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Fleabag’s Sian Clifford on self-care and checking in with yourself

Best known as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s TV sister, Claire, in Fleabag, SIAN CLIFFORD is also the founder of wellness website Still Space. The British actor speaks to SARAH BAILEY about the breakdown that inspired her business and shares details of her two upcoming TV shows, Quiz and Two Weeks to Live

Photography Anya HoldstockStyling Viktorija Tomasevic

Sian Clifford – the actor who will be forever associated with one of the most brittle and brilliant portrayals of complex sibling love in her role as Claire, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sister in Fleabag – is eating a late breakfast of boiled eggs and toast when we meet in an east London hotel. Allowing herself a gentle start to the day feels like a small, but deliberate, act of self-love, for it is the morning after the British Independent Film Awards [December 2, 2019]. “Someone asked me last night how I was coping with overnight success.” Cue eye roll. “You know, I have been a professional actor for 13 years…”. And we are here, not just to talk about her part in arguably the most significant TV drama of the past decade, but also about meditation, countering burnout and Clifford’s side-hustle as founder of the wellness platform Still Space.

The story of Clifford and Waller-Bridge’s friendship – forged on a London Underground subway journey during their first week of drama school 16 years ago – has been oft-told. As has the battle Waller-Bridge waged to cast Clifford as Claire in the face of pressure for a more established name in the part (“I’ve been very public about her fighting for me for that role”). In fact, the role of Claire had been developed by the pair “in a brilliant little sketch called ‘Use your vote’, which we did in a very dank and dark Southwark Playhouse, with her mom doing the voiceover in the background. That was the first time I played Claire… in 2009… a long time ago.”

Years later, when Clifford read the first draft of Fleabag, “I thought it was the best thing I had ever read. It was just so new and zeitgeisty, something insanely wonderful, fuelled by love, and it didn’t matter to me whether it did well or not, because I was so thrilled we were making it.”

Needless to say, the Clifford/Waller-Bridge bond is oceans deep. “That’s why we want to keep on collaborating, because it is so easy and fluid – the dialogue we have… sometimes we don’t need to say anything… it’s done with a look. I don’t know if I will ever have that with someone else, the implicit trust of thoughts and ideas.”

Clifford’s journey in the world of wellness began nine years ago. “I had been working non-stop; it was really an abundant period of work…” Her personal life was less happy, however, and she took herself to a retreat in Ireland. “And I just discovered all these things. I remembered all these things that I was interested in when I was a lot younger that I’d sort of hidden away – magical, mystical things. I felt deeply connected to it all immediately. That was the first time I ever meditated and the first time I ever did yoga. I loved it and got lost in that world and went and trained in nutrition, transcendental meditation, Buddhist meditation… I just sort of got buried in this alternative landscape.”

I wanted to destroy the delusion that business and burnout equate to success

The notion of creating a wellness platform came later. “I was in LA, having a chat with a friend about an art space that his cousin was setting up in New York. And I went to sleep that night and woke up at two in the morning, grabbed a notebook and wrote for two hours. I wrote the name ‘Still Space’ at the top of the page and it felt like a gift.” The vision was simple: “I wanted to destroy the delusion that business and burnout equate to success.”

This was 2015 – before the first series of Fleabag. Clifford was living the classic lifestyle of a struggling, multi-tasking creative. “I started running [meditation] classes in London. But also, I had a breakdown, because I had like three jobs: one for the money and two for love. And I gave myself six weeks to create, launch and brand this whole thing.” She is not immune to the irony that it took a complete collapse before she could take her own advice to heart. Our culture “celebrates busy-ness as a virtue, and a measure of success,” she observes. “It’s not until you find yourself on the floor, and you can’t get up, that you deal with it.”

