In The Father, the Oscar-winning actress plays a woman caring for her ageing dad, who is suffering from dementia. It’s incredibly moving—and her performance has already earned her another Oscar nomination.
Vogue- Shot almost entirely in one location over just a few weeks, with only a few costume changes and no rehearsals—very little about The Father is what you might expect.
It’s the greatest strength of this powerful new film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, both of whom have been Oscar-nominated for their performances. The movie follows their relationship as a father and daughter, living together in a London flat and preparing for the next stage of their lives. Because Anthony (Hopkins), has dementia, and though he doesn’t quite realise it, his daughter Anne (Colman) is struggling to care for him on her own. Based on a play by the film’s director Florian Zeller, the movie takes you inside Anthony’s mind as it breaks down, deftly weaving truths and fictions together in a way that is both devastating and disorienting as well as, ultimately, empathetic. You will cry—a lot. But you will also find yourself reflecting on life, and death, long after you leave the cinema.
Colman is the anchor of the film and its emotional heart. She has such a quiet intimacy with Hopkins that it’s hard to believe The Father is only their first film together. There’s one scene after they’ve had a miscommunication, in which Anne carefully, but silently, helps her dad into a sweater. That short moment says so much more about their relationship, and about Colman’s character’s resilience, than any shouty argument scene ever could. A lesser film than The Father, and a lesser actor than Colman, would definitely have opted for the latter.
Here, Colman talks about her personal relationship to the story of The Father, and how making the movie helped her reflect on her own parents—and her own life.
VOGUE AUSTRALIA: You play Anne, who’s torn between wanting to do the best for her father, and still wanting to live her life. Did the part speak to you personally?
OLIVIA COLMAN: “Yes, I’m at that time of life in my forties when I have children who still need looking after, and my parents are also getting older. They’re in pretty good health at the moment, but it was an eye-opener to work with Tony in The Father and see the child become the carer. It speaks to everyone across all generations because unless you do die young, you’ll end up old. You could end up playing tennis until you’re ninety, and die in your sleep, or you may have to deal with dementia and so will your family. It’s hard to explain what the experience of filming was like, it felt completely real and beautiful. Being there in a scene with Tony when he’s confused, or sad, it was really heart-breaking and hard to do. I think that’s also because, as Anthony Hopkins, we know his face and we’ve loved him for years, that it can feel overwhelming to see him like that. It feels pretty raw. It really made me think that I don’t know how people manage to hold their parents’ hands and watch them go through something like this. I keep on hoping this can be avoided for my folks.”
VA: At this stage in your career, how do you choose a project?
OC: “It’s all in the script for me. That’s probably the same for most actors, but I also know that I feel a little bit guilty, I feel bad about saying no. But you just know when there’s a script that’s really special, and then I am very uncool about it, and I say, ‘yes please’ because I’m not good about playing the game and saying, ‘that’s alright, but I may be a bit busy.’ I’m afraid I don’t do that. I have to get better at saying no! But when a script’s really good, like this one, it’s a no brainer.”
VA: You didn’t rehearse scenes in The Father. How was that for you, given time is out of sequence in the film?
OC: “I think both myself and Anthony like working without rehearsals. Listening to Florian’s vision, he wanted to use the power of cinema instead of theatre. In theatre you have to rehearse, you have to know exactly where you’re going to stand because you don’t want surprises in front of an audience. But with filming, it can produce something that’s very real and very natural and that’s the way we wanted to work anyway. If you know the script and you trust each other, then you can just let it happen. It was Florian’s first film and he was extraordinary, ten times better than most directors who’ve made ten films. He was so instinctive and beautiful and kind. We felt safe and so rehearsals or no rehearsals, with Florian in charge, we were happy.”
VA: Did Florian Zeller give you any cues for the sense of disorientation that’s at the heart of the film?
OC: “I’ve never read a script where you’re in the head of someone suffering from dementia. It was a real insight into how confusing and disorientating it was. I think a lot of the sense of confusion came from the set we worked on because it was like another character. It would subtly change depending upon what was happening in the film, adding to the sense of disorientation of Anthony’s character, who thought he was in his own apartment. It would also become my flat or the doctor’s surgery, depending upon where we were in the film. I found it really helpful to have our environment changing all around us. We’d step onto set day after day and it would have changed colours. It was weird because it would still stay the same size and have the same doors. Those physical changes definitely helped us.”
VA: Your mother worked as a geriatric nurse. Did that influence you in the role at all?
OC: “She was an incredible nurse before she retired. Her passion was geriatric care and she was nursing long before I was born. She was—is—just a kind person who would look after anyone. Maybe there was an influence there in taking the part but I’m unaware of it. She’s got endless patience and I’ve never seen her lose her temper, apart from when she’s driving!”
VA: Did filming The Father make you reflect more on your life?
OC: “It did make me think of my parents. Ageing can be so cruel and rude. It’s hard to think of my parents, because my mum and dad are still madly in love, and it’s unfair to think that they grunt when they sit down now and have aches and pains because they’re getting on in age. You think, ‘that’s where I am going’ and actually, that’s where you hope you are going because hopefully you’ll end up old, and happy and fulfilled. Filming The Father did make me think of them and how pleased I am that they’re still together and happy.”