theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Sheridan Smith | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Sheridan Smith
theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Sheridan Smith
From Tallulah to Titania, the new queen of the West End on her vertical rise
There’s a song in the musical version of Legally Blonde, in which peroxide ditz Elle celebrates her impending good fortune. “Oh my god, oh my god, you guys,” she sings exultantly as she prepares to accept her beau’s proposal of marriage. Since leaving the role at the start of 2011, Sheridan Smith has continued hollering the words more or less non-stop. Oh my god Trevor Nunn just texted to offer her a part. Oh my god Dustin Hoffman just left a voicemail. Oh my god look who’s been cast as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Michael Grandage.
Smith can make the rare claim to have won Olivier Awards two years running followed most recently by a BAFTA. And she did so with performances that could not have been further apart: high kicks in Legally Blonde, Rattigan and repression in Flare Path, and then an epic turn as a Great Train Robber’s middle-class wife in Mrs Biggs on ITV. Indeed, Smith seems to have travelled along almost exactly the same road as Elle, the good-time giggler who mutates into a Harvard hotshot. And her prize for making audiences weep as well as laugh is to be considered a classical actress. After Hedda Gabler last year, perhaps the highest alp for an actress outside Shakespeare, in Grandage’s Dream she will fall head over heels in love with David Walliams’ Bottom.
I got a text from someone saying they’re Trevor Nunn. I thought it was a mate winding me upSmith grew up in a Lincolnshire village with country and western singers for parents. She caught the performing bug and, after a stint in the National Youth Music Theatre, was cast as gangster’s moll Tallulah in Bugsy Malone, which went up to Edinburgh and then down to London. She left home at 16 to live with five other cast members in a South London flat. At 17 she came back south again to be in Into the Woods at the Donmar, then at 19 landed a role in the late-teen sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.
For several years Smith became BBC Three’s in-house rent-a-slapper, highly proficient at playing perky tarts with hearts in a variety of accents. She was all set to grow into the Facebook generation’s Barbara Windsor - a loveable pocket saucepot. There were smaller roles in The Royle Family, Benidorm and Gavin and Stacey (she was the tomboyish sister of the character played by her then boyfriend James Corden). These variations on a theme could have continued in perpetuity, until Legally Blonde director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell promptly offered her the part of Elle. The rest is history, which Sheridan Smith recounts to theartdesk.
Watch the trailer to A Midsummer Night's Dream
JASPER REES: Do you ever pause to wonder how these last few years have happened?
SHERIDAN SMITH: I honestly have no idea. I do suffer quite badly with my nerves and the fear of not being good enough. I do feel like a lot of it’s fallen in my lap and a lot of it’s been luck. The whole of my career. I never planned on being an actress. Because I’m so lucky I never really set myself these standards. I always feel like then you can disappoint yourself. I’ve always thought like that.
It all started with Legally Blonde. Jerry Mitchell has said you impressed him when he saw you performing a song from Little Shop of Horrors at the Oliviers.
That’s what he says he said to me but I was drunk at the time. I don’t remember. I don’t drink any more. People say things and you think, they’re being very lovely but at these dos people are a bit luvvie. But I went after it. I’d heard it was on Broadway and knew it was coming to the West End and got my agent to get the Americans to see me for it. It was a bonus that when I walked in he did know me from singing at the Oliviers the year before. But it wasn’t just him. I had to do lots of recalls. At one point there was a panel of 15. They had the composers and all the producers that had done Broadway. I did work hard. I made sure I learnt all the songs and knew everything when I was in there. I was still surprised when I got it. I was terrified leading up to that, thinking people aren’t going to take me as seriously as a musical theatre performer. I stayed in it for a year and a half and had never done anything that long before. And then Trevor Nunn got in touch out of blue, texted my phone.
How did he get your number?
He was the same PR company as Legally Blonde so we had mutual friends and they passed my number onto him. He sent this beautiful text and at the end it said “Trevor Nunn” and I couldn't believe it. I thought it was a mate winding me up.
