Big breaks always seem to come when the person is least expecting them. And Sylvie Briggs is no exception. For Briggs, the call came during her lunch hour at a school in Hackney, where she works as a part-time teaching assistant. It was her agent saying she’d got the role of Ellie Marsden on one of the most adored sitcoms in British TV history, Cold Feet.
“They were like, ‘Oh, and you start tomorrow,’” Briggs tells me. “So I literally had to cancel work and go the next day.” Within 24 hours, the actress had gone from recess to read-through, sitting at a table with Hermione Norris, James Nesbitt, and the rest of the show’s famous fivesome.
Briggs has been making the rounds in London’s acting scene since she graduated from Bristol University (where I first met her as a fellow student) in 2016. Before Cold Feet, her name had appeared in the programme of a few fringe-theatre shows, but prime-time TV was a new (and daunting) task for her. I sat down with Briggs to hear what it’s like being the new kid on the block in a show with almost 20 years of history and millions of fans who have stuck with it since the beginning. We chatted all about her time on set and what she learnt from her on-screen mum, Hermione Norris, who recently played sinister psychiatrist Vivien Lake in season five of Luther. Plus, Briggs revealed her favourite Cold Feet couple, and it isn’t quite who you’d expect.
Rowena Henley: Cold Feet is a historic British show, with a plot line that has gone on countless twists and turns over the years. In 2016 it came back after a 13-year hiatus, and now it’s going into its eighth series. How would sum up the show in a few sentences?
Sylvie Briggs: So, basically, it's a bunch of five middle-aged people living in Manchester. And it's about how, even at this stage of life, these people still mess up, and are still dealing with relationships. With the new seasons, it hasn't become a different show, but it's definitely moved on. I mean, age changed it a lot, with the characters being in their early thirties in the original series to being middle-aged now. And then, obviously, the kids are older now. So there is a lot more coverage of their relationship with their parents, but it's from the parent's perspective, which is nice to see.
RH: I’ve always felt that the show is very “real.” It portrays ordinary, real-life people very nicely.
SB: Yeah. And, the thing is, it’s a comedy, but it's not just “gag gag gag.” It's not that. There's storylines and the drama as well. And it's very heart warming. You're kind of engaged with the characters, as well as finding them funny.
RH: How does your character fit in to the show?
SB: Ellie is the kid of David [Robert Bathurst] and Karen [Hermione Norris]. She’s one of their twins. And the twins have opposite personalities, basically. Olivia [Daisy Edgar-Jones] is the very conscientious, hard-working student, and my character is far more rebellious. In that classic teen way.
RH: Did you like playing the rebel?
SB: Yeah. It's fun. I mean, having a bit of a tantrum — that's really fun.
RH: And how is it acting as a twin? Had you ever done that before?
SB: No, I hadn't. I'd done family set ups, but not twins. But Daisy is just lovely, so that made it so much easier. After joining, I messaged her being like, "Oh my gaad!" And she replied, "Right, here’s what you need to know…” And she told me, “It's gonna be fine."
RH: That’s nice that you had someone to ease you in, because joining such a legendary show must have been really intimidating. How did you feel at first?
SB: Well, it just all happened so fast. I found out, and then I had to go to the read-through the next day. And it was the whole cast, the whole creative team, the make-up people, the producers, the casting people… And, obviously, it was like a reunion for them.
RH: Oh wow, so was that scary?
SB: It was so scary! But they were all so nice. Like, I remember, we had a break after the reading of the first episode and I was thinking, "OK, phew, I've said some lines. It's all fine. My Manchester accent is alright, thank god.” And then I saw Hermione Norris in the loo and she introduced herself and was like "Hi!!!" And I said, "I found out yesterday!" And she was like, "Oh my goodness! They're just throwing you in there." And she hugged me, and it was just so lovely.
RH: And, to add even more pressure, you were taking over the role from another actress [Ella Hunt]. How did you go about that? Did you study her characteristics?
SB: Well, for my first audition, I didn't have that long to prepare, so I was just looking up all the scenes she was in and was thinking, "Right, what is her accent?" Because Karen and David have RP [Received Pronunciation] accents, but the kids have grown up in Manchester. So it's a sort of soft Manc accent. And then, once I was on set, the hair and make-up crew were styling me so I would look as much like [Hunt] as possible, so it would look fairly seamless. I had to wear my hair down for the whole season.
RH: I noticed that in the trailer.
SB: Yeah, and I never wear my hair down, so I kept messing up the continuity by putting it behind my ears, and the crew were like, “Nope, you didn't do that in the first take.”
RH: Oh, of course. I mean, this is your first big television job, so it’s understandable that stuff like that happened. Did you learn a lot about that kind of thing when you were on set?
SB: So much. First day on set I had a scene with Hermione, my mum, and it was a fight scene. And there were all these people there, like, touching up my make-up, and about ten guys on the crew. And I was just so nervous. But then as soon as they shouted "Action!" Hermione was just shouting at me like a mum would. And I was like, "Oh my god, this is easy," because Hermione is just so good.
RH: That's great.
SB: Yeah, and Hermione would teach me stuff along the way. So she would say something like, "OK, I'll just explain why we can't overlap on the next take." And would tell me, "You can't overlap because, then, if you have a close up and someone else is speaking over you, you can't use that take." And just very logistical stuff like that.
