Don’t be fooled by that repressed & depressed sister she plays in the super-hit show Fleabag. Sian Clifford combines cool, sexy and cerebral in a way that not only most actors but most everyday folk strive for… but never quite achieve.
Sian Clifford is having a wild time. I catch her at home in London, after being in the States in Los Angeles for Awards season, then back to filming in London, then onto Sundance where she was on the jury there for the short program. This I would think is all normal behavior for her, an actress on one of the hottest television shows the past two years, Fleabag. In it she plays the older sister of the titular character played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who just happened to be nominated or win every major TV award this year. But for Clifford, the show has brought her a bounty of success as well. For the second season last year, she received a Primetime Emmy Nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series and a Critics’ Choice nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
Clifford starred in The Quiz, a UK mini-series that tells the story of how a former British army major got caught after cheating his way to winning £1 million on the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. A tremendous scandal and trial in England, it occurred right before the events of 9/11 so it got buried in the press and news cycle in America. Clifford stars with Matthew MacFadyen, who plays Charles Major, the disgraced cheater. “From them until the trial, which was in 2003, I mean everyday there was something about them. I just remember it being this frenzy and what’s sort of fascinating about it. And I think what our show does is blow that story wide open. And I’m so excited to share it with the world. You know they’ve been persecuted for almost 20 years because of this and I think it’s going to ruffle a few feathers and it’s gonna provoke conversation about justice and the legal system.
Clifford is a West End girl and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), where she actually met Waller-Bridge and became friends. Privilege is something she took for granted up until about two years ago, she says, when she listened to Waller-Bridges on a podcast. “I just suddenly got this clarity about what a gift that was from my parents, you know, they never ever disgraced me, they never told me it was a foolish idea [to want to become an actor]. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up but she did everything she could to make sure that I was able to pursue this. And fortunately, this has ended up being the road I’ve pursued so I don’t think that there can be any regrets there.”
She started acting when she was 6 when cast in a The Wizard of Oz production with her sister, at her sister’s amatuer dramatics group. “I went to watch my sister in the show. But I had this moment of knowing, I don’t know if I articulated it out loud, and it’s only something that I can sort of consciously recognize as an adult, but I know that I sat in that chair and I knew that I was meant to be up there on the stage and not here being in the audience. And then there were various moments as a teenager, seeing Guys and Dolls at The National Theatre with Clarke Peters and Joanna Riding, Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman and that changed my life. Then I really really wanted to be an actor. I did Little Shop of Horrors at high school. That was another big moment for me. And then I wanted to try for drama school and things got a bit more serious. I auditioned the first year and didn’t get in but that’s when I knew that I really wanted it.”
Resilience is what sustains you in Hollywood – it can make or break you. And that is what drives Clifford, that attitude that keeps you going. “That was the first time that I got knocked and there was no way that I wasn’t going back. It took me three tries. Three years to get in. And that’s where I met Phoebe and then here we are now.”
Now is a hit television show. Clifford almost didn’t make it, wanting to quit the business of acting two years before Fleabag shot its first scene. “I hadn’t worked in about two years before I filmed that. So that was real, I was getting into producing around that time and writing more. And I remember Phoebe saying to me, ‘You have to do Fleabag.’ And I sort of rolled my eyes at her because I was convinced they weren’t gonna let me do it. And yeah, but they did let me do it. And acting has totally seduced me back.”
With 11 Emmy nominations, Fleabag has nested well. It’s been a whirlwind for Clifford, coming from her eyes, a place of being dismissed by the industry. It was all about “finding your champion. And Phoebe is my greatest one who’s been there since day one.” The show has opened her eyes and given her the confidence she never knew she had. “Phoebe had this character, Claire, as an idea. She had it for years and I played her for years in sketches. It’s not even that she was playing to my strengths, Phoebe honestly believed that I could play anything, so she wrote what she wrote and wanted me to play. And what’s that done is it’s reminded me of the characters I used to play before the industry stifled me.”
Clifford is reminded of an event she went to where actor Bryan Cranston spoke that changed her life. “He said, ‘What advice would you give to young actors? And he said, ‘just share your work, don’t think about what it is they’re looking for. You can’t conform to that. Just share your work.’ And that’s something that really, really struck me and I just kind of thought, yes, all of that time that you can spend trying to control and predict what an audition panel or a casting director might be looking for rather than just making a really bold or instinctive choice and going into the room with that, and if they like it, great, and if they don’t, you still got to play that character for 20 minutes.”
It has been a bizarre dream for Clifford, and to quote her friend Waller-Bridge’s speech from the Sag Awards: If we wake up and this has all been a dream, what a beautiful dream.
And it has.