‘I’m in a good place’

How ac­tor Sheri­dan Smith turned her life around

The Guardian - Weekend - - News -

Sheri­dan Smith ar­rives at the restau­rant with a hand­some new pet in tow, a grey puppy called Trevor who draws such a crowd of coo­ing ad­mir­ers it takes a while be­fore any­body no­tices the an­i­mal has laid a long, coy turd in the door­way. Wait­ers dash for tis­sues. Ev­ery­one is sym­pa­thetic; poor Trev, ob­vi­ously con­vinced he has cre­ated a pub­lic re­la­tions cri­sis for his owner, is now strain­ing on his leash to hide among the pot plants. As for Smith – her 37 years rich with in­ci­dent, a per­former counted among the most gifted in the West End, an Olivier win­ner and a Bafta best ac­tor who more re­cently went through an acute and very pub­lic break­down – she just shrugs. Clean­ing up crap in front of a crowd? Smith has been through worse.

She set­tles at a ta­ble (puppy on the lap of her jeans, sleeves rolled to re­veal fore­arm tat­toos, blond hair tied back) and of­fers up an ex­am­ple. A few years ago, she was asked to ap­pear on Who Do You Think You Are?, the TV show on which celebri­ties have their an­ces­try traced in or­der to learn deeper truths about them­selves. Back then, Smith’s life in show­busi­ness looked – on the sur­face, any­way – a roar­ing suc­cess. Her name on a bill could sell out a show, and she was about to ap­pear on screen as Cilla Black in a highly praised ITV biopic. On Who Do You Think You Are? she learned she had a great-grand­fa­ther who was also a tal­ented per­former, a pi­o­neer on the banjo. Smith was de­lighted. “I was lov­ing hear­ing about him,” she re­mem­bers. “All these beau­ti­ful links that I couldn’t wait to tell my fam­ily about.”

But her great-grand­fa­ther’s life story soured as it went on. “We get to the end and I’m hear­ing that his wife has left him. He’s an al­co­holic. He’s turned on the gas taps at home, and he’s stood there with a lighted match, telling the po­lice to go away…” Smith pauses, smil­ing wryly, let­ting the irony sink in. Some­times when fa­mous peo­ple have been knocked around a bit by the tabloids, they as­sume you know all the par­tic­u­lars of their worst times. And to be fair to Smith I do know a lot of it, be­cause there was a pe­riod in 2016 when you couldn’t avoid the cov­er­age of her down­ward spi­ral – the missed cur­tain calls, the dis­grun­tled au­di­ences. Af­ter a cruel joke told about her at the Bafta award cer­e­mony, in­fer­ring she was a drunk, Smith posted a slew of sweary, boozy, much-re­gret­ted tweets.

Her ap­pear­ance on Who Do You Think You Are? pre­dated all this, and at the time she was keep­ing a pub­lic lid on her prob­lems. Or as she puts it: “Not be­ing hon­est with any­one about how much I was strug­gling, with drink, with my men­tal health. And when I heard all that about my great-grand­fa­ther, I’m sat there on TV say­ing, ‘Oh! Re­ally! That’s so in­ter­est­ing...’ But you can see the tears start rolling down my face. And in my head I’m think­ing, my God, the par­al­lels. Is this all some­thing that’s… ge­netic?”

Of­fi­cially we’re meet­ing to talk over a cou­ple of new projects. There’s Clean­ing Up, a six-part ITV drama about a cleaner (Smith) who strug­gles with an ad­dic­tion to on­line gam­bling. And along­side that, Smith has recorded an al­bum of orig­i­nal songs, on the back of a cov­ers record she re­leased last year be­fore tour­ing a one-woman show around the UK. We dis­cuss them for a bit. But hon­estly? Smith, by her own ad­mis­sion, has never been much good at up­selling her work. “Back when I started on TV, they sent me on a course, to teach me how to be­have in in­ter­views, like they do with politi­cians. I’m sat with this guy, I’m in my early 20s. He said, ‘No, you see, you’re an­swer­ing my ques­tions hon­estly.’ And I said, ‘But you asked .’”

