Four years ago, Scottish actor Hanna Stanbridge decided she would tell the truth about the eating disorder that nearly killed her. The result is a comedy show with Stanbridge at her most honest, and a new happiness in the heart of LA
Words: Cheryl Caira
The sun is pouring into an unassuming pub somewhere near London’s Euston Station. I burst in – slightly flustered, as London transport has been a nightmare – and hear an excited shout from the back. Hanna Stanbridge waves me over, pen-covered script in hand, tango music playing loudly in the background as I wonder whether I’ve chosen the right place for an interview, especially one focusing around such an emotional topic.
She looks fantastic; all bright prints, hot pink nails and beaming smile. Over some fairly potent ginger beer, we chat. We’re meeting up because Stanbridge has written a show – a one-woman confessional – and she’s currently doing the test-it-out London previews, a standard exercise before the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She’s done the Fringe before, but never solo on stage, so she’s feeling terrified.
The show sees Stanbridge playing an exaggerated version of herself. Called I Hate Myself So People Will Like Me (and Other Strategies for Success), she starts the show as a motivational speaker whose aim is to make everyone’s lives better. It’s a comedy, but also an autobiographical portrayal of a woman unravelling, overcompensating and struggling to cope – a person insisting she was fine and still the life and soul of the party, but in reality is suffering from depression and battling a serious eating disorder.
I’ve interviewed Stanbridge before: in 2011, the year after she’d been given a Trailblazer award by the Edinburgh International Film Festival along with a BAFTA New Talent award. All signs of a career on the up, although I remember the actor being honest about the realities rather than glossing things over; saying people assumed work would just land in her lap, when actually, things were quieter than she would have liked.
“When I spoke to you before, I thought winning a BAFTA might mean something. I didn’t want to be famous. I just wanted to work all the time. But I wasn’t getting seen for anything, so I thought being thinner might be the solution. I would look at other people and think, they’re gorgeous in every way, super thin and they walk into a room and everyone loves them and gives them a job. I walk into a room and nobody notices me.”
I wonder – was there always a preoccupation with her weight? “I’d always had this thing about perfection and how I looked. Even when I was tiny, my hair had to be perfect for dancing and not a strand out of place. I had to give up piano because I wanted to be gifted at it, and I never felt I played perfectly enough. But it was never a weight thing. I was always a chips and chicken kinda girl. When I went to high school, I was the cool girl that ate with all the boys because I was up for pizza every night.”
Attending ballet classes from age three and taking acting classes at age 10 to combat her shyness, Stanbridge, 31, who was brought up in Penicuik, discovered she loved the stage and went on to study Acting and Performance. She landed her first feature film role in 2010 horror/thriller Outcast, the BAFTA-winning role where she played a loved-up teenager on an Edinburgh housing estate before Celtic magic and unworldly occurrences fell into the mix. Starring alongside a strong cast, including James Nesbitt, James Cosmo, Karen Gillan and Kate Dickie, Stanbridge was back working behind the counter at Topman the day after she finished filming. “We didn’t have that much money growing up, so I’ve always been fearful of money and kept on working whenever I could – even when I was ill.”
For Stanbridge, it’s hard to pinpoint where it all started. She remembers in her early twenties looking at her costume shots for a film and thinking she’d put on a bit of weight. “I thought, I’ll lose weight the heathy way. I’ll cook in more and I’ll join a gym, but it was never perfect and the goalposts kept changing. I didn’t know how to maintain the weight that I’d lost and it was too scary to go back, so I just kept going, and that’s when it got really out of control.”
Life with anorexia left her exhausted and barely functioning – she would get the bus to work during the winter wearing leggings, two pairs of jeans, three or four tops and a massive cardigan just to keep warm. She’d buy one coffee to keep her going throughout the day, on some days only eating a handful of cornflakes. She was still seeing friends, but would make excuses about not being able to afford to go out for dinner.
“I would get up every morning and go on this exercise bike I’d bought, even though I could hardly walk. I would always burn off 500 calories in the morning and 500 at night, then be unable to sleep, because I was so uncomfortable. I had to wear padded shoes because I could feel the bones through my feet. At one point, I remember walking across a busy street and getting stuck in the middle of the road because my body physically wouldn’t carry on. All I could do was mouth ‘sorry’ at the drivers who were waiting.”
At the peak of Stanbridge’s illness, her weight dropped to five stone – unimaginably underweight for a 5ft 7in adult. She’d moved back home to Penicuik at that point, with her parents pleading with her to stop working so she could get better. “No one would hire me for any acting jobs because I was clearly so ill. I ended up managing to get a promo job one day, and I fell over in the toilets on my break because I was so knackered. My hip was agony, but I kept working. I went to A&E and it turns out I’d chipped a bone in my hip – it’s still floating around in there somewhere.”
Doctors told her she should be hospitalised, but Stanbridge, as an adult, could refuse to be admitted. She was at risk of heart failure and close to death. “My heart rate was right down. They had to take my blood pressure with a kid’s strap because my arm wouldn’t fit in the adult one. It was mental,” she says. “On numerous occasions, random strangers came up to me and said, ‘Oh my God, do you know you’re that skinny?’ And I’d be like, ‘You say that like it’s a bad thing.’”
It was her agent that prompted her to finally seek help. A casting director Stanbridge had gone in to see had called her agent to say she felt something was very wrong. “My agent was the most honest anyone close to me had ever been. She said, ‘You’re not well. You need to take some time out or you won’t be able to work again.’ The only impetus I had was, if I don’t get better, I won’t be able to act and do what I love. That annoys me now – I wish I had just wanted to get better because I wanted to live.”
