonated with you in a deeply personal way?
The scene I think about first is a scene where I don’t speak. It’s a scene when Firth’s character is talking about, “Yeah, I think about getting out all the time.” I think that for me, being a human is constantly exploding. Being successful getting things you want is constantly exploding the fantasy.
You think you want one thing and then you get it and you realize you want something entirely different. This is a privilege to have that feeling, and you can only have it in success. Things can never be as good as you imagine in your head. That’s real even if it’s not the worst problem in the world to have.
Is there anything specific in your career that makes you aware of this?
[Laughing] All of it. First of all you realize most people don’t know what they’re doing. I’m doing a lot of press. And last year it was really confusing for me. It was the first time people were so interested in what I had to say or what I was wearing. I would be sitting at home in my pajamas eating cheese crying, and I would be wiping off a tear and saying, "I’m so happy and so bright and I’m so grateful.”
It’s a confusing thing, because you want to both acknowledge and be grateful for it all and also say that that doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle. How do you be honest about that in press and also not be an asshole? There were times when I was a full-time waitress and I would have killed for any of these opportunities. And I’m still super excited about all the opportunities, and yet there are moments when I feel terrible or like I’m a liar if I’m not happy all the time. That’s just reality.
In season three’s premiere, Gretchen says “I’m not crazy…well technically clinical depression but I’m starting therapy next week.” What do you think it means to be crazy?
I’m very sensitive to that word. I had an instance where someone was mistakenly quoted as calling me crazy. And to be honest, I went a little crazy. Women are called crazy when they make people uncomfortable in any way. If a woman is behaving badly or acting out in some way or just makes someone feel uncomfortable, she must be crazy.
I knew my boyfriend’s were cheating on me when they called me crazy for thinking they were cheating, and then called the girl they were cheating on me with crazy. It’s just such a trigger word for women because it’s so overused in so many different places. I think there’s a real fear as a woman that you’ll be dismissed, because you had an emotion once. On top of that, people write off any mental health problems as crazy.
I know you’ve done a lot of off-Broadway work. What will you do once this season finishes filming?
Probably get in bed and eat cheese. [Laughs] But really working to develop a movie based on one of my mom’s books. I’m producing that, and we’re looking for the right lady director right now. I’m also trying to go live in a foreign country for a few months, but I have to find out how to get my brand new dog over there.
One last question: do you wash your legs?
Once a week. What’s more horrifying, is [I wash them] about as much as I wash my hair.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.