Interview: Elaine C Smith – 'actors lie all the time'

Elaine C Smith in costume as Miss Hannigan in Annie

Elaine C Smith as Miss Hannigan in Annie / credit: Matt Crockett

Elaine C Smith on Bute House, Beyoncé, Big Yin and Burdz Eye View

To many, Elaine C Smith is still best known as Rab C Nesbitt’s long-suffering wife Mary Doll. To many others, she’s a respected stage actress or advocate of many diverse causes. As she appears on TV in Two Doors Down, and takes to the stage in That’s Entertainment and as Miss Hannigan in Annie, Smith takes on our First & Last quiz.

First record you ever bought
The first single I ever bought was by the 5th Dimension: ‘(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All’ which I bought from Mills Record Shop in Brandon Street, Motherwell. The first album was James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon bought from a catalogue where I paid it up at 5p a week from my pocket money!

Last extravagant purchase you made
I suppose my car, a Mercedes B Class. I'm not really into the whole designer clothes stuff but I do own a Mulberry handbag.

First film you saw that really moved you
When I was a child it was probably something like Lassie or Old Yeller. As I got older it was probably One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That film stayed with me for days and days; I found it so moving and distressing. But I was also a sucker for musicals like A Star is Born: they moved me in a different romantic / tragic way.

Last lie you told
That’s hard as actors lie all the time: we've got to pretend to be someone else for a living. In real life it’s probably been, ‘no, I'm not tired, I'm fine!!’

First movie you ever went on a date to
Believe it or not, it was A Clockwork Orange at the Rex cinema in Motherwell with my first real boyfriend Stephen! Not exactly a perfect date movie and I found it really violent and weird.

Last time you cried
Watching the events unfold in Brussels and listening to a grandmother talk about being in the airport with her young grandson: her words were so moving and full of sadness but had a desire to understand. I'm a real greeter anyway and I cry at so many things every day. Watching my grand-daughter play or hearing her first big giggle makes me cry!

First thing you do when you've got time off work
Get into my jammies and watch a box set of something like The Bridge or Spin: bliss! Well that and a Lindt chocolate bunny.

Last great meal you cooked
We tend to try and get the family around on a Sunday if we are all free, so a good roast chicken or lamb dish last week was probably the last one.

First crush
Marc Bolan: no question!

Last book you read
Just finished Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations which was beautiful and wonderful and I’m now reading Christopher Brookmyre’s Black Widow. I read all the time and I love a great story that’s brilliantly written and funny.

First great piece of advice you were given
I've had tons of great advice from lots of different people. The trick is to try and listen: from Oprah to producers, directors and actors. My husband is very steady and thoughtful and when I get upset or worried he will just tell me to keep going; he always told me to not look at the criticism headed in my direction. As a visible, lippy woman I would always be a target; his best advice was to care about and stay with the people: the audience will tell you the truth, and he's right. The wonderful actress Kay Gallie said to me years ago: 'forgive yourself and get on with it’ and that’s stayed with me. We all make mistakes and get things wrong; it’s not the falling down, it’s how you get back up that says who you are as a person.

Last time you were star-struck
I did the Ryder Cup concert at the Hydro a couple of years ago and was completely star-struck by Nile Rogers, a fabulous musician and performer. I'm a disco queen at heart and he was so kind and generous. That makes the difference: too many of my heroes have turned out to have feet of clay. I met James Taylor a few years ago and that’s still the highlight because I could hardly speak and then made an arse of myself by telling him that ‘his music had been the backdrop to my life’ or something. But he thanked me and gave me a kiss.

First thing you'd do if you ran the country
Eradicate poverty. Well, that would be the hope and intention of my government. It’s at the root of everything that’s wrong: health, education, inequality. But first I'd probably redecorate Bute House! Though I'd pay for it myself!

Last meal on earth

First song you'll sing at karaoke
Anastacia’s ‘Not That Kind’ followed by Patsy Cline / Willie Nelson's ‘Crazy’.

Last time you exploited your position to get something
Actually I rail against all that, all the 'don’t you know who I am?’ stuff. I always feel that if you've got to say that, then they patently don't know and don't care either! In a weird way in Scotland when people see me or hear your name for a restaurant booking or something, then they are the ones who change things and suddenly find you a table or upgrade your room in a hotel. Generally people are incredibly kind and generous and I feel strange being on the receiving end of that generosity but I rarely ask. I'd probably do it more to get other people helped out.

