Fleabag, sisterhood and falling in love with Claire: an interview with Emmy-nominee Sian Clifford
For many fans and critics of the brilliant TV series Fleabag — which won a host of awards at the Emmys — the focus has been on the hot priest (Andrew Scott) but one of the standout performances is that of Sian Clifford, who plays Claire. I spoke to her about her friendship with Phoebe Waller-Bridge and what it means to truly inhabit a character.
Kirsten Krauth: So how did you come across the Fleabag script and what did you think the first time you read it?
Sian Clifford: Phoebe Waller-Bridge and I have known each other for 16 years, and we went to drama school together. That’s where we met. We have been very dear friends from the very first day. We always had a sort of fantasy to play sisters. We always talked about it. When Phoebe started writing, she set up a theater company called DryWrite, and I would always perform when her theater company would put things on. So I was always in all of those shows. I think I performed in all of them except one that I couldn’t make, and if I wasn’t in them, I was watching them. We were always, always, very, very big supporters of each other’s work and the highs and lows of this very challenging career.
I first encountered the script for Fleabag when she was developing it. She always had me in mind for Claire. The first time I read it properly was the night before the first read through, which was just a read through of the pilot episode. I think that was in 2014, autumn of 2014. I thought it was extraordinary, and then when we were green lit, we made the pilot in 2015, which we did. That was then green lit for a series, which we shot the remaining five episodes of for series one the following year. So it’s been a very long process.
The character of Claire, actually, her first incarnation, actually appeared in another sketch of Phoebe’s which she wrote back in, I’m going to say, 2009. That was the first time that character appeared, and then Phoebe took that character and put her into Fleabag. So it was a character and an energy that I was familiar with. I never thought they would let me play her, and for a long time it looked like I wouldn’t be able to play her. The BBC were keen to get a profile attached for that part, because it was a new show and obviously with new shows they want there to be sparkly things in there to draw a new audience. But Phoebe was adamant. I did auditions. I had a horrible audition …
Kirsten Krauth : Why was the audition horrible? What happened?
Sian Clifford: Oh, I was just terrified. I just thought there was absolutely no hope. Phoebe was absolutely convinced that all we needed to do was just to put it on camera and they would say yes, and I thought I’d just been rubbish. I thought I’d been terrible. I remember just coming home that night and I messaged her and just said, “Listen, I know that was awful and I don’t mind if it doesn’t go my way.” I can’t remember how quickly I found out … but that was just an audition for the read throughs.
When we did the read through, I have to say, the BBC were wonderful and they just said, “So sorry. We absolutely get it now. Yes, we’d love you to play Claire.” But even then, I didn’t really believe it. I really didn’t believe it. Then we shot the pilot, and then I was like, “Okay, I think they’ll let me do it.” But even then, when we came around to shooting the actual series, I was still like, “Oh God, are they going to pull it away from me, kind of out from under me?” But fortunately they didn’t …
Kirsten Krauth : That’s very fortunate.
Sian Clifford: But basically, when I first read the rest of the series, and that was the night before the read through, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever read in my life, and I remained thinking that until I read season two.
Kirsten Krauth : In the table scene that started season 2, all the main actors are sitting around. What was it like to film that scene? Were you on script? Were you improvising? Was Phoebe throwing in new ideas? How do you treat a new actor who comes into a series that’s already pretty established in terms of acting?
Sian Clifford: Well, we bully them until they do exactly what we want. No. Let’s answer all of those questions. It was extraordinary filming that. That was the first time we were all back together. I think it was around our third week of filming that we went into that. It was extremely challenging. We were downstairs in a restaurant, a real restaurant in Covent Garden in London, and it was baking hot. It was so hot. What our director and our DOP achieved with that blows my mind and I could watch it over and over and over. I think it’s so, so extraordinary. And how our editor pieced it together.
