‘I’m in a good place’
How actor Sheridan Smith turned her life around
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