Life after Fleabag: actor Sian Clifford on taming her inner ‘Claire’

As sister Claire, Sian Clifford was a ball of pent-up rage and frustration in Fleabag. Now she is busier than ever. She talks about learning to soften her edges and making those ‘what if’ moments come true

Sian Clifford is not Claire from Fleabag. I mean, she is: over Zoom, even with her glasses on in quite un-Claire hoop earrings, she’s instantly recognisable as the older sister, that seething ball of duty, ambition, suppressed rage and barely acknowledged love.

I’m assuming here that you’ve watched Fleabag, or at least know of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s multi-award-winning, juggernaut tragi-comedy of lust, grief, family and feeling lost. Even if you spent the past six years under a rock, you would have struggled to miss the “hair is everything” scene, where Claire’s steely facade is breached by a ferociously asymmetric bob that makes her look “like a pencil”. It struck a deep chord in British womanhood (and far beyond), but there are other bits of Claire I love more: the glitter of happiness when she says working in Finland is “cold and beautiful and dark”. The tense glances, the flashes of anger, amusement and affection that flit across her face, controlled but so close to the edge. Her statement, “I take all the negative emotions; I bottle them and bury them and they never come out. I’ve basically never been better.” She’s perfect. Clifford’s 2020 Bafta win – female performance in a comedy – came as a surprise to no one but her (in her acceptance speech, she looks genuinely shellshocked).

But speaking from her mum’s house, on a day of “life admin” before she flies to Bulgaria on a new work project, Clifford is far gentler than Claire: thoughtful, expansive with love and praise for her projects and partners, and possibly a touch new age-y. She describes a recent shoot as “aligned and auspicious and very magical” (imagine Claire’s face). She does yoga and meditates; she was creating Still Space, a mindfulness platform, before Fleabag went stratospheric.

I know: “actor is good at acting” is no scoop. But Claire was so seething with humanity, and Clifford embodied her so completely, it’s momentarily surprising. Perhaps she’s doomed to have idiots like me mistake her for Claire for the rest of her career – there are worse legacies – but I doubt it.

Play it again: in Life After Life, with Eliza Riley.
Play it again: in Life After Life, with Eliza Riley. Photograph: Sally Mais/BBC

We’re here to talk about the new BBC adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s Costa-winning novel Life After Life. With a script by award-winning playwright Bash Doran, directed by John Crowley (director of Brooklyn and The Goldfinch), it’s the story – or rather the many stories – of Ursula Todd. In it, we see many different possible versions of Ursula’s life: her multiple births, deaths and destinies, starting in 1910 and spanning both wars. It’s an exploration, really, of the turning points that shape a life. Clifford plays Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, another tight but fraying knot of feeling, struggling to understand and love her troubled daughter (beautifully played by Thomasin McKenzie); hidebound by her Edwardian sensibilities. It’s haunting, and Clifford is wonderful in it: by turn luminous with love, hollow with grief and confrontingly harsh (“coldness, severity, despair, betrayal and disgust”, she lists, discussing one scene).

“Her internal conflict is a minefield,” says Clifford, who describes Sylvie as “wrestling with her own womanhood”. “I think she’s so complex.” The repeating-timelines structure of Life After Life, she says, offered a special opportunity for an actor: “It’s extraordinary that I got to play scenes out that were the same scene in a completely different life. I got to live the ‘what if’. You get so many facets of that diamond.”

You gave birth a lot, too, I say, admiringly (she makes it look properly frightening), as we watch Ursula’s many lives play out, we see Sylvie go through labour again and again. “I did!” she agrees. “It was life-changing actually performing those scenes and demanded more courage from me than I’ve ever had to call on before in a role.” Each birth is different. Given the premise of the story, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say baby Ursula is stillborn in one of her lifelines – it’s slow and hard to watch. “It was incredibly upsetting. John didn’t tell me we were just going to keep rolling,” she says of that scene. “I just had to keep going, because they weren’t calling ‘cut’.”