Did you text back and say, “Is this a wind-up?” (Pictured below left, Smith in Flare Path, photograph by Johan Persson)
No I rang my agent and said, “I’ve just got a text from someone saying they’re Trevor Nunn.” She said, “Yes we’ve just received a script, it’s true. It’s really him.” She sent me the script straight away, I read it, cried buckets by the pool and was terrified thinking, but this is straight play, this is not a musical. I’m out my depth again. Having to prove myself again. But Trevor was so lovely about it and so wanted me to do it which I was so flattered by that I got on the plane, went straight to rehearsals and started in that. He said he’s seen lots of my work over the years.
He collected my Olivier for me [for Flare Path]. I was in Australia. I asked him if by some miracle would he collect it for me and he said he’d love to. And then he said, “Email a little speech?” I thought no because I won’t get it and it sounds so presumptuous writing a speech. So I threw something together, really talking about Bomber Command that the play was about. And I woke in Austria to loads of texts going, “You won, you won, you won.” And someone recorded it off the telly. It just sounded so sweet coming out of Trevor’s mouth and his posh voice saying, “Me mum and dad are there, say hiya.”
They should have collected it for you, being used to standing up and performing.
I think my mum would have started going on about all our relatives. They are a country and western duo. They used to do it seven nights a week when I was growing up.
Were they ever at home?
They often weren’t at home in the evenings and if it was a club that would allow children in then I’d go with them. My mum wrote a song about that actually. I would usually go with them and sing if I was allowed to.
What age were you when you first stood onstage and sang?
I think I would have been about six or seven. I used to stand on a school so they could see me at the back. The song I mainly used to sing with them which I do still sing when I go home with them on a Wednesday night is “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy Any More.” It would always be children’s songs because there’s nothing worse than when a kid sings about love. I love singing with my mum and dad.
Did that feed a desire to carry on?
It must have been something that I enjoyed doing. I used to do dancing when I wasn’t at school in dancing competitions. I knew I had a bug for performing but the acting thing only really came when I was at secondary school when you’ve got all different lessons and drama was the one I really loved. I had a teacher called Mr Sowerby who was really passionate and used to put on lots of plays and issued to love being in them. That’s kind of when the acting thing kicked in. He came to see Legally Blonde, him and Mrs Temperton, and we were all in tears afterwards. His doing was why I even got into it because he suggested I audition for the National Youth Music Theatre, which did open auditions in the school holiday. That’s how Bugsy Malone came to the West End and how I got an agent. I would have still been in the village probably. I wouldn’t have known how to get to drama school.
It’s been mad. When I stop and think back, it is a bit bizarre, isn’t it? I just feel really lucky. I just feel like it’s going to end tomorrow and when I look back I go, wow, it’s actually 15 years I’ve been in London. And it hasn’t ended yet, touch wood.
We literally just lived on jam sandwiches. We didn't know of any dangers
Did you know what kind of performer you wanted to be?
I don’t know. I just loved all aspects of entertainment. I love how Julie Walters can make you laugh and cry. I used to love Marilyn Monroe. Kathy Burke as well weirdly. When I was at school, how she would play Waynetta Slob and Perry in Kevin and Perry and how suddenly it wasn’t about women who had to look beautiful and pouty like comedy American things I’d seen. As long as it was funny and made you laugh at yourself. But no plans ahead. I did Tallulah in Bugsy Malone and then the agent saw it and I just started auditioning. I remember it just being really alien. The whole thing was so weird to me. One of my first auditions they said, “Can you do RP? Do you know what that stands for?” And I went, “Right posh.” And they went, “No, received pronunciation” and just looked at me baffled.
When you came up to London to do Bugsy, were you on your own?
Now I think back, if I ever had kids I don’t think I’d let them do that. But bless my mum and dad, they were so supportive. They knew that I didn't want to do anything else. I love that they let me have a go at it because nothing was guaranteed. It was when phones had just come out, because I had this massive big pink brick and I lived in a flat with five other 16-year-olds. We had a two-bedroomed flat in South London. There was four boys in one bedroom, and me and Hannah Spearitt, who I went on to live with for seven years and who was in S Club 7. We literally just lived on jam sandwiches. We didn't know of any dangers. We all did the show and went back together. We had this one big pink brick between us all and the telephone box at the end of the road for us to ring our parents.
