Sheridan Smith used to be more famous for falling out of nightclubs than her acclaimed performances. Then came a burnout that nearly broke her. She tells Louise Gannon what it took to find the ‘peace’ she’s always craved.
Ater decades of erratic behaviour, anxiety and self-doubt, Sheridan Smith has finally put her troubles behind her.
The Bafta and Olivier-award winning actress is standing in a West London studio, bundled up in an oversized coat and scarf. Half her face is covered by a mask, but nothing can hide that there is a new confidence about her, and a visible sense of contentment.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before,’ she explains. ‘Regardless of anything going on in my career I’ve always felt insecure, worried about what people thought of me. And now I feel happy. That is a novelty.’
In May, Sheridan, 39, became a mother. Billy’s birth marked a sea change in the actress whose talent was matched by self-doubt and mental health issues that were only properly diagnosed two years ago.
Her ability to be equally at home playing Chekhov, performing a comedy rap with ex-boyfriend James Corden in Gavin & Stacey or acting alongside Dame Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay in the acclaimed movie Quartet was often diminished by the scandalous headlines that surrounded her disastrous relationships and, at times, car-crash lifestyle.
But Billy has, she says, anchored her world. She is currently weaning him, spending afternoons cooking and puréeing vegetables. Today he is with her mum and aunties, who have been unable to spend time with him until now due to lockdown.
When Sheridan filmed her latest TV series, BBC1’s Pooch Perfect, her partner Jamie Horn came along so that she could breastfeed during breaks. At the moment Jamie is orchestrating the move from their rented farm to ‘our own place’ in the Hertfordshire countryside. There, she says, ‘I’ll be able to paint the walls, make a mural for Billy and put up pictures without worrying about getting the landlord’s permission.’
She’s telling me about her domestic setup, and of how excited she is to host her first primetime TV show alongside a bunch of dogs (Pooch Perfect, a Bake Off-style contest for dog groomers), when she stops and says, ‘I never knew I would be this person – a mum. Things used to seem so complicated, and now suddenly everything is so simple. I love Billy so much. I hold him and he’s looking at me and I know he loves me back and he needs me.’
Her eyes brim with tears. ‘I’ve been looking for this all my life. I’ve looked in the wrong places – in nightclubs, going out drinking, pushing myself with work. Now in this little baby I’ve found…’ she searches for the words, ‘…that I’m at peace with everything.’
Few people can express emotion like Sheridan Smith. Anna Mackmin, who directed her in Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic in 2012, says what sets her apart as an actress is that she is ‘missing a layer of skin’. Sheridan can slip, in a heartbeat, from the humdrum to the depths of feeling, which is why critics speak of her in the same breath as Dames Judi Dench and Julie Walters. She has nailed parts in comedies (The Royle Family, Gavin & Stacey), musicals (Little Shop of Horrors, Legally Blonde), stage classics (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Flare Path) and gritty TV dramas such as The C-Word and The Moorside.
The youngest child born into a Doncaster-based family of performers, she was six when she would join her parents, Colin and Marilyn, on stage in working men’s clubs in their country singing act The Daltons. When she was eight, Sheridan was rocked by the death from cancer of her elder brother Julian. He, too, wanted to be an actor and Sheridan, who used to put on plays to cheer him up when he was ill, vowed to carry that torch for him. Her precocious talent brought lead roles in the National Youth Theatre and at 17 she was cast by Sam Mendes in a Donmar production of Into The Woods. From then on, she worked continuously and in 2015 was awarded an OBE for services to drama.
I last saw Sheridan a year and a half ago. She told me then how she’d never felt good enough, pretty enough, thin enough or polished enough to deserve it. The fact that she’d never been to drama school made her feel like an imposter. The more awards and plaudits she won, the less she felt able to deal with the expectations on her. She wore her vulnerability on her sleeve. She drank, she partied, she dated a string of unsuitable men, from WWE fighter Stuart Tomlinson to model Graham Nation and actor Greg Wood.
