Tamsin Greig: 'I find it hard to watch what I did when I was younger'

The actor looks back at Friday Night Dinner, Sexy Beast and more with Yahoo.

Watch Tamsin Greig share her Origin Story:

Tamsin Greig is a staple of the British television scene, with shows like Friday Night Dinner, Green Wing and Black Books in her back catalogue to name a few.

But even with such a celebrated filmography, the actor admits to Yahoo that she doesn’t like looking back at her past work because she sees “so much of what [she] didn’t achieve” at the time. Instead, Greig prefers to look ahead and, right now, this means her role as Cecilia in Paramount+’s Sexy Beast, a prequel to the 2000 film of the same name.

Cecilia is a very different character to what fans might be expecting of Greig, a ruthless, gritty crime boss who is a queenpin in a sea of men. It proved an interesting challenge for Greig, who sits down with Yahoo to discuss the role and look back at her career to reveal her Origin Story.


LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 24: Tamsin Greig attends a special screening to celebrate the launch of Paramount+ original series
Tamsin Greig reflects on her illustrious career with Yahoo, but admits she doesn't often look back at her past work because she sees 'so much of what [she] didn’t achieve'. (Getty Images)

What first sparked your interest in acting?

I think apart from trampolining it was the only thing that made me feel like it was worth pursuing. Obviously my trampolining career didn't pan out, so I'm glad I had acting to fall back on.

How would you describe your work in theatre, and how does it compare to working on TV and film sets?

I began my my career on stage, which then was also accompanied by work on radio, which I've done throughout all of my career, so the two were kind of speaking to one another about the full physicality of theatre. But then the full physicality of just the voice in audio so I love that correspondence between the two parts, I think there's something incredibly exposing about radio because you're painting very particular pictures with a part of your body that's very exposed. I love the fact that the voice is placed in a very exposed area in the body, so if you get it right audio stuff can be intimately thrilling. But I also trained as a dancer when I was younger, so theatre felt like a place where I could be happily embodied, and then moving into screen stuff you then use your body in a very different way, so things are much more contained and stiller, and more specific.

From your wonderful career, everyone loves Friday Night Dinner. What would you say is your favourite memory making it?

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 09: Paul Ritter, Tom Rosenthal, Simon Bird and Tamsin Greig attend the
Tamsin Greig said she knew immediately that she wanted to be part of Friday Night Dinner because of Paul Ritter's casting in the show. (Getty Images)

I mean we did a 10 minute teaser in 2009 to pitch to the channel. I never think things are gonna go, I always just turn up and we'll see what happens so I turned up to do this 10 minute teaser, knowing that I was going to be working with Paul Ritter, who played my husband in it, Martin Goodman, and just feeling that tingly feeling of being in the presence of someone who's really brilliant with their craft. I remember that feeling of when they first said, 'oh, we're casting this and we're trying to get this guy called Paul Ritter' and I was like 'I'm in, I'm in' straight away because I'd seen him onstage.

So having the opportunity to do stuff with him, and then obviously with Mark Heap playing the neighbour, and Tom Rosenthal and Simon Bird, all brilliant performers in their own right, very playful and alive. Robert Popper the writer was always saying 'faster, faster, faster', he just wanted it fast so being involved in that kind of energy was thrilling. You know, it's hard, you're in a house, you can't go anywhere.

FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER, l-r: Tamsin Greig, Paul Ritter, (Season 3, 2014). photo: Mark Johnson/©Channel 4 Television / Courtesy
Tamsin Greig said while working with Paul Ritter she had the 'tingly feeling of being in the presence of someone who's really brilliant with their craft'. (Channel 4)

But what was really interesting is that when the sixth series was aired it was during lockdown and everybody navigated towards that show because the show is stuck in its own house, that house is like a character in the show that contains them. They're drawn in, because it's home they turn into idiot children as soon as they step over the threshold and the house just contains the wildness. But I think people were experiencing that in lockdown, how they could survive being contained in the wildness of this global weirdness.

Are there any roles that you would love to return to if you ever got the chance?

I do find it hard to watch stuff that I did when I was younger because I see so much of what I didn't achieve. But I wonder whether that's what gives it its credibility is that you come with an innocence and a not finished-ness so there's a raw complexity about that. I don't think I would want to return to stuff so much as move forward into [other things]. I love performing Shakespeare and I've had some great opportunities with that, so I think continuing to lean into that, I would return to particular writers and I would return to Shakespeare because there's so much to be learned, and experienced, and revealed about the human condition in that poetry. I never know what's coming and I'm always thrilled about what turns up.

Sexy Beast

Sexy Beast (Paramount+)
In Sexy Beast Tamsin Greig plays Cecilia, a woman at the top of the criminal underworld. (Paramount+)

You can’t beat a classic British Gangster thriller, did you have any favourites growing up?

I went to a girls' school and I think it was very interesting to view and experience the power play that goes on in a single sex school, and to notice who are the most powerful. It was often the smallest people in the class who held the greatest power base, and I found that very, very intriguing. Not so much when I became the the the target of the control, the way that all children experience.