It’s great in theatre because all the theatres in Scotland know me and I also know that they hold house seats or producer’s seats in case of an emergency or for special guests so I can usually use my name there. I got to see Gypsy with fab seats in London a few months ago because the producer is a close pal: but I still paid! And knowing well-known people in London helps get a table at the Ivy or the Wolseley but I can't get backstage passes at Beyoncé. Or even front-row seats!

First time you realised you were famous
I still don't feel famous and don't think I would ever use that term. I had a woman come up to me the other day and say, ‘oh, you're that actress, you're famous: what’s your name again?’ I said, ‘well, if you don't know my name I cannae be that famous!!’ People do say hello to me all the time and they say ‘hi Elaine’ like I'm someone they know or were at school with and I suppose many people in Scotland have grown up with me so there’s a familiarity and warmth and I think that’s very special.

When I was a schoolteacher in Edinburgh many years ago, I was walking along the Grassmarket to the old Traverse Theatre and Billy Connolly was walking towards me. Before I knew it I smiled and said 'hello Billy’ and he smiled back and said 'hi, how you goin’?’ It was only when I passed I realised he didn't know me but I felt I knew him and I was mortified. So I always remember how nice he was to this complete stranger and try and do the same.
Some folk can be a bit ignorant, though, and talk about you as if you aren't there and that drives me nuts. If I'm at events I get asked for selfies when I'm in the ladies loo and especially when folk are pished!! I hate bloody selfies! But I always oblige.

Last time someone criticised your work
My New Year show of Burdz Eye View drew 137 complaints to Ofcom for political bias because I had the First Minister and her family on as guests. We didn't speak about politics and it was a fun, light chat about Hogmanay but it drew very bitter and horrible responses: even in the bloody Parliament. I was a bit floored by it initially because I didn't see it coming. I had Nicola on because she was the first woman as First Minister and all my guests were women; but no unionists saw that, they only saw bias because I was a Yes supporter.
As an actor you have to live with that and you have to find a strategy to cope with it. In many ways we seek praise by doing what we do and no one wants to be told what they're doing doesn't work but it can't always. When I started out I would read reviews and things which were generally very positive. As I got more well-known, especially as a woman, the flak came from many directions and it was very upsetting. So about 14 years ago I stopped reading reviews. A director said to me years ago that he stopped reading them when he realised that a good review is as dangerous as a bad review to actors and a production and he was right.

First three words your friends would use to describe you
I think real friends would say: loyal, kind, generous.

Last time you made an impulse buy and regretted it
I do it all the time, especially with online shopping. I'm never out of the post office returning stuff that looked great at half eleven at night when I ordered it and terrible on me when I received it.

First concert you ever attended
I went with a pal from school to see the SNO at the old Kelvin Hall. I’d never heard a live classical orchestra and it was just stunning. First pop concert was the Ozark Mountain Daredevils at the Apollo: I know! Who knew?

Last time you bought someone flowers
I went to see my pal, the wonderful Lesley Hart, at the Tron in a play and took her flowers. I buy flowers all the time.

First job
Saturday girl in Curtess shoe shop in Motherwell.

Last person you fantasized about
I'm too old for that now. If I have, then I can't remember …

First word you spoke
I think it was ‘dad’.

Last crime you committed
Probably speeding or driving in a bus lane!

First book you read for a second time
Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Last song at your funeral
A Case of You’ by Joni Mitchell.

First person you'd thank in an award acceptance speech
No bloody idea, but my husband would be in there somewhere. I've never won an award so can't think of anything.

Last thing you think of before you go to sleep
I'm knackered!

First thing you think of when you wake up in the morning
How long have I slept? I'm menopausal so that means a lot given the disturbed sleep patterns. And then usually the list of stuff to do kicks off in my brain as ‘the chimp’ starts chattering in my head though I try and calm it with a bit of meditation!!

Elaine C Smith appears in Annie, Edinburgh Playhouse, Mon 16–Sat 21 May; That’s Entertainment, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Tue 7–Sat 11 Jun; Two Doors Down, BBC Two, starting Fri 1 Apr, 10pm.

That's Entertainment

A tribute to some of the best lyricists and composers of all time, with a song and dance show that includes tunes from Rodgers & Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter among others.


Annie, the world’s favourite family musical, comes to Aberdeen for one week only, starring acclaimed actress, comedienne and panto star; Elaine C Smith (Rab C Nesbitt, Burdz Eye View) as the tyrannical Miss Hannigan! Set in 1930s New York during The Great Depression, brave young Annie is forced to live a life of misery…

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