Sian Clifford is not Fleabag’s character Claire. The older sister, that smoldering mass of responsibility, ambition, hidden wrath, and scarcely recognized love, is instantly recognizable over Zoom, even in her spectacles and un-Claire hoop earrings.
I am presuming you have seen Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-multi-award-winning Bridge’s tragi-comedy about lust, loss, family, and feeling lost. You could not have missed the “hair is everything” scene, where Claire’s hard façade is broken by a furiously asymmetric haircut that makes her “look like a pencil.” Claire’s smile when she says working in Finland is “cold, lovely, and dark” is one of my favorites. close looks, angry, amused, and affectionate flashes over her face, controlled but on the brink. “I bottle and bury any unpleasant feelings, and they never come out,” she said. “I’ve never felt better.” She is ideal. Only Clifford’s 2020 Bafta victory for female performance in a comedy surprised her (in her acceptance speech, she looks genuinely shellshocked).
Clifford is nicer than Claire, chatting from her mother’s house on a day of “life admin” before heading to Bulgaria for a new job assignment. (Imagine Claire’s expression). She calls a recent shot “aligned, auspicious, and amazing.” Before Fleabag became viral, she established Still Space, a mindfulness program.
I realize it is not a big deal. But Claire screamed with humanity, and Clifford captured her well. There are worse legacies than having fools like me mistake her for Claire for the rest of her career.
We speak about Kate Atkinson’s new BBC version of Life After Life. The story of Ursula Todd is told by award-winning writer Bash Doran and directed by John Crowley (Brooklyn and The Goldfinch). It depicts Ursula’s births, deaths, and destinies from 1910 to 1945. It is a study of Life’s pivotal moments. Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, is another tight but unraveling knot of feeling, attempting to understand and love her wayward daughter (played excellently by Thomasin McKenzie). Clifford is bright with love, hollow with sadness, and brutally honest (“coldness, harshness, misery, betrayal and disgust,” she notes in one scenario).
Sylvie is “wrestling with her womanhood,” says Clifford. “I find her complex.” Life After Life’s revolving-timelines structure, she argues, gave an actor a unique opportunity: I got to play scenarios that were the same scene in a different life. That’s what I got. That gem has so many facets.”
As we witness Ursula’s many lives unfold, we see Sylvie go through labor again and again. She agrees. “It was life-changing to play those moments and required more guts from me than any other role.” Each birth is unique. It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that Ursula is stillborn in one of her lifelines – it is slow and heartbreaking to see. “It was horrifying. “John didn’t tell me we’d just keep rolling,” she recalls. “They weren’t yelling ‘cut,’ so I had to keep going.”
Life After Life is current with its focus on war and epidemics. Clifford says it was shot over two months in the spring of 2021, and children were dying of influenza in the plot, so it seemed extremely relevant. It is always exciting to think about what you would do differently if you had a second chance at life.
Did that make her question her Life? “I do that every day. The fuel for the fire,” she says. “The program talks about instinct; to me, it’s intuition. Intuition is a spiritual understanding. It happens frequently in my Life, and the more I tune into it, the better.”
At six, Clifford joined a theatrical club and quit; her sister Natalie, now an art dealer in America, kept going. (“My sister is the entertainer in the family; I am much more introverted,” she laughs.) “I knew I was destined to be there and not here,” Natalie said after her next show. Despite her sympathetic drama professors, the school became an escape for her, which she disliked. She says one, Mr John Rust-Andrews, got her into the second audition for Little Shop of Horrors when she balked at the first. Then, in a High School Musical moment, she sang her heart out and landed a part. “A pleasure to teach, extremely focused, motivated, and good-humored,” he adds, but she “never really forgiven him” for the beehive his hairdresser mother gave her for the event. “She had to brush out the backcombing!”
“My destiny became extremely clear” after her successful audition. Then she tried again and got into Rada on the third try. I wonder what her parents thought: she says they were “always enthusiastic – there was never a hesitation or a doubt.”
