Strong, sassy and unapologetic – the words actor Tamsin Egerton chooses to inform her character in the look of love could equallly describe the young woman in the role
Tamsin Egerton is so arrestingly exquisite that I’m surprised her arrival at Bumpkin, in South Kensington, isn’t accompanied by the sound of screeching brakes and crumpling fenders. She is tall, and as slim as a drinking straw, though it would have to be the bendy variety, for her expressive hands and long, long legs endlessly rearrange themselves.
She’s come out on this cold morning to talk about The Look of Love, in which she plays feisty Fiona Richmond opposite Steve Coogan’s Paul Raymond, the theatre-owner turned porn king who became one of Britain’s richest men, but whose personal life was blighted by tragedy. Coogan is surprisingly affecting, and Egerton is a bundle of youthful exuberance, blasting into his life with enough force to rip his marriage apart.
Richmond (real name Julia Montgomery) was Raymond’s girlfriend and colleague for nearly a decade. They met when she auditioned for one of his nude revues, but she was soon writing an advice column for Men Only magazine, posing for its editorial pages, and helping him stage theatrical events. As played by Egerton, Richmond is strong, sassy, and unapologetic.
“She’s not a victim, which is what I loved. Director Michael Winterbottom was very sensitive to the whole story. I was really worried that she was going to come in and be the girl that wants to get naked, and will do anything for money. That’s not the case. I wanted to show that she was innocent, that she was confident, and that she was doing it because she had no problem with it. It’s her way of making money. She knew she was beautiful, and if she was given opportunities she’d take them. I love that about her. It wasn’t seedy for her. It was fun, and a business opportunity.”
Raymond didn’t cut her any slack, Egerton says. “In real life, she had to audition for the job as a columnist. She told me, ‘When it came to business, Paul wanted the best person for the job, and it didn’t matter who you were.’ So she had to fight for everything. She went in to have an interview with the magazine’s editor wearing thigh-high boots, and put them up on the table trying to make an impression and show him, I’m feisty and I can do this. She and Raymond were in love – two friends who adored each other, and were on this journey. They were both shrewd. Let’s just make some money, let’s use what we can.”
But as the film makes quite clear, there was a cut-off point beyond which Richmond could not travel. “His greed was like an addiction. He wants too much, and she’s very willing, out of love, to give him as much as she possibly can, but there comes a point where she thinks, ‘You’re just going down this slippery slope and I’m going to have to let you go.’ It was really sad and poignant. I wanted to convey that they still loved each other, but she wanted to settle down, and she knew that she was never going to change him. Whatever she loved about him was his downfall as well.”
Egerton is a redhead in the film, but when I ask about her real colour, she jokes, “Hairdressers call me dark blonde, but I think they’re wrong. I feel far more naturally confident blonde. My mum’s blonde, my sister’s platinum blonde. I thought when I grow up, that’s what I’m going to look like. And then I didn’t develop [breasts] and I was brunette...”
“I didn’t want to go blonde for St Trinians. I was mortified – but I absolutely love it now. Then dying my hair red I found very bizarre. It was a vegetable dye and after three or four washes it starts to fade, so I had to not wash it. Then they put a chemical set in, for the Seventies hair styles. Which is fine on set... but it was so ‘of’ that particular moment. I had to keep it exactly the same off screen, which was difficult, because every time I looked in the mirror it was like, ‘Oh, it’s Fiona!’”
Being a film about the sex trade, it’s full of nudity, though I was intrigued by Winterbottom’s ability to keep it tasteful. How, as a young actress – she’s 24 – does she steel herself for those scenes? “I was 16 when I went topless the first time. I don’t know what it is about me but I don’t think of myself as sexy, I never have. To me it’s just naked flesh; it’s my body. Maybe it’s because I’m not very curvaceous, but I don’t think of it as a big deal. We spoke to my mum. My dad is very supportive no matter what. I think he felt uncomfortable about it, but as long as I felt OK, and mum felt OK, then he was fine. My mother got herself a license to be my chaperone and whenever I was acting as a child, went everywhere with me.”
She’s an only child or one of five, depending on how you count. “My dad was married before and had two sons and a daughter, and my mum was married before and had a daughter. So I’m technically the only child, but I grew up with my mum’s daughter, who I am loathe to say is only my half sister, because we’re so close. My sister’s such a huge personality that she dictated our childhood! She’s fantastically vivacious and strong. We’re five years apart, so there is that sort of looking up at your big sister going ‘Oh, she wants to do ballet, I’ll do ballet. She wants to join the local youth theatre, I’ll join.’ It just happened that the last one shaped my whole life.”
Roles in TV commercials led to small acting jobs, and by the time she was 11 she was appearing alongside Anjelica Huston in the TV film The Mists of Avalon.
Then when she was 12 she landed the lead role of Mary in the RSC musical production of The Secret Garden. “We did that for a year. At that point they wanted me to carry on my contract, but I just – ug, a year!” she laughs. “I was knackered toward the end, but it was an incredible experience.”
How does a wee girl muster the balls to sing in front of thousands of people? “You know what, I have no idea. I definitely don’t have those balls now. I was classically trained from eight to about 18. I thought that’s what I was going to do professionally, before deciding that acting was the thing. Also, singing is too personal. It’s very emotional for me, and I realised that it’s not something I want to share professionally.
