Aya Cash on the New Season of ‘You’re the Worst’ and Twitter’s Ugly Online Discourse
If you’ve been watching You’re The Worst on FXX then you already know how it has distinguished itself by avoiding television’s typical romantic comedy tropes. Beginning as a story centered on two L.A.-based misanthropes who are resistant to relationships, the show quickly evolved, choosing to grapple with darker themes including death, depression, and PTSD. Aya Cash stars as Gretchen Cutler, a publicist who battles clinical depression and relationship banality, the latter fear shared by boyfriend Jimmy Shive-Overly (played by Chris Geere).
Cash has received praise for her portrayal of Gretchen, particularly in season two when her character dealt head on with depression and “existential uncertainty.” The show is currently in its third season and similarly to Geere, Cash doesn’t resemble her character too closely, but admitted that she related to her in certain ways. I spoke with Cash about portraying depression, working with Martin Scorsese, and the proper way to respond to social media trolls.
How do you approach playing a character who struggles with depression?
Unfortunately I think we’re all familiar with what it’s like to not be able to get out of bed and not be able to engage in your life or feeling terrible when there’s nothing really wrong. I think that’s normal to a certain extent. Clinical depression stops you from functioning in your life. I would say it’s an extreme version of what almost everyone goes through, just circumstantially. I’ve been surrounded by people my whole life who have struggled with clinical depression. I swing low myself. There’s many access points I would say.
It’s a complete frozenness. It’s the first time I’ve seen that in a show. What was your thought when you first saw that character shift in the script?
I thought it made perfect sense. I didn’t expect it and yet as soon as I read it I was like, “oh of course.” I think it’s pretty natural that people who behave the way Jimmy and Gretchen do have psychological stuff going on. But it’s unexpected to acknowledge that because I think a lot of shows would be afraid that it wouldn’t be fun. They’re supposed to be fun. Luckily I don’t make those decisions. Our showrunner and our writers make those decisions. They’re not afraid of anything. Because of them I have to step up and also be like “yeah, I’m game.” And I’m always really happy that they take me to those places.
Do you find it more challenging to approach a comedic scene or something more serious?
I think both can be intimidating for different reasons. Obviously if I am saying something like, “I’m sorry I’m crying” you have to be crying and there an innate pressure in that. The thing about crying is that nobody’s trying to be crying. Acting is weird when you’re doing something that you’re also trying not to do. Which is bizarre. So there’s pressure there. But there’s just as much pressure to nail a joke or to get the timing right on something. I find them both equally challenging. And I enjoy doing both. But the truth is the show is pretty well suited for me in that what I’m attracted to is very dramatic comedy and very comedic drama in general and in my life. I tend to like people who have a really good balance of both empathy and humor about themselves.
People don’t want to be around anyone whose entirely sad or happy all the time.
Sadness is a part of life. The difference between sadness and clinical depression is the inability to act and come out of it. We all get sad. And sadness is probably a good thing. I think it’s our fear of being sad that keeps us depressed or down. I think if we just felt our feelings we would probably come out of them quicker.
I’ve read that your dad is a Buddhist priest and your mother is a poet. How much has that played into your career and your life in general?
I think it is super helpful and in some ways it’s more helpful in my acting career than it is in my real life. Of course everyone rebels against their parents and everyone has a reaction to well, “I just think that because I was brought up that way. What do I actually feel?” I don’t meditate even though it would probably be great for me. There’s some sort of resistance to it because I had such access to it. Even though I know it’s good for me and can sort of impart the knowledge that I’ve been taught to others I definitely have a harder time taking my own advice, which I think most people do. I’m a great friend to other people and less of a good friend to myself. I think [my parents’] value system and this idea of “feel your feelings” and “just because something’s uncomfortable does not mean it’s wrong” is a helpful idea. I do not always succeed at following that.
Season two of the show focuses on different themes than the first, going from characters having relationship anxiety to dealing with clinical depression. Does season three grapple with new issues that haven’t been addressed?
Yes. Definitely. One of them is coming very soon. But there’s going to be some really interesting stuff. It’s not with the depression storyline, but you will see some other issues dealt with. There’s hints of what’s happening with Edgar and his medication. There will be interesting episodes to come.
Your grandmother was a professional tennis player who won Wimbledon. Is it true she tried to groom you to follow in her footsteps?
Yeah, a lot of my uncles on my mother’s side ended becoming tennis teachers and I went to tennis camp for like a week in the summer with my grandma every year. I just had no talent for it. But my name means, well obscurely means, “hawk” in Hebrew and so my grandmother would greet me at the airport with a giant picture of a hawk as if she’s my driver. She called me “the hawk.” I had my tennis name already. Didn’t have any of the talent, just the nickname.
Did you have any desire to be a professional tennis player?
Not a bit. I am a profoundly uncoordinated and completely non-athletically oriented person. I only work out now because there’s threat of public nudity.
How did tennis turn into acting?