But I also remember what it took to capture all of those angles, and we’d shot it scene by scene, because there are scenes. It seems seamless when you watch it, as though it would have just been one long scene with these tiny little cutouts, but it was written as these little moments. We shot it as that, and for every single one we did different set ups. That’s why there are so many angles and that’s why you get so many different relationships between everyone round the table and it’s just so … I love it. But it was tough. Phoebe, it’s funny, her sister was the composer for the show, Isobel Waller-Bridge, and I have to give her a mention because she is extraordinary.
I mean, she’s just magical. But Phoebe is also a composer. I mean, the script is watertight. That is the one script that for me is the holy grail, and I will honor every single dot and cough, because it is perfect, when you read it.I have to say that whenever she decides that something isn’t working, it’s always rhythmic … well, usually rhythmic. She’ll go away and she’ll come back, or she’s always looking to make it funnier or punchier. She’s just constantly wanting to make it the best it could possibly be, and I think given the opportunity, she’d probably never stop.
But I do have to say that whenever she looks to make a change, it’s always very, very precise and deliberate, and it’s always better. You would never question it. It’s really, really extraordinary. So yes, there were definitely big changes happened to that scene whilst we were filming it. I mean, the whole speech that I gave about positivity, that was pretty fresh on the day. She said something like, “I feel like we need to give you more about this, you know?” That was quite a late addition, but a lot of that episode actually remained as it was from the outset, and I bow down to it. I don’t know how she did it.
But Andrew joining us was wonderful. I knew Andrew a little bit socially, because Phoebe and him worked together a long time ago in a show at the Soho Theatre, which is where Phoebe first performed Fleabag, which was kind of magical. I don’t know how well you know him in Australia, but he is an incredibly esteemed and celebrated actor, so we were very, very excited for him to join.
He’s the dream. He’s doing a Noel Coward play and he’s the light of London. He’s everywhere. There’s are posters of him everywhere at the moment. I’m so thrilled, because I know that it’s changing his career completely. We all knew he was this extraordinary human, and I’m so thrilled that more people know that as well. So that was really, really fun for us, because our characters, I would say, are definitely much more embedded in the second series, but that’s a natural organic kind of development that happens. And to throw that kind of catalyst into the mix of that family dynamic was just so much fun. Brilliant. Just brilliant. Loved it.
Kirsten Krauth : You seem to have this amazing ability to wring comedy out of anger, often in a physical way rather than with words. Just wondering how do you convey both that anger and humor in a situation, because I also watched Vanity Fairand I think it’s a kind of a theme across both of those?
Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that question, because I’m not a technical actor, in that there are certain aspects of my craft that I suppose are technical, and certainly with comedy, so much of it is about timing. But I do sort of feel like that’s a knack that you … I hate to say it, but I was going to say that you either have it or you don’t, but maybe that is something that can be trained and listened to. But I genuinely, I don’t plan it. For me, in my work, I always try to just really feel into the energy of a character and then just embody them. It’s been pointed out to me the rigidity of Claire and sort of the rigidity of her body, and I honestly was not aware of it until somebody pointed it out.
I just … I can’t tell you how beautifully put together those scripts are, so to me, she’s the easiest part I’ve ever had to play and the most joyous part I’ve ever had to play. Similarly, with Martha Crawley, actually, which was such a stunning script. When a character leaps off the page like that, it’s just a gift as an actor, because it does just wash over you and you can just … Everything in there, from their intonation to their punctuation to the stage directions, has informed you so fluidly with where to take the character and how to play it. It’s funny, Phoebe and I, we’ve learned so much in hindsight about the show, and even after the first season, I remember the response then was overwhelming. I mean, it’s obviously even bigger for the second one.
I remember we suddenly looked at each other and we were like, “You know what? We never ever once discussed how to play those sisters. We just knew. We never, ever contrived any of it. It was just there.” For me, acting is just about telling the truth. Some people talk about acting as a pretence or as a facade or that you’re lying or something. For me, I’m the worst liar on the planet. For me, it’s about absolutely telling the truth and honoring that human. For me, I can’t comment on Claire as a character. I find it very difficult, because I love her. She’s a part of me and my soul. There are obviously aspects of her that resonate with me, and I have to emphasize with every aspect of her, because how she is perceived by others, she certainly doesn’t perceive herself, you know?
