It has all been a bit hectic of late for actress Tamzin Outhwaite. Television commitments have been flying thick and fast, and she was all set to take a six-month break after filming the second series of Hotel Babylon, but that ended up being just four weeks after she was given an offer she just couldn’t refuse. She talks to Caroline Bishop about her role in the revival of 60s farce Boeing-Boeing, and why she is delighted to be back on stage, where it all began…
Tamzin Outhwaite is the first to agree that her face is most readily associated with her extensive television work, from her days as barmaid Melanie in EastEnders, through Sergeant Jo in Red Cap, to hotel manager Rebecca in fluffy drama Hotel Babylon. Her face is less familiar on the stage, even though theatre is where she started and where she returns every couple of years, because “I always feel better when I’m peppering it with a bit of theatre.”
Now the 36-year-old is showing her face on stage in the most high profile of ways, as she finds herself on the billing at the Comedy theatre alongside some of “the finest actors in theatre”, namely Roger Allam, Mark Rylance and Frances de la Tour, in Boeing-Boeing, a 1960s farce given a slick makeover by director Matthew Warchus. Understandably, it was not an opportunity Outhwaite, who was intending to take a break after a hectic television schedule, was going to turn down. “This came up and I couldn’t say no to it, because I thought no one in the future is ever going to offer me the chance to work with all of those people in one cast again.”
“It’s obviously quite daunting,” she says, settling on to the bright red sofa in the foyer of Sadler’s Wells, where she is rehearsing the show, “but it’s also very exciting because you know you’re going to learn the most just by watching and acting with [them]. You’re only as good as the people you work with.”
In which case, she is going to be very good indeed. Outhwaite plays Gloria, one of three air hostesses who are all engaged to the same man, a playboy architect in Paris called Bernard (Allam). While Bernard pats himself on the back for organising his love life so he can see all three women without the others knowing, Boeing is about to throw a spanner in the works by releasing a new super-speed aircraft which mixes up the timetables and causes all manner of problems for the three-timer. It all sounds like good old-fashioned, chauvinistic fun. Outhwaite says she doesn’t feel any of the women are victims. “I think love wins out in the end, and you never really feel sorry for my character.” Gloria is American and a “strong, tough cookie” with a high sex drive. “She relies on sex as a form of stimulant really…and food. So she loves her food and she loves her sex. Straight after sex, more food; once she’s full, more sex.”
"You’re only as good as the people you work with"
Her fellow air hostesses are played by two actresses also best known for their television credits – Daisy Beaumont, recently in celebrity spoof Star Stories, and Michelle Gomez, of Green Wing fame. It is a big cast, and very much a team effort, says Outhwaite, whose one fear is “you just don’t want to be the weak link, I suppose. You’re all part of the machine, and you don’t want to let anyone down.”
But nerves, she says, are a good thing, and besides, there are plenty of reasons why she wanted to take up the challenge of this show. Working with Warchus and the cast was one; the fact it is a comedy was another – Outhwaite’s recent TV roles have included a terminally ill woman, a frustrated supermarket worker and a mother of a young offender. “It’s not tragic, and that’s a big pull at the moment, because I think I’ve done my fair share of tragedy.” A further reason was the chance to go back to her theatrical roots.
“I’ve always had a passion for theatre,” she says. “The journey of a character – I don’t just mean through a rehearsal process, I mean throughout an evening in the theatre – you don’t get that anywhere else. As much as I love doing TV, it’s not every day that you come home and go, gosh I was in a performance today and it was a real journey and I enjoyed it, or I really didn’t enjoy it but it affected me. Unless you’re doing issues-led drama in TV, like Out Of Control [an award-winning improvised TV film she did in 2002], it’s very difficult to come home as an actor feeling really satisfied that I either moved somebody or did something or made someone think about something. Whereas in theatre you feel like you do every night, because of the live experience. Whether it’s a laugh or a gasp, you’re affecting someone instantly.”
