There’s a recognised career path when it comes to those who find fame on soaps: you do the graft, win the awards, fly the nest and never look back. Think of Sarah Lancashire, Suranne Jones and – up until very recently – Tamzin Outhwaite. The latter left EastEnders behind in 2002 for starring roles in Red Cap, Hotel Babylon and New Tricks. And yet here she is, returning to Albert Square as Mel Owen after 15 years away. Does she feel her career is going backwards?
“In my head, that climb up the career ladder just doesn’t exist. I feel I’ve achieved everything I set out to achieve, as far as work goes. I really do feel that I’ve been extremely lucky and have almost been chancing it a bit, you know? So the rest is now a bonus. I’m living on bonus coupons at the moment. And it’s a massive thing for me that I get to go home to my children every night. I have to work in London.”
As I soon discover, a lot of Outhwaite’s answers arrive through the prism of being a mother to Florence (nine) and Marnie (five), her daughters with her former husband, actor Tom Ellis. Not for her the actorly soundbites of having to “find the truth in a role” – more a recognition that Soapland offers stable employment. “It’s very nice to have that job security and to know you’re able to pay the nanny while you’re working. It’s also important that my girls see me as a woman who goes out to work. But I don’t want it to take over so that I never see them.”
Not that she’s knocking EastEnders. On the contrary – the fact that John Yorke (he of the fondly remembered “Who Shot Phil?” and “You ain’t my mother!” storylines) is back in charge played a big part in her decision to return. “He refers to our original time on the show as ‘golden’. We have very similar ideas about what makes EastEnders tick: for a start, it has to feature those strong female characters who tend to run the East End of London. I trust his judgement. And he was also very persuasive – when someone’s actually asking you to come back and telling you that it’ll be a good thing for both you and the show, well, that’s difficult to resist.”
If she could have her time over, though, would she have liked a shot at Hollywood? After all, there was a brief dalliance in a 2005 direct-to-DVD US thriller called 7 Seconds (in which she co-starred with Wesley Snipes). Might she have been wise to seek more opportunities in the US?
“I just didn’t really pursue it,” she says with a shrug. “I got an agent and a manager over there, who wanted me to go to LA and just sit it out. But I never went because there was always work here. At that time, British drama was leading the way, so I didn’t understand why I should go to the US. And by the time the work over here was not as plentiful, America had become the last place I wanted to be.”
Because it would be a more brutal environment? “I just think that we, as a nation, are better with age, don’t you think? I wouldn’t want to be there at my age.”
Now 47, Outhwaite readily admits that having children has altered her outlook towards the business, but also that the profession’s attitude towards her has changed. “Once you get into your 40s, you’re no longer leading-lady age. Generally, those roles get offered to women in their 20s and 30s. But as far as I’m concerned, my children are my priority, especially with them being the ages they are.”
During 2015, she even took a nine-month break from acting to concentrate on motherhood, despite knowing that she might slip off the radar of casting directors. “At the time, I thought it was a risk because, as an actor, you’re never meant to say no. You think, ‘If I leave all that for a while, then I won’t be able to get back in.’ But it’s nonsense. And I will never, ever regret turning stuff down so I could be at home with my children. They need you, you know? What happens in those formative years shapes the rest of their lives.”
Photographed exclusively for Radio Times by Nicky Johnston
I wonder whether that desire to put kids over career stems from the break-up of her marriage? Ellis was the love interest for Miranda Hart in her hit sitcom, and now stars in Lucifer in the US on the Fox network. They divorced in April 2014 after he confessed to adultery. Following the break-up, Outhwaite said that she’d have “given anything” to keep her family together, but it wasn’t to be. Three years on, what’s her outlook?
“Let’s just say that I’m extremely proud of myself and my girls because we have an extra-special bond. We’re now in a pretty amazing place, which is something I wouldn’t have been able to say three years ago. It’s a very uplifting, fun house. We dance all the time and we’re very loved up. Every single day, we say to each other, ‘Be the best version of yourself that you can possibly be’. It’s become almost like a mantra.