There are some things she’s aware of, but she is not, I would say, the most self aware person, and so I can’t judge her for those things. For me as an actor, I will always approach from a place of empathy and complete sort of conviction in that human, that however they see the world through their eyes is all that I am here to honor. Whatever anyone else’s perception of it, that’s something else. And so for me, I know when a character is right for me to play, when I can feel them in my body. I’m about to play someone who’s a real person, which I’ve never done before and …
Kirsten Krauth : Oh, right. Can you say who it is?
Sian Clifford: … I can’t say who it is, I’m afraid. Not yet. But I can feel her in my body already, and I have noticed it, that my body and my face change when I think about her, because it is … That’s all I can tell, and I know that sounds a bit esoteric and strange, but I used to approach things in a much more technical, sort of heavy way, but now I have sort of thrown all of that in the bin and just gone, “No, I’m just going to feel my way through to this person.” And at the same time, when you’re reading a script and it doesn’t resonate, you know immediately. You’re like, “Well I know I can’t … I don’t want to force myself into the body of this person. I just don’t think I should play them.” So there definitely has to be something that resonates for me with a person. Even if they’re not someone I relate to at all, I have to be able to feel them. And so with Claire, I can’t answer your question, because I don’t know. For me, she’s effortless to play, because it’s all there in the script.
And you’re surrounded by the most extraordinary actors, and our creative team, our crew, everyone is just so amazing. We tried to get exactly the same team from season one to season two, because we really are a family, and we’ve worked so hard to make this and create it, and we wanted to celebrate everyone and keep them involved. I don’t know. It’s easy to play Claire. What’s challenging are the things like when you have very little time or the usual things that come up on a set. But actually striking the balance between anger and humor, for me, I give all the credit to Phoebe and she gives all the credit to me, but for me, it is all there in the script. It’s all written, every moment, beat and breath. She dictates it, and it’s very, very easy to then perform that.
Kirsten Krauth : The show covers topics not discussed often on television in a quite brutal way. For example, Claire’s miscarriage that Fleabag ends up taking responsibility for, in a way, and even the idea that she doesn’t want to have her husband’s baby. Are you attracted to the way the show opens up discussion around these issues?
Sian Clifford: Oh, yeah. I mean, the conversations that it began online, which I’m sure reached Australia … it’s been really emotional for us, because the miscarriage story is based on something that happened to a friend of Phoebe’s. Because initially, I think there was a little bit of people sort of saying, “No one would ever do that. You would never go back to the dinner table,” and then it was revealed that, actually, that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t a dinner, it was a business lunch. It was someone who basically just didn’t want to cause disruption, and never should a woman dare to sort of cause a rumpus like that. I just think it’s so, so important … yes, miscarriage, which is unbelievably common, and people don’t know that because it’s not spoken about.
So if we in any way have contributed to the beginning of a conversation that will take down that taboo, then I am honored to be a part of something that did that. Yeah, certainly, and I think even the conversation around Claire and Martin’s marriage and the toxicity of that relationship and how she finally mustered the courage on her own terms to walk away, that’s been very, very important to me that that has come up. I just think it’s so valuable. There are so many conversations happening right now that have been needed to be had for a very, very long time. I’m optimistic about where it will lead, even though we are living in very tumultuous times, but I’m very confident in the fact that we are having the conversations, even though they are very difficult conversations, that an open dialogue on these things will ultimately connect us more as humans and hopefully lead us to a much better place.
Kirsten Krauth: And the Emmys…
Sian Clifford: Oh, my God. I mean, just completely amazing. I’ve said this before, but honestly, I’ve won already. To me, I just never ever anticipated this. I really hoped that Phoebe and the show would be recognized, but I can’t get my head around it and I feel so honored and so grateful. But we’ll see what happens. This is enough for me.
A version of this interview was originally published at Witness Performance.