Outhwaite’s passion for theatre started in her youth, sparked by a love of musicals. After training at the London Studio Centre from the age of 16, her pre-EastEnders career as a jobbing actress included several musical roles, notably in the original cast of the 1994 revival of Oliver! Even now, musicals give her “tingles” and she’d love to be in another one at some point. “I love the rehearsal process of big musicals, because I just thrive on a great big musical number. I enjoy a big old belt, and dancing more than anything.”
Her early ambition was to be in Cats, which she was at one point offered, and turned it down for another job. Another long-held aim was to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret. She says she was recently offered the chance to take over the role in the current West End production, and it shows the strength of her feeling about Boeing-Boeing that she turned Cabaret down: “This happened at the same time, and I just thought, I think I’ve got to go with this. So it feels that my two ambitions came and I let them go… it’s almost like I went past those things and they were always a big ambition of mine and then when it happened it was like actually, I feel like I’ve moved on from that now.”
"I just thrive on a great big musical number. I enjoy a big old belt"
Outhwaite was very happy with her life as a jobbing actress “doing mainly theatre and quite enjoying it really”, before EastEnders called. Like any actor on the famous soap, her face became synonymous with that of her character, Melanie Healy, whom she played from 1998-2002. Unlike other actors on the programme however, she managed to leave her character very firmly behind when she left, and it wasn’t long before she was starring in the military drama Red Cap. Why did Outhwaite manage, where others have failed, to extract herself from her character? “I think at the time good scripts were coming up and people were putting a lot of trust and faith in me and I was desperate to grab everything with both hands,” she answers. “But at the same time I think if you’ve had any form of training in your profession before then you know that something like EastEnders is just another job. I’d have been quite happy to go back and do bits of theatre.”
A string of small screen hits followed, including harrowing drama Walk Away And I Stumble, the series Vital Signs, Out Of Control and some light relief in the shape of Hotel Babylon. In between she has kept her theatrical toes wet with appearances at the Royal Court (Flesh Wound in 2003 and Breathing Corpses in 2005), and further back, worked at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph theatre with Alan Ayckbourn. “I’m all for that crossover happening,” she says, referring to the television/theatre career combination. “I love it when I see one of my favourite theatre actors in a TV thing because it makes me want to watch it most of the time. And the other way, to try and get people to come in [to the theatre].”
As a popular face off the telly, Outhwaite could be held up as a poster girl for crossover. She’s single-handedly enticed many non-theatregoers to the stalls lately. “When we were in the Royal Court,” she offers, “a big group of my friends came to see the play that possibly had never been to see a straight play. To get them to come and see something like that was a real plus. To get Liam Gallagher in the Royal Court theatre was a big deal. They really loved it.”
Her ambassadorial status is strengthened by the fact that her background is distinctly non-theatrical. Coming from a non-acting family “who are part of the population that would never go to the theatre normally”, Outhwaite often finds herself on stage in front of an audience of friends and family who, though supportive, “don’t really get it or don’t understand why I might be doing it”. She continues: “No one in my family understands why I’d want to do something like this [Boeing-Boeing], obviously not for the money. If it wasn’t for me they wouldn’t go to the theatre. My dad’s a taxi driver basically, my mum’s a little bit more educated on the scene but my dad and my brothers, they don’t know who Mark Rylance is, or Roger Allam. They’re big TV watchers. It’s an innocent ignorance, if you know what I mean.”
They will come and see her in Boeing-Boeing though, and maybe others who know her from the telly may also give the show a go, and become as hooked on theatre as she is. “Every time I go to the theatre I think, I have to go to the theatre more often,” she smiles.
"To get Liam Gallagher in the Royal Court theatre was a big deal"
One person who does understand her love of the stage is her husband of seven months, the former EastEnders’ actor Tom Ellis. She beams at the mention of her recent marriage. Has it changed her approach to her work at all? “Just that I’ve got someone at home that will always run lines with me, which is fantastic,” she says jokingly. “What’s really nice is, when you find someone really amazing and solidify your relationship by marriage it’s a very empowering feeling. So I feel somewhat stronger and more confident generally.”
Her new-found confidence will come in handy as she takes her place as part of this stellar cast in the West End. “There’s something about doing live theatre that can bring out the best in you,” she says, “so I just hope that I allow that.”
Boeing-Boeing is now previewing and opens on 15 February.