She describes a tiny pivotal moment that helped her through the panic. “I was screaming to myself, saying, ‘I don’t know what to do!’,” when she heard her inner voice admitting that all she wanted to do was go and see Star Wars, but she couldn’t because she was simply so busy. A conversation between her fight/flight panic brain and her intuitive inner voice ensued, and happily the latter won: “I took myself to see Star Wars and I swear to God that it saved my life, the energy it gave me.” She booked a holiday the next day, to Glastonbury, and recalls sitting on a bench, feeling the surge of emotion washing over her and realizing this was the first time in six months when “I was doing absolutely nothing. And that was the true reason that Still Space existed.”

In the aftermath – during what one assumes must have been a wobbly time – she allowed a friend to talk her into entering a competition created by Psychologies magazine and Hay House to find the New Wise Voice of 2016. “I produced an unbelievable amount of content in such a short space of time – that felt like training in itself. I went into this really deep space of intuitive sharing, because my ego couldn’t get in the way. I think I produced 46 pieces of content in three days.”

I was talking about this masculine, pushing energy that I have found myself in my whole life and learning how to step away from it and celebrate a softer, more surrendered part of me

To watch just some of this outpouring of raw honesty and emotional intelligence on YouTube today, you think to yourself, ‘Well, of course she would win’ (she did). And, not long after that, she found herself speaking to a Psychologies/Hay House conference audience of 1,000 people. “I got a standing ovation and cried on stage… unintentionally. I was talking about this masculine, pushing energy that I have found myself in my whole life and learning how to step away from it and celebrate a softer, more surrendered part of me and trust that things will come to me.” She smiles. “By the end of that year, Fleabag had happened.”

Unsurprisingly, a deluge of juicy acting work has followed the success of Fleabag (she’s playing Maisie Williams’ mother in the upcoming Sky comedy Two Weeks To Live, and stars opposite Matthew Macfadyen in Quiz, Stephen Frears’ three-parter about the famous Who Wants to be a Millionaire? heist, airing this year on ITV). Consequently, Still Space is still in beta mode (“The website is built, it exists, it’s just not live yet!”). Until then, there are her YouTube videos to watch and she has just recorded an introduction to meditation for PORTER readers, which you can watch below.

Her advice to a meditation newbie – or indeed someone who’s tried and given up (like me) – is to set achievable goals. “I always encourage people to do it for, like, 30 seconds, something that might seem laughable to them. So they know they can do it. They shouldn’t go over that time period, because what you do is reinforce an idea that you can do it; you can show up to it and it creates a feeling of success.” And her top tip is to put your strength and focus into your exhale, rather than your inhale: “It relaxes the vagus nerve that runs down your spine and lets your nervous system know that you’re safe.”

Listen to the whispers. Your intuition is a constant, very sure voice. But it is very quiet

“My big message about wellness is about consistency. It’s the tiny little 30-second show ups throughout your day that sustain you,” she says. “You are your greatest brand, supporter, ally, lover, all of those things. If you can do that, you can really survive anything. Last year, if I hadn’t been in that place, it could have been extremely unsettling and overwhelming, because we never could have anticipated what happened to Fleabag last year.”

Clifford’s candor about mental health and the inconstant suitor of success is so compelling that, frankly, I could talk to her all day. However, there’s time for just two final questions. Firstly, what advice would she give all PORTER readers? “Listen to the whispers. Your intuition is a constant, very sure voice. But it is very quiet.”

And on a less profound note, has she – like Claire – ever had a haircut that makes her look like a pencil? “Ha, ha, not that made me look like a pencil, but definitely made me cry. And not even a serious one, just a bit shorter than I wanted. Deeply traumatic. Hair is everything. So much of our identity as women is tied up with our hair. So yeah, I get it.”

And she does. She gets it all.

This interview was originally published on January 17, 2020

PRESS PLAY

Sian Clifford chats to PORTER about the gift of wellness and meditation, with tips on how to sleep well, relax, reconnect and de-stress – calming breathing demo included – but mostly, just how to be kind and compassionate with yourself (and why her friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge has been an equally cathartic “gift to her life”).