Mae Martin: ‘We have to give ourselves a break for being turned on by weird stuff’

The new season of the comedian’s Netflix series Feel Good tackles trauma, gender identity and addiction. It’s also extremely funny. They tell Alexandra Pollard why they’re not ready to be a spokesperson

Friday 04 June 2021 14:14
<p>‘Intense media coverage of gender and assault bulldozes over all the humanity’</p>

‘Intense media coverage of gender and assault bulldozes over all the humanity’

As a child, Mae Martin used to fantasise about their first breakup. Not the relationship. Just its devastating end. “Pain just seemed so appealing, you know?” says the Canadian comedian, tucking into an egg and bacon sandwich. “Most of the love stories I was consuming growing up were, in retrospect, quite toxic.”

Feel Good, the magnificent romantic-comedy series that Martin co-created, co-writes (with Joe Hampson) and stars in, is not trying to counter those stories exactly – but it does explore the romantic delusions that come from growing up with them. Martin plays a stand-up comedian and recovering addict called, well, Mae Martin. Mae is anxious, earnest and intense, throwing themselves into one co-dependent relationship after another, replacing an addiction to cocaine with an addiction to love. It’s semi-autobiographical – Martin has spoken onstage, with a disarming, fidgety warmth, of their teenage drug addiction, which led to them being kicked out of their parents’ house for dealing MDMA followed by a stint in rehab. Emotionally, though, Mae the character is about 10 years behind their real-life counterpart.

In the Bafta-nominated first season, which aired on Channel 4 and Netflix at the start of the pandemic, Mae falls in love – the big, Richard Curtis movie kind – with a schoolteacher named George (Charlotte Ritchie), a woman with “the number one best face I’ve ever seen in real life”. It’s electric at first – but neither of them quite knows how to handle it when reality sets in. By the end of the season, the relationship has imploded, and Mae has relapsed.

In the second and final season – picked up by Netflix after Channel 4 dropped the show – the couple try again. “Season two is a bit more grown up,” says Martin, who’s finished the sandwich and is now sipping on a black coffee. We’re in a cafe in north London, near their home, a few days before the season lands on Netflix. The 34-year-old, who’s non-binary and uses “they” or “she” pronouns, is wearing a black T-shirt, sleeves rolled up a little to reveal the tiny tattoos they got as a teenager (one of them, the word oatmeal on their wrist, made their dad cry). “George and Mae,” Martin continues, “are trying to transform what was essentially a compulsion and need into a healthy, long-term, adult relationship. They’re just trying to grow up.”

And have a lot of sex. Most of it in the form of role play. In a riotously silly montage, the pair are a doctor and a patient, a plumber and a housewife, and a king and his… henchman? “I laughed so much during those scenes,” says Martin. “Because Mae and George are so different, they have to be massively sexually compatible. And so they’re both quite horny and have rich fantasy lives.”

The show takes a zero-judgement approach to even the most niche of fantasies – like George’s penchant for a particularly coarse nun video. Martin throws their head back and laughs when I mention that. “If you look at the most popular porn categories, you would assume that everyone is so screwed up,” they say. “I don’t believe that a lot of us are living our lives in accordance with those power dynamics. I think we have to give ourselves a break for being turned on by weird stuff. And also, it’s refreshing to see female or non-binary characters allowed to be sexually dominant and idiosyncratic in their turn-ons.”

Still, even all that sex can’t stop reality from bubbling up again. After a brief trip to rehab that ends with a grand escape out of the bedroom window, Mae begins to reckon with a teenage trauma. It involves Scott, the seemingly innocuous old comedy club friend with whom they lived after being kicked out of their parents’ home. For reasons that are only gradually made clear, Mae finds that they have to hide under the bed whenever they’re triggered.

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I don’t know how autobiographical this particular storyline is. Martin started doing stand-up in Toronto at 13 and was surrounded by older men. They do tell me that the final, pulverising confrontation between Mae and Scott is “pretty verbatim to a conversation I’ve had”. “I guess one of the big themes,” says Martin, “is what do you do with people in your life that hurt you, that you love. I think sometimes you can transform those relationships and heal. But something I’ve struggled with, and feel like I’m grasping now in my life, is you can empathetically walk away from people.”

Martin and Ritchie in Feel Good season 2

They mention the allegations of sexual assault that have recently been levelled at After Life producer Charlie Hanson (which have been refuted by Hanson as “demonstrably false”). “What struck me about that, and is so common, is that he was a mentor to those women and had a close relationship with them,” says Martin. “I’ve been through similar experiences. It’s torturous because you care about the person and it’s not pleasant to have to grapple with what to do and what your responsibility is. It’s really a nightmare. The betrayal of trust is so s***. It’s so destabilising.”

Sadly, it is not uncommon. “Violent assault from a stranger is so much more rare than the pernicious and emotionally convoluted assault from someone that you trust,” says Martin. “That has such long-lasting effects on your relationships and how you view yourself.”

In Feel Good, Mae refuses to accept at first that they may be dealing with PTSD – partly because they’re not a Vietnam vet, partly because they were so privileged growing up (“you know I played the oboe?”) and partly because trauma is “overdone”. “People are obsessed with trauma these days – it’s like a buzz word,” they tell a doctor.

