Kristen Johnston talks pill addiction, recovery, and 'Guts'
In the new issue of Entertainment Weekly there is a lengthy Q&A with actress Kristen Johnston in which she talks about how her addiction to Vicodin caused her stomach to explode, her subsequent recovery, and her new memoir, Guts. But the 3rd Rock from the Sun star had far more to say than we could fit in the pages of the magazine. Below, Johnston talks further about her travails, her time on 3rd Rock, and why James Frey is not completely “full of s—.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In your book Guts you recall how in 2006, after years of drug and alcohol abuse, you had a stomach ulcer rupture while you were in London. Is it true you actually heard it burst?
KRISTEN JOHNSTON: I felt it. It was like an impact. I was peeing — and I had struggled peeing — and so I was pushing and that’s what finally gave her the old rip.
You could have become the second most famous person to die while sitting on a toilet.
Yes. That’s why that chapter is called “Ye Olde Elvis Catnap.”
The book is dedicated to the “overworked, underpaid, talented, and occasionally mildly unpleasant staff” of the hospital where you were treated. Would you describe your experience of the British National Health Service as mixed?
No. Very positive, at the end of the day. There were a couple of grumpy people. But if my stomach had burst while I was in Tibet I would have been s—ting on monks, and be dead.
You had just opened in a play called Love Song when you fell ill but, after a couple of months, you ultimately returned to finish the run. How on earth did you manage that?
As I say in the book, just because you’re a painkiller addict doesn’t mean you’re a p—y. It’s true, though. Up until that point I had never missed a show in my life. I mean, I had done 50 plays, never missed a show. You know, sick, vomiting, I’d just hurl it and run. I’ve always been very sturdy in that way. So all of the sudden to have the guilt of [leaving] this play, a hit play that just opened the night before, it was just horrible.
You also recall in the book how you became extremely depressed during your time on 3rd Rock From the Sun.
Yeah. And you’re not supposed to be. You can’t tell anybody, “I’m so bummed you gave me an Emmy.” You can’t be sad when you’re being celebrated. So it was a big conflict and there’s no shrink that can understand it. You see it happen to every person, almost. There’s, like, a year when they become super famous that they either succeeed and they move through it or they fail and became a drug addict or die or whatever. Or an a–hole! Somebody told me once that fame makes you more of what you already are and I think it’s true. I think if you are a good human being in your heart you don’t change because of that. But I think if you’re kind of a shallow d— you become a nightmare.
I assume it didn’t help that the 3rd Rock cast, unlike say the cast of Friends, was a very mixed group in terms of age and experience.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s actually a really wise comment. The most difficult part of it was the fact that it was basically me and Joey (Gordon-Levitt) struggling. I loved all of them. But John (Lithgow) was like, “Cool, a third wind.” Jane (Curtin) was like, “Whatever.” French (Stewart) was excited. But Joey and I were like, “Oh my god, what’s happening?” It’s just such an awful feeling to lose [your anonymity]. And then, over the past few years, I’ve started to enjoy it. I don’t think I enjoy being famous but I’ve started to go, “This is okay.”
Your drinking made you gain quite a lot of weight before your illness. One of the more oddly charming revelations in Guts is that, while you didn’t mind being referred to as “bloated,” you drew the line at “fat.”
I still feel that way. I’m a Twitter freak. My literary agent said you have to do it for the book. But anyway this one guy, who I’d gotten to know a little bit on Twitter, was like, “I loved you even when you were fat.” I was like, “I was never fat!”
You explain in Guts that you originally decided to write a book because you needed money.
I hadn’t spent money stupidly but I certainly never looked at price tags. And then I’d done theatre, which pays a dollar, and teaching, which pays less than that. The worst part was that I’d gotten sober, both of my dogs died that I’d had for 16 years, I found out I was broke-ish — you know close — and my agents fired me. All within, like, a month. I was like, “I’m supposed to stay sober through this crap?” Come on, higher power, or whoever!
But you did stay sober.
I did, yeah.
Why did your agents fire you?
Because I wasn’t making them enough money, I’m assuming. It was CAA. I don’t know, because I had done Bride Wars that year and I made Ab Fab (a US version of the beloved British sitcom) which wasn’t picked up. But, you know, I made them some money. They’re lovely guys but I just think they were cleaning house. With the recession they were tightening their belts. The great news is, I had many other options so it wasn’t a nightmare like that. But it was a blow to my ego. I guess I sort of thought, Maybe my acting career is kind of winding down, so what do I do? What else am I going to do? I can’t waitress! I’m basically unqualified to do anyting except talk about myself or act.
Guts ultimately became a very personal project for you. What do you hope it will accomplish?
The most important thing I want to express to people is that I’m not cured. I could probably relapse in a minute. Who knows? It’s just a weird disease that sneaks up on you and all of a sudden you’re boozing at the bar, or whatever. And it doesn’t have to be because of you or pressure or this-or-that. It just can be. The most important thing is that I didn’t want to set myself up for failure and be like, “Look at me!” I wanted to write the book that I needed when I was suffering. I read every book. And the only book, weirdly, that came kind of close to help me understanding while I was sick and suffering was of course the full of s— book, James Frey’s book. There are parts of it, his loneliness in that room at the rehab and the shame, that I know are real. He made up the other crap? Fine. But there are elements of that book that are really great writing I think.
Speaking of James Frey, did your publishers ask you to substantiate what you had written?
Absolutely. The lawyer went over everything. It was intense.
With your charity Sobriety, Learning, and Motivation (SLAM) you’re campaigning to establish a sober high school in New York for students who are also recovering addicts. How did you get involved with that?
I think actors can be so empty or be such a–holes or die [young] because what we do is not that hard. I mean, it’s very difficult to be an actor because of the rejection. But the actual skill of it? It’s easy. And so it becomes empty, unless you have something underneath it. When I was at rehab I said to the counselor, “I don’t know if I want to act any more.” She goes, “Maybe you just shouldn’t.” And that’s what awakened in me [the idea that] I need to also do other things like teach and write and do SLAM and all these other things I never would have done. It’s a search for finding what makes you vital. You know, “Why wake up every day?” And it can’t be because of Vicodin. That’s why I do all this other stuff. It gives me so much joy. I’m not smarter. I’m still an a–hole. But it makes me vital, it makes me feel like I’m not just chattel.
You can learn more about Sobriety, Learning, and Motivation at slamnyc.org