People sometimes ask: Who is the nicest person you’ve interviewed? (Answer: Julianne Moore in New York; she invited me round to her house where her Labrador fell asleep on my foot). The nastiest? (A well-known British director who rolled his eyes at every question like I was asking: ‘What’s your favourite colour?’) And the funniest? Carrie Fisher.
It was summer 2014, and during a day off from filming ‘The Force Awakens’ at the Star Wars bunker she chatted over Skype. Her French bulldog Gary sat on her lap, looking bored, tongue lolling like he’d just had a shot of anaesthetic for a sore tooth. Gary had recently won a prize for best doggie acting at a film festival, Fisher explained: ‘But he’s still down to earth. He's very close to the ground.’ Fame wasn’t going to his head then? She shook her head. ‘No, but the farting has got more intense.’
It may not always have been fun being Carrie Fisher. But by God, Carrie Fisher was always funny. In an age of celebrity blandness nothing was off the record for her. Not her bipolar disorder (‘I just have too much personality for one person’). Or Star Wars. (‘George Lucas ruined my life. And I mean that in the nicest possible way’). Her memoir ‘Wishful Drinking’ is wall-to-wall hilarious and uncensored anecdotes.
First question. Why did you sign up to play Princess Leia again after all these years? ‘I liked the hair!’ she answered, untruthfully as it turned out, since Leia ditched the Danish pastry buns for ‘The Force Awakens’. After a couple minutes chatting, a film crew wandered into the room – two guys with camera and a mic – and began recording. Who are they? She shrugged, as if being shadowed by cameras was nothing out of the norm in her world. But then, nothing about Carrie Fisher’s life had ever been normal.
In ‘Wishful Drinking’ she describes herself as the product of ‘Hollywood inbreeding’, the daughter of celebrity royalty, singer Eddie Fisher (who ran off with Elizabeth Taylor a year after she was born) and actress Debbie Reynolds, who died yesterday, a day after her daughter.
Fisher grew up in a world of mansions and servants bearing hamburgers on silver trays, but found the privilege excruciating: ‘The thing about being in the house with the servants is that it’s embarrassing. It’s not yours.’ As a little girl she dreamt of living in an average family, with a dad who called her ‘princess’ and a mum who cooked dinner every night: ‘All those clichés. I thought there was some secret to that, that those people were this thing called happy.’
She talked about the growing in up in the shadow of megastar parents with the insecurity that often plagues the children of the famous: ‘When you’re out, people basically climb over you to get to them for an autograph. So very early on you get the sense of being not very important. I'm just getting over that. They call it Narcissistic Deprivation. Generally, in a family everything focused on the children. But in a famous house the focus is reversed.’ At one point she stopped herself, raised an eyebrow ironically: ‘It sounds like self-pity. It's nose-bleed, high-class problems.’
After a little while Fisher’s friend Bruce Wagner joined the conversation – calling in from New York over Skype. A scriptwriter, Wagner wrote ‘Maps to the Stars’, the dark and twisted Hollywood satire about celebrity fuck-ups, in which Fisher and Gary had cameo roles (it’s the film that won Gary his doggie acting award). Fisher and Wagner had known each other for years – he was a regular guest at her Los Angeles home, where she lived with her mother and a rotating crew of boarders. Natural-born raconteurs, from that point I barely got a word in edgewise.
‘The funny thing is that Carrie is the embodiment of a Hollywood childhood,’ Wagner explained. ‘But she’s one of the rare kids who equalled or surpassed their parents.’ Fisher became famous in her own right when, aged 19, a nerdy kid called George Lucas cast her as a space princess in his new movie. The film sounded kind of random, and her friends joked that the its title – ‘Star Wars’ – sounded like some terrible TV movie about her parents’ marriage. Although she grew up around celebrity, Fisher told me that she never believed she would be famous herself. ‘It was unexpected. And for a short time it was thrilling, because for the first time everything was on me.’
That fame never left her for a minute afterwards. I asked Fisher about her megafans. There was the woman who walked up to her and said she'd inspired her to become a lawyer. She never worked out what the woman meant, but, being Carrie Fisher, she hired her to be her lawyer. Then there were the fans who got Princess Leia tattoos in unmentionable – and painful – places. Who was the weirdest fan? ‘Probably the guy who said to me: “I thought about you every day from the age of 14 to 21.” And I said to him: “What, every day?” And he said: “Well four times a day.”’
In a brilliant Time Out interview around the time of ‘Maps to the Stars’, my colleague Catherine Bray asked Fisher about her relationship with her famous alter ego: ‘I am Leia and Leia is me. We’ve overlapped each other because my life has been so cartoony or superhero-like. By this age, it would be ridiculous if I had a problem with it.’ She described the dark side of celebrity: 'Being in Hollywood is like handling a grenade with the pin pulled out. But I try not to take it too seriously, to see it for how funny it is.'
Does Hollywood turn people into monsters I asked her? ‘No, I think Hollywood is a magnifier. It makes good people better. It can. And it makes bad people worse. But you already have to have that in you to get it going. It is a motor.’
Wagner pitched into say Fisher was a writer to her bones. ‘One day I hope she’ll publish this encyclopedia of snippets of poems, diaries and songs that she’s been keeping since she was 13.’ Who knows, maybe we’ll get that now.
Carrie Fisher’s legacy is of course Princess Leia. But in her books she gave us a glimpse into the Hollywood carnival – an insider who wrote like an outsider. ‘I think that I'm an observant observer,' she told me.
What made talking to Carrie Fisher so entertaining was her honesty mixed with her humour. She hated fakeness and small-talk: ‘Sometimes, people sound like they're practising English. They're saying: “How are you?” “I love that coat.” “Can you believe the weather we're having?” It's talking that doesn't involve your brain.’ She smiled. ‘I don't mean to be cruel. But that’s the way it is.’ Whenever she talked, she put her brain into gear. Funny and fearless, she had pulled herself through dark times with the courage to be who she was, whether that was being hilarious on Twitter or walking Gary the farting dog up the red carpet as her date to the premiere of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’.