Photo collage by Tablet magazine
Photo collage by Tablet magazine
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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Ilana Becker

The actress and comedian on IBS, the importance of Yom Kippur, and her incredibly brave nephew

Periel Aschenbrand
June 30, 2017
Photo collage by Tablet magazine
Photo collage by Tablet magazine

Poop has never looked so sexy. No, really. With her rockin’ bod, nude-colored bodysuit, and that smile, Ilana Becker’s career is taking off faster than you say, “I have diarrhea!” She’s been on Orange Is the New Black, HBO’s Crashing, Girls, and Odd Mom Out (to name but a few), and, among other compliments, Mel Brooks—MEL BROOKS—has said she is “very, very funny.” But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself—here, she plays Irritabelle, the “campy” personification of irritable bowel syndrome; the character was created by Viberzi, a medication for the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Diarrhea (IBS-D).

Backstage calls her, “beautiful, lithe and comically gifted.” And while she is all those things, she is much more. Becker, whose personal mantra is “all things with joy,” is also an auntie to her nephew, whom she loves fiercely and whose illness she talks about with heartbreaking honesty. She is a lover of fashion. And comedy. And dance. But above all, she’s mostly concerned with being a good person.

She just returned from a month-long work trip to Los Angeles and seems more in demand than ever. In other words, things are going well—very well—for this Jewess. “Tfu, tfu, tfu. Kine hora,” as she would say.

IB: My coffee was supposed to be iced. I hate sending things back. Do you have anxiety about sending things back?

PA: I have more anxiety about drinking a coffee that’s not the way I want it.

IB: I think I love you.

PA: That’s because you’re not a barista.

IB: I feel like I know you. L’Chaim, to our first date.

PA: L’chaim. To our first date. Where are you from?

IB: My family is from here; we’re total New Yorkers. My dad grew up on the Lower East Side and my mom is from Brooklyn. I grew up in Buck’s County, PA. Which is right near New Hope, which is where the first gay enclave on the East Coast was.

PA: But you vibe New York Jew.

IB: I totally vibe New York Jew.

PA: You’re back and forth between here and L.A. a lot, yes?

IB: Yes, but a year-and-a-half ago, everything kind of stopped for me because my nephew, Zachy, was diagnosed with a degenerative bone marrow disease. Anyone can get it, but it’s usually Ashkenazim.

PA: What does that mean?

IB: His bone marrow was failing.

PA: So he needed a transplant?

IB: He needed a transplant.

PA: How old is he?

IB: 6.

PA: Oy.

IB: There are only like 25 cases a year.

PA: Oh my god. He got the transplant?

IB: Yes, and I wanted to be here but it ended up that I was shooting in Mexico City when he got the transplant.

PA: What were you shooting?

IB: More Viberzi commercials [like the IBS one].

PA: We’re going to talk about that, obviously. So he got the transplant.

IB: But he was in isolation so I couldn’t even visit. Even now.

PA: That’s impossible. You’re going to make me cry.

IB: He is stronger than all of us put together. He’s obsessed with Star Wars and the doctors showed up in costume every day with light sabers.

PA: No way. Where?

IB: Sloan Kettering. That place is filled with angels. But that’s where the Jewish community feels like such a warm blanket. They just show up. They are so good in times of crisis. They feel everything. They did bone marrow drives there during the high holy days and it was really remarkable. He’s doing great now… I’m talking too much.

PA: No you’re not. There’s no such thing. Talk…

IB: It’s very interested that I met you through Judy Gold.

PA: I know. I feel like it’s bashert.

IB: That’s my favorite word… because it somehow captures the holiness of fate.

PA: That’s very good. Back to the holiness of comedy… I know you’ve done a lot of great work but my understanding is that you’ve acquired something of a cult following from these Viberzi commercials.

IB: Tell me what your understanding is.

PA: My understanding is that people are obsessed with these commercials. Or, rather, that they’re obsessed with you on these commercials. That’s the point.

IB: I do get a lot of interesting emails.

PA: Well, here’s the thing. You’re beautiful and you’ve taken on this role of something that is taboo and turned it into something sexy and that’s really fucking cool.

IB: You think it’s sexy?

