The original script of The C-Word followed the book’s positive upswing: written in 2010, the narrative ends with Lynch in remission, looking forward to a “Bullshit-free” life. Her death, aged 33, in 2013 after cancer spread to her brain and bones was an incalculable blow to everyone concerned with the production.
“Nicole Taylor, the writer, who is brilliant, wrote the first section with Lisa and she found it really difficult to go back and re-write the second section without her,” explains Smith. “And obviously, I’d have given anything for Lisa to be there on set, laughing with me. But the fact that we were able to make it in her memory is important and her family were straight on board; they helped Nicole with writing the last stages of Lisa’s life and they were incredibly helpful to me.
“I met with Lisa’s wonderful husband Peter and her brother Jamie. We went for lunch and they gave me little things that made me feel closer to her, like her notepad and the medal that she got for doing a cancer walk. And of course I had her voice in my head from her blog and our private conversations, and millions of photos, but I didn’t want to watch her on video too much. Because it wasn’t an impersonation and it wasn’t even like doing Cilla, where I had months and months of research, watching DVDs and old footage. Because I didn’t know Cilla – I just had to watch her and note her mannerisms – and somehow I didn’t want to do that with Lisa. Because with Lisa, it never felt, and I never wanted it to feel, like work.”
Smith didn’t hesitate when it came to having her head shaved in order to play Lisa in the aftermath of chemotherapy. “I was always going to do it. I don’t have cancer so it’s really not a big deal. And the least I could do was show Lisa’s experience as truthfully as possible.”
Shooting scenes showing Lisa in the advanced stages of the disease was more traumatic. In particular, a scene where Lisa has to be lifted from the bath called up painful childhood memories of Smith’s brother, Julian, who died from cancer at 18 (Smith has on her wrist a tiny tattoo of angel wings and a halo in his memory).
Family is fundamental to Smith – as a child she made her stage debut singing in clubs with her mother and father’s country and western duo, and her perfect weekend involves bundling dogs into cars for a trip home to Lincolnshire – but she is gently scrupulous on the subject of private grief: “Of course I’ve been affected by my brother’s death, but it’s not something I’d want to dwell on now. Because this project isn’t about me. It’s all about Lisa, and I wouldn’t like to lose that focus. It’s true, though, that losing someone to cancer really resets your perspective. It makes me value life, cherish my loved ones and be grateful for every day I have with them.”
Thinking ahead, she says, is not her thing. “Right now I’m working on a film that is the prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman. I play a dwarf.
And I’ll probably be back on stage later in the year, which I love. You can’t really beat that live energy, that one-off experience shared with the audience. I don’t really do long-term plans. Lisa’s story is the most important thing at the moment and then I’ll just see what happens.”