Two years ago, having been through a painful divorce, TAMZIN OUTHWAITE put her acting career on hold to spend time with her daughters. Now she’s back and returning to the show that made her name, EastEnders
Tamzin Outhwaite has just returned from a health retreat in Portugal with three of her best friends: the actresses Amanda Holden, Angela Griffin and Nicola Stephenson. After a small blip in her new regime (‘a day of drinking champagne at my brother’s wedding’) she is back in the zone, juicing every day and making batches of fresh soups. Today’s lunch, which she has brought with her in a Tupperware container, is butternut squash.
The healthy regime seems to be working. At 47, Tamzin has just been snapped up to model the autumn/winter 2017 collection for fashion brand JD Williams and announced that she is returning to EastEnders. The actress, who became an instant It-girl when she burst on to our TV screens as the tough, troubled Mel Owen in 1998 – winning herself modelling contracts (for Avon and Debenhams) as well as a National Television Award and three trophies for soaps’ sexiest female – is proud to be in her prime.
‘For me, it’s more about being healthy than anything else. It’s what is on the inside that counts. I have two young girls, I want to set a good example. I don’t want to be moaning about getting older or being overweight. I just want to focus on being happy and healthy.
‘Right now I’m in a good phase. I had months in a bad phase after I broke a bone in my foot in April and did a lot of sitting around. Friends and family would come over and either bring food or cook for me, and I could feel myself getting wider and wider in my big comfy armchair.
‘Four months in, I thought, “I can’t carry on like this.” I called Jason Vale (aka the Juice Master) and asked if he had any space at any of his retreats. He said, “If you get on a plane to Portugal now, you can have my room.” Tom [Ellis, her ex-husband and father of their two daughters, Florence, nine, and five-year-old Marnie] was in town and had the girls, so I went straight to Heathrow and got a standby flight. I felt so great after that trip that I went back again with Amanda, Nicola and Angela. I’m taking back control!’
Tamzin’s early success in TV shows from EastEnders to Red Cap and Hustle (as well as the Hollywood movie 7 Seconds) fulfilled every dream she had as a young dance and drama student going to weekend classes run by the Sylvia Young Theatre School near her home in East London, and later at the London Studio Centre, where she spent three years. Her first big break came when she was spotted by the playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who then directed her in Absent Friends at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in 1997.
By her early 30s she had everything but the perfect relationship. Her engagement to the Glaswegian TV producer Marty Benson ended in 2000 because work commitments kept them apart, and subsequent relationships – including a two-year romance with DJ Steve Ellington and a year-long relationship with snowboarder Jamie Baker – earned her the tabloid tag ‘unlucky in love’. It was a label she never believed in (‘I’ve had a lot of very good relationships with some great guys’). Then in 2005 she met heartthrob Tom, who played Miranda’s eternal infatuation Gary in the award-winning BBC sitcom.
The couple were introduced by the actor James McAvoy when he worked with Tamzin on Breathing Corpses at The Royal Court, a role that cemented her move from soap-star (she quit EastEnders in 2002) to respected theatre actress. Within three years she and Tom were married and doting parents, with the birth of their first daughter in 2008. The pair were a golden couple: they had their second child Marnie in 2012; a wide circle of celebrity friends (from McAvoy to All Saints stars Nicole and Natalie Appleton), and were both flooded with offers of work.
But in 2013, their seven-year relationship ended with Tom leaving to pursue a career in Hollywood and admitting he had cheated on her. Neither have discussed the reasons behind their split in detail because, as Tamzin says, ‘We have two children and they come first in every way.’
Tamzin has admitted the split ‘devastated’ her. But now she is more concerned with moving on. She tells me a story about doing an art project with Marnie and how, when the drawing went wrong, ‘I made her realise we could change it to make it work. We didn’t have to screw it up and throw it away.’ This, she says, is her greatest life lesson and one she clearly wants her daughters to understand. It is also something her Italian mother, Anna, taught her – albeit subliminally.
As the eldest child, Tamzin was extremely close to her two younger brothers, Kes, 43, a physiotherapist, and businessman Jake, 36. ‘There were very few rules in our house growing up,’ she recalls. ‘My mum was the worst time-keeper and she never worried about the house being spotless, so it was always the place where all my mates wanted to hang out. ‘Things aren’t perfect in life,’ she continues. ‘You can get so hung up on everything being just as you want it to be, but you have to be able to let go of that. You work with what you’ve got and make it OK. Chasing perfection can make you go mad.’ She pauses. ‘I think when big things happen, women look at what is important and try to pull the strength from inside themselves. That’s definitely what I have done.’
Tamzin is now a single mum for ten months of the year, as Tom lives in Los Angeles and Canada, where he has played the lead in two successful TV shows, Rush and Lucifer. They have settled into a good working relationship and Tamzin recently took their daughters to Vancouver to see Tom while he was filming. But she is less interested in discussing the politics of dealing with an ex-husband than the actuality of being a working mother.