Fid­dling with the straw in her soft drink, and stroking her dog, Smith veers on to more per­sonal ground. Blessed with an or­ches­tral Lin­colnshire ac­cent, and the in­stant lik­a­bil­ity that helped su­per­charge her rise in the first place, she’s a born sto­ry­teller – an arm-toucher, some­one who says she feels freer talk­ing about her dif­fi­cul­ties now that a com­bi­na­tion of proper treat­ment, a sta­ble ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship and re­ward­ing work has helped steady her. While Trevor snores on her lap, Smith sits and talks – about the events that led to her col­lapse, how it felt to ex­pe­ri­ence it from the in­side, the ways in which she hopes other peo­ple will ben­e­fit from her speak­ing hon­estly about it.

A cou­ple of times Smith says things that, she ad­mits, she hasn’t told close fam­ily mem­bers. At the end of the in­ter­view I cir­cle back, to ask if she’s OK with it all be­ing in print. Smith an­swers: “Maybe it’s age. But you start to think, if you own some­thing, how can that hurt? If any­thing, I should be more hon­est, be­cause if it helps other peo­ple, hear­ing this, that’s a good thing.”

Sheri­dan Smith was born to show­peo­ple, Colin and Mar­i­lyn, who toured as a mu­si­cal duo on the pub cir­cuit around Ep­worth in Lin­colnshire. Smith’s dad was a well-known lo­cal char­ac­ter, a self­taught gui­tarist who used to joke he found “lit­tle Shezzy” – younger sib­ling to two older boys – “out back by the bins”. When Shezzy showed prom­ise as a per­former her­self, Mar­i­lyn started tak­ing her to tal­ent com­pe­ti­tions. “Mum al­ways taught me: Eyes and teeth. Put on a big show­biz smile . And I re­mem­ber my dad say­ing to me once, af­ter a com­pe­ti­tion, ‘Are you sure you’re en­joy­ing this, love?’ I said: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ He was al­ways the more chilled one.”

In her teens, Smith got a place at the Na­tional Youth Mu­sic The­atre, star­ring as Tal­lu­lah in a pro­duc­tion of Bugsy Mal­one that trans­ferred to the West End. She was 16, got quickly on the books of an agent and ap­peared at the Sam Men­des-run Don­mar Ware­house, →

‘Mum al­ways taught me: Eyes and teeth. Put on a big show­biz smile’

in Sond­heim’s Into The Woods. There were fleet­ing telly gigs, in Heart­beat and Holby City, be­fore more sub­stan­tial roles in the BBC come­dies The Royle Fam­ily and Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps. In 2009, Smith de­buted in a stage adap­ta­tion of Legally Blonde, play­ing the Cal­i­for­nian soror­ity-girl-turned-lawyer made fa­mous by Reese Wither­spoon. Smith re­mem­bers some scep­ti­cism about her cast­ing in a big West End mu­si­cal. “‘That bird from Two Pints? She’s gonna try and sing and dance a bit, is she?’ I was ready for a kick­ing.”

When Legally Blonde opened, the Guardian’s Michael Billing­ton was among the crit­ics who wrote it up as a name-mak­ing mo­ment. She re­mem­bers feel­ing ex­cited by the buzz, but also that “ev­ery­thing was more nerve-rack­ing when I felt like I had some­thing to lose”. She was in Legally Blonde, mati­nees and evenings, for al­most two years, fold­ing in use­ful TV work on Gavin & Stacey and other shows along the way. “I’d be film­ing in the day, get­ting a taxi back for the per­for­mance. I had my mum’s words ring­ing in my head: ‘Take ev­ery job! Al­ways be grate­ful!’ I never got rid of that men­tal­ity.”

