Three years ago, Sheridan Smith was lost to ‘Drink. Desperation. Humiliation.’ Once the most promising actor in theatre, she became better known for her offstage troubles than onstage performances. But now, back with a blockbuster musical role, new fiancé and renewed sense of purpose, she tells Louise Gannon about hitting bottom – and bouncing back again
Sheridan Smith wants to tell the truth. She wants to be honest about drinking too much, being lonely, being frightened, having mental health issues and how she almost destroyed her Bafta-winning acting career.
‘And that’s a problem,’ she says, nudging my knee conspiratorially and widening her green eyes. ‘In my industry, we are meant to smile and say: “Everything is great. I’m fine. My life is wonderful!” But that’s not always the way it is. And I became a problem for everyone because I couldn’t lie any more. I fell apart completely in public. And genuinely I thought I’d blown it.’
She pulls off her top to show me arms and shoulders covered in eight large tattoos – including butterflies, Shakespeare quotes (‘This above all: to thine own self be true’) and a ‘Daddy’s Girl’ tribute to her late father. ‘The reason I went out and got all these tattoos two years ago was because I thought no one was ever going to give me a job again. I wanted to plaster myself in tattoos that meant something to me, but also that I thought meant I would never be employed again because you are not meant to have body markings in the theatre. It was my way of self-destructing but giving myself a reason for it. My mum went berserk at me.’
We are sitting in a tiny rehearsal room in the attic of a studio overlooking the rooftops of north London. It is day three of preparations for the West End play Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, in which she stars as the narrator alongside Jason Donovan (who originally played the lead role 28 years ago).
Tickets are selling at the speed of light because Sheridan – who has won Olivier Awards for the musical Legally Blonde and the Terence Rattigan play Flare Path – just happens to be an actor the public adores and who, bad days aside, is spoken of by critics in the same breath as Julie Walters and Dame Judi Dench. No tattoo could ever stop her.
She is wearing minimal make-up, leggings and a shirt that she keeps tugging round herself in an effort to contain her very generous cleavage but fails miserably because she is constantly letting it go to grab my arm, gesticulate to make a point or wipe her eyes when tears fall, which they do many times throughout our interview. If she is not crying, she is laughing. If she’s not laughing, she is telling you things she shouldn’t.
As an actor, her ability to transform herself into every role from Cilla Black (in ITV’s award-winning biopic) to the tough but vulnerable Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and to nail the exact point between fragility and strength (such as when portraying cancer patient Lisa Lynch in the BBC’s critically acclaimed 2015 drama The C Word) is her gift. It takes only a matter of minutes to fall in love with Sheridan.
Take this exchange. Me: ‘You look great. You are positively glowing.’ Her: ‘Ah, thanks. It’s because I’ve stopped drinking. I can see already the bloat in my face has gone.’ Me: ‘How long have you not been drinking for?’ Her: ‘Nearly a week. [Laughs] Oh my God, that sounds bad, doesn’t it? Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.’
But first things first. The day we meet, the question of love is in the air as social media and the tabloids are bursting with the ‘news’ that she has married her fiancé, insurance broker Jamie Horn, 28, who she met on Tinder 18 months ago and who now lives with her in her country home in Kent along with 12 dogs (including Melody, pictured with her in our photos), a couple of horses, four donkeys, two pot-bellied pigs and a pair of goats.
Gentle giant Jamie – who accompanies her to the Stella shoot – is, we all hope, the man she finally deserves after a string of relationships, from the WWE fighter Stuart Tomlinson, to the model Graham Nation, to the actor Greg Wood, who she dated for a year until 2016, when she announced their split by posting on Instagram: ‘Just been hurt by an idiot boy again’.
Eagle-eyed fans spotted a wedding band not just on Sheridan’s ring finger but on Jamie’s in an Instagram post. She laughs and shows her left hand: ‘My engagement ring is too big so I bought a smaller thin ring to keep it from slipping off and Jamie said: “Well if you have a ring on that finger I’m going to have one too.” But we are not married. When we do marry everyone will know about it because I will say. I also want fans to send me pictures of themselves wearing big crazy wedding hats on the day so they can be part of it too.’
