Tamara Lawrance: Columbo made me want to act

As the rising star takes on ”Twelfth Night”’s Viola at the National Theatre, she talks about her inspirations, freak outs and why detective dramas got her into acting

Tamara Lawrance in rehearsals for Twelfth Night
Tamara Lawrance in rehearsals for Twelfth Night
© Marc Brenner

When I meet Tamara Lawrance she’s terrified. She’s mid-rehearsals for Twelfth Night at the National Theatre and it has just properly dawned on her that the show only has two weeks to go until curtain up. Her eczema has flared up: she's anxious.

"With a modern play, by this time you are usually running the whole thing. But because Shakespeare is so dense… yesterday we blocked one of the scenes for the first time ever," says Lawrance.

Her eyes widen as she says this, but she’s also giggling. As an outside observer, then, Lawrance’s panic is very hard to spot. This confident, cheery, 22 year-old sat opposite me is folding in on herself with laughter at her apparent worry. She clearly thinks it’s hilarious. Perhaps that is because, though she’s not long out of drama school, she’s been in much trickier, flying-by-the-seat-of the-pants rehearsal rooms. Namely Unreachable, directed and written by Anthony Neilson who famously puts together the meat of his plays while actually in rehearsals. Lawrance starred as Natasha, an actress, in the piece, which was about an obsessive film director’s quest for a specific light. Neilson’s play was a success – and very, very funny (Lawrance was superb) – but there wasn’t a full play until the first night.

"I actually had a freak out with Unreachable, but it was much earlier on. It was in week two. For the first four weeks [we rehearsed] the same three scenes, just different versions of it," she laughs. Characters hadn’t been written into the play and it was only by the day of the first preview that they had the last scene. "I was watching in the wings and I was like – 'they are laughing!' I was shocked. Anthony had written this hilarious, strange and satirical piece."

The play continued to change each preview performance until press night when big changes stopped coming. You’d have thought, given she is prone to panic, that Unreachable may have put Lawrance off working like that. But no. "I would work with Anthony again, I have been fortunate to work with so many people who are ideas-y and much more assertive than I am, and it taught me that it’s OK, and sometimes useful, to speak your mind," she says. "If I had the blessing of working with Anthony again, I would give it my all."

Tamara Lawrance and Daniel Ezra
Tamara Lawrance and Daniel Ezra
© Marc Brenner

It’s not as though she didn’t give it her all in Unreachable. It was a remarkable performance, funny, acerbic and real, and one which earned her a spot in WhatsOnStage’s top ten faces to watch in 2017. Her portrayal marked her out as an actress of great talent and promise and her upcoming Viola at the National will be just one of several excellent reasons to see Twelfth Night. And even though she’s terrified – this is her first professional Shakespeare, after all – she’s clearly also enjoying working with director Simon Godwin and his brilliant cast.

"It is really hard. Am I allowed to say that? It is really tough. But I am loving it. Viola is one of my favourite female characters in Shakespeare. She’s brave, solution orientated and she’s a survivor," she says. The way she talks about the production shows that Lawrance is galvanised by the fact that the production features more than the play’s usual amount of gender-bending. Tamsin Greig plays Malvolia, a female version of Malvolio, and the cast also includes Phoebe Fox, Oliver Chris and Doon Mackichan. She’s learning a lot from her co-cast and director, she says: "It is fantastic to watch veterans of Shakespeare at their grassroots asking questions. It is reassuring that everyone starts at the same place."

The place Lawrance started, however, wasn’t the same as just any RADA graduate. After leaving drama school in 2015 her first job was in a BBC One crime drama opposite Adrian Lester and Sophie OkonedoUndercover . A nice twist of fate, she says, because one of the reasons she began to love acting came from watching Columbo with her mum on Sunday afternoons. "Mum would cook and she would put on Murder, She Wrote or Columbo or Poirot and fall asleep. When I was young I would always change the channel, but as I grew up, I would continue watching," she says.

"I fell in love with Peter Falk, he is a master at acting. Columbo is one of the best crime detectives ever written. [The show] got me interested in narrative." Interestingly, as well as Falk, Viola Davis and Forest Whitaker, Lawrance also cites Angelina Jolie as an influence. "I think the way she balances creative and humanitarian work is something I aspire to," she says at one point, "She does everything with extreme humility. She uses her platform to spread influence, which I think is what it is about, otherwise acting can become very self-centered."

Over the last two years, Lawrance hasn't watched much Columbo, which, I suggest, must be something to do with her busy schedule. After Undercover, her first stage role was in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National opposite Sharon D Clarke last year, and then came Unreachable at the Royal Court and now Twelfth Night. Great plays all, but secretly she'd love to be in a musical. "I love musicals, but I can't sing. I would happily be in the ensemble of a musical, just to do one. I love The Sound of Music and Nancy from Oliver is a dream role of mine, but I can't sing," she laughs.

Don't be fooled. I wouldn't put anything past Lawrance. Her kind of talent could take her anywhere.

Twelfth Night runs at the National Theatre from 22 February to 13 May with previews from 15 February.