A West End star with Trevor Nunn’s phone number in her mobile and now an Olivier Award on her mantelpiece, Sheridan Smith is riding high. But her feet aren’t likely to leave the ground, finds Caroline Bishop.
You know you have made it when Trevor Nunn sends you a text asking you to appear in his next play. Sheridan Smith was on a well-earned break with her family in Dubai when Sir Trevor’s SMS popped up on her mobile. “He’d managed to get my number from a friend, and I was thinking ‘who’s this text from saying about a part in a play?’ and at the bottom it said ‘best wishes Trevor Nunn’ and I was like ‘oh my God!’”
Things have changed for Smith in the past 18 months. Already a popular face on the small screen, Smith attracted a legion of new fans – and, as of last Sunday, an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical – when she returned to the stage in Legally Blonde The Musical in late 2009 for a 14-month stint as Elle Woods. Her comic, cheeky performance as the American sorority girl who proves herself at Harvard proved to London’s Theatreland that Smith is leading lady material, even if she doesn’t quite believe it herself.
“Legally Blonde was just one of those powerhouse parts where you get to do it all: sing, dance, cry, make people laugh. I think anyone who played it would have got the same praise,” she says modestly. “But it does feel like all the hard work is paying off a bit now, which is really exciting.”
Smith, I soon realise, is not one to blow her own trumpet. We meet in a cosy room at the Dominion theatre where the 29-year-old actress, her Dubai holiday cut short, has been rehearsing Nunn’s production of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path. We are sitting on a leather sofa but Smith can’t sit still, fidgeting constantly as she talks in free flow about the events that have led her to this point in her career. Humble and self-deprecating, she keeps stressing how lucky she is, as though she doesn’t feel worthy of being here. “It’s an absolute honour,” she says of Nunn’s summons, “but you never know, he might be thinking ‘Oh God what have I done?’”
I doubt that. Having left fluffy, feelgood musical Legally Blonde behind, Smith is displaying her versatility in taking on the role of Doris, the wife of a Polish airman in Rattigan’s comic yet heart-wrenching drama about the bravery of WW2 bomber pilots and the loved ones they left behind. Since we spoke, her performance as the plucky barmaid-turned-Countess opposite Sienna Miller, James Purefoy and Harry Hadden-Paton has gained glowing plaudits from the press – The Independent was not alone in calling it a “superb portrayal” – which should prove to Smith the good judgement of that text message.
“I want to take on the roles and then as soon as I’m about to I start doubting myself”
Written in 1941, Flare Path was inspired by Rattigan’s own experiences as a member of Bomber Command; in fact he saved the first act of the play from his damaged plane during a mission. “I, shamelessly, didn’t know a lot about our history, which is terrible,” says Smith. “I’ve been watching all these films about it, we got to speak to some surviving bombers which was fascinating, these old guys who went through it all and told us first hand what it was like. It’s really moving learning about it all. I love learning and I always feel a bit thick and a bit uneducated without my drama school training, but this is what’s fascinating, doing jobs like this.”
In Smith’s career, drama school just didn’t become necessary. Growing up near Doncaster, she started performing from an early age, joining her musician parents on stage during their country and western act and going to local dance classes. As a teenager she joined the National Youth Music Theatre and landed a part in its production of Bugsy Malone in the West End, aged just 16. From that, she got an agent, and a role in the Donmar Warehouse’s 1998 production of Into The Woods followed. “I was working at a burger van before that,” she says. “[I thought] I’d go and do Bugsy Malone and then I’d go back to my burger van. Then I got Into The Woods and thought well I’ll do that and then I’ll probably go back to my burger van.” She never did, going on to make her name on television in sitcoms including The Royle Family, Gavin And Stacey, Love Soup and Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps. “Touch wood I’m not back at the burger van! But I won’t put it past me, you never know with this industry.”
She would, too. Smith isn’t likely to get too grand for her burger van, something she puts down to her grounded upbringing – “my mum and dad always say ‘we dragged you up right’ because I’d soon get slapped back down if I got above my station” – but I get the impression her self-esteem could do with more of a boost than she allows it. When I ask what it felt like to have hoards of girls waiting for her autograph outside the Savoy theatre stage door during Legally Blonde, she says “Why would you want mine? I’m just like you.” Likewise on contemplating the thought of winning an Olivier Award – we chat prior to her triumph – she says “Well I won’t win but if I did I think I’d faint. All the girls in my category are phenomenal and I just feel like I’ve won a competition to be stuck on the end.” In the event, she didn’t faint, but she did cry, and collected her award with a typically humble speech that thanked the Legally Blonde team for allowing “a chav to play an American rich girl”.
