Tamzin Outhwaite is most famous for her role as Melanie Owen in Eastenders, but of course here at Charity Choice we were even bigger fans of her in the stage musical 'Sweet Charity'! Hannah Gannagé-Stewart chatted to her about her showbiz career, and the charities she loves to help.
Sweet Charity was the latest chapter of a career that begun on stage. Where did it all begin?
I was part of an amateur dramatics company when I was about 12 and we used to rehearse for half the year and then perform for a week in professional theatres. I caught that buzz, after which it was quite hard to let it lie.
How would you describe the buzz of performing on a West End stage?
You can have some of your worst moments on stage. It’s a risky feeling because you can die up there. But more often that not, they’re the best and most memorable moments of your career. The exhilaration that comes with performing a solo number and hearing the applause is probably the best feeling in the world. It sounds really egotistical but there’s not much else that gives you that kind of adrenalin.
How does musical theatre differ from straight stage acting?
There is no applause until the end of a play, it’s quite involved and you’re on a journey with the audience throughout it. But you don’t really find out if they’ve come onboard until the very end. It’s quite an astounding feeling when you look out into the audience and realise that they’ve enjoyed it. With musicals, you get that feeling after each number. My first job was a tour of Grease when I was 19 years old.
What made you move into TV work?
I did eight years of musical theatre before Eastenders. You never train to be on telly, you train to be in the theatre so if telly happens it’s great but I wasn’t trying specifically to do that. I was jobbing and my aim was not to spend too much time out of work.
How did it feel to get Eastenders?
It was a three-month contract with a possible three-month extension, so I thought it was just another job. You never know, sometimes people go onto those shows and you wouldn’t know where they are now or remember their characters. I was lucky that they just kept writing brilliantly for me.
You had some pretty hefty storylines – which one was the highlight?
I think it was when Mel married Ian. That was before there were lots of digital channels and I think 21 million people watched it. I remember thinking ‘it doesn’t get much bigger than this’. It was continual really, I didn’t have a lot of time off, they just knew how to write for my character so I was always in someone’s storyline if not my own.
Your husband, Tom Ellis, also appeared in the show. Was that how you met?
No, we were living together by the time Tom was on Eastenders – we may even have been engaged by then. I met him while I was in a play at The Royal Theatre, playing opposite his friend, James McAvoy. Tom came on the opening night to see James’ play. We’ve been together ever since.
Was it difficult taking the role in Sweet Charity while your daughter, Florence, was so young?
It was. Not being in for a single night for over a year is quite a strain on your family. I’d been up in Manchester working on a film called Paradox and I knew I would have a month off between that and Sweet Charity starting. There were not many roles that would have got me back into musical theatre at that time but that was one of them!
What was it about the role of Charity Hope Valentine that you couldn’t turn down?
She’s probably one of the most full-on characters in musical theatre, she only leaves the stage for a couple of minutes through the whole show. She sings loads of numbers and dances the kind of dance I love to do – and then you have all the humour and tragedy. She’s a little firecracker and performing in something like that opposite Mark Umbers, you feel like you’re in a Woody Allen film every night!
Do you recognise yourself in the character of Charity?
Definitely, there are other musicals which I’ve been asked to be in which, although I know the shows are brilliant, I’m not sure I could play the character so well. I must have really connected with this character. It was damn tough but I loved it.
When did you find it toughest?
When Tom was working. He did Merlin and was filming away for a week, during which time our daughter, Florence, got Tonsillitis. For three nights on the trot I had a child with a high fever sitting in casualty – she could barely breath or speak and couldn’t drink because her tonsils had closed up so tight. I had to go and do shows while my mum sat with her. That was the hardest thing – leaving your child while they’re ill doesn’t feel good.
How did you carry on performing at that time?
Let’s just say all the crying scenes were pretty real in those shows. I think there were a few times when I’d be up all night. But, as a mum, your child has to come first. You can’t say ‘I have to sleep because I’ve got two shows tomorrow’.
Do you think that, with two high profile parents, Florence is destined for fame?
I don’t know about ‘fame’ but I know that she is destined to have music and dance in her life. She’s very into old school musicals like Singing in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. At bedtime we have to sing the end of The Sound of Music and I have to pretend I’m her big sister and lift her up so she can wave down the stairs and that’s on a daily basis!
Does the thought of her following in your footsteps ever worry you?
People say ‘what about getting a proper job?’ but Tom and I have made a living out of our work and we love doing it so why would I discourage or dissuade her from doing that? When it works, it’s the most amazing profession. I’ve met amazing people doing this and got nothing but joy from it. There’s heartache sometimes but there would be in any job. I hope she goes for it because I’ve had such fun.
Was it motherhood that inspired you to support the Kids for Kids – Draw for Darfur campaign?
Yes, when you become a mum your child’s needs are at the forefront of your mind all the time. When you hear about other kids whose basic needs aren’t fulfilled – really basic needs like nourishment – it’s quite difficult to believe that in this day and age it still goes on.
If you had the power to fix one injustice in the world then, what would it be?
Poverty for sure. In 2011 there should not be people dying of hunger or malaria because they don’t have enough money. It shouldn’t be happening. People should be able to buy medicine and food wherever they are in the world.
Are there any other charities that are particularly close to your heart?
I’ve been involved with so many charities. I don’t know where to start. My family runs the James Baldwin Trust in memory of my cousin who died from Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when he was 26. We can’t cure cancer but we can help. My brother chairs the charity and I’m a patron. My husband and I also support Great Ormond Street and I’ve always supported Barnardos. Amongst others I support Marie Curie Cancer Care because they looked after my Nan when she was dying.
Is it hard to stay active in so many charities?
Sometimes it gets diluted because you’re involved with so many. You can’t be at everything or you spread yourself too thinly but I think the more the merrier – the more help the better.
Do you think that there’s enough charitable work done for the right reasons?
People get bombarded with charities all the time so sometimes you can think ‘oh not another charity’. But when you separate the people asking you for money from what it’s actually meant for and the situation those people are in, it’s then you want to give.
This interview first appeared in Charity Choice magazine issue 5