The moment she acted for the first time – in a school play – she thought: I can do something! Meanwhile, Olivia has literally and figuratively played royal roles, such as Queen Elizabeth in the Netflix series The Crown. “I transform very easily into someone else.”
Harper’s Bazaar NL-“This is quite genuinely stressful! “, Olivia Colman stammers in 2019, after receiving an Oscar for best female actress in a leading role.
In a green Prada dress with a big bow on her back, she looks clearly impressed from the stage into the room. She thanks everyone in her own Olivia Colman’s style: quite associating, emotional, putting things into perspective, witty and totally irresistible. The room is at her feet.
Colman is already famous in the UK. People initially know her as a comic actress, but they soon discover that she also can take on serious roles, such as in the series Broadchurch. After that, royal roles crossing her path: she not only plays a queen in The Favourite, for which she won her Oscar but also in the beloved Netflix series The Crown. That series, plus an Oscar making her a world star.
And yes, that’s quite nice, says Olivia Colman (47) via Zoom from a dark room, with a small light somewhere behind. Her natural face emerges bright from the darkness. She talks as you know her from her speeches. She hardly has to do auditions anymore, she says. Phoebe Waller-Bridge even wrote the role of Godmother in Fleabag especially for her. But: “It is also a bit scary, that success. From now on it can only get worse.”
Are you worried about that?
“Yes! I’ve recently discovered that actors I really look up to are also always worried that they’ll never be asked again. I thought I was the only one, so that was reassuring. It is probably even healthy and prevents you from becoming self-righteous. But it would be terrible for me if no more work came for me. Many of my friends are multi-talented, they can write and direct and act. I can only act.”
She said it before: she can’t do anything else. Things went bad at school until she got the lead role in a school play when she was sixteen. “It was the first time I felt like I could do something. I always was a happy type, but I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence, and it was great to suddenly be able to be someone else and do things that I would never have dared as myself.
But I had no idea how to become an actor.” Her parents said: nice, that acting, but what do you think of a secretarial course? “I can still type my eyes closed.” Then she went on and attend a teacher training course in Cambridge, which she stopped after she ‘accidentally’ joined Footlights. The local and legendary amateur group, where great names like Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie started their careers. Footlights completely changed Colman’s life: not only did she start there as an actress, but she also met her husband, Ed Sinclair, in 1993. Who she has been married to for twenty years now. They have three children: two sons (15 and 13) and a daughter (5).
She can’t do anything but acting, but that’s not rocket science according to her. “I show up where I need to be, I say my lines and try to empathize as best I can with the feelings of the woman I’m playing at that moment. Nothing more, nothing less” she says apologetically. “And if you have colleagues who understand their job, it’s not difficult at all. Just listen carefully to what your opponent is saying and respond appropriately, that’s acting for me. In my latest film The Father, where I act opposite Anthony Hopkins, was that no problem at all.”
Playwrighter Florian Zeller filmed his own play with The Father. The story is told from the perspective of a man with dementia (Hopkins); Colman plays his caregiver, daughter Anne. “I’ve had never seen a movie or play told that way. As an audience, you are just as confused as that father, so you experience dementia from within. I thought that was brilliant.”
She has no personal experience with dementia. “Knock on wood. My parents are now in their late seventies and so far things are going well. My mother was a nurse, specialized in elderly care, so I heard stories about people with Alzheimer’s through her.” She didn’t ask her mother for advice. “Uh, no. Anne is her father’s caregiver. She just has to learn how to deal with it by doing. I don’t have to do any research for that.”
You always find an excuse not to do research, right?
Laughing: “Yes! I always try to get out of it. Sometimes I really have to, like with The Crown, where I have to play an existing character. Most of all I had to learn to control my face. I’m quite expressive so that I found very difficult. But with The Father, Florian had done all the work for me. The lines were enough. I’m not someone who endlessly prepares or thinks about her role. This Anne is someone different from me, but aren’t we all made up of thousands of parts? In another existence, I could have been Anne. Every character I play has something of me and thanks to my imagination I can add all kinds of layers to it. I transform very easily into someone else. That’s why this work is so ideal for me: I can express my imagination in it. That makes me a nicer person at home.”
Fortunately, because she prefers to be at home. “Without Ed and the kids, I don’t see the point in anything.”
What did you think of the corona year, when the UK also went from one lockdown to another?
“I understand that it was terrible for a lot of people, but I was much more home than usual, I loved that! I wouldn’t mind at all if I never had to leave the house again. I hate being stared at by strangers on the street but also apart from that: I am a kind of hermit, but with a husband and children.”
Did you also have to teach your children at home?
“During the first lockdown, yes. My two oldest were perfectly able to help themselves. My youngest was a different story. I googled how long you can expect a four-year-old to concentrate on something. That was disappointing, but then I knew what I could expect. We drew a little, then she was allowed to run around, and then we drew again. That’s how we got through the days. We’re all healthy, but I could exercise a little bit more. My husband started running during corona to stay fit. I sat on the couch and watched it while eating a toast with a thick layer of butter on it.”
She had to leave the house for a while in 2020. “I played the lead role in The Lost Daughter, the film adaptation of Elena Ferrates’ novel. That was very exciting! I had to go to Greece for four weeks. I’ve never been away from home for so long because I always try to avoid that. We were so lucky that it just worked out between the first and second corona wave. It was possible because all stayed in quarantine beforehand and didn’t see anyone from outside on that idyllic island. We were completely in our own bubble. It was truly divine.”
Do you think that’s the best thing about acting: making something together?
“Yes, that’s it. Most of my best friends are actors. It’s a nice kind of people. We look alike, we have a lot of fun together. The same goes for the crews. That usually makes the atmosphere on a set very good. Unfortunately, at some point, the project is finished and the people who have absolutely nothing to do with it are allowed to comment on it. I haven’t read reviews for years for that reason. As far as I’m concerned, nobody really needs to see the end result of my work. It’s all about the experience of making it for me, not what people think of it.”
Fortunately, they often find it very beautiful, I can tell you. The Father is also beautiful again. What is your favourite memory of that making process?
“The time I was able to spend with Anthony, even outside of filming. When we had to wait, he told great stories or imitated people in a hilarious way. He’s such a funny, lively, wonderful man. Later when I’m older, I don’t want to be a grumpy old woman, but be as cheerful and lively as him.”
That will be fine!
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The photos used in the interview