Star actor shares SUAC memories

20th April 2021

A former Performing Arts student from Stratford-upon-Avon College has shared fond memories of her time at the College and described how her course acted as a springboard into future training and ultimately film and TV stardom.

Sinéad Matthews studied at the College in the late 90s and has since gone onto star in a variety of films and TV shows including The Crown, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, Chewing Gum, Inside No.9 and Black Mirror to name just a few.

Sinéad Matthews looking at camera with hands crossed
“One of the reasons why I ultimately wanted to be an actor was because of empathy and humanity."

“I wanted to tell stories, understand people and put myself in other peoples’ shoes” shared Sinéad as she spoke of her journey from a 15-year-old girl with a stammer to starring in Hollywood films such as Pride & Prejudice.

Posed with a simple question “Why acting?”, Sinéad laughs: “I still ask that now!” Despite her love for film, musical theatre, singing and dancing, Sinéad never entertained the idea of acting as a career due to her stammer. “It was my ballet teacher at school, this wonderful woman called Ms Allison who one day said to me ‘have you heard of Stratford-upon-Avon College?’”

Describing herself as a bit of a dreamer and “not particularly academic”, she took in Ms Allison’s advice who told her all about the Performing Arts courses that the College offered. “She was the one who put the idea in my head. I then made my way from Coventry to SUAC with a friend on the bus. I had an interview and I got a place! I thought brilliant – this is what I’m going to do now, but I didn’t necessarily think I was good at it. I just wanted to find a place where I fit in because there was a lot of bullying at my school, it was tough, and I think my ballet teacher recognised that. ‘You have to get out and go there!’” she said.

Sinéad reflects: “When I got to Stratford-upon-Avon College it was a whole new world, like-minded people for one, people that were more creative and open to different forms of expression. And even though I was still a little bit shy, it was like being in a different world and Stratford itself had an entirely different feel. I still had a stammer, but I found my voice gradually at SUAC over the two-year course.”

Sinéad as Marcia Williams in The Crown (left), at the London Film Festival (middle), and preparing to play Laura in The Glass Menagerie at The Young Vic (right)

It was a production of Measure for Measure that she credits for instilling her with confidence: “I played a comedic character called Pompey Bum and I based it on Del Boy from Only Fools & Horses because I didn’t have a wide reference point at that age. And I really enjoyed playing this funny character. Plus, it was Shakespeare and I had never done Shakespeare before. I just loved that the audience found me funny, and I wasn’t stammering. It gave me a massive confidence boost.”

As Sinéad describes the atmosphere of SUAC at that time, it doesn’t seem like much has changed since: “Walking through the campus, you would see someone playing the guitar on the grass, others singing or dancing, and it was so positive and upbeat! I felt like I belonged, it felt so free, I was able to explore things and I guess find my voice in that way. There’s this quote “You find your tribe” and through life I do feel like I found my tribe through different parts of the industry and that’s how I felt being 16 from Coventry. I was so lost and all of a sudden, I got to SUAC and there were people from Birmingham, Solihull, Rugby and they were all just lovely and creative and I was inspired by it. It was nice to be around and to feel like finally you fit in somewhere.”

Coming to the end of her time at the College, one of the final things that Sinéad did was monologues and duologues with an invited audience. She comments: “That was another major moment for me. I did a monologue and I remember thinking that I just want to act, I don’t want to do anything else because what I love is putting myself in someone else’s story and saying someone else’s words and having control of that, having the freedom within that to just act. It just all became very clear to me.”

Sinéad in Absolute Hell (left) and Women of Troy (middle) both at the National Theatre

Sinéad decided against going to university and instead applied for a place at Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA): “My boyfriend at College at the time got into RADA and I thought well if he can get in then I can get in! It wasn’t smugness but more so that it wasn’t that far out of my reach anymore.”

It was on her second attempt that she managed to get a place at the prestigious drama school. Facing such a blow on the first attempt ended up being a valuable experience: “What this industry gives us is rejection. Actors experience rejection all the time and it’s not such a big thing. Getting rejected that first year didn’t make me feel deflated – it made me determined to come back the following year. A friend of mine is a hugely successful actress now and it took her 4 years to get into drama school. Sometimes it’s nothing to do with you, it’s to do with the chemistry of the group or the year that the school is putting together, but you can’t let that put you off what you want to do.”

How does one learn to handle rejection? Sinéad answers: “If you don’t already have thick skin, you grow it, you learn to deal with it. There’s a great phrase that epitomises this journey ‘Have the skin of a rhino and the heart of a baby’ because as an actor you have to be so open to all the different emotions but you also need that skin to protect that heart because you don’t want that heart to be like the skin, hard and tough, you want that heart to try and stay as pure and open as you can let it.”

In the latter stages of her final year at RADA, Sinéad secured her first role in the film Vera Drake alongside Imelda Staunton CBE. Holding close the advice given by Imelda Staunton on set “don’t turn down any work because work breeds work”, Sinéad continued to work hard at her craft and explored roles across theatre, TV and film.

In 2019 she played the formidable Baroness Marcia Falkender, formerly known as Marcia Williams, in the hit Netflix series The Crown. She comments: “She was this strong controversial woman and there could be an entire separate series written just about her. After the show was aired, her son got in touch with me to say thank you for presenting her so well because she didn’t get the recognition she deserved when she was alive. I feel very honoured to have been part of giving her that recognition. Vanity Fair and others got in touch to ask me ‘Who was Marcia Williams?’”

Sinéad’s video message about her time at SUAC

Asked what advice she would give to her younger self, she replies: “Have faith in yourself and say yes to any opportunity that comes because they may not come again, so be brave enough to say yes. I felt like I was accepted into RADA because it was an experiment for them to see what they can do with me because of my stammer. But it’s not an experiment, you’re supposed to be there, and you’re enough.”

Lockdown hasn’t suppressed the prolific star who has continued to work throughout, including performing in an audio play with Emma Thompson. “We do have a future, it’s not gone forever, it will come back and I’m sure theatres are using this time to think of how to return and how to give space to the voices we need to hear more of.”

Sinéad concludes: “For someone like me from Coventry with a stammer, I wouldn’t have had those opportunities if it weren’t for Stratford-upon-Avon College and RADA, because I wouldn’t have known how to find my voice. SUAC was the diving board into RADA.”

Everyone at the College looks forward to watching Sinéad’s career continue to flourish and inspire current students as they start their career journeys.

Find out more about the College’s Performing & Production Arts courses: SUAC Onstage courses