“That was also the year Phoebe Waller-Bridge got in. We might not have met if I had not been there last year.” On their third day at Rada, they shared a 45-minute tube journey back to Ealing, where they grew up. “I suppose we both took for granted at the time since we were so young,” she recalls of their quick bond. Was there a professional spark as well? “We were tremendous fans of one other’s work. When we graduated and had to cope with the real-life bustle of the professional world, I realized how much Mom fought for me.”
Clifford began his post-graduation career at the Bristol Old Vic and the Barbican. A decent theatre job seemed like a stepping stone. “Periods of not working, not knowing what to do, and temping” Clifford had not worked as an actor in two years, save with Waller-Bridge. “I dabbled in production. I enjoyed the creative freedom and artistic prowess.” (I like this Claire-ness.)
Her intuition seems to have faded: another fork in the path. When Phoebe said, ‘Well, you have to do Fleabag,’ I was rather flippant about it because, to be honest, I doubted they would take me. Other disappointments fueled that. I did not want to become too excited. “Phoebe was making other things, and I couldn’t be engaged because directors and producers wouldn’t hire me.”
There was a “tussle” for Claire’s role, which Waller-Bridge had written expressly for her. They would discuss it for years, she claims. “Phoebe and I both have a sister, and we both consider each other a sister. It was natural… “I despise it.”
“You’ve got an actor who can do it and is waiting for the appropriate tools,” Waller-Bridge said of Clifford’s role in the production. Their alliance was based on the premise that “whoever gets there first, I’m dragging you.”
She did not believe she got the part until she was on set. I did not want to recall how much I enjoyed acting until it was genuine. Fleabag was “the time of my life” once she felt protected. When it comes to Life After Life, she says, “I never expected to have an experience as collaborative and creative as Fleabag” (which did). Clifford took a year off after the first season aired. However, with the success of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria at the Hampstead Theatre, she says she hasn’t stopped since. Covid made her busy. “I’ve thrown myself into the whirlwind.” There is also a murder mystery starring Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell and a semi-improvised comedy starring Russell Tovey, a friend from their teenage theatrical days (“We were in Wales, Russell and I were living in a cabin together for a week, he would create fires for me at night”). She will join the cast of His Dark Materials when it returns to the screen in the autumn. “I essentially bit someone’s arm off for a year.” “We’re both tremendously excited” about a new collaboration with Waller-Bridge.
Why is she so excellent at getting under the skin of tense women while she appears so calm? As Diana Ingram, the wife of the “cheating major” in Stephen Frears’ Quiz, she was superb. Her voice is calm. “But there is a core within them that is tightly wrapped. It emerges in many ways. “I like that place,” she muses. What does that say about me? Still pondering, she thinks it’s the intricacy and tension she likes. “Their humanity explodes off the paper, and that element drives me insane. Despite any rough edges or bitterness, I know there is a genuine human person I can find sympathy for, and I want others to do so. “I want roles that stretch me as an artist and social human,” she adds, responding to the idea. Those roles offered her: “I could stretch out.”
Surely she is a But Claire, Sylvie, Diana. So I ask her how she feels about a new decade if she happens to be approaching one: “Very, very satisfied with where I am,” she says. “I have it in me, but I’ve worked hard to lighten my grasp and accept myself where I am at any given time. Certainly, my philosophical side has softened those edges.”
“I suppose she has several edge softeners in her Life. Her lockdown dog is a rescue pooch from south London. She’s reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, but she’s also addicted to cookery shows. In fact, she just finished watching the entire Great British Menu – “Some people go very off brief,” she exclaims with excitement. The anti-Fleabag, Schitt’s Creek, plays on repeat for her comfort. Netflix just autoplays, so it plays the wonderful short documentary, then it just begins over? I have seen it eight or nine times.” “Her favorite?” My queen is O’Hara. I am obsessed with her and her decisions. “She inspires me.” The plan fell through, but the dream lives on. “I am definitely putting that out there.” Let’s hope we’re on the right timeline.