RH: So would you say Hermione was kind of you mentor on set?
SB: I guess so, because she's my mum in the show, so I have most of my scenes with her.
RH: Right. It must have been so weird to see your mum in Luther!
SB: Oh my god, she's terrifying! She's absolutely terrifying!
RH: I was watching it from behind my hands.
SB: I know, I had to do that.
RH: So, back to Cold Feet. Do the kids and the adults work together a lot?
SB: Yeah. We had a lot of group scenes this season. Because, as you'll know from the trailer, there is a wedding and a festival. Which, unusually for the series, meant a lot of us acted as groups together. And apparently that's not very common on the show.
RH: Was that fun?
SB: So fun. I actually had my birthday when we were filming the festival scenes. I didn't think anyone knew, but then the assistant director came onstage and was like "Let's all sing happy birthday for Sylvie!” And we were just in this festival tent singing.
RH: That’s very sweet of them.
SB: Yeah, and I remember, when we were shooting in this chateau in Wales for the wedding, it was really late one night and suddenly Robert [Bathurst, who plays David] was like, "Let's do a quiz!" And we were all in teams. And Jacey [Sallés, who plays Ramona] was just being hilarious. She was very knowledgeable and very good at the quiz.
RH: What was the quiz about?
SB: He found one online! It was just doing a general knowledge quiz.
RH: Who won?
SB: I think Jacey [Sallés] won, and whoever was on her team.
RH: That sounds brilliant. And who is your favourite Cold Feet couple?
SB: Ooo... It's so hard, because the answer would be different as a watcher and as someone who has now been in it. I mean, having met them, I would actually say Hermione and Fay [Karen and Jenny]! I had a storyline with Fay at the festival, so I was hanging out with those two a lot. And they are hilarious when they're together. They would just tell these hilarious stories.
RH: Hah! I wasn’t expecting that answer. I meant the romantic couples! What about your parents…?
SB: Well, I did like my parents when they were together. And I suppose Adam and Rachel are a classic.
RH: So, can you talk a little bit more about your background in acting?
SB: Yeah.. I mean, I always knew acting was what I wanted to do. So whatever circumstance I was in, I would always be seeking it out. I’ve done National Youth Theatre, and then the drama scene at Bristol [University, where Briggs studied English Literature] was great. I did the Edinburgh Fringe twice, which was amazing. And then just fringe theatre in London.
RH: And how do you find the acting world? Is it as tough as they say?
SB: Yeah, it is. But, I mean, it's all about the mindset. Like, if every time you go for an audition you put in your mind, "There are so many people going up for these things,” obviously you're just going to get depressed and think how crap it is. But if you have the mindset of, "There are all these opportunities, I don't know what the next thing is going to be,” which is exciting, rather than a bad thing, then you’ll feel better. And it's such a community of people. You always bump into the same people. You see people at auditions or workshops. I volunteer for The Mono Box, which is kind of like continual training for actors. And they always do Q&As with people, and I've met some great people from that.
RH: What do you like the most about acting?
SB: Working with loads of people. You meet so many people. Because, mostly, I've done theatre, and you're doing a show for maybe six weeks, and then you're on to the next one. You get so close with the cast, because it's such an intense thing you're doing, and an intense amount of time to spend with people. And then you're doing that a lot, so you're just gathering more and more friends. It’s just such a nice way to go about life.
RH: And what’s next for you?
SB: I mean, I don't know if any actor can have a plan, because I make a plan for next week and then acting comes up. But right now I'm doing something with the Almeida Young Company. We meet weekly for a year-long programme, which ends in a show at the Almeida. And that's been so great.
RH: British talent has done so well at this year’s award ceremonies. Are there any British actresses or actors that inspire you?
SB: I mean, Olivia Colman, I love her. I loved her in Peep Show. She was just so great in that. And Helen McCrory. She's fab. I've seen a lot of her theatre stuff. She's great. Ruth Wilson. I just watched her in Luther, and she’s terrifying in that. Carey Mulligan is another one. But these are actors — I'm noticing, just saying it — who go between TV, film, and theatre. And that's what I would like to do.
RH: And now you’ve been cast in such an iconic British show, are there any others you’d love to do?
SB: Peaky Blinders! I would frickin' love that. They just make period drama cool. It's just so sexy. And, I mean, Cillian Murphy… come on.
🔥 Quick Fire 🔥
Destinations 🌍 "I loved filming in Manchester. It's got such a different feel from southern cities. It’s quite industrial, and it feels quite old school. It's just really cool and retro. I was chatting to the crew, actually, and they said Manchester doubles for New York a lot. So they film loads of New York scenes in the Northern Quarter, which is crazy. Oh, and, Peaky Blinders, was filmed there!"
Reading 📚 “Right now I'm reading Jill Soloway's book She Wants It. Soloway wrote the TV show Transparent, and it's so interesting hearing about how these shows get put together.”
Watching 🎥 "Luther, obviously. And Killing Eve was just great. But I’ve been watching a lot of films lately. I loved The Favourite. Yorgos Lanthimos can go really creepy and scary, but The Favourite isn’t really like that. And I recently watched RBG, the new Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, which is sooo good.”
Cold Feet will air tonight at 9 p.m. on ITV.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.