‘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***!” when I won my first Olivier. I’d be told by publicists how to behave. I’d forget and say exactly what I thought. I drank pints, made rude jokes and was brilliant at saying the wrong thing. I could walk in heels, look elegant until I had a drink then go bandy-legged and walk like a farmer. If I dressed myself I’d look a mess, so I’d be constantly sending pictures of myself to stylists, asking: “Is this all right?”, and being totally paranoid.’
By 2016, everything unravelled when her father was diagnosed with cancer while she was playing the lead in a West End production of Funny Girl. She’d grown up knowing how hard it was to succeed as a performer, to adhere to her parents’ ‘keep smiling, keep going’ philosophy. So she tried to, but kept failing. There were missed curtain calls, speculation that she was drunk on stage (something she has always denied) and frequent apologies from the show’s promoters, blaming her erratic performances on ‘technical difficulties’. She sought help from doctors. One said she was bipolar. Another told her she was suffering from extreme anxiety. Then, at that year’s Baftas, host 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 sat, as her peers laughed uproariously, dying inside.
That moment changed everything. Sheridan walked away from the theatre, lost herself in drink, threw away her anxiety pills and ended up hospitalised due to a severe reaction from stopping her medication. She went home, sat by her dad’s bedside and nursed him in those last few weeks before he died. It was, she told me, the response she got from members of the public who would stop her in the street – hug her or tell her, ‘Not to worry, love. You’ll be all right’ – that gave her the strength to return to acting. David Walliams and Ricky Tomlinson also spoke out on her behalf. ‘You have no idea how much that support means,’ she says.
A year and a half ago, Sheridan had stopped drinking and had found ‘the right man’ in insurance broker Jamie, who is ten years her junior. They met on Tinder. ‘Don’t knock it!’ she laughed. ‘It can work out.’ They lived together in a rented farmhouse with 12 dogs, a couple of horses, four donkeys, two pot-bellied pigs and a pair of goats. I asked her back then if she wanted children and she told me, with typical frankness, that she was worried she wouldn’t be able to cope with a baby. She told her mother the same thing but Marilyn had responded by saying that she’d watched her care for her dad and she knew she would be a wonderful mum.
I remind her of that conversation and she gasps. ‘I was worried,’ she says, ‘about so many things. Petrified. I’ve always doubted myself. David [Walliams] would say to me, “Shez, you need to have a baby,” and I’d think, “What if I’m not good enough?” And then it just happened.’
During lockdown she filmed both a one-woman drama about a pregnant woman having to give birth on her own, and Sheridan Smith: Becoming Mum, in which she talked about her issues with anxiety, and why doctors had told her to continue taking her medication throughout her pregnancy.
‘The documentary was supposed to be about pregnancy myths, but once we started filming – it was only myself and this one lady and her camera – I was opening up about things I’d gone through. Then I thought, “Oh s**t, Sheridan! You’ve done it again.” I talked about being hospitalised and things my mum didn’t know about. But I decided to run with it. The response from other mums and pregnant women was incredible. A lot of women have the same issues, and feel terrible for taking medication. But ultimately it’s better for you and the baby, so I felt I’d broken the silence over something that affects so many women.’
The birth wasn’t easy, though. Sheridan went into labour three weeks early and was rushed by Jamie to her local NHS hospital. ‘It was terrifying,’ she says. ‘My placenta had split and Billy had basically kicked his way out, so they had to do an emergency C-section. When he came out, everyone was silent. I’d been watching One Born Every Minute and after the birth all you hear is the baby’s screams, but my baby wasn’t making any noise at all. Jamie held him and said, “He’s perfect.” But I was so frightened and I kept saying, “But is he OK? Is he OK?”
