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Sian Clifford: “We are more connected than ever. I hope this is what we take from this experience”

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Colin Crummy
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Sian Clifford

Actor Sian Clifford talks meditation, daily dance parties and why everyone needs a friend like Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Sian Clifford has some insightful words for anyone struggling through these unprecedented times or who feels like they should be doing more, achieving more. “My whole philosophy on all wellness – whether mental, physical or something deeper – is to follow my intuition. I am very careful not to be prescriptive towards myself or others because it’s so personal and also something that changes day to day, especially during this moment, which is unlike any situation any of us have ever experienced before. So my one commitment is to just keep listening so I can respond to my needs at any given moment.”

The actor is a long-time practitioner of self-care; in 2016, she was named Hay House and Psychologies’ ‘New Wise Voice’ and launched her wellness platform, Still Space. It’s a world that is at odds with the one for which she has become a household name – playing Claire, the straight-laced, tightly wound sister of the eponymous Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge).

There have only been 300 minutes of Fleabag yet in those precious five hours of television, history was made. It has become one of the most shape-shifting dramas of our times, beloved by everyone from, ahem, Barack Obama to Taylor Swift, sweeping the board at award ceremonies along the way.

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Clifford is remarkable in the role (we’re officially allowed to say that as she won Actor of the Year at Stylist’s recent Remarkable Women Awards), playing a woman for whom it seems like life is perfect, but who is really just doing her best to get by. She has a unique ability to tread the line between humour and pathos and provided one of the show’s most iconic moments in describing a disastrous haircut as making her look like a pencil. Brilliantly – for anecdotal purposes, not for her personally – it’s an experience she then went through herself. “The week after that episode aired I did a photoshoot and my hair was like Claire’s but longer,” she tells Stylist. “The hairdresser asked if they could cut it and then they curled it. The next day I washed it and realised they’d given me a Rachel cut, but worse. One side of my hair was down to my breasts. The other side was up here by my shoulder, a good 10 inches had come off. It was absolutely hilarious, but also mortifying.”

The friendship between Clifford and Waller-Bridge has become a true sisterhood since they met at drama school in 2003. They lift each other up and Waller-Bridge nags Clifford to get on with creating her own work. Name us a better mentor, we’ll wait… “There’s a picture of us holding hands on the red carpet at the Golden Globes and I will treasure that forever,” she says. “I got to stand there with one of my oldest, dearest friends, because she believed in me.” The pair, we are excited to learn, are now working on a new project together.

Before that, Clifford’s latest piece of work is the ITV drama Quiz, based on the true story of Major Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Diana (Clifford) who were accused of cheating in a coughing scandal on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in 2001. Directed by A Very English Scandal’s Stephen Frears, it’s a celebration of British eccentricity and the joy of the pub quiz with lots of early 2000s nostalgia as well some darkness. It’s fascinating to remember that at its peak Millionaire had 19 million viewers per night, and it raises some interesting questions about the role of the media and mythology – a lot of people think they remember seeing the episode, but ITV never actually broadcast it. As Diana Ingram, Clifford brings nuance to the role, taking her beyond the vilified and scheming wife the press made her out to be. She makes her human. The three-part show, which will be broadcast across three nights, is very good, very watchable and exactly the distraction we need right now.

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HOW ARE YOU FEELING AT THE MOMENT SIAN? THESE ARE THE MOST UNUSUAL OF TIMES…

This is a really difficult time for everyone for all sorts of reasons so it’s important not to assume everyone is facing the same challenges. But the most valuable thing for me right now is to take everything a beat at a time and keep checking in with myself. This is something I try to do anyway but it is more necessary now than ever.

IS THERE ANYTHING PRACTICAL YOU’RE DOING THAT IS HELPING?

The one practice I am absolutely consistent with during self-isolation is to move my body every day – whether it’s following one of the awesome Instagram Live offerings that day, a Yoga With Adriene video, or just a daily dance party of my own making, which is my favourite go-to. This is especially fantastic for processing feelings you’re finding challenging; if you don’t feel like dancing, I’d encourage it even more. It can totally turn your day around. On Twitter last week I encouraged people to pick three of their favourite songs and join me with their dance party. It had such a wonderful, positive response and gave me an awesome sense of community so I’ve started building a playlist on Spotify with all the songs that people picked. I feel so inspired and comforted by the collaborations, initiatives and kindnesses of humans at this moment in time. Despite our separation, I also feel we are more connected than ever. I hope this is what we take from this experience into whatever comes after it.