She freely admits she is insecure, citing her lack of training for her feeling that she is “blagging it” and saying she gets scared in interviews that she will “say something stupid or look an idiot” (she doesn’t). This might explain her slightly odd pastime of reading quotes off the internet and reciting them at appropriate moments. “It’s quite weird isn’t it? I like feeling that other people have felt how you feel, I think that’s what it is. A reassurance thing. Everyone goes through ups and downs and they’ve all experienced it and little quotes make me think ‘oh yeah, they get what I’m feeling like right now’.”
“Touch wood I’m not back at the burger van! But I won’t put it past me, you never know with this industry”
On her last night at Legally Blonde she quoted the famous line – credited to Dr Seuss – ‘don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened’, mainly to stop herself bawling her eyes out. “On my last night it was just like a concert,” she says, “I’ve never experienced so much love.”
She talks about Legally Blonde, unprompted, a lot during our conversation. After all, she only left the show in January and it is clear what a huge impact it has made on her life. She actively sought the part after seeing it on Broadway and feeling she just had to play it. Though she started her career in musical theatre and collected an Olivier nomination in 2008 for Little Shop Of Horrors, she doesn’t consider herself a bonafide musical theatre leading lady – “I’m never going to be Christine in Phantom, I haven’t got that voice” – but the feisty modern heroine Elle was a character after Smith’s heart. “Often it’s the male lead and there’s the female roles that are the wives or girlfriends of the leading man, whereas with Elle it was such an iconic girl power [role] and I had two leading men. It was special in that way and that’s why I went after that particular part.”
She is hoping that another such role will come to fruition next year. She recently workshopped the part of Bridget Jones for the impending musical stage adaptation of Helen Fielding’s widely successful novel – Lily Allen is writing the music – and has “got everything crossed” that it will come off. If anything, hapless British everywoman Bridget seems to suit her even more than glamorous American Elle – “I think an American [critic] said I look plump and impish. Because in America they don’t look like me” – and yet taking on such an iconic British character, beloved by a generation of women, seems a hugely pressurised thing for an insecure person to do. “But you see I want to take on the roles and then as soon as I’m about to I start doubting myself,” says Smith. “I’m beside the stage shaking like a leaf and thinking of doing a runner and all sorts.” But this paradox is what makes her so appropriate for the roles. “Elle is super confident sometimes and acts confident, but she’s just this little girl actually who is trying to find her way in the world, and it’s the same with Bridget. Bridget is insecure and depressed but when she wants to go out and show Hugh Grant what for, she can. We can all find it in ourselves sometimes. I think I’m just that, just a normal girl really.”
It is Smith’s normality that has gained her so many fans. She tweets about her nights out and stage nerves to her ‘twit fam’, she named her pet pooch after 70s hit-maker (and this year’s Oliviers performer) Barry Manilow, she jokes about ending up a spinster surrounded by dogs. It is things like these that give Smith such an appeal; she is no vapid superstar who talks in spurious sound bites. This everywoman appeal makes her a great ambassador for theatre, too, drawing audiences to the Theatre Royal Haymarket who may not otherwise have gone to see a Rattigan. “They’ve [her Legally Blonde fans] stayed so loyal, they are all my fans on Twitter and they are coming to see this. They’re like, ‘what’s it about?’ It’s going to be so different for them all to see it.”
“We can all find it in ourselves sometimes. I think I’m just that, just a normal girl really”
Smith turns 30 in June and plans to celebrate her birthday by taking her friends to Dollywood, the theme park dedicated to her heroine Dolly Parton. “I was going to save that for my hen party but I’ve not yet found a husband so I think sod it, I’m going to do it for my 30th, do it for me!” she laughs.
Like Bridget, she feels the “pressure from society” to find a partner and have a family, but despite her jokes about spinsterhood, she is not making her love life a priority. For now, work is her focus and the new decade is already shaping up to be a corker. With her first foray into film – Hysteria with Maggie Gyllenhaal – due to be released later this year, Bridget Jones in the pipeline and plans to pursue more film work, Smith’s career looks set to continue its upwards trajectory and she intends to make the most of it. “I feel so lucky to be doing what I love and I feel like so many people would want to do it and I’ve been given a great opportunity,” she says. “Maybe in a few years time my priorities will change. But right now I’m just not ready [for a permanent relationship] and I don’t think there is a time limit. I think it’s when you’re ready. Here’s another quote: ‘don’t love when you’re lonely, love when you’re ready’.”
She will get to quote plenty more familiar lines if she takes to the stage as Bridget next year. Surely there can be no better choice than this down-to-earth, resolutely normal actress to play everyone’s favourite singleton. “I’ve got my big pants at the ready just in case they make the call!” Her Mr Darcy will just have to wait.