I don't think that I watched gangster TV shows or films when I was young. So I think it was really just looking at how people handle power and the desire to hold on to their control, which I found at times intriguing but also quite repellent.

Cecilia is a no-nonsense businesswoman, it’s quite a different role to what fans may be used to seeing you in. How did you want to approach it?

Sexy Beast (Paramount+)
While preparing for the role, Tamsin Greig found it interesting how female criminals have 'been criminally overlooked because the stories of male gangland kingpins are so dominant'. (Paramount+)

Cecilia Logan is a very exotic bird in her own world, she doesn't have other female compatriots, she doesn't have friends. Her most intimate connection is with her younger brother Don but it's a complicated relationship because she's his older sister, but also a mother figure. So it's very complex, so I don't think there are many women out there that I could draw on experientially.

I read a really fabulous book called Queens of the Underworld by Caitlin Davis, who looks at, historically, the women who at the top of their pyramid criminally, and bizarrely have been criminally overlooked because the stories of male gangland kingpins are so dominant, and the stories of the women are all seen as being sidekicks or add-ons, or gangsters moles, but it's always in relation to men.

I found that really intriguing about Cecilia is that she's a queenpin and she doesn't operate in relation to men within her world, she's created this world that she controls. But then you very soon find out that she's actually got connections with the kingpins in the other world. Teddy Bass, who is the one who holds most of the power cards, has actually been invited into her world to give Gale and Don and and in to climbing up the hierarchy. She's the one, so I've found all of that very, very intriguing.

The original Sexy Beast is considered one of the all-time great British movies - do you remember your first introduction to ‘British cinema’ and when you became aware of it?

Catching the rays - Winstone in Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast (Film4)
Tamsin Greig said when she watched the 2000 Sexy Beast, which stars Ray Winstone, she thought it was 'a really interesting story because all of these people seem so afraid'. (Film4)

I loved the film Sexy Beast when it first came out, I was however, at the time, working a lot and also having my third child so at the time, I don't think I gave myself fully to things because your head is so full of other stuff. But I remember thinking at the time that this is a really interesting story because all of these people seem so afraid, even the Don Logan character who turns up with all of his power and energy, and bulldog-ishness, behind that fury there's always fear.

I really leaned into that, and everybody is terrified when you first sit down —that really awkward scene— you think what has gone on and I think that's why Sexy Beast the prequel is so interesting, because I think everybody feels that when they see the film — like what has happened to these people?

Tamsin Greig: Quick fire questions

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease (Credit: Paramount)
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease, a film that Tamsin Greig went to see every day for a week because she loved it so much. (Paramount)

First cinema trip: I think my first cinematic was going to see a Disney animation, possibly Bambi or Dumbo, one of those. When I was in my early teens I went to see the movie Grease in the cinema and I loved so much that I went every day for a week because there was a little cinema down the end of my road... and so I just used to save up my money and go every day for a week. I didn't understand it, I was just like, 'oh, I don't what's happening there, but never mind'. In the back of the car with Rizzo, no idea what was going on there, but I couldn't get enough of it.

Movies you loved growing up: We didn't go much to the cinema, there wasn't a whole lot of cash around for those sorts of trips. But I remember every now and then my mum saying 'oh, watch this film' and I remember her showing me A Matter of Life and Death, the David Nevin film, where he's a fighter pilot, his plane gets hit and he goes down into the water but the French Angel who's meant to collect his soul misses him in the British fog and he doesn't die. What I found so remarkable is that my mum had said 'watch this', because she never did, we were all in her own little worlds really.

I remember watching a film with Jenny Agutter called Walkabout with my mum late at night when I couldn't sleep... it was quite an unsettling film and her saying to me at the end 'don't worry, it's just on the telly'. So that became a phrase of our family, of 'you don't have to worry it's just on the telly', and I remember when I was a little when I saw something on the news I said 'don't worry, it's just on the telly'. It was real, it was the news, but it became a way of kind of removing yourself.

Final thoughts with Tamsin Greig

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12:  Tamsin Greig attends an after party following the press night performance of
Reflecting on the advice she'd give her younger self, Tamsin Greig said she'd 'encourage her to not be so afraid'. (Getty Images)

Were there any mentors in your life or career that had a defining impact on you?

Well, my mum had done performance when they lived abroad in the amateur scene which had at that time a much more professional vibe. It was seen as semi-professional, so it was well received. So she had done a lot of that and so my interest in it was accepted but they never thought that it would be something that I could earn a living from. For my mum it was a hobby, but I wanted to make it a thing that could sustain you. So I think her experience of play is profoundly important, so I think probably her.

If you could go back in time and give young Tamsin any advice on how to change her Origin Story, what would it be?

I think our origin stories are what they are, and so going back to change things... as we know in the space-time continuum it's going to tear. You just live what you live, but I think I would encourage her to not be so afraid. You know that response of 'it's okay, it's just on the telly'. It's like, it's frightening, it's overwhelming, but you don't have to be afraid.

Sexy Beast is out on Paramount+ now.

Watch the trailer for Sexy Beast: