Sheridan Smith takes a drink of water and apologises for weeping. Her latest job – playing the lead in BBC1’s drama The C-Word – has been uniquely testing. “Except this was never a job,” says Smith decidedly, almost fiercely. “It’s been a different kind of project altogether.”
Smith is pretty much queen of the biopic. She carried off the 2013 leading actress Bafta for Mrs Biggs (she played Charmian, wife of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs) and is odds-on for the same award this year for her barnstorming performance as Cilla Black in Cilla. But nothing prepared her for the “enormous privilege and responsibility” of playing her late friend, Lisa Lynch.
Lynch, a magazine editor from the Midlands, was 28 when she found out she had breast cancer. She had a husband, a family and a job she loved and she was outraged. Styling herself “cancer bitch”, she wrote a blog, Alright Tit, about her experience of the disease. The blog found a massive following – Stephen Fry called it “funny and brilliant” – and was made into a book. When there was talk of the book being adapted for the screen, Lynch knew exactly who she wanted for her screen alter ego. Bypassing casting agents and production protocol, she contacted Smith directly on Twitter and told her: “Only you can play me.”
“What an honour,” says Smith. “I couldn’t believe she wanted me to do it. I was so moved by the script, by her courage. Not that Lisa saw it that way. She didn’t want to be seen as a ‘cancer victim’, ever. She didn’t even call it ‘cancer’; she called it ‘the Bullshit’. She was so clever and witty and honest. I couldn’t help but love her.”
The two became friends – “We had a real connection, and used to text each other all the time,” says Smith – but they never met. “We came so close to it, but you know what it’s like getting projects made. A lot of time passed and, very sadly, in that time Lisa was diagnosed with secondary cancer, and this time it was terminal.
“I was doing Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic and Lisa was so supportive, always sending me good luck messages. I didn’t really know how bad things had got for her, because of her beautiful way of putting on a front for people around her, but I think that was really near the end. And she came to see me in Hedda and I didn’t even know she was in the house…”
Smith trails off, swallowing regret in hard gulps. There is nothing actorly in her reaction (unusually, she has no drama school training) but it is arguably this emotional candour, this sense of nerves exposed, that makes Smith such an astonishing performer. (Dustin Hoffman was moved to tears by her performance in Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path and went on to cast her alongside Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon in Quartet, which he directed.)
Certainly her candour and her gift for comedy – not many artists graduate from sitcom (Gavin & Stacey, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps) to Ibsen – are a fine match for Lynch’s voice in The C-Word. “Lisa just said it how it is,” Smith says, keen to redirect the compliment. “She had a problem with people not speaking about cancer. There’s a line in the film where she says ‘I’m British, we just don’t talk about things like that,’ and it’s true. Everybody knows someone who has been affected by cancer, but we don’t talk about it.
“Lisa’s blog was her way of dealing with it, so that when she was around her family they didn’t have to constantly talk about ‘it’, but at the same time, it raises awareness of breast cancer in a really positive way. I didn’t know, for example, that people could get it so young.
“So I think it’s really important now for girls to check their boobs and I’m very proud to be a patron of the CoppaFeel! charity, which was set up by Lisa’s friends [29-year-old Kris Hallenga, who has incurable breast cancer, and her twin sister Maren]. And I’m hoping the film will raise an even wider awareness, because if people haven’t been personally affected by cancer, they might not pick the book up, but if it’s on television, there’s a chance they’ll tune in and get the message.”