Interview: Sheridan Smith
Published in Time Out, 03.09.2012
Sheridan Smith hobbles in, toes peeking out of a Tubigrip after turning her ankle in rehearsal. “We’ve just been doing the heavy stuff,” she confides, hauling her leg on to a chair. “I’ve had to reapply me slap so I don’t look like a mentalist.”
To be fair, stuff doesn’t come much heavier than Hedda Gabler. Frequently dubbed the female Hamlet, the frustrated newlywed title character of Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 play is a dame-maker of a role. Pre-bended knee, Harriet Walter, Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith all squeezed themselves into Hedda’s corset. On Wednesday, a 31-year-old former burger-van worker from Doncaster will follow in their footsteps. Arise Dame Sheridan?
“I’m aware that people are a bit surprised that I’m playing it,” she says, characteristically candid. “I’m rocking up in my leather jacket, looking nothing like somebody who’d be doing Ibsen, but at the end of the day she’s just another woman I’ve got to try to understand.
“It was a bit overwhelming at first. I’d wound myself up into a bit of a tizz before the first day of rehearsals, with all these people who have gone before, but [co-star] Anne Reid said something funny: ‘Take the curse off it. Call her Elsie.’ So she’s Elsie now.”
There’s something just as endearing about Smith’s habit of calling Anna Mackmin’s forthcoming Old Vic production “our version”, as if it’s a village hall am-dram. Just a little something they’re knocking together.
Smith might be the first Hedda not to have actually heard of Hedda before being offered the role. ‘This is not a choice I would have made,’ she says. “I had no idea it was this big thing. Then I stupidly Googled it and read all this ‘female Hamlet’ stuff that I probably shouldn’t have read, and while I felt honoured, at the same time I thought: Oh God. It was quite a leap out of my comfort zone.”
If that’s true of Smith, it might be doubly so for her fans – her “Twitterfam”, she calls them. “Loads of them will have never seen Ibsen before. They don’t know what the play’s about. I’m really excited that a younger generation is going to see the play for the first time.”
The Twitterfam – all 271,539 of them – are partly responsible for Smith’s newfound bankability as a Theatreland name. Since her 2010 Olivier Award-winning performance in Legally Blonde: The Musical cut through her public perception as “that bird from Two Pints of Lager”, she’s become a bona fide West End star. A second Olivier for Flare Path followed, leaving her capable of lining up alongside Jude Law, Daniel Radcliffe and Judi Dench in Michael Grandage’s hotly anticipated West End season, in which she’ll star opposite David Walliams in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Despite this, Smith’s default mode is self-doubt. She twiddles a bangle around her wrist incessantly and, every minute or so, shifts her sitting position. The more we talk about Hedda, she says, “the more nervous I’m getting.”
It’s something she’s come to accept as part of her process. “I had it on Legally Blonde - ‘oh God, no one’s going to take me seriously carrying a musical’ – and then on Flare Path - ‘oh God, she’s not a serious actress. She should stick to musicals.’ My dad says: ‘You’ve got to have a thicker skin, love.’ But I don’t know how.”
Talking to her stirs strange maternal feelings. You just want to give her a hug. She would have been perfect for Bridget Jones: the Musical, which she reportedly dropped out of this year. “There was nothing set in stone,” she says. “I did workshop it, but there was no plan about when it was going to happen… It will be huge when it does go. It just didn’t work out at the moment.” Does that mean she’d still consider it in the future? “I’d love to. Every girl wants to play Bridget Jones.”
Maybe not, but then not every girl idolises Kathy Burke. “As long as it was funny, she didn’t give a shit what she looked like,” says Smith. “You’ve got to get vanity out the window.”
Since moving to London at 16 to play Tallulah in a production of Bugsy Malone, Smith has always shared the same chameleonic ambitions. Typecast through her early twenties, it’s only now that she’s really getting the chance. “I don’t mind being unlikely,” she says, adamantly. “I’d rather that than be predictable.”
Has it been a Cinderella story? “Ooh I like that. Maybe now my Prince Charming will come. I’ll get my glass slipper. Or my orthopaedic shoe.”
Photograph: Rob Grieg