With war and a pandemic central to the story, Life After Life feels timely. It was shot over a tight two months in the spring of 2021: “Everyone was masked and visored,” Clifford says, “and there were children dying of influenza [in the story], so it felt very pertinent.” More philosophically, that question of what you would do if you could have your life again; of whether we learn from mistakes is perennially fascinating.

FleabagProgramme Name: Fleabag - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 4) - Picture Shows: L-R Claire (SIAN CLIFFORD), Fleabag (PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE) - (C) Two Brothers Pictures Ltd. - Photographer: Hal Shinnie
‘We fell into those roles very easily’: with Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photograph: Hal Shinnie/BBC/Two Brothers Pictures

Did it make her interrogate her own life? “I think about stuff like that every day. This was just petrol on a fire,” she says. “They talk a lot about instinct in the show: to me it’s intuition. Intuition is something more spiritual – it’s that deep knowing. I experience it a lot in my life and the more I tune into that part of myself, the better my life becomes.”

That “deep knowing” started early: Clifford joined a theatre group at six then gave up; her sister Natalie, now an art dealer in the US, continued. (“It’s funny,” she says, “I would say my sister is the performer in the family; I’m much more introverted.”) Watching Natalie’s next performance, “I had a knowing that I was meant to be there and not here.” Theatre became an escape from school, which she says hated, though hugely supportive drama teachers helped. One, Mr John Rust-Andrews (she repeats it for me, hand on heart), let her into the second audition for Little Shop of Horrors when she wimped out of the first, then regretted it. She sang her heart out through her nerves (“a bit of a High School Musical moment”) and got a part. I track down Rust-Andrews who says she was, “A delight to teach, very dedicated, driven and good-humoured,” though he claims she “never really forgave him” for the beehive his hairdresser mum gave her for the show. “It took days for her to brush out the back combing!”

Her successful audition was one of those crystallising, turning-point moments when her life could have gone a very different way, she says: “My path became very clear.” The next came when she failed to get into Rada twice, but persisted, making it on the third attempt. I wonder what her parents thought: she says she feels privileged that they were “Never anything but enthusiastic – it was never a question or a doubt.”

That third time lucky was extra lucky of course: “That was also the year that Phoebe Waller-Bridge got in, too. If I’d been in the previous year, we might never have met.” They got to know each other on their third day at Rada, sharing a 45-minute tube ride back to Ealing, where they both grew up. That swiftly formed friendship, was, she says, “A profound connection that I think we both took for granted at the time because we were so young.” Was there also an instant professional spark? “We were definitely huge supporters of each other’s work. Certainly, when we graduated and had to deal with the real-life hustle of the professional world, I became conscious of what a huge champion of me she was.”

Cough cough: with Matthew Macfadyen in 2020’s Quiz.
Cough cough: with Matthew Macfadyen in 2020’s Quiz. Photograph: Alamy

Post-graduation life went well for Clifford, initially, with stints at Bristol Old Vic and the Barbican. “I did some nice theatre jobs, I felt like I was climbing the ladder.” But there were also, “periods of not working and not knowing what to do and temping”. When Fleabag started production, Clifford hadn’t worked as an actor for two years, other than with Waller-Bridge. “I started to dabble in production. I loved the creative control and I’m very good with a spreadsheet.” (I enjoy this touch of Claire-ness.)

If sounds as if her intuition faltered momentarily at this point: another fork in the road. “I remember there was a moment where Phoebe said, ‘Well you have to do Fleabag,’ and I was quite nonchalant about it because, to be honest, I didn’t think they would have me.” That was grounded in “other disappointments. I didn’t want to get my hopes up really. Up to that point, Phoebe was making other things and I hadn’t been able to be involved, because directors or producers didn’t want to hire me.”

There was “a tussle” to get the part of Claire – a part she had been playing since 2009 in sketch form and that Waller-Bridge had written specifically for her. They had talked about playing sisters for years, she says. “Both Phoebe and I have a sister and we do both consider each other a sister, we fell into those roles very easily. It was really organic… I hate that word.”