How long did the show run?
That was about four months. Then I went back home. I was working on a burger van at the time but I’d got an agent and so she would get me down on the train to audition. Quite soon after that I auditioned for Into the Woods for the Donmar. I had never heard of that. I thought it was just like a big warehouse. My agent was like, "It’s a really classy venue." And then moved back down and from then I’ve stayed.
You did become ghettoised on BBC Three.
I had done The Royle Family by that stage and I loved doing Two Pints (cast pictured). I was 19 when I started and to be with a lot of other 19-year-olds, you can imagine it was just great fun. It was like my university years, I guess. We all kind of grew up together over the years and all became a little family on it. That was my life for years. And then lots of other comedy roles. I guess as far as I was playing myself. I was playing working-class parts. I’ve only got fond memories of that time. It was scary leaving my comfort blanket. I wanted to stay with all my friends but I just thought maybe it was time to go onto other things. But I missed it a lot and am still very good friends with the whole team.
Was your character in The Royle Family posher?
Slightly posher. She was a vegetarian, which makes her posh in that world. I went in to the second series so I’d seen the first one. I remember getting the call to say about having a recall for it. Walking onto that set when you’ve seen that set, especially the women, Sue Johnston, Caroline Aherne and Liz Smith who I adored, it was kind of daunting but that kind of worked because she was walking into this family. My training was watching on every job and taking it in like a sponge, I guess. God, what an honour to be on that job.
How about Gavin and Stacey? She was a lovely little thing.
Oh I loved doing that. Even when you’re playing the same working-class type roles, in Benidorm she was a Scouse slapper and in Gavin and Stacey she’s a right little Essex tomboy. I really enjoyed that role. I was going out with James [Corden] at the time so it was so much more fun. All the rapping and the handshakes we were doing in the show we would do in our spare time. So that was a really special time in my life being part of that. We had so much fun on that. It’s so funny but it’s got real heart, that show. They’ve left people wanting more which I think is the right thing.
You did Little Shop of Horrors but there wasn’t that much acting in musicals before Legally Blonde.
From Into the Woods when I was 17 right up until doing Little Shop of Horrors there was an eight-year gap. I had done some straight plays at the Royal Court but I hadn’t done any musical theatre for a while. I was a bit out of practice. I’d never done a big lead like that.
What made you think, I know I can do this?
I’d seen the Broadway version, MTV filmed it, and I thought there was so few roles for women like that. I’m to a big soprano singer, I’m never going to be one of those girls who can play the leading lady in those classic musicals. It’s never going to be me.
It shouldn’t work Legally Blonde as a musical. It sounds a bit car crash, but I saw this production and it just added to the camp brilliantness and the moral of the story, good triumphs, I just fell in love with it and it was poppy and young. I just thought I’d love to play that part. I didn’t know if I could. But it’s front and centre and you’re going to have to take it by the reins. But I did think with a British audience we’d have to do it tongue in cheek and send up that American LA girl. I wanted to put a different twist on it. The Americans were great. Once we got in front of an audience they got what I was trying to do with it. It couldn't believe I’d got it and I don't know if there are many roles like that that I’ll get again.
How much dance training had you had?
I stated dancing when I was four and I used to do that a few nights a week after school. I loved that. I was in Joyce Mason’s School of Dance in Scunthorpe. Once I got to 16 and moved to London I stopped so I was rusty by the time I got to do Legally Blonde. All the people in the cast were trained musical theatre performers and I was struggling to keep up. My back would keep going or my voice but I would somehow get up onstage.
Your vertical ascent took another turn when you were cast in Quartet with a distinguished senior cast. When happened when you got the call from Dustin Hoffman?
