chat room

Fleabag’s Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge ‘Fantasized’ About Playing Sisters for Years

Photo: Todd Williamson/January Images/Rex/Shutterstock

In the year that’s passed within Fleabag’s timeline, Claire (Sian Clifford) is doing quite well, thanks for asking: She took that fancy job in Finland, cut back on the Sauvignon blanc, and is … ugh, trying for a baby with her terrible, terrible husband Martin (Brett Gelman), but nobody’s perfect. Such drama simmers right into the show’s season-two premiere, when all of those revelations gradually turn a celebratory dinner to something right out of Fight Club, so let’s instead focus on the good, shall we? Claire has a transformative season, which is in no small part thanks to finally dumping Martin’s ass and choosing to put herself first — ending in a quintessential rom-com race against time to meet a crush at the airport.

Vulture recently called Clifford, who counts Fleabag as her breakout role, to learn more about what filming this perfect season was like. Among other things, we chatted about Claire’s “challenging” miscarriage scene and the decade-long sisterhood shared between her and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, as well as Claire’s instantly infamous haircut. (A wig had to be worn, obviously.)

I know you and Phoebe were great friends for years before Fleabag began. Should I assume she gave you the part and there wasn’t, like, a big friend audition?
I’d love to tell you a wild story, but I’m afraid to say Phoebe absolutely wrote the part for me. She picked her battles and thankfully I was one of those. The network didn’t want to hire me initially because I didn’t have very much screen experience at the time. They weren’t too keen on having me, but she said it had to be me.

So rude of the BBC!
Eventually they let me come and audition. I felt way too much pressure and I didn’t think it was going my way. At the audition, all these network people saw us together, and after that they were totally onboard. Phoebe told them about the connection and chemistry we have, and finally they were like, Okay, we can’t get that with anyone else. It’s a rapport you get completely for free. With anyone else, I’d have to fake it. But, honestly, I just didn’t believe it was gonna happen. I’ve lived to tell the tale.

Why did you think it wasn’t going to happen?
When you want something so much, sometimes you feel like you’re pushing it away. It was such a dream job. Phoebe and I had fantasized about playing sisters ever since drama school. The problem was I’d done a lot of theater work as opposed to television stuff. It’s quite divisive in terms of getting pigeonholed; they don’t really let you do anything else. People on the stage are desperate to do the screens, and people on the screens are desperate to do theater. This transition in my career is happening because of the generosity of my friend, because she believed in me more than I ever did myself, and because she has been my biggest fan since we met.

The season-premiere dinner party is storytelling perfection, especially when everything goes to shit following Claire’s miscarriage in the bathroom. What was filming all those scenes was like, simultaneously switching between such incredibly suppressed and manic moods?
It was really challenging. We were in this restaurant in Covent Garden in London. Those days were all so rainy and hot. It was really, really intense to film those scenes — the repression of that family really catches up with you. Especially when you’re literally sitting in it for a week to film.

What was most challenging for you?
The scenes are much longer than they were in season one. For me, that was the biggest challenge. It’s funny because you mentioned Claire’s mood switches, but I have to say Phoebe’s writing is so, so easy to perform because it really speaks to my soul. My process as an actor is all about energy, just feeling the person in your body. I can feel their rhythm, I can feel how they speak, and I know what their response will be to everything. With mood switching, it’s the greatest joy you can have as an actor. That’s what’s awesome about Phoebe’s writing. Like, for example, the pedophile joke that lands at dinner, it was supposed to be a very different punch line. Our producer told Phoebe we might need an alternative joke since the BBC might not have been happy with it, so she went away and the pedophile [joke] was her answer. We all completely collapsed of laughter. She’ll test things out on us like that. She’ll play around with the rhythm or she’ll swap out things. It’s meticulously composed, but there’s also room for maneuvering and collaboration so you always feel very safe and seen.

Do you have a favorite collaborative moment between you and Phoebe?
Phoebe is an uncompromising artist. She’s always improving as we go along, even in a script where I genuinely can’t fathom how it can be improved. My favorite moment is when she came up with the line for Claire, “I look like a pencil. It was only our second day filming and we were in a tent outside and someone was fiddling with my costume. I can still see this image of Phoebe sprinting across the park where we were filming, and she gets to me and says, “What about, I look like a pencil?!” We have a unique way of working together because we trust each other so much. She’ll experiment with me a lot because, having gone through drama school together, we’re not embarrassed to fail or make mistakes in front of one another.

