A sensitive detective in “Broadchurch”, majestic Elizabeth II in “The Crown” … No matter her character, Olivia Colman has a gift for moving others. Her heartbreaking performance in Florian Zeller’s “The Father”, next to Anthony Hopkins and soon to be in theatres, could earn her a second Oscar.
“You must have talked with so many actors who would give better answers than me!” Sitting in her living room, Olivia Colman looks at her laptop with a saddened smile. In the adjacent room, we hear her dog barking. “I’m not an intellectual, I can’t talk about my acting. I’m scared that by over-analyzing it, I’d lose my spontaneity.” We could expect the English actress, aged 47, who had her breakthrough as sensitive detective Ellie Miller in the crime drama Broadchurch and who delivered a remarkable performance as Elizabeth II in the historical series The Crown, to be a bit blasé.
Despite the critics’ praise and a shower of prizes on both sides of the Atlantic, she actually shows a disarming modesty. When winning an Oscar for best actress in a leading role for The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos, in 2019, she showed up on stage and laughed “This is hilarious! This is not going to happen again”. But here she is nominated in the “best supporting actress” category for The Father and only a few days away from a possible second win during the Oscars ceremony on April, 25th.
“I dare you to not start crying when Anthony Hopkins is sitting right in front of you!”
In this adaptation by the French director Florian Zeller of his own play Le Père, she portrays Anne, the daughter of an old man who is suffering from dementia (Anthony Hopkins) and who loses his touch with reality. “She sees him falling apart and is forced to go from child to parent,” says Olivia Colman, who delivers a performance full of contrasts, who goes from melancholia to distress, from laughter to tears, without ever giving the impression of forcing it. A challenge in what she calls a “room movie”, and a new illustration of the intensity of her acting? “Ah! No, it was easy, Florian’s script is so beautiful, so detailed and delicate, that I did not have to think too much about it. And I dare you to not start crying when Anthony Hopkins is sitting right in front of you!”
“She always wants to do better, with a vulnerability, a form of insecurity that seems unlikely in such a performer.” analyzes Florian Zeller, who sees in her simply “the best British actress of the moment”. A humbleness that goes back to the beginnings of a woman, native to the rural East of England. “I was around 16 when I first started thinking about becoming an actress, but I didn’t think I had the right to do it,” she recalls. “I had no idea how to do it. Just like when we are kids, we go to the circus but this wonder seems inaccessible.”
She enrols at Cambridge University and intends to do a “normal job” but abandons the idea after one semester— “Thank God, I would have been a terrible teacher!”. It is then, that she joins an amateur theatre group before getting into the prestigious Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, at the end of the 1990’s.
For her final exams, she must convince a jury of her acting skills in under a minute. “In such little time, I decided that it would be easier to make them laugh rather than cry. Pulling a face has an immediate effect. A sad face takes longer to touch your heart.” A choice that sums up the follow- up of her career, going into comedy. David Mitchell and Robert Webb, two young amateurs she met at Cambridge, help her make her debut in the BBC sitcom Peep Show, starting in 2003. She portrays Sophie, a young and unstable woman.
“Her face is so versatile and has such expressivity that all emotions can appear on it successively.” Florian Zeller, director of “The Father”
Everybody thinks she’s hilarious except for herself, of course. “They needed a woman, they thought I was funny and I was available. It allowed me to have “actress” on my passport, it was glorious.” Also seen in an episode of The Office in 2002, Olivia Colman often comes back to her first love comedy, notably in 2016, in the TV show Fleabag, as impossible Godmother, “awful but delicious, unbearable with a smile”.
Around 2010, she starts to go to castings for drama movies. The actor and screenwriter Paddy Considine gives her a chance in Tyrannosaur (2011) in which she portrays a victim of domestic violence who meets a grieving man (Peter Mullan). “The movie is tough, its subject is so serious… I was terrified.” With an astonishing fragility and contained anger, she collects her first awards and catches the attention of the television writer Chris Chibnall, who was then working on Broadchurch.
Alongside David Tennant, she transforms a classical figure from the small screen, a troubled policewoman, into an ordinary woman at the centre of a tragedy, who holds in her anxiety, the impossibility to confront the inexpressible. An introspective, intimate approach, sublimed by her capacity to convey a vast variety of emotions with one single glance. “The physiognomy of Olivia allows her to be every age, to go from a vulnerable young girl to a mean old woman”, says Florian Zeller. “Her face is so versatile and has such expressivity that all emotions can appear on it successively.”
In 2014, Olivia Colman meets Yorgos Lanthimos – “I had seen his movie Dogtooth (2009) and I wondered what was possibly going on in his head!” The Greek filmmaker offers her a part in The Lobster, her first work with Lanthimos, as the director of a hotel where single people, all of them societal outcasts, come to spend their last moments. An embarrassing character, between grotesque and terror, who fits well with Colman and who marks the beginning of a collaboration that will turn into another shared project, four years later: The Favourite.
“Her emotional intelligence is astonishing. She seems to be able to get to her inner self effortlessly.” Florian Zeller, director and writer of The Father
Yorgos had a vision and let me participate. The view of the writer is the only thing that usually matters; to take into count another one might give it a twist. Her interpretation of Queen Anne of England, unhappy sovereign, stubborn and sick, in the 18th century, confirms her talent to move others, even in the skin of unbearable characters. “There is something so warm in her that all her roles become sympathetic, echoing her nature” sums up Tobias Menzies, who plays Prince Philip next to her in The Crown.
Olivia Colman has a simpler explanation: “I don’t like playing, I’m only being myself.“ She brings her own experience to all her roles. For The
Father, it was the memory of her mother who worked as a nurse in a clinic for Alzheimer’s patients, and the familiarity of Anthony Hopkins as a paternal figure – “I know his face so well, I’ve seen him so many times on stage, on the tv, in the newspapers that part of myself was saying “My God, Anthony Hopkins is not doing well, he is in front of me and his life is falling apart.”
Florian Zellers confirms: “Her emotional intelligence is astonishing. She seems to be able to get to her inner self effortlessly and can project her own effects on her co-stars as if they were her husband, her sister or here, her own father. She truly was overwhelmed by Anthony.”
The change from work to reality pleases her even more, so that this role seems distant, just like the two sovereigns she portrayed simultaneously in The Favourite and The Crown. Queen Anne is angry? Olivia Colman uses it to unwind herself. “Usually, I never lose my temper. Not one single argument in 27 years of marriage. But I love playing someone who gets angry. That may be the reason why I’m a joyful person: I put all my negative vibes into my job.”
Elizabeth II is impassive? “A rock that is not supposed to fall apart in front of others, just like me.” During the scenes that affect her the most, the actress even uses an earpiece that transmits the weather forecast. “At the risk of being a bit impolite and not listening to what my fellow actors say”, she joked on the BBC in 2018.
“To play a super-villain in a Marvel production, that would be amazing, I would have to work out and learn how to fly!”
After The Father, expected to be released in France when theatres open again, we will see her in The Lost Daughter, an adaptation of the novel “The Lost Daughter” by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante (My brilliant friend) and the first motion picture project of colleague Maggie Gyllenhaal. Is she waiting for a blockbuster? “I must have sent a million e- mails to my agent asking to find me a role in a Marvel movie. A supervillain, that would be amazing, I would have to work out and learn how to fly!” she says excitingly while swinging on her chair. We’ll have to wait for a long time if we ever want to see the day when Olivia Colman will be blasé…
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