Actress Tamsin Greig is best known for her television work, particularly for her role as Fran in Black Books, but in the film Tamara Drewe she plays Beth, the beleaguered wife of a crime writer who becomes obsessed with Gemma Arterton’s character, Tamara. Greig was recently in London with Arterton, their co-star Dominic Cooper and director Stephen Frears, and she spoke about terrible hair, working with Frears and being surrounded by celebrities.
Please note, this contains spoilers for Tamara Drewe.
How different is it for the cast to have the graphic novel as a resource, even if – as with your character, for instance – the character looks nothing like you?
Bless your heart. People did actually think that was my hair, and I thought that was brilliant.
And they thought it was your bum as well.
That wasn’t my bum, is basically what she’s saying. I was really delighted to have that as source material, because as an actor you’re always looking for the shape of the character and you know the shape was there. Even though I don’t see myself in that shape, maybe I should. So it was really good to be able to go to various drawings.
Even like the turn of a shoulder, Posy is so delicate and subtle in the way that she portrays characters that it’s a real clue of how to play a scene, just by the curve of the shoulder, or a bit of hair. Beth very rarely shows both eyes, there’s a lot of hair going on. So it was really interesting to see what tale she was telling by what she was covering up.
You have a fine body of work on TV but few films. Is that something you steered clear of in the past?
Yes, I’ve deliberately said, “I don’t want a film career, don’t put me up for any films, if you do I’ll laugh in your face.” I have actually done other films which have not yet been released, or my part in it was so small and I was so unrecognisable that in years to come you’ll laugh and go, “Ha, ha, ha, there she was.” I think I was a middle-aged woman waiting to happen, and Stephen Frears saw that, and had the vision to put me under that hair. And I’m absolutely thrilled.
Was it daunting?
You say to any actor – he won’t let me say this but I’m going to say it – you say to any actor, “Do you want to do a film with Stephen Frears?”, there is no actor that will say no. They won’t say it because of the body of work that he has, and the fact that every project is a new investigation into a different world. It didn’t matter what it was going to be, when my agent said “Do you want to meet Stephen Frears?” I didn’t go “Mmmm,” you just say yes and trust, because the body of work speaks for itself. So that’s what I went for, and then saw the pictures of Beth and thought, oh, that’s what he wants me to do, and then thought I would trust him, that I could do that.
What was it like playing someone so put upon and sidelined as Beth? Were you frustrated for her?
I think that it’s a fantastic story because it’s an ensemble, it’s about a world. And Tamara Drewe I think is the catalyst that causes all of the tragedy. So I think it’s a really interesting investigation into that sort of world that Gem was talking about, about what it is to recreate yourself. And just to seek to be fulfilled, Beth is seeking to be fulfilled through the repression of herself, and you know this kind of obsessive creativity of behalf of other people which I think is just a cover. So I didn’t find it frustrating at all, I found it really, really fascinating.
The clues are there in the film, about why Tamara behaves the way she does. Very throwaway stuff, Beth is the only one who says “Poor girl, her father left when she was so young.” Nobody else sees that, they only see this really driven woman who can create and recreate herself, and Beth’s the only one who sees beyond that. And yet Tamara is the one who sets off everything where the truth comes out. The truth comes out when she comes home, and if she hasn’t come home then all of that wouldn’t have fallen apart. I think it’s really exciting to be around that sort of catalyst.
How receptive were the locals to having a film crew on their doorstep?
It was a real joy to be there, there was a sort of lovely curiosity about it. And it was beautiful to be in that world.
What are your feelings on the demise of Nicholas?
It’s a fantastically brutal death, it’s really, really shocking. And the fact that you can make something so brutal so funny. Bill Camp running away, the guy who plays the American, running away from the cows like in a cartoon. When we saw it in Cannes the audience were just beside themselves with joy and terror, because it’s beyond belief that you can get away with that in a film. It’s absolutely ridiculous. “And then the cows trample Nicholas...” and then he films it.
You know, it shouldn’t happen, and yet if you hear the score in it – and I think the music is just wonderful in it – if you really just listen to that bit of the film with her coming down the hill and finding the body and then realising that he’s dead with the two women standing there, the music underscoring it, with this orchestral depth, all deep strings, it’s so tragic. It’s so moving, and yet hilarious. I think it’s an impossible combination, and yet it sort of works.
Had you seen Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in the film of Far From The Madding Crowd?
I just think that’s brilliant, people say it’s Far From The Madding Crowd, but Posy Simmonds takes that incredible scene where Bathsheba’s body is carved out with the movements of his sword and he does it with the drumsticks. It’s such a brilliant idea, it’s such a modern interpretation of that seduction. So phallic and really funny as well. Really clever.
Would Debbie Aldridge [the character Tamsin voices in The Archers] have condemned someone to death in such a spectacular way as Nicholas, in The Archers?
Stephen did say, a couple of times on set, that the only reason I was there was because I knew about farming. He was promised that I knew something about the countryside because I’ve gone like that [motions with her arm], up a sheep on the radio.
How is it for you when you go home, given the career you now have?
To Kilburn? I can’t move for celebrities, it’s a right pain in the arse. I’m just not special there. I’m in a different world really, I just get up and shout a bit, and buy things, meet people and wash up. I do a lot of folding. And then I go to bed.
And how was Cannes?
We went down for the day, and then back to Kilburn. I think people are sort of amazed that this sort of film has been made, because you can’t say what it is. No one can label it, and we so long to label things. Stephen has said all the time he just wants people to go to the cinema and enjoy themselves, and I think you do really enjoy yourself when you’re watching it, however awful and funny it is. So that’s the feedback that I’ve had.