Immediately after their split, Tamzin threw herself into work, taking over from Amanda Redman in the hugely popular BBC detective series New Tricks. ‘That really worked for me,’ she says. ‘It’s a great show, filming was in London, which meant I was near home, and it was two years where I was working for seven months and could then have several months off just being with the girls.’
She made sure she was surrounded by her army of female buddies, as well as a long-term nanny, whom she shares with a friend close to her North London home. ‘I think women can’t survive without their female friends. I’m really close to Julie Graham [who stars in the BBC series Shetland]. Then there’s Kate Thornton, Nicole and Natalie, and Angela and Nicola, who I’ve known for years, and now Amanda, who I got to know, along with Tracy-Ann Oberman, when the four of us were in Stepping Out at the beginning of the year.
‘I damaged my foot after just a few weeks so I couldn’t do the show’s full run, but we stayed friends. I love Amanda to bits because she’s hilariously funny and a real can-do girl. All of us have daughters, so we get together en masse with our girls, which is fantastic.’
In 2015, however, Tamzin made the decision to give up work completely for nine months in order to restructure her family life. ‘For an actor, saying no is a very big deal,’ she says. ‘We work in a business where you feel you always have to say yes because you never know when you will work again. But I found myself questioning that paranoia, which I’d grown up with ever since I started working in the theatre in my late teens.
As a mother it’s all about, “Am I getting this right?”, “What is best for my kids?” and I felt I needed to be with my girls more. ‘Filming New Tricks was great but there were days when I would leave the house at 6am and not get home until 8pm or 9pm and it didn’t feel right. My mum [who divorced Tamzin’s taxi-driver dad Colin in 2003] had moved to Spain. I felt my girls needed me around. There were things I wanted to do and I wanted to reset the way I worked; to go back when I was ready but with a different view. I drew up a bucket list and made myself change the way I’d been living.’
Tamzin’s bucket list is a portrait of a life more ordinary. ‘I wanted to do every school drop off and pick up,’ she says. ‘I wanted to go on school trips with the kids, to be the one cooking when their friends came round to tea. To sort out their rooms, paint furniture, to do all those jobs I had never got round to.’ Surely there must have been something more adventurous on that list? She laughs: ‘A trip to Spain to see my mum, hot yoga, hot pilates and tickets to the theatre, which I never manage to get to when I’m working.’
Now Tamzin’s foot injury and wanting to spend as much time as possible with her daughters has made her rethink her stage career. ‘When I was asked to go back to EastEnders, I asked my eldest daughter what I should do and she said, “Can you get home every night?” I replied that I could, so she said, “Well, do it.” That clinched it.
‘To be stepping back into Mel’s shoes nearly 20 years after I first started feels perfect. I’m very happy to be back. It has brought back many happy memories. Many of the original team are still here so it’s good to be among friends.’
As a model for JD Williams’s new collection, created with women aged 45 and above in mind, Tamzin is bang-on message to represent a group who want to look and feel good but whose aim is to be comfortable and classic rather than following any celebrity trend. ‘I’m a working mum. I want to look good but embrace the age
I am and make the most of it,’ she says. She will never, she insists, go down the surgery route. Not even Botox. ‘I want to look like myself and who I am at this age,’ she says. ‘I’m an actress and I have to be able to move my face and express emotions. And you can’t do that if you have Botox or your face is too stretched. My favourite director Anna Mackmin [who directed Tamzin in the play Di and Viv and Rose in 2013] rejects any actress who has had Botox. She said to me, “If you have anything done I will never work with you again.”
‘I don’t feel as an actress that time is passing me by; I’ve always preferred playing “real” roles to glamorous parts. There are more female directors and writers out there writing great parts for older women now, which is brilliant. The one thing we need to sort out is the pay gap between men and women, which has frankly completely shocked me. I think we all knew about it but it was never out in the open. Now it is and we can see it, it’s time to make a change.’
She is currently ‘happily single. I’ve been out on a few dates, but I’m not desperate to be in a relationship. I like my life. I like my work. Since taking time out, I work much more around my girls and that feels right. I’m selective about what jobs I take. I wouldn’t go abroad, for instance.’
Given Tamzin’s popularity and the fact that her student days were spent dancing with the likes of choreographer Louie Spence, it seems bizarre she has yet to be seen twirling her way round the Strictly Come Dancing floor. She bursts out laughing. ‘I’ve been asked a fair few times. I get asked quite a bit to do reality shows. But I always say no, because at the end of the day I’m an actress and I think it’s harder for people to take you seriously or to believe in you playing a character if they’ve seen you cavorting on the dancefloor. Plus my foot still isn’t completely healed, so I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to.
‘You can’t have everything in life because you will always get hit by curveballs along the way. But what you do have you can look after, make it really special and be happy.’
Tamzin wears the JD Williams autumn/winter collection, jdwilliams.co.uk