PA: I think you’re sexy.

IB: I may kiss you on the mouth, is that okay?

PA: You won’t be the first. So what do you think?

IB: I think women can be more than one thing at one time. I’ve always felt that. A woman can be funny and smart and sexy and gross. This is a dream role, because it encompasses everything I love about comedy. I was a dancer growing up and that’s what I thought I was going to be and so that’s often where I start. How does a character move and walk?

PA: That makes sense.

IB: People have reacted quite strongly on both sides. Some responses have been pretty intense. But then, Minnie Driver posted something this weekend that was so glowing and lovely and I was like Minnie DRIVER! She really was one of the first inspirational performances for me from a woman. She was the first woman on television who made me feel like I could wear my hair curly!

PA: You should tell her that. That’s so sweet.

IB: I’m still staring at her DM trying to come up with a witty response. But it also comes down to that the people who are the most talented are also the kindest. Kindness always. Kindness first.

PA: I agree with that. Is that a Jewish thing?

IB: I think that Judaism operates under this blanket of kindness and ethics.

PA: I buy that. I don’t think everything adheres to it, obviously, but I buy it.

IB: It’s a practice, right?

PA: Yes, it’s a practice. Back to Irritabelle for a minute.

IB: It’s so fun. It’s such a gift. In so many ways. I get to make women feel empowered to make informed decisions about their bodies. And this character has inspired me so much. She’s activated this thing that I’ve always had, to just live louder. But she’s based in this really earnest sweetness.

PA: Well, so are you. And IBS is something very real, that as women, we don’t really get to talk about. I don’t know the statistic but I read somewhere that most women were diagnosed with IBS by their gynecologist because they are afraid to go to the doctor and talk about their poop. So you’ve opened up this dialogue. And I think part of your charm is that you disarm people because you come across as so sweet. And that comes through in the character.

IB: I can’t comment on anything medical. But… how are your poops?

PA: They’re great, actually. Knock on wood. Thank you for asking. I’m very particular though. I have to take my pants and socks and shoes off.

IB: I’m sorry, what?

PA: And I always carry baby wipes with me.

IB: You do all that in a public restroom?

PA: Depends. I’m very particular but this isn’t about me. Suffice it to say that if there’s ever a fire while I’m taking a shit, I’m totally fucked.

IB: STOP IT. This is the story, that if we were on the first date—which we are—this is the story that would make me fall in love with you.

PA: Are there Jews in Buck’s County?

IB: Yes. But my parents always worked in NYC.

PA: What do they do?

IB: My dad is a lawyer and my mom is a nurse. My dad was also an ethics teacher. He just retired. He retired when Zachy went into the hospital. All I’ve ever known about my dad is his work ethic and so seeing him become a grandpa and prioritize that—I think that’s why for me, being a Jew is almost like the religion of being a good person. The religion in my house was the religion of doing the right thing. I remember once, my dad got so mad at me and he said, “You don’t take a vacation from being a good person.”

PA: That’s pretty incredible.

IB: My parents are wonderful people. And so I always know what the right thing is, and once you know, you can’t unlearn it.

PA: This is kind of a terrible leap from being a good person, but what’s your favorite drink?

IB: Ideally, hot water and lemon. It will change your life.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

IB: Lately I’ve really enjoyed poaching them.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

IB: My boyfriend runs a coffee shop in the East Village called MUD so if it’s his, black.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

IB: Yom Kippur. Because we can always be better. It’s so moral and really gets you back on track.

PA: Did you have a Bat mitzvah?

IB: Yes!

PA: What did you wear?

IB: The puffiest, puffiest dress. It was very humble at a JCC, not like a Monopoly-themed one or anything.

PA: What shampoo do you use?

IB: It varies.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

IB: My dad’s best friend growing up used to call “gefilte fish SPISH,” like the SPAM of fish, so ever since then, I haven’t been able to touch it.

PA: So, lox. Five things in your bag right now?

IB: Rosebud balm, three lipsticks, so many receipts, my wallet, and a necklace I have to return.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

IB: I’m wearing them. For me, it’s about the story. They sold out really fast and I worked really hard to find them. White, mesh, leather, moccasin Chanel slides. But they’re subtle.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.

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