He came to see Flare Path and he came backstage afterwards and he just was lovely and we were both a bit teary because there’s a lot of tears in the second half. I remember when he left I was shaking and I rang my mum and went, “Oh my God, I can’t believe Dustin Hoffman came round and complimented me.” That’s so far removed from whatever I thought would happen to me. And when I got a call saying he was doing a movie and he wanted to see me for it. I went in and auditioned and he was sent the tape and I got a phone call from a number I didn’t know and a voicemail going, “Hey Sheridan, this is Dustin calling.” And I was beside myself screaming. I didn’t know still if I’d got the part. He said to call him back so I rang him and he said, “Are you going to be working with me?” And I just burst into tears basically.
I was terrified every day on set. Walking on set where there’s Dame Maggie Smith and Sir Tom Courtenay, Sir Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins. I am the only one without a title. And it was a lot bigger budge to anything I’d been on before I was just petrified. They totally took me under their wing. There is a speech I give in the film by the nurse and how she feels about the residents which I genuinely feel about working on the film.
What about what you did in Flare Path did he want?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to say why he chose me to do it. I think he just likes to see people and rather than playing a role and being completely removed from the character... One day I was feeling really nervous and emotional and he knelt down beside me and said, “Well, you’ve got the clothes on but that’s you.” I just learnt so much from him. I’d never worked like that before. And obviously with Dame Maggie I just wanted to curtsey every morning. That was when I was most like a sponge. “My goodness, don't forget one second of this job.”
I am duty bound to ask you about cinema’s second-longest faked orgasm.
Tanya Wexler the director came to see me in Legally Blonde and got me into the audition and said, “You can skip the orgasm bit.” And I went, “What? No the whole point is the orgasm.” I thought, you can’t be embarrassed, you’ve just got to go for it, and we were all in hysterics. Thankfully she gave me the role. I think she said I was the only one who’d do it. People did the lines around it but jumped that bit. So when we were on set filming it I had Rupert Everett and Hugh Dancy between my legs holding the feather duster. It could have been so mortifying and embarrassing. But luckily it was such a laugh. We did the final take and the director came over to me and said, “We’ve got it but it’s the cameraman’s birthday. So this one I’ll leave up to you.” She said, “One more time, let’s go again.” So we did the orgasm scene and this time I started saying his name during the orgasm and everyone got it and turned the camera on him and he went absolutely scarlet and they all sang “Happy Birthday”. I wonder why I get given these roles.
You want to do it all and you assume every role is your last. Which is the real worldview?
Treating every job as your last has always been how I’ve thought. And it's still how I think. If you think these offers are going to keep coming then you’re mad because in this industry it can stop overnight. I’ve seen it happen to people. I would never be cocky or presumptuous that that’ll keep happening. I don’t know if it will last forever. I hope it will. You’ve just got to keep working hard and do your best at every job because the rug can be pulled from under your feet. I’m a bit in shock that I’m getting the offers I’m getting.
Is there something about you that finds it easy to access the ability to do these things?
I don’t know if I do. If I’m completely honest I’m so fearful that I can’t do it. I get massive nerve and panic attacks and don't know if I definitely can do this thing that people trust me to do and that’s what makes me a little bit unhinged and a bit wobbly. But I think sometimes if you’re overconfident... I don’t know what it is. I always get the fear. The closer you get to performing and you have to do it, it somehow spurs you on. But I don’t know what it is I’m doing. I don’t have a technical way of acting like a lot of people have from drama school. Think of your motive there and this line and that line. I’ve worked with people who’ve got everything written out on their scripts. I just go on instincts and how I’m feeling at that time. I just love finding humanity in roles and figuring out how people tick. I’m mental myself, I’m all over the place. I kind of like losing myself in characters because it’s not me for a while.
What made you want to do Hedda Gabler, which is a huge leap?
