Actor, writer, and stand-up comic Cameron Esposito first came to Seattle 20 years ago when she was a ringmaster.
“I got hired by a group of local acrobats,” she recalls. “I was living in their costume closet.”
That’s all behind her now, back in her wild twenties, though she acknowledges she also had a wild thirties, “and, one year into my forties, it may also be wild.”
Esposito, who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada, says there have been a lot of big changes recently. Not only has she turned over a new professional leaf with a dramatic role on ABC’s A Million Little Things, but, in her personal life, she’s adjusting to a very recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder. That’s led to a shift in perspective that has transformed her comedy, which Seattle audiences will get to see on Sunday, March 5, when Esposito performs at the Neptune.
Ahead of that show, I caught up with Esposito to chat about her new show, using comedy to cope, and Battlestar Galactica.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Are you looking forward to visiting Seattle?
I first came there when I was in my 20 and I was a circus ringmaster. Then I got hired by a group of local acrobats to come back and spend a month living at one of their houses that I think must’ve been in West Seattle. They had day jobs and I was living in their costume closet, and I would take the bus downtown and walk around all day because I had nothing to do with my time.
I was just thinking about how many different lives I’ve had. I’ve gotten to have a bunch of different lives and sort of wring everything out of all of them.
What’s different about your life now?
Very recently, like a couple months ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I didn’t have any inkling that that might be going on with me. I’ve just known since my teens, and maybe my childhood, that I had big emotions, more energy than most people, a lot of need for creative output, a lot of need to move around, a lot of thoughts. I kind of thought everybody thought that way.
In some ways, this is sort of a second coming out. When I realized I was queer, so many things locked into place about my experience, and this has felt very similar to that. I’m on some medication for the first time in my life, so I don’t feel like I’m going to burst into flames, and also that medication doesn’t make me a different person. I still have all the same attributes, just maybe turned down into a more livable format.
I think that may be why I chose the job that I have. Even if folks don’t have this particular experience, it’s been my journey in life to sometimes make choices and then later realize why.
And I’m going to make that funny!
That must be a big change, are you using comedy to process it?
I definitely am. For a few years, I’ve been putting together a new hour, but I didn’t know what it was about. I was onstage talking about the experience I was having but I didn’t get the framing. Now, with this new information, it’s like, "Oh, this is what I’ve been talking to for years."
It’s been kind of cool to not use standup to process all of it. I think that can be a trap for a lot of comics.
How have you seen your standup change over the years?
In some ways, I’ve slowed down in my artistic process. I put out seven hours of material in my first 12 years as a comic. That is nuts, and I think indicated something that was going on in my life, which is that I didn’t have other places to bring experiences. I think something that’s changed is intentionality and less need for standup.
Are there other art forms keeping you busy right now?
I’m in the midst of developing and trying to sell a new TV show right now. And I spent the last couple years not just putting out a book, but putting out essay-type writing for places like the New York Times and Vanity Fair. And the dramatic acting thing is a new development! Because I’d done everything and now I’m on a network drama.
How did you get that role?
I got an audition, and I did it super last-minute on a shitty cellphone video that my little sister shot outside at my parent’s house in shitty light as the sun set. Truly the worst self-tape I’ve ever done.
Then I got called in by the producers to come in and read with [Battlestar Galactica actress] Grace Park… This is 100% true: I brought my Battlestar Galactica action figure to the Zoom meeting and showed it to them. Which it turns out, I didn’t have to do.
I was initially supposed to be in one to three episodes of the show, and it’s instead turned into two years of work. I think it was the right time for this thing. I sort of ended up on the right show with the right people.
It’s been incredibly fun to be one of the funniest people on set in a non-competitive way. I can’t compete with the classically trained actors, though I’m trying to. … I’m working on that muscle and getting a lot of help. But I bring something else, which is I think some authenticity and some comedy chops.
Has doing a dramatic role felt like discovering something new about yourself?
Absolutely. Up until this point, I’ve done some more dramatic indie films, I’ve done so much standup, panel shows, interviews, and had my own TV show for a while, and it’s all comedy. I think, to be honest—and I can’t believe I’m going to say this to a newspaper, but perhaps print is dead—I don’t even watch comedies. I mean, I do, Hacks is amazing, but I watch dramas. I don’t think I ever thought I could be part of the television and the movies I love. I’m hopeful for more in this area.
Obviously, comedy will always be my first love and my grounding, but I love a challenge and it’s great to be part of a team. And I also think I’m at a time in my life where I’m ready to be taken seriously.
Isn’t it possible to be taken seriously as a comic?
I’m going to posit that it isn’t, actually. … Given that the whole art form depends on undercutting the seriousness of what’s being said, and that’s why it’s fucking beautiful, how you can be persuasive with a backdoor approach, which is, “What if I thought these things?” But there’s another way of living, which is just saying, “I think these things.”
For me anyway, going for a laugh, I can’t believe I get to do that and it feels amazing… but it’s easier than not going for a laugh. Of course, none of this will be true on March 5 at the Neptune!
So what can folks expect from the new show?
I think this is actually my funniest show. No pressure on Seattle, but it’s regularly been getting a standing ovation. Because I think it’s the most emotional. That’s what I’m playing with, how do we get more real? Maybe that’s by becoming a different actor, or maybe it’s using comedy in a slightly different way.
I think that’s my skill set as a comic. I know I’m funny. I think what I’m getting better at is really making sure I’m saying what I mean. To pull it back to the bipolar diagnosis, I guess I’ve been using performance to regulate and medicate for a long time. Now I can use something else.
Cameron Esposito performs two shows at Neptune Theatre, 1303 NE 45th St, Sun March 5, 5 and 8:15 pm, $27.50.