She saw a psychologist and a dietician, and drank special shakes at first, with the aim that she would work up to proper meals. She was weighed frequently, had blood tests twice a week and took tablets to strengthen her bones against osteoporosis. “My friends and family were really supportive. Some people found it hard to understand and were a bit like, ‘Why don’t you just eat?’ That’s why I’m doing the show, to hopefully help people understand anorexia better. I’ve always thought of myself as a strong woman, and the idea that I couldn’t just snap out of this illness was hard for me. I let it spiral out of control.”
Recovery & River City
The idea of doing a show had been running round the actor’s mind for the last four years. Supported by UK mental health charity, SANE, she’s hoping it’ll create some dialogue around an issue that still feels taboo. “I’m so happy that mental health and depression have been getting a lot of focus recently, but I still think we need to talk more about eating disorders. There’s a lot of stigma around them, and people are still sometimes hesitant to see anorexia and bulimia as real diseases.”
When Stanbridge started her two-year role as series regular Angel in River City, she was well on the road to recovery and more than chuffed to get the part. “River City was amazing. In our industry, you rarely get a nine-to-five where you have a bunch of work friends, you know what you’re doing, you know where your dressing room is. You don’t get that when you’re doing film.”
Like many soaps, River City hasn’t shied away from tackling some hard-hitting issues. One of Stanbridge’s most affecting storylines on the show was alongside Gerard Miller, whose character had been a victim of child sexual abuse.
“The BBC went above and beyond. They’d done so much research and the writing was incredible, and they had a guy that we could speak to who had been through it personally. After the storyline aired, I had a friend come to me and explain that they had been abused, and that the programme had prompted them to speak to me about it. Soaps give these issues accessibility.”
She left River City last year, departing the programme at the same time as Miller. “I made some really good friends for life. I felt after leaving River City it was a good time to launch the show, as people in Scotland know me off the back of it. I was supposed to be this hussy with a heart on the programme who arrived and slept with all the men. So to have this character who’s really confident and uses her body all the time to get what she wants, and then to do this show with a completely different take on body image – it felt right.”
Move to Hollywood
Since the beginning of the year, home for Stanbridge has been sunny Tinseltown – she moved out there with her husband, comedian Chris Martin, who she met at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012. Moving to LA felt daunting and a completely new start for the actor, which has seen her pick up representation and also write comedy scripts together with her husband (one is currently in development with a producer). She lives next door to The Walking Dead actor Pollyanna McIntosh – a little oasis of home in Hollywood, so much so that they named their Wi-Fi connection ‘Little Scotland’. She’d worked with McIntosh previously on police station horror Let Us Prey, and bumped into her at a comedy show in the city.
“Chris and I were staying in a director’s pool house at the time – typical LA first-off style. Moving was initially a bit crazy. Everyone is some kind of famous and looks continually pristine. LA can seem like a place where people are a bit vacuous and all about the game and I’m not going to lie, there are a lot of people like that. Everyone you meet is something to do with the industry, so of course everyone’s very work–focused – that’s why we moved over here. Even the Uber drivers are all actors and performers, with their headshots sticking out of the pouches on the back seat.”
Stanbridge is half Filipino, so is seen as “diverse” when it comes to being seen for roles, which frustrates her. “I’m diverse because I’m over 30. I’m diverse because I’m a woman. I’m diverse because I’m mixed race. I just want to be me. If we just start representing all types of ethnicities, and sizes for that matter on TV and film, then it becomes the norm.
“I’ll always go wherever the work is, but back home I feel like I don’t look ‘Scottish’ enough to play Scottish roles, and I don’t look ‘Asian’ enough to play Asian roles. I was going up for Chinese and Japanese roles in Scotland – I was seen for 24 three times for Chinese roles, and I’m like, ‘I’m not Chinese.’ I’m not begrudging it, but I feel like there are more roles over here where I’m getting seen for ‘the girlfriend’ or ‘the nurse’ rather than by nationality.”
Did she worry that moving to the land of the stereotypically image-obsessed might set off some triggers with her illness? “It’s definitely been a bit harder being over here – moving to a new place, I’m nervous, all of that combined. Everyone eats out here so I have to accept I can’t have control over every bit of my food. My head is in a much better place for dealing with it though.
“Even now when I eat, 90% of the time I’m totally fine, but when I’m stressed or doing a lot, I’ll tell Chris to remind me to eat something. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully be cured, because I don’t remember at this point what it’s like to not think about food. But that’s OK, because I know I’ll never allow myself to go back to how I was. It just takes that bit of extra willpower to say to yourself, ‘Eat the sandwich that you want, it’s alright.’”
Elements of doing the intense Fringe preview shows have been difficult for Stanbridge. “I don’t think I realised how exhausting it was going to be going through it all again. I’ve never really cared about what the critics say, but it’s something so personal this time. After the previews, someone told me it was hard to watch a pretty twenty-something – which was very kind of her to say, considering I’m 31 – talk about how difficult her life is. That was hard to hear. I don’t have many pictures from when I was ill, but I do show some in the show, and someone said I looked exactly the same – just more anxious. That was hard for me to hear as well.
“I was speaking to my mum and I said I was finding it a lot more difficult than I thought I would, and that she should be prepared that seeing the show for the first time with my dad might be hard. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my parents to watch what was happening to me and feel unable to stop it. She said ‘I’ve got the tissues’, but that she thought it was really important for all of us, to remind us how far we’ve come and hopefully give us all a bit of closure.”
Hanna performs I Hate Myself So People Will Like Me (and Other Strategies for Success) at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 27th August