Starring in her first ITV drama since 2015's Black Work, I caught up with Sheridan Smith to find out more about playing Sam Cook in new six-part drama Cleaning Up.
Written by screenwriting newcomer Mark Marlow, Cleaning Up tells the story of office cleaner Sam, an ordinary working-class woman, who is one of an invisible army of cleaners on a zero-hours contract. Caught between two worlds, the everyday life of a devoted and loving mum and the darker, dangerous world of insider trading.
Struggling with an online gambling addiction, Sam realises she has access to lucrative inside information which, if used correctly, could be the answer to all her prayers. And with her husband threatening to take custody of their two daughters, Sam is being backed into a corner and needs to come out fighting.
But just how far will she go to survive?
What attracted you to Sam in the first place?
What I love about Sam is she’s working class and maybe not educated like a lot of people are, but she’s still savvy and smart. She’s a chameleon who can fit into any world. A smart cookie.
She’s not educated like all these bankers playing the stock market. But she can fit into that world if she wants to. Sam never gives up. She takes knock after knock after knock and just keeps going and striving and wanting to fight back.
Sam's quite a flawed character isn't she? Do you think people will feel frustrated at some of the decisions she makes?
Sam's so flawed, like many people, like myself, so I really enjoyed playing all those different facets to her character. I love playing working class people, that's where I'm from so I naturally attract those roles and they're the people I want to be around.
Of course, people are always going to have an opinion. I've learnt now that you can't be like "love me, love me" to everyone because they're not going to. So I think the audience hopefully, if we've done our job right, will be torn between what they think of her. They will be frustrated that she's doing the wrong things and it is a big moral dilemma. But it was really fun to play that.
What's going to be really interesting is seeing whether people are on side or not. That's much more fun to play and as the episodes go on, she gets kind of worse!
Does your opinion change of a character the longer you play them?
They do actually, because when she starts to get closer to that other lifestyle, and you start filming those scenes, having to put make-up on, glamming up and shooting in fancy restaurants I could understand a lot more why my character would want to do that.
She just wants better for her girls. At the end of the day, she's a good mum, she's got a good heart, she's a loyal person to her friends, but she just makes some bad decisions.
How would you describe her look?
She has two totally different looks. One for her normal life as a single mum and another for later in the story when she gets involved with insider trading. Sam’s usual mum look is whacked-up hair and she’s thrown her clothes on.
There’s no vanity involved. You don’t really care because you haven’t got time. You’re too busy making packed lunches and who’s going to look at a cleaner? I’ve become very attached to my cleaner’s tabard.
Her other look has to fit in with this other world of bankers and so on. She takes on another persona and puts on a posh voice. Then my hair is down and Sam wears suits. Initially it’s just some skirt she’s worn to a wedding or a jacket, but then her look progresses as she tries to fit into this other world. Sam is such a chameleon and it works.
How many episodes had you read before accepting the role?
There were a few drafts and the very first draft of episode changed a lot. I remember the opening bit of it was her running across the street, shouting, putting her shoes on, dropping her handbag, she can't find her cash card - and I was like, OK, I really like this already!
But I hadn't seen the episodes towards the end which is good in a way, because usually you do and you know where you're going. As you know, it's never filmed in sequence, so after the read-through that's it. You're in different locations filming different episodes, but because it was such a long shoot, we filmed it in blocks so it was interesting to not know where you're going.
Then as the scripts come in you find yourself going "Oh well that didn't makes sense earlier, I would have played that differently" but it's also quite exciting to see further down the line where it's going. I guess they quite enjoyed us not knowing what was going to happen at the end!
Without wishing to give away the ending, were you surprised by how the series ends?
Yeah I was, I was expecting a different ending. I don't know if they're saving that for another time or what, but it goes on a lot of twists and turns that I didn't see coming.
That's why I think Mark, for a first time writer, is brilliant. He's come up with something brilliant. I wish I had his brain!
How do you shake a character like Sam off at the end of a day's filming?
I've never done a job this long actually. Usually something like Mrs Biggs is a two or three month shoot and this was nearly six months. So it was a really long shoot, it was really good fun and to be honest, I just go home and sleep!
Because it was relentless and it was exhausting, I was able to switch off a lot more than when I play factual roles.
What were the night shoots like?
Good fun actually. It was freezing in Canary Wharf! But we had the most amazing locations. On like the 36th floor, looking over London at night and we filmed a bit during Bonfire Night and we had the best view of the fireworks all over London.
We didn't shoot in the summer so it got darker earlier which helped. But there were some very early starts. But not as early as the cleaners, so I'm not complaining!
