‘I’m like a tap’ – Life After Life star Sian Clifford battles to control her emotions

Sian Clifford
Sian Clifford in Life After Life. (Image credit: BBC/House Productions/Nick Wall)

Bafta-winning actress Sian Clifford reveals an unusual characteristic in her work – she battles to rein in her emotions or 'turn off the taps'.

Sian, 40, is starring in new BBC2 drama Life After Life, about a woman, Sylvie, whose daughter Ursula Todd (Thomasin McKenzie), lives (or dies) a kind of Groundhog Day existence in the sense that she keeps dying in multiple different ways.

As horrific and bizarre as this sounds, the story, based on the Kate Atkinson bestseller, is about relationships and the challenges of life rather than shock deaths. Sian really wanted to make sure she got her performance right.

“I want to be good in it, to do the character justice,” she told The Independent recently.

But the emotions that lie close to the surface have an impact: “I’m like a tap, to be honest. It’s harder for me not to get emotional in scenes. I’m trying to rein that in because it’s not always helpful.”

As Ursula is reborn throughout Life After Life, Sian has to portray giving birth multiple times. A big challenge for any actress, especially when some of them are stillbirths.

“It was daunting,” she said, qualifying that her performance is not based on her own experiences. “I have to imagine it’s actually happening. It has to be authentic. That’s not to say I’m a method actor at all because I don’t advocate for that.” 

She continued: “I don’t think there is any scenario equivalent to a stillbirth.”

Sian first became a public entity playing Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s neurotic sister Claire in hit BBC2 comedy Fleabag, for which she won a Bafta. She remains very close to Phoebe (“I don’t have another friendship like it”) and credits the series for opening up opportunities and fame at the right time (“...the fact it happened later in my life and that I did it with my friend helped keep me grounded.”)

However she now has to contend with roles that are consistently of a type. “I always get scripts for characters in their late forties or fifties. I know it sounds silly, but I just don’t feel that inside. I still feel very young-spirited,” she said.

“There’s the matriarchal character or the young hot one. There’s very little in the middle,” she said.

Life After Life screens on BBC Two on Tuesday nights; the entire series is also in iPlayer.

Patrick McLennan

Patrick McLennan is a London-based journalist and documentary maker who has worked as a writer, sub-editor, digital editor and TV producer in the UK and New Zealand. His CV includes spells as a news producer at the BBC and TVNZ, as well as web editor for Time Inc UK. He has produced TV news and entertainment features on personalities as diverse as Nick Cave, Tom Hardy, Clive James, Jodie Marsh and Kevin Bacon and he co-produced and directed The Ponds, which has screened in UK cinemas, BBC Four and is currently available on Netflix. 

An entertainment writer with a diverse taste in TV and film, he lists Seinfeld, The Sopranos, The Chase, The Thick of It and Detectorists among his favourite shows, but steers well clear of most sci-fi.