MANY OF US WOULD LIKE TO EMBRACE A MORE MINDFUL WAY OF LIVING. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE ON WHERE TO START?

You’ve got to know you. And then you can find all the tools that work for you – and they will change daily. It is about showing up for yourself in small ways every single day as opposed to doing an hour of meditation on a Saturday. It’s much better to do 30 seconds a day – that’s when your relationship with it changes. I advised my friend to go running for one minute. She laughed but you have to start with something that is laughable. That is the best way to form a new habit – to do something that’s so easy, it makes you laugh. It means you will show up.

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Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sian Clifford in Fleabag
Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sian Clifford in Fleabag

SO IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT GOING HARD?

We live in a culture of faster, stronger, push, push, push. If you can have the discipline to start really small and be patient with yourself, that is as powerful as showing up to a meditation practice. It’s about tenderness with yourself. I love yoga because it forces me to slow down. My tendency is always to push and exercise vigorously, but that doesn’t serve my body well.

HOW DID YOU TURN TO THIS KIND OF WELLNESS?

About 10 years ago I was going through a rough time in my private life and I wanted to go on a retreat. I’d never done yoga, I’d never meditated. But for some reason I was being called to do that. That’s what I’d say in hindsight, but at the time I was just like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen someone’s done it on Facebook. I want to do that.’ It wasn’t a lightbulb moment, but I did have conversations and read books during the retreat that resonated with me so deeply. My whole world opened. I’ve gone on a real dance with it; I’ve read a million books, tried different things. I just tried to stay open.

WAS THERE A PARTICULAR BOOK THAT SPOKE TO YOU AT THAT TIME?

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, who’s one of my favourite living writers. Her book Big Magic is all about creativity, I refer to it as my bible. I’m rereading it right now, for the fifth time. I recommend it to all creatives, because it looks at how we think we have to punish ourselves to be an artist. She talks about how you shouldn’t be doing something for the accolades, you’ve got to do it for the love of it. That’s what’s kept me going for 14 years.

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Sian Clifford
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LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR NEW TV PROJECT, QUIZ. YOU’RE PLAYING DIANA INGRAM, DID YOU MEET HER AND HER HUSBAND?

Only on the last day of shooting. We wanted to protect them as much as protect the integrity of the script. They were so sweet and huge Fleabag fans. So that was very funny. The first thing that struck me was this sweetness – she had been portrayed as sharp-edged and severe, aspects you could see in Claire in Fleabag, too. She’s nothing like what [the press said] so I binned all of that.

WAS SHE PARTICULARLY VILIFIED BECAUSE SHE WAS THE WOMAN IN THE SITUATION?

I’m sure she was because [the patriarchy] informs everything culturally. It was a complete media frenzy and they were persecuted for years. There was no question as to their guilt and that’s the question we’re raising with the show. It’s important, especially with our relationship to the truth and fake news, that we really call that into question: how our perceptions of people are being distorted. As soon as you start to dehumanise anyone, we’ve lost. Everyone’s fighting their own battle.

WE’VE SEEN IN CASES LIKE MEGHAN MARKLE AND CAROLINE FLACK THAT TRIAL BY MEDIA HASN’T STOPPED. SO WHAT CAN PEOPLE DO?

I’m optimistic that something is about to shift massively culturally. [Author] Matt Haig posted that we need a kindness revolution. I am an optimist; I do think it’s coming. The combination of everything that’s happening politically and environmentally [means] we’re at this crisis point. I have faith that we’ll be on the right side of history and we will move towards kindness. I think we’re living in a revolution but we’re in it so we can’t see it. This is my hope [laughs].

THE SHOW IS ABOUT QUIZZES, ARE YOU HISTORICALLY A QUIZ PERSON?

I’ll go to a quiz for the social aspect, not to do the quiz. If it’s there, I’ll play it and I’ll commit to it, but I’m never the person that suggests going to a quiz. I’d be pretty good at film and TV, depending on the era – I could do the 90s. I don’t read the papers now, partly because of what is happening to our media. I’m very deliberate about what I engage with. There are a lot of famous people who I’ve encountered in the last few months and I have no idea who they are. But I always prefer it when you meet people on a level. I like to meet people and just be real.