Classical actresses usually play Hedda Gabler. When I got the call I googled everything about it and thought, oh my God, this is too terrifying for me, I don't know if I can do this. It wasn’t anything I pictured myself playing. In fact because I haven’t trained I feel like I have missed out doing the research into great plays and playwrights. When I did Flare Path I hadn’t read a lot of Rattigan stuff. And it was the director I was working with on Mrs Biggs said, “Isn’t that why you get out of bed in the morning? To challenge yourself, to step outside your comfort zone and try and surprise yourself?” I thought yeah. It’s nice to put your own stamp on something. Me, little modern working-class girl trying to get my head round this woman back in those days and how different everything was and how frustrated and restricted her life was. Anne Reid said, “Think of her as being called Elsie."
Do you need to stand up in front of an audience? Does it become a kind of drug?
I do daily think if I didn't do this I wouldn’t have all this fear and constant nerves. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I feel so grateful I want to do a good job. The thought of letting people down... I do care what people think too much. In a way I wish I was thicker-skinned. Daily I think I’m in the wrong game. I’ve worked with people that have got this really thick skin and nothing bothers them. I think, if I didn’t do this I could just have such a less stressful life. I wind myself up so much.
What could you do?
Nothing, that’s the thing. I can’t do anything else, and I don’t even know if I can do this properly. But then of course it is a buzz. When you’re out there. That standing ovation. I remember the first time it happened and I was in tears. The director came to me because I ran down and bowed and ran back and he was like “Take your time, this is your moment, walk down there.” I just found that so cringe that you would stand there and enjoy that. I just felt so guilty. But it does become a buzz and when Legally Blonde finished I went home and I said to my mates, “I need to get a little applause machine that when I’m making some toast I get a little clap.” I did miss that buzz of it. But then the fear side of things makes me go, God, why do we do these things to ourselves? But I’m grateful to be doing something I love because a lot of people don't get that opportunity.
Your third big award in three years was the BAFTA for Mrs Biggs. What was so rewarding about that role? (Pictured with Daniel Mays)
When that landed on my desk – I don’t have a desk at all, that makes me sound posh … when I got that script I thought of Mrs Biggs as this ganger’s moll type role and that’s kind of why they’ve sent it. But completely got it wrong. I only had to read one episode but I could not put all five episodes down and was in floods of tears. It follows Mrs Charmian Biggs from when she’s 18 and meets Ronnie on a train, ironically, falls in love with him, the robbery, the prison, the escape to Australia and then right through to Rio and when she eventually says, “Enough’s enough.” It was just a great role for a woman to go from 18 to 35 over the fifties, sixties and seventies. She was a middle class girl from Surrey whose dad is horrible and she meets this guy who is a completely different world to hers. Her family disowns her. She has no idea about the robbery. They needed a deposit for a house and he told her he’d gone on a tree-felling job. He got put in prison for 30 years. She then went on and had another relationship and had an abortion. He broke out of prison. She loved him, had no one else, had the kids she needed a father figure for, and they go on the run. I can’t get over how forgiving and selfless she was. I became in awe of her and became really good friends with her and watched all the footage of her and when I was her I was starstruck. She was there on hand to give us help all the way through it. We went to her home, read personal letters between her and Ron. She lost her eldest son, which was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. Because I don’t have kids I had to draw on my brother dying and my mum losing her firstborn when was 18. I did feel a massive responsibility to do her story justice because I think she’s an amazing woman.
Is that the only instance you’ve called on private bereavement?
I’ve thought about him a lot. It’s just something that always stays with you. It’s not something I’m feeling sorry for myself about because everyone has horrible things and loss in their lives. But it’s always with me and something I can connect to but often probably push away because it’s that northern get on with things, don't talk about it. But it’s always been there. But I guess that was the time I had to really draw on it and realise I hadn’t dealt with it because I had a massive breakdown on set while they kept the cameras rolling. The director felt very cruel because he was pushing me to keep going and they were watching me crumble in front of their eyes. And it wasn’t acting. It was real. Of course you’re saying the lines but the raw feelings were definitely there. But maybe I treat work like a bit of therapy. It’s good to get it out, isn’t it? And if you can draw on those things I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I don’t think I’m using him to get those emotions. I think he’d want me to use them I guess. I’ll cry if we carry on talking about it.
- A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Noël Coward Theatre until 13 November
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