Why Tamsin turned to crime: TAMSIN GREIG on her terrifying role in Sexy Beast, why she never cracked Hollywood and the unbearable loss of her friend Paul Ritter

Chatting with Tamsin Greig over an oat milk flat white in a smart London hotel feels incongruous hours after watching her maim another woman in a spittle-flecked, profanity-spewing rage. 

The Kent-born actress, 57, a borderline national treasure, is known for her versatility: a beadily ironic presence in sitcoms such aEpisodes, Black Books and Friday Night Dinner; a much-garlanded classical stage actress for the RSC and the first female Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the National; and the woman who’s played Debbie Aldridge in The Archers, on and off, since 1991. 

But her role in the new Paramount+ gangster series Sexy Beast feels like a departure. Michael Caleo’s series unpacks the 1990s backstory of cockney thieves Gal and Don, originally played by Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley in Jonathan Glazer’s 2000 film. 

In the reboot, Greig plays Cecilia, a hard-smoking, nuclear blonde amusement-arcade proprietor with dreams of a gambling empire, who ruthlessly controls the criminal career of her psychotic but vulnerable younger brother Don (Emun Elliott).

‘I have never, ever been as vicious to another human being,’ she says of forcing Don to smash a woman’s hand with a hammer. Cecilia is terrifying. She could stare down and out-swear Tony Soprano or Tommy Shelby and she twists easygoing Gal (James McArdle) round her little finger. ‘She’s hard and uncompromising because she’s trying to keep all the elements [of her budding empire] in place. Without any backup. We don’t often see women wielding that amount of power and self-confidence.’

The hammer scene gave her blinding headaches (all that screaming takes a toll).

In a later episode where she attacks Elliott’s Don, ‘Every time they said “cut” I put my arms round him and said, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” And I think he was a bit like, “Get the f**k off me. We’re all right.”

But he allowed me to hug him because I found it so distressing.’

Someone told me, be careful — Los Angeles is death by encouragement  

She has suffered for jobs before, needing an osteopath thanks to the corsets in Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia (2020), while two severe chest infections in her first musical, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2015) left her coughing so badly that back spasms forced her on to crutches.

Previously, the most emotionally troubling role for Greig – who has three now adult children with her husband, actor-turned-writer Richard Leaf – was as infanticidal Mrs Wickens in the 2021 remake of The Amazing Mr Blunden.

‘I had to grab children and spit in their faces,’ she says. ‘I didn’t like that. But I did it.’ It’s a living, I say. ‘For the art. I don’t do it for the money,’ she sharply corrects me. ‘Don’t put in that I hit children for money.’ 

In Sexy Beast with co-star Emun Elliott

In Sexy Beast with co-star Emun Elliott

She used to ‘jump out of aeroplanes as a teenager’ but now, as she’s become ‘less springy’ with age, she channels this urge to ‘lean into the abyss’ into her work. ‘I’m selective about what I do now because

I don’t want to go to work unchallenged,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to become safe.’

She is one of three daughters from the third marriage of her father, who was 27 years older than her mother and already 60 when Greig was born. 

Having had an international career as a chemist, he suddenly became a stay-at-home dad, albeit with a weekend job as a William Hill bookie. ‘He did the taking us to school and the shopping and the washing, sometimes quite badly. But it wasn’t an issue.’

To supplement her mother’s secretarial income, they took in up to five lodgers at a time in their Northwest London house. ‘Mostly overseas students. We didn’t have friends who came home after school because the situation was so odd. 

But that was our normal. And it was very safe. We knew that we were loved. There was no money so we all got jobs very early on.

That gave us a real sense of the worth of things.’ She remains close to her sisters, a deputy head in North London and a teacher of maths and meteorology – ‘I suppose, in a different way, performers.’

Having excelled at drama at Camden School for Girls, she failed to get into drama school, and instead studied acting at Birmingham University. She took a secretarial course, worked at the Family Planning Association and, even after getting the Archers part, had to take temp jobs for a further five years. 

Then, around the time her father died in 1997, she met Leaf at a wrap party for Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

Her first big screen break came alongside Dylan Moran and Bill Bailey in the sitcom Black Books in 2000, followed by the surreally brilliant hospital show Green Wing in 2004. But the fact that her fame has long eclipsed her husband’s isn’t an issue. 

When we started having children, we realised that he wasn’t as interested in acting as he was in writing and thought that he would lay that down in order to write but also to be around with the children.’

From 2011 to 2017, Episodes saw her cast with Stephen Mangan as married British sitcom writers repurposing a homegrown hit for Friends star Matt LeBlanc in Los Angeles. Surely that should have led to a bigger career in the US?

‘I mean, I went for meetings, all that sort of thing,’ she says, ‘but someone at home told me, “Be careful, LA is death by encouragement.”

It was very difficult not to burst out laughing when Americans in the industry said, “Oh my god, you’re going to change the landscape of comedy, we’re really excited.” Also, I wasn’t brave enough to take my kids to a different country. And if I’d gone to America, I wouldn’t have got Friday Night Dinner.’

That show saw her play the matriarch of a Jewish family and Greig recently reflected that, even though she has Ashkenazi heritage, it was possibly culturally inappropriate for her to take the role. 

This was partly inspired by her children, ‘who come home with sometimes quite provocative stances, and that demands a compassionate response, rather than just belligerently saying, “It was fine in my day’’.’

She describes the death of her co-star Paul Ritter in 2021 as ‘unbearable’. During lockdown, when Ritter had already been diagnosed with the brain tumour that killed him, Greig’s husband adapted a novel called Meet Me at the Museum

She and Ritter recorded it for Radio 4 while he was still well enough to work. In his last two weeks, when illness meant he could no longer speak, Ritter’s family could still hear his voice coming through the radio. The last episode was broadcast on Good Friday – Ritter died on Easter Monday.

Greig’s next job is in The Deep Blue Sea on stage in Bath, then ‘whatever turns up’, as long as it’s challenging. Does she covet a part in a big fantasy franchise or a superhero movie? The latter would mean thrills galore – she could jump out of a plane again. ‘Ah,’ she smiles, ‘but I’ve already done that.’

Sexy Beast is now streaming on Paramount+

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