There are two questions that can really get on Carrie Fisher’s nerves: What was it like playing Princess Leia? And what’s it like having Debbie Reynolds for a mom? As if nothing else had ever happened in her life not the drugs, the bad marriages, the great kid, the best-selling novels, or the wild, manic upswings that colored her world in its brightest hues and caused her to topple everything in her path.
Stupidly, when I enter Fisher’s suite in Berkeley’s Resort and Spa, the first thing I mention to her is that my parents named me after their favorite actor, her mom. Insipid conversation about how I never liked the name and neither did Carrie’s mom, who was born Mary Frances and renamed by MGM, ensues.
"She wouldn’t answer to it for two years," says the fiftysomething offspring of the Singin’ in the Rain star and the heartthrobby ’50s pop crooner Eddie Fisher as she curls her bare feet under her, leans back in a comfy chair, and lights up a smoke.
And yet how could I avoid asking a Hollywood royal about her famous parents and her larger-than-life role in the original Star Wars trilogy? Particularly as these are major subjects in her solo show Wishful Drinking, which opens at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre this week. And because she is wearing a draping black jersey version of the robe she wore in Episode IV. And especially since her mom always wanted her to do some kind of live act, in spite of her daughter’s reluctance.
"In my family the biggest act of rebellion is not doing a nightclub act," Fisher purrs with her throaty voice, oft given to delivering a snappy one-liner. "She wanted me to be a singer, but I had stage fright. Really terrifying."
In fact, Fisher frequently says in interviews that she never really wanted to go into the family business. The whole Star Wars thing was just a lark. She thought it would never make it beyond midnight movie cult-film status. But having made the nightclub rounds with her mom as a young teen even singing in her act and having studied drama in London, she seemed perfectly groomed for the thespian life. If you go to YouTube and check out a nowhere-near laughingly bad clip from the Star Wars holiday special, you’ll see Fisher in princess garb singing some hack’s weird idea of an outer-galactic spiritual. As goony as the whole thing is, it’s undeniable that Fisher has impressive pipes.
Despite her talent, she didn’t exactly become a box office giant preferring to take small roles in good films like Hannah and Her Sisters. To some it might look like Fisher disappeared from the universe, much like Leia’s home planet.
I decide the way to go is ask her about writing instead, since I love her work. She’s funny, nimble with language, and not only has a vivid imagination but also totally delivers on the juicy details of what rich and famous people are really like. I almost envy her bipolar disorder, which has a way of stirring up the winds that take her on her wild flights of wordplay and make it all too easy for her to compose lines like "They say that religion is the opiate of the masses. Well, I took massive amounts of opiates religiously."
Of her first novel, Postcards from the Edge, which won her a Los Angeles Pen Award for Best Novel in 1987, she says, "Writing was a sort of a way of kind of coping for me. You know, organizing. I used to read books and underline what I loved about them. I love all the things you can do with words, the alchemy of taking something that might in someone else’s hands become some tragic boo-hoo story and making it funny."
If you’ve read her books or seen the movie version of Postcards starring Meryl Streep, you know that postStar Wars, Fisher was well on her way to self-destructing. The dryly witty roman à clef chronicles the life of a young actor named Suzanne Vale, who, floundering in a sea of drugs, ends up like so many of her colleagues, overdosing and paying her first of many visits to rehab. But as the book demonstrates, Fisher wasn’t just another actress on drugs: she’s gifted, and she transcends the kiss-and-tell genre by aptly capturing the inner lives of Hollywood’s own and revealing the human side in all of its embarrassing detail of a woman who turns out to be not unlike our mortal selves.
Fisher tells me none of the material for her show has been gleaned from her novels. It’s all new stuff. And with the help of director Tony Taccone, she’s reworked the premiere version she did in LA two years ago so that it’s more like a conversation you’d have with someone in your living room.
At long last she’s finally following through on her mom’s plans for her. Fisher once said in an interview that when she first read the script for Star Wars she wanted to play Han Solo. She didn’t get that role, but in Wishful Drinking she does get to perform solo. And sing too.
Through March 30, $13.50$69
See Web site for schedule
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison, Berk.