She can pin­point the ex­act mo­ment when ev­ery­thing started go­ing wrong. It was 2011. She had only a hand­ful of per­for­mances left be­fore her run on Legally Blonde would end, and in the back of Smith’s mind was the nag­ging ques­tion: “Shit, what next?” By then she’d done the whole show maybe 600 times. “I’m on au­topilot. And then, sud­denly – I felt like I was go­ing slightly mad – I just for­got a line. It had gone, I couldn’t find it. This had never hap­pened to me be­fore. And all the girls on stage are gig­gling. The orches­tra’s vamp­ing to cover it: ‘Dah! Dah! Dah!’ I re­mem­ber I stayed in an Amer­i­can ac­cent and said: ‘Oh my God, I for­got my line.’ And the place erupted. There was a round of ap­plause. It should have been funny. Some ac­tors would have brushed it off, but it re­ally freaked me out. My head started play­ing these tricks.”

That night she to­tally lost her nerve. “Ev­ery other line, I was stut­ter­ing, fluff­ing it. At the in­ter­val I had a panic at­tack. Couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t hear . They were try­ing to calm me down, mean­while get­ting the un­der­study ready. Some­one said, ‘Lis­ten. If you don’t go back out there now, you might not again.’ And I’ve been told that by older ac­tors, that they once got stage fright and couldn’t go back on stage for years and years.” She fin­ished the show and told her­self it was a one-off. “A blip. But as I was walk­ing through the stage door the next night, all the same things started hap­pen­ing, the breath­ing, the hear­ing – com­plete panic at­tack.”

She was still say­ing yes to work ( Take ev­ery job! Al­ways be grate­ful! ), in­clud­ing a raved-about Trevor Nunn pro­duc­tion of Flare Path, and the ITV drama Mrs Biggs that won her the Bafta. All along, she says, “I felt like a duck. Float­ing along fine but kick­ing like mad un­der­neath. I know that sounds dra­matic now. But the anx­i­ety ab­so­lutely spi­ralled out of con­trol.”

She tells the next part of her story slowly. “I went to visit var­i­ous dif­fer­ent peo­ple. I got one di­ag­no­sis, from the first doc­tor I went to, that it was bipo­lar. I was put on med­i­ca­tion for a year. And then I got a se­cond opin­ion. This doc­tor said no, it’s not bipo­lar, you’ve got gen­er­alised anx­i­ety. And he put me on anti-anx­i­ety tablets. Which be­came a night­mare, be­cause I needed more and more and more.

“Some med­i­ca­tions made me worse, some made me bet­ter. But the thing is, see, when you go on these med­i­ca­tions, you’ve then got to wean your­self off them for ages. It’s a re­ally time-con­sum­ing process of find­ing the right di­ag­no­sis, find­ing the right med­i­ca­tion. It’s a weird one, di­ag­nos­ing men­tal ill­ness. Be­cause you can’t see it.”

In in­dus­try terms it was a big deal when Smith, in 2015, was cast as the lead in a London re­vival of Funny Girl. Her part, as the tit­u­lar funny girl Fanny Brice, had once pro­pelled Bar­bra Streisand off Broad­way and into Hol­ly­wood. Again the early re­views were un­qual­i­fied raves. As for Smith, her prin­ci­ple mem­ory of that open­ing week was the star­tling ef­fect the pro­duc­tion had on her fa­ther. “He came to open­ing night. And in the se­cond half Fanny has this big break­down. The last 10 min­utes are just me sob­bing . He was sat so close to the front, and my dad – I’d never seen him cry – he couldn’t stop. He told me af­ter­wards: ‘I love you, Shezzy. But I can never watch that show again.’ That was just be­fore he got his can­cer di­ag­no­sis.”

It was when Funny Girl trans­ferred to the West End, Smith re­calls, that her fa­ther was due some im­por­tant hos­pi­tal results. Doc­tors feared his can­cer might be ter­mi­nal, and Smith re­turned to Lin­colnshire to join him on a visit to the hos­pi­tal. “The way the nurses were look­ing at us, I could tell some­thing was go­ing on. Af­ter­wards he got in the car, dead quiet. Noth­ing was spo­ken about it on the way home.” This all brought back painful mem­o­ries. When she was eight, her older brother Ju­lian had been di­ag­nosed with ter­mi­nal can­cer; she used to rub his feet while he lay on the sofa at home. “And then one day he wasn’t there. We were very… I don’t know if this is a north­ern thing, but af­ter we lost Ju­lian we got on with things, sort of brushed our feel­ings un­der the car­pet.”