There was never really any plan for Sheridan – who turns 38 this week – other than to perform. She grew up in rural Epworth in Lincolnshire, the youngest child of Colin and Marilyn. Performing ran in the family. Colin and Marilyn had a country singing act called The Daltons, and her brother Damian is a singer. From the age of six, Sheridan would join her parents on stage in pubs and working men’s clubs all over Lincolnshire, and at the age of 16 she joined the National Youth Music Theatre and immediately won lead roles. Throughout her childhood, putting on a show came first.
Even when her older brother, Julian, was diagnosed and later died from cancer at the age of 18, her way of cheering him up was putting on little comedy skits for him in the living room. She was devastated by his death but the family way was to keep on going. ‘Tits and teeth,’ my mum used to say. ‘Keep smiling. That was the way I was brought up. The show must go on.’
And the show went on getting bigger and bigger. At 17 she was cast in a Sam Mendes production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods at London’s Donmar Warehouse. By 18, she was in the hit BBC sitcom The Royle Family. The following year she played the sweet but complicated Janet in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.
Despite having never been to drama school, she didn’t stop working and moved seamlessly from comedy into drama (she won a Bafta for her role in the ITV drama Mrs Biggs as Charmian, the wife of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs). She took on the lead role as Elle in a musical version of Legally Blonde on the West End stage, fully expecting a ‘thrashing from the critics. I was the bird from Two Pints of Lager, so what was I doing singing on the stage?’ she says. But she brought the house down and won her first Olivier Award as best actress in a musical, plus another for best supporting actress in Flare Path the following year. To the outside world, Sheridan seemed unstoppable.
But by 2016, she was in a mess. Her acting achievements were less a source of stories than her drunken antics at bars and clubs all over London, along with volatile make-ups and break-ups with a string of boyfriends.
‘I couldn’t really cope with all the expectations on me,’ she says. ‘I felt stressed and anxious all the time. I was supposed to be a celebrity but I couldn’t do it right. I was caught on camera mouthing “f—” to my dad when I won my first Olivier. I’d be told by publicists how to behave and I’d forget and just say exactly what I thought. I drank pints and made rude jokes and was brilliant at saying the wrong thing. I can walk in heels until I have a drink then I go all bandy-legged and walk like a farmer. And if I dressed myself I looked like a mess, so I’d be constantly sending pictures of myself to stylists saying: “Is this all right?” and being totally paranoid.
‘On top of that I felt I didn’t fit in as an actress. I never went to drama school, I was suffering from imposter syndrome, and I was just waiting for it to all blow up in my face. I felt so lonely and scared a lot of the time and it killed me. I felt I couldn’t actually say that to anyone because no one wanted to hear it. All people wanted to hear was how happy I was that I was doing so well, but inside I was just screaming. I thought everyone could see I wasn’t right.’
As an aside, she tells through tears a funny story about co-starring with Sienna Miller in Flare Path. ‘Every night we’d come out of the theatre and there would be hundreds of paparazzi. Sienna would run off and I’d stand there wondering what to do but they’d all immediately race off after her – except this one really polite bloke who’d look embarrassed and lift his camera up to take a couple of snaps of me. I felt sorry for him, so I’d say: “Don’t worry love, go after Sienna.” And he’d turn and run.’ Sheridan would go home on the bus. ‘And then I got mugged one night at the bus stop by three guys who ran off with my iPhone.’ She grins as she says this, which makes you just want to hug her.
In 2015 she was cast as the lead in the musical Funny Girl. During the 2016 run of the show her beloved father was diagnosed with cancer. This was the point she felt apart. There were missed curtain calls, speculation she was drunk on stage (something she has always denied) and constant apologies from the show’s promoters blaming her erratic performances on ‘technical difficulties’.
The reality was that Sheridan was spiralling out of control. ‘My dad was dying but I was in a job where I just had to carry on. I couldn’t cope. I’d been to see specialists about stress and anxiety. I didn’t know what was happening to me. One doctor said I was bipolar, another said I was suffering from extreme anxiety disorder. All I knew was that the man I loved most in the world was in a hospital bed and I just wanted to be with him.’ Tears fall unchecked as she speaks.
