Mae Martin Gets Existential

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Portrait of Mae Martin
Courtesy of Joseph Sinclair

Mae Martin is not afraid to interrogate life’s biggest questions; neither in their stand-up comedy sets, their writing and acting in a series they co-created (Feel Good, on Netflix), nor in our conversation, which started off as a discussion about their addition to season two of The Flight Attendant. “I hope this article becomes a really philosophical takedown of capitalism,” Martin jokes over Zoom, calling from their place in London.

One could suggest that The Flight Attendant, which follows a recovering alcoholic stewardess-turned-spy as she assists the CIA in various missions across the globe, is an episodic reckoning of the paranoid and trapped state of mind most of us have experienced over the past two years. Or you could simply say it’s a fun and fizzy mystery show about a hapless woman who happens to have a knack for solving international crimes. Either way, it’s pretty good television, and it seems that the viewers of HBO Max turned it into something of a runaway success—because it’s back for another season, which, despite its achievements in the first season, still surprised a lot of fans.

In season two, Martin—who made a name for themselves doing stand-up comedy in Canada (their home country) and the U.K., then starring in their own semi-autobiographical Netflix dramedy—joins the cast as a flight attendant named Grace. Grace and the series protagonist Cassie (Kaley Cuoco) form a fast friendship, but there’s one problem: Grace loves to party, and Cassie is recovering from alcoholism—a dangerous mix indeed.

There is a clear parallel between The Flight Attendant and Martin’s two-season series Feel Good (and in fact, Feel Good was the reason Martin was tapped for the second season of Flight Attendant—an executive producer on the latter show brought them on after discovering the former). Both follow a recovering addict who doesn’t always make the best choices in sobriety (some of Feel Good was partially based on Martin’s own experiences; like their character of the same name on the series, Martin started their hand at comedy as a young teen, and also struggled with addiction in adolescence). But there’s more overlap to it than that, if you ask Martin. “The Flight Attendant is similar to Feel Good tonally, in that none of the characters are just good or just bad. Even the people who behave villainously have redeeming qualities and some people have double lives,” the actor says. “Every character is trying to integrate these two versions of themselves: the version they’re presenting and the version they really are struggling with.” Both series focus on this truism of the human condition: the tension between how you’re perceived versus how you feel on the inside is an eternal conflict for most people, whether it’s vis-a-vis an addiction narrative, through class status, sexuality, or gender presentation.

In The Flight Attendant’s second season, we reunite with Cassie after she has put in the work. She doesn’t drink anymore, attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and has settled into a nice, quiet life with a new man who wants to marry her. But Grace brings all of that to a screeching halt when Cassie takes a drink offered to her and goes on a bender. “I think what people love to watch is Kaley Cuoco suffer, scramble, and be put in these difficult situations,” Martin says, adding that they were a fan of the show before becoming a part of the cast this season. “It was a true honor to be the source of Cassie’s stress—the more of a mess she is, the more riveting it is.”

The friendship between Grace and Cassie is mysterious and intoxicating, but off-screen, the actors are just regular pals: in between filming episodes, Cuoco and her friends brought Martin under their wing, traveling to Universal Studios and engaging in Southern California tourist activities. Most of the scenes between Martin and Cuoco take place this season in Los Angeles, where Cassie has recently found herself stationed for the time being. “L.A. is exotic to me because I live in London,” Martin says in their characteristically dry quip. “I get starstruck when I see the Hollywood sign; I feel shy.”

Moving from Toronto to London 12 years ago was a choice Martin says they made for several reasons: their father is British, and they have family in the United Kingdom, whom they visited each summer as a child. But really, it was all for comedy’s sake. “The live comedy scene is great here, you can do three shows a night,” Martin explains. “Canadian and British sensibilities are pretty similar. I was raised on British comedy, and a lot of people in Canada love Monty Python and Eddie Izzard. There’s a similar kind of absurdity and self deprecation.

“In American comedy, there’s more of a pointing out than pointing in,” they continue. “I don’t have that skill. I can dismantle myself and my internal world more easily than I can comment on the outside world.

“The stereotypes about British people’s emotional repression are true,” they add. “That leads to good comedy, because everybody’s bottling up a billion things that are bound to explode.”

Martin has been a comedian for over a decade, but it wasn’t until a performance during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017 when they felt they finally had a solid grasp on what they could achieve via stand-up. “I did a show that was more personal than stuff I’d done in the past. It was about addiction,” they explain. “The conversations I had with people after, and that feeling of saying something that you’re embarrassed about and having people be like, Yeah, me takes so long to figure out your stage persona and even to figure out who you are in life. You’re trying on different personalities all the time and trying to figure out who you are.”

What Martin wants to say with their comedy is dependent on them serving as representation for LGBTQ and non-binary performers and audiences. “Our way of thinking about everything— capitalism, gender, etc.,—we’re in this cage, where a paradigm that comes from hetero-colonialism from the 1800s is under threat,” Martin says. “We’re realizing the gender binary doesn’t make sense. And because it’s under threat, people are doubling down. Hopefully it’s just because we’re in a transitionary time. We have to build a new way of thinking that allows for the facts that we now have.”

As for their next creative steps, Martin is open to it all. “I have this childhood fantasy of sitting in a movie theater with popcorn, watching a movie that I made,” they say. “I’ve got a TV thing in development. But mainly, I don’t know. Sometimes I think I want to just move to the woods and be a poet. I would love to make an album one day. There’s nothing I don’t wanna do.”

One thing is for sure, though: “Stand-up is a really amazing writing tool for me. I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing it.”

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