British actress Tamzin Merchant is just as at home starring in lavish period dramas as she is trying on some of our favourite pastel party pieces from the holiday season. But really, who couldn't have fun in this much lace, satin, and chiffon?
By Wendy Douglas. Photographed by Valerie Phillips. Styled by Jeanie Annan-Lewin
When Tamzin Merchant arrives at the Aritzia shoot at a stunning private residence in West London one cold but sunny day at the end of November, she has no idea that at some point in the afternoon she’ll find herself in the middle of an outdoor swimming pool, perched precariously on an inflatable swan. But when just that scenario plays out, the 25-year-old British actress takes to it like, well, a swan to water. This, despite being dressed in a lace skirt, coral sweater, and sky-high stripper heels. At one point, Merchant poses with her foot balanced daintily on the swan’s neck, while seductively trailing one hand in the freezing-cold water, giggling all the while.
So to say Merchant is game would be an understatement. Which stands to reason: She’s best known for playing Henry VIII’s nubile fifth wife, Katherine Howard, on the raunchy Showtime series The Tudors, and she's becoming ever more in-demand as a model. “I’ve got more into fashion shoots in the last few years,” says Merchant, who’s represented by legendary agency Storm, home of British supermodels Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne, and Lily Donaldson. “I love dressing up—it’s why I got into acting.”
Although she was born in the U.K., Merchant lived with her family in Dubai until she was 13, when they moved back to Sussex in the south of England. “Dubai was complete paradise,” she recalls. “It was a bit of a contrast coming to England, especially when I discovered what winter was for the first time!” It was while studying at East Sussex’s Brighton College, where she performed in school plays, that she caught the acting bug. Upon hearing that a movie was being made of Pride and Prejudice—coincidentally the book she was reading at the time—the plucky 17-year-old called the film’s casting director and requested an audition. To her surprise, the director agreed, and to her even greater surprise, two months later Merchant was cast in the pivotal role of Mr. Darcy’s sister Georgiana. “They announced it in my school assembly, and it was the most embarrassing thing ever,” she says, still cringing at the memory.
Merchant’s roles in both Pride and Prejudice and The Tudors meant she could indulge her love of period costumes, but that's not to say dressing up was entirely pleasant. “There’s nothing like wearing a corset for 14 hours straight,” she says of her days on The Tudors. “After about six hours you run out of steam completely. Your body’s not giving you all the oxygen you need.”
She had never actually seen an episode of the show before walking on set for the first time—she made her debut in the last episode of season three—but found her own naivety a useful tool for tapping into her teenage character’s childlike qualities. “It was good to come into it almost anonymously,” she muses, “Because Katherine Howard didn’t really have an idea of what she was coming into when she married Henry VIII. It was amazing and wondrous for me to be on set, and Katherine found it amazing and wondrous to come to court.”
She’d also never done a sex scene before The Tudors, but it was with that same sense of openness that Merchant embraced being naked, in numerous onscreen couplings. “This guy I was dating at the time was super-jealous, which made it easier for me because I thought, OK if he’s going to be that way, then I’m going to show him I don’t care,” she recounts. “It helped me go, ‘You know what? Fuck it. I’m doing this.’ And I had some quite fun people to do it with.” She pauses to consider how that might sound, before exclaiming, “Not literally!”
Whether in or out of clothes, Merchant is ethereally beautiful: The delicate pastel shades of the pieces she models for Aritzia are the perfect complement to her pale skin and blonde hair. But the holiday-appropriate clothes are a far cry from her more bohemian sense of style. “I like a bit of grunge,” the actress says post-shoot, as she plays with the laces on her battered military boots. “A bit of boyishness.”
Even with her burgeoning acting and modeling careers, Merchant somehow finds time to continue learning in a variety of disciplines. She studied Education and English Literature at Cambridge University, completed the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Programme, has recently begun a garden-design course, and plans to take a cooking class over Christmas. She’s also passionate about increasing educational opportunities for the less fortunate, serving as a patron of the Build Africa charity. Merchant raises both money and awareness for the cause, and in the New Year she’ll be visiting Uganda to see for herself the work the charity is doing.
This March, fans in the U.K. will be able to see her next television project, Murder on the Home Front, a two-part crime drama set in 1940s London during the Blitz. In the ITV network thriller, made by the team behind the worldwide phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, Merchant is the feisty sidekick to a pathologist played by Boardwalk Empire’s Patrick Kennedy. The show is loosely based on the real-life memoirs of Molly Lefebure, secretary to Keith Simpson, the pioneering British pathologist.
“She’s a character who doesn’t take any crap, and I really love her,” the actress says of Molly. “I’m used to playing posh, innocent girls, but she’s a really normal London girl. And, it’s a period drama, but it’s a different period.” Best of all, Merchant is excited to announce, she was able to breathe like a normal human being while on set: “No corsets!”
Hair: CLAIRE GRECH
Makeup: CELIA BURTON