Af­ter she found out her fa­ther did not have long to live ei­ther, Smith says, “I just fell apart. I didn’t want to leave him, I didn’t want to be away from him. I didn’t know how to han­dle all those feel­ings. I don’t know whether, with my brother, I’d been hold­ing things in till then. I just lost my mind for a time there.”

By now Funny Girl was a sell­out, largely on the back of the re­views for Smith’s per­for­mance. “I wasn’t in a job where I could say: ‘Can I take the time off ? To spend it with my dad?’” Why not, I ask her? Just about any other pro­fes­sion would make such an al­lowance. “You just can’t,” Smith an­swers. “Not in our in­dus­try. Peo­ple had bought tick­ets. My mum had drilled into me: the show must go on. You just can’t.”

Look­ing back, she ac­knowl­edges, her drink­ing be­came more of a prob­lem in this pe­riod. “I was run­ning away from a lot, straight to the bot­tom of a bot­tle. I was try­ing to get out of my own head.” In March 2016, Smith missed a run of Funny Girl per­for­mances, while pro­duc­ers rushed out apolo­getic state­ments. (“Sheri­dan’s

‘I was run­ning away, straight to the bot­tom of a bot­tle. Try­ing to get out of my head’

pri­mary con­cern is quite rightly her fa­ther’s well­be­ing… We would never ask nor ex­pect an artist to per­form in this sit­u­a­tion.”) When she re­turned, there was a per­for­mance that had to be aban­doned be­cause of what the au­di­ence was told were “tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties”. Smith has al­ways denied she was drunk on stage that night, though this didn’t stop a joke about the in­ci­dent be­ing told at her ex­pense at the Bafta awards that May. Smith was among the guests in the au­di­ence when the host, Gra­ham Nor­ton, said: “We’re all ex­cited for a cou­ple of drinks tonight. Or, as it’s known in the­atri­cal cir­cles, a few glasses of tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties.”

Smith has to hold her­self back from cry­ing when I bring this up. She tells me her im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion, on the night, was a kind of pity – for the peo­ple sit­ting around her, who didn’t know whether to laugh or not. Then the shame kicked in. “That’s when I did all those stupid things, like Twit­ter, and… y’know, I just made bad de­ci­sions.” Af­ter the Baf­tas, Smith posted tweets that, she ac­knowl­edges, were the re­sult of too much wine. She had a go at the press (“Fuck off ! Now slag me off pa­pers”), at dis­ap­pointed au­di­ence mem­bers, at on­line trolls (“Sat be­hind your com­puter u lit­tle geek. Come say your shit to my face & let’s see what hap­pens”). Then her so­cial me­dia ac­counts went silent.

Smith took a two-month hia­tus from Funny Girl and kept her head down, re­turn­ing to Lin­colnshire to be with her dad dur­ing his fi­nal weeks. “I’m proud of that, that I was able to get my­self back to­gether to be there. Sponge his mouth. Be by his side. He knew.”

There’s a pi­quant mo­ment in Funny Girl when Smith’s char­ac­ter abruptly re­alises the au­di­ences who once adored her have started to turn. When I men­tion this, Smith im­me­di­ately re­cites the rel­e­vant lines. “No­body’s clap­ping, no­body’s on their feet… They laughed out loud be­fore, but that joke just ain’t that funny any more.” She laughs and says, “She’s be­come a joke. That did kind of hap­pen to me. But a lot of it was my own fault, I was all over the place, part of me thinks I de­served it, the back­lash. And at the same time – I think I would have rather cho­sen to do all that painful messy stuff in pri­vate.”

