Words: Alison James Pic: Rex Shutterstock
She’s one of our finest young actresses and wins awards for playing real-life characters in gritty dramas – think Charmain Biggs in ITV’s Mrs Biggs in 2012, and singer Cilla Black in last year’s TV biopic – but for Sheridan Smith, playing the late Lisa Lynch in The C Word was a role unlike any she’d undertaken before.
Based on Lisa’s inspiring, candid and often witty book about her own experience of cancer, the 90-minute drama opens as she’s diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and ends in 2013 when she passes away, aged just 33. Sheridan’s performance is incredible but the actress brushes away our compliments, her blue-grey eyes filling with tears as she talks about her friend, Lisa.
“It’s Lisa who’s incredible, not me. She was so strong and brave – not like me now, sobbing away. Just look at the state of me! I so admire Lisa and want to be like her. She’s changed my outlook on life. She’s amazing and inspirational and I hope that comes across in The C Word. It’s been an honour to play her and I hope I’ve done her justice. I like to imagine her up there, looking down and having a drink on us.”
Sheridan and Lisa met through the social media website Twitter. “Lisa tweeted me to say she’d written a book that was being made into a TV script and wanted me to play her,” says Sheridan. “I read the book and tweeted back something like, ‘You’re joking, aren’t you? You’re incredible and amazing and strong – and I’m not!’ She replied that I was the only actress who could play her. That makes me so emotional as maybe she saw something in me that I don’t see in myself. We quickly became friends; she called me SS and I called her LL. Her zest for life was infectious and I was moved and inspired by her courage and bravery. I couldn’t help but love her and that’s why I wanted to tell her story. She was one of the people who cut through the rubbish and said it how it is. God love her.
“Lisa’s husband Pete and her family have been wonderful, too. They’ve been involved in the production every step of the way and welcomed me like one of their own.”
'Lisa tweeted me to say she'd written a book that was being made into a TV script and wanted me to play her'
When the idea of a TV drama based on The C Word first got off the ground, Lisa thought she was free of cancer, however in September 2011 she and her family were told it had returned and was now terminal. The cancer would have to be managed, rather than cured, but the hope was that she would still have years to live. But in October 2012 Lisa was told the cancer had spread to her brain and she only had months left.
“Lisa was no longer here when we started filming, which was so sad,” Sheridan (33) goes on, “but her presence was all around us. We could feel her. On one occasion we were filming a scene where I was in the bath and a white feather appeared from nowhere and landed on my head. I knew it was Lisa.”
That bath scene was particularly difficult to film as it shows Lisa at a particularly low ebb. “We were unsure whether to put that scene in or not because it is so graphic, yet Lisa was always so upbeat and light and funny. But if you’re going to do drama like this, you do it for real.”
When she was eight, Sheridan’s 18-year-old brother Julian died from cancer, and the scene also reminded her of that. “I’m not really allowed to talk about my brother,” she says, “but one thing I really remember about my brother passing is my mum and dad carrying him up and down stairs, and out of the bath, so it is very real.”
Also very real was Sheridan’s approach to portraying Lisa’s hair loss due to chemotherapy. She had her head shaved and her eyebrows removed. “It’s just hair,” she shrugs. “It grows back. It was the least I could do for Lisa and everyone who’s been through it. The eyebrows were the worst. You can’t shave or thread them in case they grow back weirdly so I plucked them individually and that’s quite painful.”
Sheridan says she wishes more people spoke as honestly and openly about cancer as Lisa did. “My favourite line is when Lisa says, ‘I’m British, we just don’t talk about things like that’. It gets me every time, because we don’t. Cancer touches one in three people. Every single one of us – if we haven’t experienced it – will know a friend or family member who has. It’s not a taboo subject, it’s a hideous disease and if we all pull together and talk about it, we can fight it. This is Lisa’s legacy and if it makes just one woman start checking her boobs, it’s been worthwhile.”
B Watch The C Word on BBC iPlayer, available until June 2.