Sheridan Smith: never a dull moment

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Bagging a Bafta, two Oliviers and a nod at the Emmys, Sheridan Smith has truly spread her wings since cosying up to ‘Our Antony’ on Jim Royle’s sofa. Surely one of showbiz’s nicest ladies – she talks to Stylist about her life less ordinary

Words: Lyndsey Gilmour, Photography: Jonty Davies

In five-inch platform boots, Sheridan Smith makes her wobbly way over the woodchip carpet past the llamas – unexplained carrier bags of ‘stuff’ swinging by her thighs. It wouldn’t have been my first choice of footwear for our day trip to London Zoo but she’s already poked fun at her outfit once on this crisp October afternoon. The grey leopard-print jeans, the black fake fur jacket… she’ll “fit right in with the surroundings” she cackles. Cooing over the marmosets – it was Sheridan’s sole request to see the chimps when I mooted coming here – she tells me proudly that she’s a patron of a monkey sanctuary in Wales.

“I was fascinated by monkeys before I was with dogs,” she says in her raspy South Yorkshire accent (she hails from Epworth, near Doncaster). “For my birthday one year, an ex took me to a monkey sanctuary and we both became patrons. I’ve been back since on my own.”

While this revelation makes today’s setting fitting, it’s really hard to do an interview at a zoo. Bustling tourists, school parties and the squawking of exotic birds have us making a hasty retreat to the cafe with the promise of dropping by to see the penguins before we leave. You see, the 32 year old is very excited to be here. I know this because she tells me numerous times. She’s also very grateful – she says that a lot too. Her life, I’m told, is one “mad” string of events, every bit as surreal as our photoshoot two weeks prior, which involved a flamingo called Pinkie, two pelicans and a rail-load of Prada. Sheridan is also about to leave for New York where we now know she narrowly missed out on an International Emmy (thanks to her performance in Mrs Biggs, which also got her a Bafta). Her diary is not what you’d call run of the mill.

Leaving a half-eaten panini, she links my arm – we’ve only met once before at our shoot but she’s refreshingly unguarded and tactile – and we head for the penguin pond where we fail miserably to tweet a few selfies to her 445,000 followers. Pinkie might have been well behaved but these particular birds aren’t playing ball and won’t stay in shot. Not that it puts Sheridan off; she’d open her own animal sanctuary tomorrow if the roles were to dry up, she says.

I suspect that back-up plan won’t be necessary any time soon, but I do believe her; she has no airs, no graces – just honesty and good humour. Volunteering her email address for top-up questions and honouring a promise of tickets to see her in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (she sorts this out personally a week later and throws in a backstage peak at David Walliams’ dressing room), fame has not changed Sheridan one little bit…

Last time we said goodbye you were heading up north to judge a dog fancy dress competition, how did that go?

Yeah, my best mate Eddy Northcott organised a farmers’ festival up in Yorkshire. My Mum and Dad were playing – they’re a country and western duo – and my brother’s band. I sang 9 To 5 by Dolly Parton. My friend Will Mellor was there from Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps too.

Did you know him before working together?

No. We all met on set, apart from me and Ralf Little, who had met a couple of months before on The Royle Family. They were our uni years really – we were 18 to 27 so you go through the break-ups, the fun times, the dramas. Now Ralf is in The Ladykillers, just down the road from my old theatre [where she did A Midsummer Night’s Dream] so we’d meet for coffee before the shows most days. I was so nervous moving here when I was 16 and I didn’t know anyone so everyone you meet on every job is like a new family. They end up being special friends for life.

Who else have you become friends with?

Natalie Casey and Kathryn Drysdale from Two Pints, Paul Keaton who I did Little Shop Of Horrors with. There isn’t anyone I haven’t got on with. Although I have worked with some amazing people I was a bit nervous of.

Like who?

I was nervous going on to the set of Quartet where you’ve got Dustin Hoffman directing and the greats like Dame Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins. I thought, ‘What are they going to make of this little common thing?’ But they couldn’t have been any nicer. I was going on to play Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic and Maggie sent me an opening night gift. On the card above the word ‘Smith’ she put ticks because we’re both Smiths.

You do have a surreal life, would you agree?

I feel so lucky because this is so insane. It’s hilarious that I’m being chased around a room by a pelican and then two minutes later I’m doing Shakespeare on stage. My mates from school take the mickey saying my job is bonkers and I do get embarrassed – I’m not going down the mines or saving lives, am I? I just have to pinch myself.

There have been a lot of ‘pinch me’ moments lately, no? The Emmys, the Baftas...

[Blows a raspberry] Now that, to me, sounds like you’re winding me up. It’s so surreal.

How do you feel about Hollywood and fitting in with that scene? The juice diets and the running around the canyons. Is that for you?

I can’t imagine doing any of that but maybe once you’re out there that’s the lifestyle you’re drawn to. I’d be the one finding the nearest pizza joint! They do big portion sizes in the States, so I think I’d be all right. A lot of people do the pilot season but so far I’ve not had time.