“So I have a definite feeling of contentment – the work is steady and the children know I’m not having to go away for, say, two weeks to do a job. A stable and happy mum leads to stable and happy kids. It all has a knock-on effect.
“It’s also a very female-led world, although my kids do still have role models in their life who are men. My brothers and my dad are very present, so it’s not like we have a sad hole in our lives.”
All of which suggests that there isn’t a new partner on the horizon? “Ah, you can ask, but you’re not getting an answer,” she laughs. It’s the one time she refuses to respond to a question. “I’ve made the decision to never talk about my personal life again. It took me a long time to learn that lesson, but I did in the end.”
Tamzin Outhwaite and Tom Ellis (Getty)
Outhwaite might just have to get used to people prying into her personal life again, seeing as soap brings with it an instant kind of stardom, as she well knows. During her first stint on EastEnders, she won sexiest female at the British Soap Awards three years running, scooped most popular newcomer at the National Television Awards, and a Millennium Eve episode in which Mel ditched Ian on their wedding day was watched by an astonishing 20.89 million viewers and even shown on big screens to revellers in Trafalgar Square. Is she braced for that kind of fame again?
“I remember John Yorke saying to me when I started that I’d know I’d made it when someone papped me at a cashpoint. I didn’t believe him, but very soon after, I ran down to Borehamwood High Street [EastEnders is filmed in Hertfordshire] to get some money out and the next day it appeared in the paper. He showed it to me and said, ‘See – told you!’
“But I don’t think it’s the same now as it was then. It’s completely different – reality TV has taken over where that kind of press interest is concerned. It doesn’t happen to the same degree. “When the Millennium Eve episode was shown, I went trekking in Madagascar to get away from the attention because it was crazy. I’ve met people who were watching it in Trafalgar Square and they said that they could have heard a pin drop. At that time, it was a massive deal. But now, with all the channels we have, not that many people watch anything, do they? I think I can cope with it.”
Interest in Mel’s reappearance is bound to be high, though, especially in light of the impact she made when she first lived in Walford. From 1998 to 2002, the character went from bright-eyed vicar’s sister (Matthew Robinson, then executive producer, said she was “dreamt up to supplement the ‘totty’ contingent – running thin at the time”) to fugitive, ultimately fleeing to Portugal with £30,000 of Phil Mitchell’s money while pregnant with Steve Owen’s baby. So what kind of person is Mel when we meet her again?
“She’s more damaged than when she left, mainly because of the experiences she’s had. Mel had become quite dark by the end, but I don’t think she would have ended up that way had it not been for Steve Owen. So I don’t think she’s going to be letting any man rule her this time around. She also has a 15-year-old son – who has just been cast – called Hunter.” Hunter? He sounds like one of the Gladiators. “Yes,” she laughs. “Jet and Scorpio will follow on.”
After five weeks back on set, how is Outhwaite readjusting to the treadmill of soap filming? “The turnover really suits me, actually. But it’s much faster now. I’m treating it as a whole new job. And I’m older, so my memory’s not as good. I’m not as up to speed as I could be. But they’re ramping things up slowly.”
Is soap acting still underestimated by the acting profession at large? “If there is a snobbery, then they haven’t been on set to see how a show like EastEnders works. Because I know for a fact that some of my favourite actors are still not capable of doing what these guys do. Sometimes you’re walking about with 16 scripts in your hand and flitting between all of them. It’s relentless and dealing with it is a skill in itself.”
Following career highs, personal lows and with her return as Mel fast approaching, would she say she’s now happy in her life? “I’m so happy. In fact, I’m happier now than I’ve been in a very long time.
“My daughter Flo said it best, really, when I asked her whether I should go back to EastEnders. She said to me, ‘Will you get home every night?’ And when I told her I would, she said, ‘Well, do it!’ Like it was a no-brainer. And it got me thinking, ‘If I’m ever going to do it, it should be now.’ And I’m very pleased I went for it because I’m really enjoying it.”
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