Tamzin Outhwaite reveals how COVID-19 turned her life upside down after EastEnders exit
Tamzin Outhwaite quit EastEnders with big plans for 2020 – but COVID-19 shattered those dreams.
"Personally, an awful lot of work was lost [last year]," she tells me. "It's a scary time to be an actor."
While Outhwaite is best known playing Mel Owen in EastEnders, she started out in theatre. And prior to the first lockdown in England, she was due to star in an adaption of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. "We'd done five previews," she sighs, "we were about to open to the press, and then it all went dark".
The star is, of course, talking about the closing of the theatres in the UK due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Tamzin Outhwaite on how life has changed after COVID-19
Fortunately, Outhwaite, 50, has found ways to pivot. During lockdown, she was introduced to Original Theatre – a "made-for-online" company – by fellow EastEnders actor Max Bowden (Ben Mitchell). She then went onto star in the theatre's production of M.R. James' ghost story, The Haunting of Alice Bowles, which premiered on December 17.
But even for someone who has been a long-established name in the UK's entertainment industry, work – especially the kind she desires – has been hard to come by. "Little bits and pieces come up, and you find yourself saying yes to things you normally wouldn't – like the Original Theatre project. Before I wouldn't have understood how it would work. But everyone's finding new ways.
"Although at this moment, you'd pretty much play anything," she laughs, "you'd play a muppet in a costume."
It has clearly been a struggle. Off the cuff, Outhwaite drops in the fact that she's been selling her possessions. "Everyone seems to be finding different ways of earning money. I just ended up selling lots of things.
"I did a few things in lockdown that I'm proud of," Outhwaite continues. "But it wasn't the year of work that wouldn't normally happen. It's frightening. We're not going to hear the chimes of 2021, and it'll all change. It's going to be like this for the foreseeable."
The future of theatre
The star then admits that what she's really concerned about is her first love; the stage. "It's theatre that I'm worried about. Television will always find a way to work. But for the people who only do theatre, it's a bit more complicated."
Still, this unprecedented year has allowed her to try out new roles. Like that of Alice Bowles: "I never get asked to do period stuff. So playing a character in 1918 was very new."
The tale sees the recently widowed Bowles seek to solve a mystery left by her late husband, Francis. And Outhwaite's opinions on the supernatural are interesting.
While she definitely believes in spirits, her experience with the unseen is more based on her intuition. "I've had premonitions, little predictions," she says. "I've noticed and felt strange things that have gone on. But," and she laughs, "I've not had a relationship with a ghost, like Demi Moore, no."
Such a role is different for Outhwaite, and when I ask if she wants to carry on this trajectory, she pauses. "I don't feel typecast age-wise," she says, "but I have always been cast as the ballsy ballbreaker, or a tough woman in a man's world." And although she's keen to emphasise that she "loves" this, she also admits to feeling somewhat like a "blancmange inside".
Resonating with Mel Owen
Outhwaite's EastEnders character was dubbed "feisty" Mel. The Walford icon had a troubled past, especially when it came to her choice in men.
Looking back at her time in Albert Square, the actress admits she liked that Mel was "feisty and strong", praising the character for not turning into a "wimpy character like so many women in soaps."
And while this is certainly part of her own character – "it does resonate", she concedes, "you can't play someone if there isn't some of you there" – it's not all of her. "I also feel like a giggling mess of a person as well sometimes, and I don't play enough of that, and it's much closer to me. In my ordinary life, I do a lot more laughing than the characters I play."
'Look after yourself'
In a rare personal statement shared on Twitter back in November, Outhwaite posted a cryptic tweet about her experience of bullying, and revealed that she suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result. She wrote: "I was bullied at school so badly that my parents took me out of the school & moved me to another. As an adult, I was bullied into making a huge, tragic decision leaving me with PTSD that I will never forget. From experience, I can sniff a bully out from miles away [sic]."
When I ask her to clarify what the tweet was referring to, she tells me that the incident mentioned was not work-related and that she had experienced the bullying in her personal life. Although she doesn't go into too much detail, she says the trauma has impacted the way she raises her two daughters, whom she shares with her ex-husband, Tom Ellis.
"What it does," she says, "is make you very aware of it. So when you see your children possibly being unhappy or experiencing it, you're more open and receptive to it."
Outhwaite, understandably, prefers to look towards the future – a choice that has informed how she's tackled 2020, and means to take on the year ahead.
"I turned 50 in November, and I think that 2021 is going to be the year of self-care for me," she says of the new year. When I ask what that entails, she cites yoga ("every day"), nature, and friends – who are a "massive tonic" for her.
"If you're not working, it doesn't mean you can't work on yourself, is my motto," she concludes. "If it's all you can do, look after yourself, and do it well."