Sian Clifford: 'I nearly vomited into my webcam when I won the Bafta'

The actor on her new ‘plilm’, being busy in a pandemic, and the strangeness of Brad Pitt ‘fan-girling’ over her Fleabag co-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge

In a challenging period for her industry, actor Sian Clifford seems almost embarrassed at how busy she has been. In 2020, the 38-year-old from west London co-starred in ITV’s drama Quiz – the story of the “coughing” scandal on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire – and was the survivalist mother of Kim (Maisie Williams) in Two Weeks to Live on Sky. In July, she won the TV Bafta for female in a comedy for her performance as Claire, the uptight sister in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. Clifford has already shot a number of projects for 2021 including Good Grief, a tragicomic filmed play written by Lorien Haynes about two friends coming to terms with bereavement, in which she stars alongside Nikesh Patel.

Good Grief has been described as “neither theatre, nor film”. What is it?
I’m coining the word “plilm”. Not a play or a film but a plilm. There might be a better word out there; I’m open to offers. But it is a total hybrid. We didn’t film it in a theatre. We filmed it in a studio. But the play is absolutely phenomenal. It is exploring the stages of grief, but it’s not linear. My character has lost her best friend, and Nikesh’s character has lost his partner. It’s devastating, but so funny. It’s also an experiment that I very willingly participated in to keep people engaged with the arts during this time.

You’ve known Patel for a while, which was true as well with Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Is it harder to act with a friend?
It depends on the friend but certainly in my experience it’s utterly joyful. And with Phoebe that’s ongoing: we’re going to work together for ever. We never talked about how to play those sisters, sort of because we already are sisters. We’re not the dynamic of Claire and Fleabag of course, but we have a connection. It just runs very deep. With Nikesh on Good Grief, we didn’t have a huge amount of time. And the connection between Adam and Cat in the play is the axis upon which everything else turns. And I felt that in order to be able to do this play justice in the time that we had, I had to work with someone where you get that for free.

The Bafta awards were presented on Zoom this year, and you seemed genuinely shocked to win. People often say they hadn’t prepared a speech, but was that actually true in your case?
I will never forget that feeling when that was announced, and I nearly vomited into my laptop camera. I absolutely had not prepared a thing. And there was a panicked 30 seconds before because suddenly I was sat in someone’s garden with terrible wifi and the Zoom organisers were screaming at me and Phoebe [who was at the same location, and up for the same award, but the organisers wanted them to have different backgrounds on Zoom] to get into a different room. It was very Fleabag that moment, I have to say.

Were you surprised that Fleabag was such a hit?
The first one I thought would do well, but I also knew it was new and it was weird, and that people really might not like that. So the response to that was overwhelming enough. But when I read the script for the second series and she had, excuse my French, a fucking brilliant idea at the end of episode three, which is where the priest breaks the fourth wall [speaks directly to the audience], I just thought: “Oh, OK. So you’re literally going to try and change television.”

Some very famous people have been very outspoken in their love for Fleabag. Have you had unexpected meetings off the back of that?
Oh, yeah, definitely, doing the award circuit in America. The American Film Institute awards made an exception and recognised Fleabag, and that was basically where we met Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt literally fan-girling over Phoebe is without question the most surreal thing I’ll ever see in my life. I just shook his hand. Ah, to shake people’s hands. Thank God coronavirus hadn’t arrived then, that would have scuppered that meeting. But we laughed for the rest of the day, it was so stupid.

Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag.
Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photograph: Hal Shinnie/BBC/Two Brothers Pictures Ltd.

What culturally have you enjoyed during lockdown?
Television is where the magic is right now. My number one pick was I May Destroy You, which is a visual poem, and then of course, Normal People. I don’t think I’ve ever been in as much pain watching anything. My other top thing was The Last Dance. I had no relationship to basketball prior to watching it, nothing. Now I feel like I’m an expert. But I loved it, I think I watched it in one day.

That’s impressive bingeing!
Thanks. I’m a real binge-watcher. I watched the entirety of This Country. I’m talking series one to three, in one day. Yes, I did.

Early in lockdown, you talked about doing a “daily dance party”. Have you kept that going?
That is a lifetime thing. If you’re feeling stuck, or you’re feeling low, or you’re feeling disconnected or even if you’re feeling joyful – whatever you’re feeling. I love a dance whatever the weather. It’s really, really powerful to let yourself make crazy, crazy shapes that you wouldn’t ordinarily when you might be trying to impress someone on the dance floor. And really allowing the music to move you.

You mentioned your relationship with Waller-Bridge is “ongoing”. Is there anything in particular you are discussing?
There are many things we are discussing but the thing I’m most looking forward to in all the world is us getting to work together again. Yes, there’s no doubt in my mind that that will be a magical reunion. And we are both very fired up about something in particular, but I can tell you no more than that.

Good Grief is available to view from 15 February, tickets from £10


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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