When Smith launched her singing tour last spring, she says she was sur­prised any­body both­ered to buy a ticket. The shows were of­ten sold out, but even so, when she per­formed, her ten­dency was to self-dep­re­cate. In the chatty in­ter­ludes be­tween songs she goofed about, messed up her hair, made in-jokes about be­ing drunk on stage. Some com­men­ta­tors missed the gag here, about which Smith rolls her eyes. “The ar­ti­cles be­ing writ­ten were, like, ‘She was burp­ing, she was trashed.’ It’s part of the act! A lot of these were my dad’s jokes. The burp­ing. The pre­tend­ing your wa­ter is vodka. Sim­ple jokes, but so funny.”

Has she given up drink­ing? Smith says: “I’m hap­pier not hav­ing a drink.” But no, she hasn’t given up al­co­hol en­tirely. “I don’t feel like there’s a la­bel on it: ‘I will never touch an­other drop.’ I think now I’ve got my other is­sues un­der bet­ter con­trol, I’m not need­ing to mask some­thing. A lot of men­tal health is­sues can go hand-in-hand with ad­dic­tions to other things. Un­til you get the right treat­ment, you’re con­stantly cov­er­ing some­thing up – you don’t know what you’re run­ning away from.” In the last year or so, she’s found a treat­ment that works for her. “I’m in a good place. My anx­i­ety’s down, my so­cio­pho­bia’s down, all those things that I used to get my­self into a state over – now that’s gone, I haven’t got that need any more.” She means the need for drink.

An­other seam of self-ef­fac­ing humour Smith used dur­ing her mu­sic tour re­lated to her love life. Over the years she has had a few well-known boyfriends, in­clud­ing James Cor­den, and as none of these tabloid-cov­ered re­la­tion­ships ever lasted, Smith made a habit of de­scrib­ing her present en­gage­ment as a doomed thing. “Oh, did I not tell you? I’ve got a fella,” she said one night dur­ing a show in Cardiff. “I know you lot think it won’t last – and it prob­a­bly won’t.” The au­di­ence hooted.

Ac­tu­ally, Smith tells me, she and her fi­ance feel quite set­tled. Jamie Horn is not fa­mous. He has a steady job in the City. He just took her on hol­i­day in a camper van. “Yeah, over the years I kissed a lot of toads,” she says, be­fore adding: “I shouldn’t say toads. Let’s say frogs, I kissed a lot of frogs, re­ally, re­ally hand­some frogs. But I guess I wasn’t in the right place to give any­thing. I didn’t even love my­self, so I wasn’t able to love any­one prop­erly. They were al­ways toxic, these re­la­tion­ships, be­cause of drink­ing or what­ever. You tend to at­tract what you’re be­ing, so when I was out par­ty­ing, it was al­ways other party an­i­mals. Never gonna be good. But Jamie, he’s re­ally to­gether.” Smith reaches out to touch my arm. Then she clenches her fist and mouths: “En­gaged! Come on !”

He ar­rives to col­lect her from the restau­rant, Horn – a courtly dude in an over­coat and flat cap who bends down to leash Trevor while Smith gath­ers her things. It’s a sweet do­mes­tic scene. The other night, Smith tells me, the pair of them sat down in front of the telly to watch that old episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Horn was cu­ri­ous to see it. Smith, ner­vous, agreed. And ac­tu­ally she didn’t find it so bad. She could con­sider that ques­tion, who do you think you are, and fi­nally feel a lit­tle closer to an an­swer 

‘I kissed a lot of hand­some frogs. But I wasn’t able to love any­one prop­erly’

Clean­ing Up will be on ITV in the new year. Sheri­dan Smith’s al­bum, A North­ern Soul, is out now on East West.

From left: in The Royle Fam­ily with Ralf Lit­tle; in new show Clean­ing Up; as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl; in Legally Blonde

Win­ning a Bafta, 2013; with ex-boyfriend James Cor­den; per­form­ing ng her show th this year; with her fa­ther in 2012

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