“It’s a fair point,” says Martin with a smile. “I think I’m quite self-conscious because I’m really aware of how privileged I am. And these issues get so highly politicised and oversimplified and they become about who’s right and who’s wrong. And to out somebody [as an abuser] feels like, ‘Oh you’ve won’ and it’s so not a win. It’s not like outing somebody, particularly if it’s a friend, feels good or is healing. Or maybe it is. I don’t know. I haven’t done it.”

Martin is softly spoken but direct. They have the same warm vulnerability I’ve seen in stand-up shows like 2015’s Us, which had queues snaking round the corner at the Edinburgh Fringe, and 2017’s Dope, covering their addiction to Bette Midler and to drugs, a condensed version of which was turned into a Netflix special. Despite claiming to feel “like, 10 years older” after the pandemic, Martin still looks young – articles have variously described them as “a newborn fawn”, “doe-eyed” and “freshly hatched”, descriptors that are not inaccurate, though they do suggest a naivety that Martin doesn’t emit in real life.

Though less defensive than the character, Martin does worry that trauma – which is “an ancient issue and such a common human experience” – is being commercialised and politicised. They believe that the #MeToo movement has been “super important and such a culture shift”, but “with the intense media coverage of gender and assault and #MeToo, it creates a kind of backlash, because people are sick of hearing about it, and it also bulldozes over all the humanity of those issues and the real consequences and pain and nuance of all those things.”

Just as frustrating to Martin are the men who warp the narrative to centre themselves. “So often, men are having a conversation with themselves that we’re not having with them. They’re like, ‘Alright, I guess you think I’m Harvey Weinstein because I winked at a woman in a bar’, and it’s like, ‘No, no one said that!’ Of course there’s shades of severity, and of course there should be shades of repercussion as well, and the opportunity for growth. It’s just so frustrating that it’s become so overly simplified.”

Lisa Kudrow and Adrian Lukis star

Feel Good does no such thing. There is something almost balletic in the way it approaches its themes, so lightly yet with such care. Where some shows seem to have lifted their dialogue from a think piece they’ve stumbled across on Google, Feel Good doesn’t tie anything up neatly. It leaves space for its characters to process, stumble, f*** up, process again. Sometimes they never come up with any answers.

Take the way Mae grapples with their non-binary gender identity. “I’m not a boy – I’m not even a girl,” they say in season one. “I’m a failed version of both.” In season two, they have concluded that they “don’t actually really identify as a woman these days”, but not much beyond that; they variously identify as Ryan Gosling, Adam Driver and an anaemic scarecrow.

It’s turned out to be the main talking point in interviews with Martin over the past few weeks. “It’s been kind of exhausting, the amount of focus on gender,” they say. “I think it’s because I did an Instagram post.” A few months ago, buoyed in part by their friend Elliot Page announcing that he is transgender, Martin revealed that they’re non-binary in a breezy post. They hoped that would be the end of it. It wasn’t. “The whole point is it’s so new for me,” they say. “I don’t feel ready to be a spokesperson for those things. So it’s scary to then be grilled about it.”

Just as Martin’s wary of the politicisation of trauma, so they’re sceptical of their gender identity becoming part of political discourse. “I think The Times have done 223 articles this year about trans identities, and it is just too many,” they shrug. “It’s just such loud voices of dissent. We forget that we’re talking about such a small community that is so at risk. All these hypothetical horror stories that these trans exclusionary radical feminists are bringing up” – one being that allowing trans people into female-only spaces is a threat to cis women’s safety – “they would be happening already. And they’re just not.”

It’s not that Martin doesn’t want to be asked this stuff. “Visibility is so important, but in a safe arena. It’s a case by case thing.” They mention an interview their co-star Charlotte Ritchie (who, incidentally, is brilliant as George) did recently. She was asked “tons” of questions about Noel Clarke, the British actor who was recently suspended by Bafta over multiple claims of sexual harassment. “She was engaging with the question but she was also like, very politely, ‘Would you ask a male actor these questions?’ But when the article came out, he didn’t put that bit in, he just put her answer to the Noel Clarke stuff. It would have been so much more interesting to make that point, because [otherwise] it ends up painting this picture that women and queer people are just ranting and raving all the time about it. It’s not our issue. It’s the rest of the world’s issue.”

Here’s the thing Martin wants people to know about Feel Good: it is a comedy. “It’s not just an excavation of my personal pain, or, like, a therapeutic exercise.” It’s a warm, sweet, mainstream comedy that stumbles into darker territory only because its characters happen to. It has slapstick; big romantic gestures; witty one-liners. Lisa Kudrow is in it.

“I hope that people just watch the show. The wonderful side effect of writing it is that you can make those points through humour, with people’s guards down, in a way that you really thought carefully about. The things that I want to say about these issues are in the show, and they’re funny, and they’re self-deprecating.” They take a final swig of their Americano. “Me weighing in over a coffee is never going to be as thought out.”

‘Feel Good’ season 2 is on Netflix

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