“I wasn’t really prepared to go in front of the Royal Shakespeare Company – but I just went in and auditioned. The director said, ‘That was quite classical, do you think you could belt it? Make it more like a musical?’ There was a second of ‘No way, Jose’, and then I just did it and got the job. Now, I’d be crippled with nerves.”
Even with her vast experience? She’s appeared in Driving Lessons (with Julie Walters and Rupert Grint), the St Trinian films and Chalet Girl. “Oh absolutely! I am my own worst enemy. My friends and family will say, ‘You’ve got everything going for you right now’, and I say, ‘Oh yes, but!’ Which is not a good way to be.”
I can’t stop thinking about the idea that music’s too personal to share. Why? “When you’re acting, you’re escaping and hiding behind something. It’s clichéd to say, but there’s a safety there. But with my singing I feel like you’re getting to know me more.”
Yet opera roles are characters. “It’s the actual singing... that voice. It’s hearing that part of you that comes from so far within – if somebody judges that, that’s not OK. I get asked to audition for musical films and there have been quite a few big ones that I’ve turned down, and others that I’ve auditioned for, and then self-sabotaged, or not turned up for the second interview. Maybe later on I’ll realise that actually it’s not that big a deal, but at the moment I’m still precious about it.”
What’s her feeling about nudity? Does she ever ask herself why male actors aren’t expected to get their kit off all the time? “There’s a beauty about the female form, and it’s always been celebrated. I’m the first person who’d love to be sexy without taking my clothes off, but then again I’m not a prude. It’s going to be a question for many years to come. I think a lot of it is just confidence. Filming The Look of Love, I wasn’t very confident but I feigned it. Being surrounded by these burlesque dancers who do it for a living, standing there naked as if they were dressed, and they were so beautiful, I was thinking that is what’s sexy, being comfortable and confident in their own skin.”
Will she ever get to the point where she reads a script and says, I don’t need to be naked here? “I do that a lot, and even with The Look of Love, I turned it down originally. I said thre’s too much nudity, and not enough of a story for her. Michael said, ‘Let’s discuss it. There’s an innocence to you and a sexiness to you that I want, and your comedic timing is great. So you, me and Steve can build the role.”
What a gift that was. “I’m so thrilled that he had that vision and that trust in me. I said, ‘Clearly I’m not scared of being naked, but I am still a normal person who’s not going to want to do this all the time. People will judge, that’s what they love do to.’ He sighed and said, ‘I will go through the script and tell you everything that I feel is necessary and we will negotiate.’ And he halved it. He was adamant that it wasn’t meant to be gratuitous, it was just part of the story. I said, ‘I’ll do it, and you will never get a peep out of me again, because I’ve taken on this character and it is her job.’”
Coogan is awesome, she says. “I went in knowing that improvisation was key to this role, and he put me at ease straight away. The script was written, but then I got on set and there were no sides – the mini slips of what we’re doing that day. I was like, ‘What’s going on? I know all my lines, I have them ready!’ But you start off with vague lines and carry on, and Mike just keeps rolling. Ultimately what was in the script has been cut into the film, but 90 per cent of it isn’t really in the script.
“And Michael doesn’t like make-up or hair on the set – normally they come in after every take. So you don’t really stop until the end of the day. There’s a manic-ness on his sets that you don’t see in the film. He knows what he’s doing. He’s got it in his head. It’s amazing. And there are no marks, no lighting. I think this is the biggest set Michael has worked with in a while. For me, it was the smallest set! Two sparks, two sound guys, no make up or hair, and no monitors.”
Egerton has two more films in post production, including Singularity, directed by Roland Joffe and Grand Piano, starring Elijah Wood.
He must come up to your kneecaps, I blurt. Rather more tactfully she says, “He’s lovely. But yes, I am definitely taller than him.” Her whole family’s tall: dad’s 6ft 3in, mum 5ft 8in, and her sister’s six foot. Egerton is 5ft 10in, but given that most actors are shrimps, is that a problem? “Everyone’s too small,” she laughs. “I’ve missed out on many wonderful jobs because of my height. The amount of actors that I really admire and have met, and there’s that weird feeling of, ‘Oh, you’re not that strapping hunk I thought you were. I could eat you for breakfast.’ I can’t do anything about it. Unless people behind the film want to embrace it, I’m kind of screwed. And I think I seem taller because I’m thin. It can be a pain in the ass being this tall.”
Now Egerton has Los Angeles in her sights. “I want to be in Hollywood and see what happens. I love British film but there’s not a lot of variety, and there’s a bit of momentum around me at the moment, so I don’t want to sit in England waiting for a good project. Could I see myself moving there? Yes, as long as I was lucky enough to have the means to fly back every couple of months to see my dog and my mum.”
Does she have any tips about show business she’d like to pass on? “Just to realise that the reason you’re in this job is because you love the actual art of it, and being on set, and immersing yourself in a role and emotionally catching yourself out. As for the promotional side – I remember speaking to a friend who is doing incredibly well, and she said, ‘I was still being told what films I wasn’t getting, and who I was up against and why that girl got that instead of me – and that was the most successful I’d been in my career so far.’ And there’s that part of it, when the producer goes, ‘No.’ So I do this because I want to and because I’m an artistic person, and that’s what’s driving me.”
• The Look of Love (18) is released on Friday.