Even the most casual perusal of Fleabag could tell you that Sian Clifford’s Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series is well-deserved. Her performance as Claire, the poised, uptight, and professional foil to her laid-back, messy younger sister, Fleabag (showrunner and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge), is simply, well, outstanding.
But if season 1 focused more on the differences between the two siblings, season 2 is more interested in what brings them together. The cracks in Claire’s veneer of perfection become more and more obvious, until it’s clear that she, like Fleabag, is just doing her fucking best.
No scene makes that more clear than the moment in season 2, episode 5, when a distraught Claire phones Fleabag, demanding they meet right away. It seems that, in an effort to reinvent herself, she’s had a bit of a hair mishap. Or, as Fleabag succinctly describes it: “Horrendous.”
Her once smooth, chic mid-length Sh-E-O cut is shorn in an asymmetrical bob, that makes her look “like a pencil.” It’s hilarious, and tragic, and possibly one of the best moments I’ve seen on TV this year, and yes, that includes the moment Hot Priest asks Fleabag to “kneel.”
Clifford excellently toes this line between comedy and drama all throughout the series. She’s the kind of actress who can make you smile during a devastating miscarriage reveal or confronting her dirtbag husband (Brett Gellman), without sacrificing any of the emotion. Her acting is visceral and physical, conveying a woman so full of rage, so tightly wound that it seems like she might detonate at the slightest provocation. As she recently told Indiewire, that connection between the mind and the body is how she knows she’s in character.
“People have spoken to me about the brittleness of Claire and it’s something I wasn’t aware of until it was pointed out to me, this sort of rage that she is carrying in her body,” Clifford said. “For me, playing characters is always about an energy and feeling it in your body. That’s when I know that the character arrived.”
It’s seems so natural, so effortless, that you can’t imagine anyone else in the role. And yet, Clifford almost didn’t get the job.
Though Clifford and Waller-Bridge both grew up in Ealing, a borough in West London, they lived “on the other side of the tracks” from each other, Clifford joked in the Evening Standard. The two met on their third day at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), which they both attended in 2003. One subway ride together sealed the deal on their friendship and launched their future collaboration.
After graduation, Waller-Bridge would send them to Clifford for notes. “We had this unspoken pact that whoever got there first would haul the other up,” Clifford told the Evening Standard.
But years later, when she wrote the role of Claire with Clifford in mind, Waller-Bridge had to fight to cast her. “She wrote the part for me, [but] she had to fight for me to get an audition,” Clifford told Stylist. “They wanted someone famous, which is often the case. It’s still the case – it’s still the reason I get turned down [for] jobs.”
Save for a part on ITV’s 2018 adaptation of Vanity Fair, in which she played Martha Crawley alongside Olivia Cooke, Clifford has spent most of her acting career on the stage. The 34-year-old has starred in 24 productions, including The National Royal Theater’s production of Beauty and the Beast (she played Belle), Consent at the Harold Pinter Theater, and The Pains of Youth at the National Theater. She also worked with Waller-Bridge and her Fleabag co-creator and longtime collaborator Vicky Jones on their Soho Theater production, Good. Clean. Fun., a series of five short plays.
In the end, Waller-Bridge reportedly worked with Clifford for hours to get her audition tape just right. “We are like sisters,” Clifford added to Stylist.
Her success on Fleabag has opened some doors. Clifford was recently cast as one of the leads in Quiz, a three-part drama directed by Stephen Frears for ITV and AMC. She and co-star Matthew Macfadyen (a.k.a Tom on HBO’s Succession) will play British couple Charles and Diana Ingram, who were accused of cheating their way to a major win on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? 18 years ago. It’ll be produced by The Crown's Left Bank Pictures, and also stars Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory.
So much of Fleabag hinges around the importance of women being able to express their desires and emotions, no matter how controversial or uncomfortable. That ethos is a priority for Clifford, who founded Still Space, a platform devoted to the practice of mindfulness and meditation in an often chaotic world. Those skills should come in handy on Sunday night, when Clifford and her Fleabag co-stars walk the red carpet at the Emmys to celebrate the show’s 11 nominations.