How would you describe the relationship between Sam and her friend Jess?
Jade Anouka plays Sam’s best friend Jess. They are like sisters in a way. Jess is another cleaner and Sam’s confidante. The one who she has all the banter with. Jade is lovely and we also had a lot of banter off set as well.
Jess is younger than Sam and the only person she’s got to turn to now that Dave has gone. Their relationship is really strong. But Sam continues to make the wrong decisions and does bad things. We’re all flawed, aren’t we, in life? And she hurts Jess sometimes.
Even so, they make up because they love each other. It’s that thing - sometimes you do things with friendships and family members, and you all forgive each other because the love and the bond is so strong.
How did you build the wonderful chemistry you appear to have with the two actors playing your daughters? Did you have a say in the casting?
No I didn't, we all just became friends on set and goofed around. We had a lot of driving scenes so they were stuck with me in the car and sung lots of musical songs to me. I loved playing all the scenes at home with the two girls who play Sam’s daughters. They're great kids and I'm still good friends with them.
What's your relationship like with gambling?
I don't know anything about gambling myself. I have many other vices, but that one isn't one that I've ever done. I used to know people in the village who went to bingo! And after the research I've done, if it's a vice I haven't got already, I'm quite happy to leave it that way.
But if you were in Sam's position and got that desperate, would you do what Sam did?
Yep! Deffo. I would. Sorry... morally wrong always! (Laughs) The difference between me and her is that she has a reason for it, she wants what's best for her kids.
Did you have to train to be a cleaner?
Oh yeah, we did some proper training. It was quite funny, they got a proper company in who took it very seriously, and rightly so. We had a table set up, a screen and lots of different surfaces, we had lino, some carpet, and they'd pour bits of gravy onto it and we'd have to clean it.
We all had to wear our tabards and know what was in what thing and what spray and what colour to use - I wrote it all down and got quite good by the end. My housemate at the time was like "Why are you not bringing any of that home?!"
How does Cleaning Up compare to the factual drama you're known and loved for?
I do find it easier doing factual stuff and that's also my preference for what I would like to watch. But I can't just do that forever... I mean I could, but I want to do some other stuff.
I found it hard not having the research that you've got with something like Cilla, years worth of stuff! You spend months reading it and you have that to back you up. But luckily, that's why Mark is a brilliant writer, because it was all on the page.
I think I've relied on getting to know the people I'm playing in the past, meeting Mrs Biggs and Cilla and Julie for Moorside and lovely Lisa Lynch. Just wanting to tell someone's story and having that responsibility in a way to tell it for their families or whatever. That's what I thrived on.
Personally, and it might be an insecurity thing, I felt a bit more lost on set because I didn't have that research to fall back on.
Was there anyone you did try to base Sam on?
No, but I met Mark's wife because she came to see me in Funny Girl and the director had mentioned that she was loosely based on her. She hasn't got a gambling addiction, but character wise Sam was loosely based around his partner.
But he was like "Don't tell him you know that"... Oh. Well there you go. I've outed it now! (Laughs) So I met her and she's lovely, so warm, a proper London girl and just really cool. I really liked her so I didn't base it on her but I guess I was just looking for some bit of help!
You mentioned earlier that you enjoy playing working class characters. Do you think TV is getting better at representing the working class?
I don't know really. To be honest, I've been out of the game for a couple of years now so I'm just tentatively coming back in, but a lot of the parts that I'm booked to play next year (2019) shows that things are changing, yeah. And changing for the better in every sense - working class, more female driven roles - there's a lot changing and that's good.
It's so annoying when you can't say what you're about to do! (Laughs) So I'm sorry, I can't tell you what they are, but it'll make sense when you see them... in like 2020 or something!
You've also embarked on a very successful solo career since the last time we saw you on television, are you enjoying being a recording artist?
The album was very therapeutic. I really enjoyed that because I was able to turn up to the studio looking like shit and it didn't matter because I'd not be filmed so I could lose myself and get stuff out... a bit like therapy. So that was nice and now I'm excited to be going on tour!
The music thing came about as just a bit of fun at first. It was something that my dad wanted me to do so I did the first album and this one was a bit more therapeutic. What will happen will happen but my acting is what I love more and I've realised lately that I really want to get back to it because I love losing myself in these characters.
I'm also in the process of setting up my own company so I have a lot of my own ideas I'd love to take forward and it's just so empowering to be able to take more control and do things I really want to do. I'm trying to be a bit more grown up nowadays!
Cleaning Up begins Wednesday 9th January at 9pm on ITV