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Thomasin McKenzie and Sian Clifford compare acting to their new series Life After Life

The stars of the TV adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s bestselling novel catch up from opposite sides of the planet to talk about their mutual appreciation and the thrill of a good script

Sian Clifford and Thomasin McKenzie are on a Zoom call with The Big Issue. They are separated by approximately 11,674 miles and 11 time zones. It is morning in New Zealand as McKenzie’s family busy around her preparing for another school day in Wellington. Clifford is winding down for the evening with her dog on a cosy London sofa. Both are in fine spirits, eager to talk (McKenzie was so keen she turned up on the Zoom a day early) and full of love – both for each other and their latest project. 

At just 20, McKenzie is a rising star on the global acting stage. For her, the BBC’s new adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s bestselling novel, Life After Life, comes hot on the heels of fine performances opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of The Dog (for which director Jane Campion won an Oscar), Edgar Wright’s stylish horror Last Night In Soho, M Night Shyamalan’s rapid-ageing thriller Old and Taika Waititi’s off-kilter war drama Jojo Rabbit

And for Clifford, Life After Life follows a Bafta for starring opposite Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag, which led to roles in ITV’s early-lockdown smash Quiz, new British film The Duke (with Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren) and upcoming murder-mystery movie See How They Run with Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody and Ruth Wilson. 

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Both talk in glowing terms about the four-part drama, which follows Ursula Todd (McKenzie) through multiple alternative lives. Each time she dies (in childbirth, of the Spanish flu, by childhood misadventures), we witness her taking different decisions the next time around – compelled by intuition and the sneaking feeling she has lived before. 

And in each life, we see how her decisions (and various demises) impact her mother, Sylvie (Clifford). The drama, directed by John Crowley, wears its high concept very lightly.

“I was completely blown away. It was an extraordinary script,” says Clifford. “I was desperate to be a part of something that gave me shivers from the first line.”

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“It was such an overwhelming feeling – that if I could be part of this, I would be incredibly lucky,” agrees McKenzie. 

“So we’re fans of the show,” deadpans McKenzie, drawing a line under the first of a few games of enthusiasm tennis between the pair.

Life After Life really is as impressive as they say. Set from Ursula’s birth in 1910 through half a century, as she encounters a pandemic, the Blitz, love and loss, trauma and trials. Despite her privileged background, we see Ursula’s control over her destiny ebb and flow in different lifetimes – reflecting the experiences of women in the era.

It’s a drama that stays with you, prompting meditations on how our futures can hinge on the smallest moments, simple twists of fate, lives changed in a heartbeat. 

“It was such a joy to get to play every available emotion. I got to really explore motherhood,” says Clifford. “Because Sylvie can be awful and she can be wonderful. I think we’re all capable of that in our lives. There’s good and bad in all of us – but what do we bring out in each other and what do circumstances bring out in us? That, for me, was the most fun to play as an actor, but also to take away from the job.”

Clifford’s grieving mother Sylvie in Life After Life
photo: BBC

McKenzie was able to tap into her increasingly rarefied career for the role. 

“Ursula’s experience of living life again and again and again, her lives building upon each other where from each life she carries a new instinct, a new knowledge with her, whether it’s conscious or not. That is something I experience in my everyday life,” she says. “I play with different characters, and through each experience I’m growing and learning more about myself. It’s like building blocks, I’m collecting new bits of information as I go.

“So Sian and I are kind of living life after life. That’s our job. And we are able to carry something from each of them, steal something from each of them.”

What are the twists of fate that led the actors to Life After Life? Because something seems to be going right for both of them. Clifford doesn’t hesitate. 

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“Meeting Phoebe Waller-Bridge,” she says. “Yep. She’s my catalyst. She changed my life.” And McKenzie? “I’ve just been very lucky with the family I was born into. I’m from an acting family, and a third-generation actress. So having access to that wisdom…” she pauses. Her dad has wandered into earshot at just the right moment to hear some praise. “I’ve really learned a lot from my mum and my dad and my grandma. That really put me in a good place to enter into the world of acting.”

I wonder whether they were fans of each other’s work before filming began. “Big time. Big fan. I screamed when I knew Thomasin was doing it,” says Clifford. “I didn’t scream. I went deathly silent,” responds McKenzie, with a grin. “And after having worked with her I’m an even bigger fan.”

It could be that in one potential future, McKenzie will move to London. She’s currently, she says, combining acting with taking some university courses on New Zealand’s history. 

“I’ve been learning about the appalling behaviour of the European colonisers,” she says. But she’s already making plans, just in case. They involve ganging up with Clifford against Phoebe Waller-Bridge. 

“You, me and Phoebe will need to go out and get drinks one night,” she says. “When you move here?” asks Clifford, explaining that the night out might also involve singing. “Oh my god, Phoebe loves karaoke. Did you know that, Thomasin? She bought me a karaoke microphone.”

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