I had the kid thing of “I want to be a singer or an actor.” I chose acting and I really liked it. I also thought of it as a way to travel. I won some competitions when I was young that took me to New York to do Shakespeare at Lincoln Center. And I thought “wow this is what I want to do. I want to travel and play all day.”
What was the period like prior to becoming a full-time actress? You worked as a waitress for a while before becoming successful?
It’s hard to talk about success because it’s really easy to only look at things through your own lens like “oh I suffered and I was rejected multiple times and I had to work as a waitress for five years,” but then I have friends who are 15, 20 years in the business who still have to work day jobs because this business is not fair. I would say I was very successful early on even though I was still waiting tables. Being on a TV show now is obviously, in my mind successful, in terms of I can pay my bills and get some job offers and I have a great job. It’s just so hard to talk about it because in some ways I was incredibly privileged early. I got my first play in New York a year after being there at Playwrights Horizons. In New York, Playwrights Horizons is a hugely respected theatre. And I got to do all that stuff. I struggled and I waited tables for five years and have been rejected probably hundreds and hundreds of times, but I also got super super lucky. I looked very young and played 16-year-olds until I was in my late 20s. That was a really helpful thing with my career that allowed me to climb up that ladder in a way that somebody who looked like a woman at 20 would not have.
You landed a role in The Wolf of Wall Street. What was your experience like working with Martin Scorsese?
It was incredible. I also never thought of that job as a life-changing job in any way. I thought, “wow I get to watch this amazing man work and these incredible actors work.” I have to say watching Leonardo DiCaprio work was eye opening because he works so hard and is so professional and is so kind and welcoming and open. I was just blown away. He’s a movie star and you kind of think movie stars, at that point, just phone it in, but he really cares still. And that’s really inspiring that he’s not over it. It was great.
Were there any big takeaways you got from being on that set?
The thing I learned from that job was that you can’t think of Martin Scorsese as Martin Scorsese every day when you’re working with him. You have to start to normalize things. I think that’s a better way of working with someone. If I was intimidated by working with Martin Scorsese everyday I wouldn’t be able to do my job. At a certain point you just got to see people as people. You can admire them, but you also have to trust that you have something to say even if it’s small.
Some of your recent roles involve characters exploring their relationships to others.
I think I’m very interested in interpersonal dynamics. My life has meaning based on the people in my life. And some people don’t feel that way. To some people knowledge is the most important thing. But I’m definitely into my friendships and my family. I guess maybe I’m attracted to roles that explore that and the bizarre dynamic that come up in relationships, especially romantic relationships that don’t come up in your other relationships.
You’re on Twitter and you’ve previously spoken about backlash you’ve received. Does it feel like there is a risk in being on social media?
I feel like it’s bizarre that we think actors have interesting things to say about the art they do. But in terms of the political stuff, I’m not going to keep my mouth shut because that’s who I am, not because I’m an actor. I don’t necessarily think that people who do keep their mouths shut are doing it wrong because it is a really bizarre, strange space. I’m not sure if it is the place to have the conversation. I’ve also had really positive interactions about gun control, which I am very strongly pro-gun control, and a lot of my followers are very anti-gun control. And I found that if you treat people with respect they generally will treat you with respect. What I’m learning is we want to throw shit at each other. We want to just say “you’re an idiot” or “how dare you value your gun over other people’s lives,” but the truth is we all think mass murder is wrong. If we come to a place where we all think something is wrong, but we have different ideas of what’s going to fix that, why don’t we actually talk about our ideas and what is the best idea as opposed to just slinging mud at each other. And I can lose my temper on Twitter too and so can other people. I often take it off my phone for a week or two at a time. I feel like I get too engaged in a way that’s not healthy for me or I care about what strangers think. And that’s not what I want to be focusing my energy on.
I think it can be frightening. Even people with few followers can send out one tweet and destroy their lives. I imagine it can be even more frightening if you’re famous.
Look at Leslie Jones. What a terrible thing to happen to her and I’m not clear what she did wrong except be a black woman who’s having success, which apparently is threatening. That kind of scary stuff can happen. I’ve learned to not engage with people who are saying crazy shit to you. I just mute them. I don’t even block them because I just feel like I don’t want even engage enough for them to know I’ve paid attention. I’ve learned that lesson. You don’t know who people are behind a screen.
What can fans of yours look forward to in the future?
I am about to start a little indie movie in Austin with a wonderful new female writer/director. Easy comes out on Netflix this week. [My character] is very different from Gretchen. I’m hugely pregnant in it. And I just found an amazing new young female director to direct the movie that I’m producing. It’s based on my mother’s first novel was called Little Beauties. It’s about a woman with OCD and a pregnant young teenager and how their lives intersect. That’s going to be a crazy female production because I’m starring in it, there’s another girl who will be the co-lead. It’s written by a woman and directed by a woman and produced by a woman, a big old fancy ladyfest.