“You’ve got an actor you know can do that and is sitting on it and you just need to give them the right tools,” Waller-Bridge has said of Clifford’s part in the project; she held out for her friend. “We always said whoever gets there first, I’m dragging you with me,” Clifford says of their partnership.

‘We always said, whoever gets there first I’m dragging you with me’: Sian Clifford on her friendship with Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
‘We always said, whoever gets there first I’m dragging you with me’: Sian Clifford on her friendship with Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Photograph: Sophia Spring/The Observer

She couldn’t quite allow herself to believe the part was hers until she was on set. “I didn’t want to remember how much I loved acting, actually, until it was real and tangible.” Once she felt safe to enjoy it, Fleabag was “the time of my life”. “I never thought I’d have an experience as collaborative and creatively fulfilling as Fleabag,” she says, when we’re talking about Life After Life (which did). After the first season aired, improbably, Clifford did not work for a year. But in 2017 she got a part in Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’s well-reviewed Gloria at the Hampstead Theatre and “Since then, touch wood, I haven’t stopped.” If anything, Covid made her busier. “I’ve flung myself into the whirlwind,” she says. The pipeline includes See How They Run, a murder romp with Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell, among other luminaries, and the semi-improvised “really fun, very silly” Real Love with Russell Tovey, a friend since teen theatre days (“We were in Wales, Russell and I were living in a cottage for a week, he’d build fires for me in the evening.”). A huge fan of His Dark Materials (“I love fantasy, that’s the little nerd in me”), she will fulfil a dream and join the cast when it returns to the screen in the autumn. “I basically chewed someone’s arm off for a part; that was a full-year endeavour.” There’s new work with Waller-Bridge in the offing, too: “We’re both horribly excited about it.”

I need to know: why is she so good at getting under the skin of tightly wound women when she seems so serene? She was wonderful as Diana Ingram, too, wife of the “cheating major” in Stephen Frears’s Quiz, the story of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? scandal. “I feel those women are completely different,” she says, carefully. “But there is a core of them that is tightly wound and it unleashes. The way it unleashes manifests very differently. I feel very comfortable in that space,” she muses. “I don’t know what that says about me.” Still thinking, she says it’s not the uptightness that appeals, so much as the complexity and the conflict. “Their humanity leaps off the page, that’s what makes me go crazy for a part. That’s what I want to bring to life in spite of any hard edges, asperity – I know there is a real human being that I can find compassion for and I would like other people to as well. I want parts that make me the most elastic and expanded, not just actor, but human being I can be,” she says, warming to the theme. That’s what those roles gave her: “I got to stretch into different places.”

Surely she’s a tiny bit Claire, Sylvie, Diana though. She certainly won’t tell me if she’s turning 40 the week we speak, as the internet suggests (we compromise on me asking how she feels about a new decade if, hypothetically, she happens to be facing one: “Very, very happy with where I am” is the answer). “That is me, too, I have that in me, but I’ve done a lot of work on myself to soften the grip, to be more accepting of where I am in any given moment. The philosophical part of me has softened those edges, that’s for sure.”

“There are plenty of edge softeners in her life, I think. She lives in south London with her lockdown dog: “She’s a rescue pup, she’s awesome.” She’s working her way through Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy – “I find her writing transcendent, like oxygen” – but is also obsessed with cooking shows. She prefers to watch than cook, she says and has just devoured all of Great British Menu – “Some people go really off brief,” she says, delightedly. She watches the gentle comedy Schitt’s Creek (the anti-Fleabag, surely) on a loop for comfort. “You know Netflix just autoplays, so when you get to the end, it plays that lovely little documentary, then it just starts again? I have watched all the way through eight or nine times.” Who’s her favourite? “Catherine O’Hara is my queen. I’m obsessed and endlessly fascinated by her and her choices. She’s my inspiration.” They were supposed to work together; it fell through but the dream persists. “Definitely, I’m putting that out into the universe.” Here’s hoping we’re on the timeline where that happens.

Life After Life starts on 19 April at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer. All episodes are available to stream


Emma Beddington

The GuardianTramp

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