I thought “Get your hands off my miscarriage!” was such a powerful quote. How did you and Phoebe approach handling that moment?
That took seven hours to film. I felt that scene. That was a really, really hard day. I think it’s incredible how, without question, those two sisters absolutely just banded together. There’s no question that they are there for each other. It’s such a beautiful representation of sisterhood. It’s like, Forget everything else, I will be here to support you. That’s something so extraordinary about women, and I’ve experienced that kind of “showing up” from women all the time. It’s also sparked an extraordinary conversation. Miscarriages are now being talked about in U.K. schools because of the show.

There’s so much shame around it, and it’s such a sensitive and taboo subject. We need to normalize it a little more, so people don’t feel ashamed or they don’t force themselves to go back to a family dinner and pretend nothing has happened. As with all of the themes, our intention is always just to tell the truth. So, we did. It’s interesting, because we’ve now been in a room in London — seeing an audience watch that scene — and in L.A., and in New York. The response was different in every audience.

What were those differences you noticed?
I don’t know if it’s strictly with geography, but it was really interesting to hear, literally, the different animal sounds that come out of humans when they watch the scene. Me and Phoebe always grip each other when it starts to play to see how it’ll land. In London, it was this real kind of animal laugh — a laugh that people then backtracked on. It was visceral. In L.A., it was a roar of laughter. In New York, it was silent. Like, people were really upset. There’s a mother bear that comes out of Claire that’s very protective of her body and her baby, and people naturally will react differently to it.

I’ve always disliked Claire’s husband, but when she comes back to the dinner table, he reaches new, massive lows with his comments about miscarriages. Why do you think she was initially attracted to him and hasn’t thought about divorcing him sooner?
I have to believe that Martin wasn’t always that way. I’ve concluded that Claire is someone to whom failure is death. For her to confront the truth about her marriage is to admit that it’s failed. It’s easier for her to carry on in a catastrophic marriage than to admit that to herself. I also think Claire is someone who’s never learned how not to break the rules. She feels responsible for everyone. She’s a stepmother to a troubled child who we don’t know much about, but I know that Claire feels deeply responsible for him and perhaps doesn’t want to abandon him to a life just with Martin. She says something in season one, actually, like, “You can’t leave your fucked up stepson and your broken sister to fend for themselves.” She’s the victim of eldest sibling syndrome, where she just feels responsible for everyone and she has to put them all ahead of herself.

We all have blind spots. At some point in our lives, we’ve all have ignored something that is staring us painfully in the face that we can’t bear to look at. She’s forced to do that this season. What’s significant for Claire is she does actually take the promotion. I love that everything happens on Claire’s own terms. Her sister’s constantly needling her about Martin, but it’s not until she arrives at it on her own that she allows it to happen.

Can we talk about your “pencil” haircut? It was a chic look, but definitely an empowering one, too.
The haircut is definitely a turning point for Claire. I do think haircuts completely change people. I love that Fleabag said, “Hair is everything.” Because it is. Every single one of my girlfriends who’s had a big breakup has gone and done some kind of makeover, including myself. Something happens to Claire when she has that haircut, but it happens without her even knowing. That’s the start of the shift that leads to the climax where she’s ready for her marriage to be over. It’s the first time in a very long time that Claire has taken a risk or done something totally for herself. It empowers her to be able to break away from the marriage.

Were you wearing a wig?
I was definitely wearing a wig. I would never let someone do that to my hair. [Laughs.] Initially, Phoebe and I were thinking of something a bit shorter. We tried a few wigs on and they just looked really weird. So I thought, What about an A-line haircut? We pulled up some pictures and we immediately found the perfect one within minutes. There was something about it that spoke of Scandinavia. We were like, She’s working in Finland, maybe she’s trying to look like Björk or something. Well, Björk is Icelandic. Maybe she went to a Björk concert and she thought she could pull the look off.

I was screaming of joy when Claire finally dumped her husband and ran after that Finnish hottie. Do you think she made it to the airport in time to catch him?
I like to think she made it. Even if she didn’t, I’m sure she’ll find him over in Finland. She can always hop on a plane! They work together. They have their numbers. I’m optimistic for their future!

Fleabag’s Sian Clifford on Working With Phoebe Waller-Bridge https://pixel.nymag.com/imgs/daily/vulture/2019/05/07/07-sian-clifford-chat-room-silo.png