Your dad turned up to the Legally Blonde The Musical opening night with a ‘Daddy’s Girl’ T-shirt on? Did any part of you go ‘Daaaaad! No!’

I do that to my mum sometimes, she’ll pull out a signed picture and I’m like, “Mum! Why have you got those in your handbag?!” I do get embarrassed but I know it’s from a place of pride. Most of what I do is to make them proud and I love it when they come down to the theatre – they bring bus trips down. I hosted the Olivier Awards this year and Dad came in his dicky bow.

On our shoot you called yourself ‘the lonely dog lady from Crouch End’, which was funny but does that bother you?

Maybe deep down. I often get asked in interviews: “Why are you still single?” and I just think, because it hasn’t happened yet. I’m not running out of time, I’m only 32. They never ask men though. It’s only the women – tick tock, tick tock. Although, obviously, it would have been nice to take a partner to New York [for the International Emmys]. I should have held auditions.

You could have done it on Twitter – you used Twitter to bring back your kidnapped dog.

I did! I have three dogs, Enid, Trish and Barry Manilow. Someone kicked a hole in the fence and Enid was taken. I was hysterical, running around the streets with bare feet, screaming her name in the rain. I put it on Twitter and everyone re-tweeted it – Chris Moyles mentioned it on BBC Radio 1, Phillip Schofield showed a picture on This Morning – and the next morning she got dumped back. It was so lucky.

One of your Legally Blonde co-stars was a chihuahua, yes?

We had five chihuahuas and two bulldogs and they had to swap around so they weren’t tired. I spent more time in the dog dressing room than I did in my own! I was always stinking of dog on stage. I took them home to bond. We had sleepovers.

Did you have pets growing up?

I wasn’t allowed but if I found strays, I could keep them. I used to take dogs out of the neighbours’ gardens and take their collars off but Mum and Dad knew. When I bought a house, getting a dog was the first thing I did. I wanted the house so I could get the dog!

You’re currently recognised as one of the UK’s most versatile actresses. Are you in a place where you feel you can take on anything?

You never stop learning and you’re only as good as your last job. The week after I’d finished Legally Blonde I took my family to Dubai when I got a text from Sir Trevor Nunn saying “Can you read the script for Flare Path?” I thought it was a wind-up but my agent said, “Yeah, it’s him and it starts in a week so you have to fly back now.” James Purefoy and Sienna Miller were attached. I’d just come out of doing sitcoms and musical theatre so this was my first serious play and I thought I was the weak link, but I was amazed by the response.

You kind of stole the limelight from Sienna. How did that feel?

I don’t think that happened. People realised she was a brilliant theatre actress. I saw The Girl when she was up against me in the Baftas and she’s mind-blowing. I never saw it like that.

With your latest film Powder Room they moved the release date so you could go to the premiere…

It was going to be the day after the Emmys so they moved it. Working with this big gang of women – Jaime Winstone, Oona Chaplin, Kate Nash – was really empowering. I’m thrilled it got a worldwide release, I think all women will relate to it. I play Sam who makes up all these stories about herself and then has to keep all her friends apart in a nightclub.

Can you tell me about a night out that has turned into an adventure?

I always have parties at my house. For my 29th I did a Stars In Their Eyes fancy dress with curtains, smoke machines... The other night I got out the fancy dress box and sat in the hot tub in my garden – I got it for my 30th – with friends dressed up as Dorothy from The Wizard Of Oz, Snow White, Princess Leia. We were having quite a serious discussion and I said, “Can we look around and take a moment?”

Do your cultural tastes change when you’re doing something highbrow? Or would you rather just watch repeats of Come Dine With Me?

It’s Come Dine With Me! I’m not intelligent or clever, all I can do is act and pretend to be different people. I can figure out a character, but I’m not the type of girl to sit at home reading Nietzsche. People ask what roles I want to play but I didn’t go to drama school so I don’t know many parts. I need to start reading more.

Do you read much else?

Apart from Stylist? No, not really.

You have played some challenging roles. In Mrs Biggs your character loses her son – did you draw on your own experiences of loss?

There are times it gets close to your personal feelings. For that scene they just kept the cameras rolling and moved all the crew out while I had a breakdown basically. Charmian Biggs lost her eldest son, which is what happened to my mum [Sheridan’s 18-year-old brother Julian died of leukaemia when Sheridan was eight] so I wanted to feel how she must have felt. Mum couldn’t watch it. Charmian and I are still in touch; I have a lovely picture of us up at home that says ‘To my doppelganger’.

Your life seems fairly sorted right now. What’s the one thing that would make it perfect?

Career-wise, I can’t believe how well it’s all going but when I saw Mum and Dad the other day I thought, ‘God I miss you’ and said, “Why can’t you come and move in with me and I’ll get a stairlift?” Maybe one day I will have a family of my own but right now, in this moment, I’m happy where I’m at.

Powder Room is out on 6 December (turn the page to meet the director), The Harry Hill Movie is out on 20 December and The 7.39 is on BBC1 in January 2014

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