There’s comedy, and then there’s iconic comedy. The moments you return to, time and again, that become shorthand in your own life; that mean you can’t shift a piece of furniture without yelling “Pivot!”, or jump over even the smallest kerb without hollering “Parkour… extreme!”.
In my household, the latest addition to the canon, the quote repeated almost daily throughout all of the lockdowns, marking the end of the daily homeschool grind and the start of kitchen disco time, is this: “Alexa! Play happy hardcore!”
This, of course, was the moment Tanya Moodie entered Motherland. And boy, what an entrance.
“Don’t congratulate me. Congratulate the writers,” Moodie laughs, shaking her head in seeming incredulity as she joins me, 2021 style, from her kitchen in London. “They’re fantastic, aren’t they? I love them so much. I just love the way they write, and the way that they get right to the point of where the humour is in reality. They’re not overreaching, they’re not trying to make jokes. They’re just going, ‘This is the truth, and it’s fucking ridiculous.’ I love it.”
As we chat, season three of the hit show is approaching its conclusion, with viewers glued to Moodie’s character Meg’s battle with breast cancer. “I still very much felt like the new kid on the block, unsure if I’d be coming back for the new series when they were talking about different storylines,” she says of Meg’s unexpected story arc. “So when they told me their plan, my first thought was that they were going to write me off!’”
Instead, she says, the writing astonished her, bringing a deeper level of humanity and nuance to the larger than life Meg. There was, however, one unexpected consequence to the plotline. “As an actor, you’re trained to say yes to everything, so when they asked me to shave my head I was being very blasé, saying ‘I don’t mind. It’ll grow back.’ But my hair was very long. And any Black woman with what we call 4C hair, which is my texture, knows how long it takes to grow an afro out as long as mine. It had taken years, and I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.” Spoiler: she did. “My partner was very happy . And even my daughter was like, ‘Ooh, you look cool Mum’. She’s 13 and she’s my fiercest critic, so that was pretty major!” she grins.
For many Motherland viewers, Moodie appeared in season two as something of a bolt from the blue. A seeming overnight success, her turn as Meg even earned her the coveted RTS Breakthrough Award. In reality, however, the 49-year-old has been grafting for decades, a stalwart of Britain’s most hallowed stages, renowned for her ability to tackle even the most impervious of Shakespearean roles.
“Theatre was my first connection with this as my path, to realising that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” she smiles, admitting that, upon leaving RADA in the ‘90s, TV didn’t hold much appeal. “Lucky for me, I love theatre. Because the landscape just wasn’t the same. Now there’s so much content being made by so many different, varied voices – diverse voices, new voices, young voices, old voices. There’s a lot more work to do,” she adds, cautiously, lest she paint a picture of TV eutopia. “But at the same time, I think now there’s more risk being taken because there’s a hunger there, for stories – and for accuracy, for representation. That world didn’t exist back then – and like any self-respecting artist, you go where the work is.”
Survival of the fittest
For all that Moodie may now be a recognisable face, she’s keen to stress that she’s still “on the hustle”. For a long time, she sighs, she was too scared to turn down work, despite the fact that theatre’s unsociable hours often made single motherhood incredibly difficult. The financial fear taunts her to this day.
“I feel the toll now that it’s taken on my body,” she says, thoughtfully. “Because you’re in survival mode all the time. It’s not a complaint, you love it, so you’re doing what you need to do to get work, make work, do the work, be there for your child, find child support somehow, make enough money to pay the rent, and keep clothes on your back, and food… But I was ill a lot.
“There’s a lot of days where you just don’t do it very well, and you feel awful. Sometimes you’re just knackered, and it’s hard, and you can’t pay your bills. And it’s easier now, but I’m still a jobbing actor, do you know what I mean? There’s always problem solving. I had my calculator out this morning!”
With a natural tendency “towards Eeyore”, Moodie credits Buddhism with adjusting her outlook and helping her take a more optimistic approach to life. In recent years, she smiles, she’s become braver, taken more risks.
“I realised that I had been limiting myself, that I was always very much in hunger mode, just going from vine to vine. So, I took the blinkers off. I wanted to blow the lid off of my limited view of my capabilities, and that’s when I got involved in politics, got more involved in my union, more involved in diversity activism – and then, suddenly, in making stories for TV. And these things don’t all pay money, you know? It’s not like ‘And now I have a billion dollars.’ But it’s an investment in my life, and it’s the answer to my prayers. Now I feel like I’m making valuable contributions to the world, and to society.”
Today, in addition to more TV projects and a potential return to the stage – due to have taken place last year – Moodie has two projects of her own creation in the pipeline. Producing, she says, has become a new and all-consuming love – even if, just a few years ago, the idea of making TV herself would have been unfathomable.
“I love getting people together,” she grins, positively radiating excitement. “I love people a lot. Not in an ‘I love to party’ way. I really don’t. I really do not like to party! But I really love meeting talented, interesting people with different skillsets, and going, ‘Oh my God, this is perfect. You have to meet this person, then we can do this together.’
“It’s so enriching, making these families of people. They add their special magic dust to it and then it’s not just an idea in my brain anymore, but it becomes everyone’s, the sum of all of its parts. Oh, I love it. It’s just amazing.”
Still, I suggest, the idea of putting your own thoughts and ideas out there must feel different to performing someone else’s script. I wonder how intimidating it is to step out in that way for the first time.
Moodie pauses. “I think people have an Alice in Wonderland moment,” she says, slowly. “I was in this abusive relationship for a while and when I got out of it, I realised that it was as if I had grown. I was in a space the size of a doll’s house, but I was fucking enormous. And when I got out of this relationship, it’s like I stood up, and everything just broke around me.”
She stops. Beams widely. “I had several of those moments, until I realised, ‘Oh, they’re happening all over my life now.’ And I started to notice that often I was limiting myself. So now I’m always checking in, because there are probably still hundreds of other boxes I’m in that I haven’t even noticed yet.
“You can be a bit comfortable, all curled up somehow. And then suddenly one day you wake up, and you go, ‘Fuck, this is so tight. Oh, I’ve boxed myself in again? Oh my God.’ And then you’ve got to break out again. You make yourself available, you take the risk, and you keep on growing.”