A Star is Reborn: Kristen Johnston's Gutsy Comeback
After nearly dying from a Vicodin addiction, the irrepressible actress is back with a blistering new memoir, a hit new show, and a candid interview with The Fix.
Kristen Johnston was 28 she was cast as John Lithgow's co-star in the runaway hit sitcom, 3rd Rock From the Sun. Suddenly famous, the statuesque beauty was unprepared to handle the pressure. After popping an endless array of pain pills, she almost died in a London hospital when an ulcer in her stomach exploded while she was set to star in a new show on London's West End. Johnston's new book, Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster, is a profane, outrageous, tragic, hilarious and often disturbing portrait of an addict who nearly succumbed to her disease. (Read an exclusive excerpt here.) We sat down with the actress at her apartment in Manhattan for the interview. As her drooling pit-bull Pink dozed placidly beside her, Johnston described coming clean about her addiction (on David Letterman, no less), her regrets about a youth lost to drinking in Wisconsin, and her work with a new foundation, SLAM (Sober, Learning and Motivation), that's lobbying New York City to open a sober high school. We recently taped her as she read her book to a rapt audience of recovering addicts at an event hosted by The Fix.
Joe Schrank: Addiction in the media tends to have a pretty familiar story arc: hero falls from grace, hero learns a lesson, hero never does it again and everybody loves hero.
Kristen Johnston: And then hero writes a book about it! [Laughs}
But you make it clear that you’re very much a work in progress, that you haven't really solved your addiction.
God knows, I could relapse in a second. And I just might, after this interview. Kidding! No, really, I think one of the biggest things is that most people write the book after they’ve had the arrest, or the DUI, or the public shame, and it’s the mea culpa moment. People would ask me, why are you exposing yourself? No one knows you’re an addict, you don’t have to tell the story. Or at least my mom says that. But I am sick of that cycle. I am sick of the fact that people think it’s just actors or Whitney Houston. It is your neighbor, it’s your postman, it’s your son, it’s your daughter. It’s not just narcissistic actors.
I had the first sane thought that I’d had in like eight years: I was like, there are people outside who are not thinking, “Oh my God, when is my next prescription?"
I get that question a lot—why are so many actors addicts?
Please. When I go into an AA meeting, there’s like one other actor.
I suppose if people followed accountants around with cameras, they’d say, ”Why are there so many accountants addicts?”
I think actors like me are predisposed to addiction. It’s somebody with low self-esteem and yet a desperate need for approval, and now a little disposable income; it’s a tough combination of things. And actors do become a cliché. You know, I just couldn’t believe it the moment I realized I had become one. I was like, I can’t be a pill-popping actress. That’s so embarrassing. But the bottom line is, so are a lot of people. That’s kind of what the first chapter in Guts is about—I’m not trying to take the piss out of anybody, but you know, everybody is an addict in some way.
So you think of addiction as having a range?
Well, I think everybody is addicted to something. People will say to me, “Oh my god, my brother’s in so much trouble, let me tell you what he did yesterday.” I’m like, “I don’t need to hear it: he’s just an addict.” And they’re like “No, but he’s really bad.” No, he’s just an addict. That’s it.
So there’s a story behind why the book is called Guts, and how you got sober. You were taking a lot of Vicodin and other stuff while acting in a play in London, and your stomach basically exploded. If you didn’t have that traumatic experience, would you still be using?
I would be dead.
So that was your turning point?
Well no. It was a confluence of events. First it was stomach-bursting—and the agony, the true agony, of that, and there was the shame and the loneliness. Then something happened while I was in the hospital—my dark night of the soul. It was New Year’s Eve, and there were fireworks all over the city. I had the first sane thought that I’d had in like eight years: I was like, there are people outside of my hospital bed watching these fireworks who are not thinking, “Oh my God, when is my next prescription? Have I called this doctor or that doctor?” You know the fuckin’ terror of being in that prison of addiction. I just thought there are people that don’t have to do any of that—that thought struck me, and it stuck with me. Then about a week later, my very close, long-time friend Laura wrote me an email saying, “Everyone knows you’re a drug addict.”
You write “This is the main event” on your dressing room mirrors. Is that your mantra?
I have to read a little bit about it because otherwise “this is the main event” could sound really dumb. Listen [reads from her book]: “When you’re in a play and all you care about is where you’re getting loaded afterwards, that’s slightly worrisome. But if you can’t fucking wait for the fucking audience to get over it and stop giving you a standing ovation already, because you’re dying to get to the bar? Well, then—that’s just a whole other kettle o’ crazy. But it was all I knew, really. Plays were simply a conduit, an appetizer to the most important event of the entire day: getting hammered. Endless, sometimes heated arguments between the cast over which place had the best martinis would continue right up until entrances. (And sometimes even beyond.) Nowadays when I’m in a play, the very ﬁrst thing I do when we move into the theater is to grab a dark red lipstick (frosty pink just doesn’t have the same panache), and scrawl in my dressing room mirror my new mantra: This is the main event.”
So it is a mantra. Does it work offstage as well?
Yes. Because it’s my way of saying, this is the moment. I don’t really have that problem as much anymore. I did when I first got sober. It was always like “Ah, yeah, maybe dinner will be better. Eh, maybe if we walk it’ll be better, maybe if I sleep it’ll be better,” you know what I mean?
Learning to be in the world sober is not easy.
I wouldn’t say I’m an in-the-moment person, but I’m not dying for the next moment. I’m okay in the moment right now. Well, this moment kind of sucks, but yeah... [laughs]
In Guts, you describe a state of being that you call “Shultz-ville”. Please explain.
Well, there was this show called Hogan’s Heroes, and one of the characters was a big fat German guard named Shultz whose motto was, “I hear nothing! I see nothing!” So I say, well, the only sane remaining part of myself was Shultz. So I was living in Shultz-ville. It’s funny if you read it…
So it’s denial?
Yes, it’s denial.