WHO HAVE YOU MET RECENTLY?

[Casually] Brad Pitt, Leo… [laughs]

AND YOU RECOGNISED THEM?

Yes, but they were huge in the 90s! Recently famous people I couldn’t recognise. The Kardashians I could not point out of a line-up.

HOW WERE BRAD AND LEO?

I brushed shoulders with Leo. Fully met Brad. He said he wanted to fangirl with us about Fleabag. It was at the American Film Institute Awards and there’s a picture of Phoebe and Brad seconds after that happened. My arm is in the picture because I backed out of it. I was like, ‘This is too embarrassing.’

AND YOU TOOK THAT IN YOUR STRIDE?

Phoebe and I were pretty cool – we walked off and we were giggly. I got overwhelmed meeting Laura Dern because Jurassic Park was such a huge part of my childhood. I genuinely sing the soundtrack every single day – I listen to movie soundtracks when I run. I really recommend it. But Laura Dern’s role in that film was one of the first that I remember where she was a paleontologist but she also happened to be a woman.

YOU SPENT A LONG TIME WITH CLAIRE IN FLEABAG. HOW DID YOU GET TO THE HEART OF HER?

Phoebe’s writing speaks to my soul. If she handed me some pages right now with a new script, I could jump straight into that character. Playing Claire was one of the greatest joys of my life. But Phoebe and I are continuing to work together, we’re going to keep collaborating for the rest of our lives. There will be more. We just won’t be Fleabag and Claire any more.

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YOU MET PHOEBE AT DRAMA SCHOOL. WHAT DID YOU LIKE ABOUT EACH OTHER?

We met after a party and found ourselves hovering on the station platform. And we were both a little bit [awkward]. But we just hit it off immediately. By the end of that trip, I genuinely knew I had a friend for life. We’ve stuck together and supported each other through thick and thin, through challenging moments in our careers and our personal lives.

WAS THERE A PARTICULAR MOMENT WHERE HER SUPPORT WAS CRUCIAL?

There’s a million. When someone’s your closest friend they are the person that you phone when you’re going through something, and they’re also your greatest champion when you’re doing brilliantly. She really struggled when we first came out of drama school and things were a bit smoother for me. I was doing a ton of theatre, and it wasn’t going great for her; she just couldn’t get a job. It can be very hard to know how to support your friends when they’re going through a less successful time. Then she’s had moments where she was just flying and I wasn’t working at all.

HOW DOES IT FEEL NOW YOU’RE BOTH ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THAT?

I’m definitely encountering a few people who weren’t so supportive of me on the way up. You never forget those people who didn’t want to know you until Fleabag became a thing. I remember them, I’m known as ‘memory girl’.

THAT’S HANDY FOR A QUIZ TEAM…

I’m really good at retaining information. But my general knowledge is abominable. It’s really terrible.

Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford in Quiz
Quiz on ITV: Charles and Diana Ingram were said to have used "coded coughs" to win the show

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DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO ACT?

I joined a local theatre group when I was six but I got spooked and didn’t go back the next year. But my sister did and I have this distinct memory of watching her in a play and knowing that I was meant to be on the stage and not in the audience. When I was doing my A-levels, I decided I wanted to go to drama school. I auditioned for Rada, I didn’t get in anywhere. And then I knew I was serious. It took me three years to get in.

WHY DID YOU KEEP GOING BACK?

There was no question [about it] for me. During my third attempt, a friend asked: what would I do if I didn’t get in? And I was so angry with her because she doubted me. I respond well to being told I can’t do something. I had a careers advisor who said I had delusions of going to Rada and told me to be sensible and pursue a more academic course. But I had the most extraordinary drama teacher and my parents only ever encouraged me. They grew up working class, they didn’t have the opportunities I had. That’s probably my greatest privilege; that I was encouraged and told to do what I wanted.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE, DO YOU HAVE A DESIRE TO ADD WRITING TO YOUR CV?

When I have time, I will definitely tend to that. And Phoebe, again, is my greatest champion. We’re collaborating on something at the moment – her film that she’s writing, which I’m involved in. She’s on at me all the time and says, “What have you done today? Are you getting on with it?” No one believes in me more than Phoebe Waller-Bridge. If anyone will get me to do it, it’s her.

Quiz is on ITV on 13, 14 and 15 April at 9pm

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Colin Crummy

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