‘And then I held him. He was tiny but was breathing and moving. He looked like a little chicken McNugget. Just five pounds but he was beautiful. I can’t begin to describe how I felt – it was surreal. I had to stay in hospital a couple more nights and then we went home. The three of us. All I remember is thinking, “Are they really letting us go home with him on our own?”’ Lockdown turned out to be a blessing. ‘It was a magical time – just me, Jamie and Billy,’ she says. ‘It was sad that Jamie’s parents and my mum couldn’t come and visit but that was the way things were. And because of being on our own, there was absolutely no pressure on us. To me, having no pressure felt incredible.
‘You don’t really know what you are doing as new parents. We just did our own thing. I didn’t read books telling me what to do. I wasn’t in any postnatal groups. I breastfed for six months till my McNugget turned into this chunky baby with great big rolls of fat on his little legs. And after a few weeks he was smiling at us and then he was laughing. I couldn’t leave him alone. I watch him sleeping in the bed next to me because I can’t do any of that letting him cry stuff.’ She adds, ‘And he’s got my dad’s eyes. Blue like his, not dark like mine. I see my dad in him… I never expected that sense of my dad being there.’
Motherhood, she says, has taken the pressure off. She no longer feels the need to be a ‘perfect celebrity’, no longer worries whether she’s choosing the right work, isn’t beating herself up over the fact that, six months into motherhood, she’s not yet in a pair of size 10 jeans. ‘Who honestly cares?’ she says. ‘There’s no rush, is there?’
Billy is the reason why she decided to take her first primetime presenting job on Pooch Perfect, in which ten pairs of professional dog groomers compete to be crowned the UK’s top dog stylist. ‘Acting will always be my passion, but this really appealed to me and it worked in terms of family commitments. We filmed during lockdown and everything was super-strict. I felt so privileged to be working because so many people in the industry are on their knees, and we have to keep making shows or else everything will collapse. But for me it was perfect. I was breastfeeding, and Billy and Jamie would come and hang out in a room where I could pop back during breaks.
‘Jamie is used to me getting into character, and I can often be doing traumatic roles. It’s hard not to take that home, so he loved that I was doing a show with dogs. I love dogs. My only problem was I couldn’t bear to be the person telling groomers they hadn’t got through to the next round. Sometimes there would be tears – mine too – and it took everything I had not to hug them because you get so involved. It’s such a fun show and amazing to see all these incredibly creative groomers – and a ton of dogs.’
Next June, Sheridan will be 40. ‘I feel good about it. I look in the mirror these days and I think, “Yes. You’re a mum. Well done, you.” My priorities have all shifted. I don’t want to go to nightclubs or partying and drinking. I’m in bed by 9pm and, of all the things I’ve ever done, I feel I’ve really achieved something. I’m looking forward to the future. Jamie wants to get married, so yes, that’s on the cards.
‘But I feel so at peace with myself, and because of everything I’ve been through, and spoken about, I feel more connected to people than ever. Whatever I did before, I never felt proud of myself. Now, becoming a mum, having Billy, I feel incredibly proud.’ She laughs. ‘And I still can’t quite believe those words have come out of my mouth.’
Love, romance and lots of chips
Guilty pleasure? Reality television – everything from Say Yes to The Dress to I’m A Celebrity…
Where is home? My first proper family home in the country in Hertfordshire.
Career plan B? To be a vet.
Who would play you in a movie? Drew Barrymore or Kathy Burke.
Biggest bugbear? Polystyrene. I’m phobic about it.
As a child you wanted to be… An actress. That was it. Always.
Earliest memory? Performing on stage with my mum and dad.
Secret to a happy relationship? Tolerance and compassion.
Your best quality? I think I have a big heart.
And your worst? I’m too sensitive.
Most romantic thing you’ve done? Taken Jamie to the Maldives.
Last meal on earth? I’d love to say a caesar salad, but it’s chips and gravy.
Advice to teenage self? Do not take the entertainment industry too seriously.
What do you see when you look in the mirror? A mum.
Pooch Perfect will begin on 7 January at 8pm on BBC1 and on iPlayer