She attempted to plaster on a smile and carry on. Then at the 2016 Bafta awards, Graham Norton made a joke at her expense in front of the celebrity audience. ‘We’re all excited for a couple of drinks tonight. Or, as it’s known in theatrical circles, a few glasses of technical difficulties.’ Sheridan nods: ‘That tipped me over the edge. I just lost it. I was in unbelievable distress, trying to keep it all together and then a room full of people in my industry were just laughing at me.’
She responded with a series of angry, swearing tweets then, she says: ‘Honestly, I don’t remember. Drink. Desperation. Humiliation. I fell over the edge.’ Was no one there to save her? She shakes her head. People like David Walliams (with whom she has co-starred many times and who has described himself as her ‘older brother’) and her Royle Family co-star Ricky Tomlinson publicly defended her. But, a civilian in ‘luvvieland’, she ‘just gave up and walked away’. She recalls moments of those two months and her father’s final days. ‘Sitting by his bed and sponging his mouth, holding his hand.’
In the weeks after his death she covered herself with tattoos and medicated herself with alcohol. I tell her that social media at the time was bristling with public support for her and she breaks down in tears again. ‘That’s what really helped me, you know. Random people would come up to me in the street and just hug me and stroke my hair saying, “You’re going to be all right, love.” Or, “I know how you feel.”’
After a few weeks, she went back to Funny Girl. ‘They put a pair of tights over my arms to cover my tattoos. That actually made me laugh.’
Since then, Sheridan has continued to put in exceptional performances. She starred in 2017’s BBC drama The Moorside, based on the story of Shannon Matthews. She has just finished another BBC true crime story, The Barking Murders where she plays Sarah Sak, mother of the first victim of serial killer Stephen Port, also known as the Grindr killer (played by Stephen Merchant).
It must be difficult going from such a grim subject to Joseph. She nods: ‘I got very close to Sarah and wanted to do a good job for her, but yes it takes a massive toll. My guy is delighted I’m doing Joseph because it’s such a brilliant story that everyone remembers. I was in it at school – I didn’t get a big part – and I came down on a school trip to see it in the West End. I can’t actually remember if it was Jason or Phillip Schofield playing the part, all I remember is loving it. And Jason is a brilliant bloke. He gets it. He’s been through rough times. I think it makes you a better human being.’
She is still, she says, a work in progress. ‘I’m getting there,’ she says. ‘But I can still go off on one. I’m on anxiety medication, which seems to be working. Having Jamie has really helped me, and people think I’m mad having so many animals but they give me real peace when I’m with them. I’m probably happiest when I’m mucking out the horses or being knocked over by my Great Dane. Animals don’t expect anything from you except to be loved and they love you unconditionally.’
Jamie, she says, loves her unconditionally. He helps look after the animals, runs her baths and is the one supporting her right now as she gives up drink. ‘You can’t do it without support but he knows and I know I’m so much better for not drinking.’ Some weeks ago on her Instagram, she berated him and accused his mother of murdering one of her beloved dogs. She puts her hands over her face. ‘I was drunk, upset, emotional and angry and…’ she shakes her head. ‘Can you believe I, of all people, went and put it on Insta again. How many times can I rant off on Insta and regret it and then do it again? I’m such a knob.’
We talk of other things. At 38, does she want children? ‘Oh God, I don’t know. Yes on the one hand, but then am I actually ready? Could I cope? I have to ask myself serious questions like this. My mum tells me she knows I could. She watched me with my dad in the last few days of his life and told me if I could be that caring I would be a perfect mother – but I don’t know. I just know I’m not perfect.’
She’s equally realistic when it comes to her body. ‘Kids [today] have too much pressure for everything to be perfect, but it isn’t. We all have problems, none of us are the perfect shape and size. The other day I read somewhere about everybody needing to be Barbie-shaped or something. Give me a break! What’s wrong with being like me? Weeble-shaped!’
Well, I tell her, Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down. And she has picked herself up after all the knocks. ‘That’s right,’ she says, laughing. ‘I am a Weeble.’ And so much more.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is at the London Palladium from Thursday; josephthemusical.com.
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