Olivia Colman
Photo by Miller Mobly

Olivia Colman: “It will always be a mystery”

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Short Profile

Name: Sarah Caroline Olivia Colman
DOB: 30 January 1974
Place of birth: Norwich, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Actor

Ms. Colman, what would you say was the turning point in your career?

I don’t actually know that there was one! I think it’s just been a long slow burn. I’ve worked fairly consistently, and I’m really grateful — even for the years of not getting so many acting jobs because that means I really appreciate being able to do what I love now. For a few years I worked as a cleaner and I quite enjoyed it, it was a great way to support myself. I did a typing course as well so I could earn a bit more money as a secretary.

But acting was always the goal for you?

It’s the only thing I can do. I am so bad at everything else! I can’t imagine… I did want to be a midwife at one point but I’m not sure I would have been the best person to be there because my emotions are so close to the surface. I don’t think I would have coped with it very well.

“It’s a mystery, it will always be a mystery that I won’t understand: that one person’s luck could make or break it.”

Emma Stone said that she used to think that being a sensitive person was a curse.

It’s hard for me! In fact, we filmed a scene for The Crown a few weeks ago where Helena Bonham Carter is saying something very moving and I couldn’t stop reacting to what she was saying. They had to film the back of my head and I had to get an earpiece that was playing the weather forecast on the radio. I had that in my ear so that I wouldn’t listen to Helena, I was trying not to look her in the eye… I find it very difficult to separate.

Did that sensitivity have a heavy effect on you during those years when you weren’t able to support yourself solely through acting?

Oh, I definitely remember being like, “Oh my God, it’s never going to work!” There were definitely days like that. But you know, sometimes I think about how my friends from drama school, some of them were so much better than me and it just didn’t work for them. It’s a mystery, it will always be a mystery that I won’t understand: that one person’s luck and one person’s lack of luck could make or break it. And I’m very lucky these days because the longer you work and the more you’re trusted, people go, “Oh, okay, well we’ve got that role, we could try it for you.” And I suppose the older you get as well, the fewer of you there are.

What do you mean?

Well, I left drama school with a surge, loads of young women, and for whatever reason, they decided to change their paths or they just couldn’t get the work or whatever. There are fewer female actresses like you when you are in your mid-forties, and by the time you get to 80, there’s even fewer. There are more roles coming for women because we are demanding it as an audience and there are many women who are the breadwinners, who are in charge of the remote control on the telly, and we want to see ourselves reflected. We are all saying enough is enough. It’s not equal yet but it’s coming and it’s a good year for that.

Would you say that you feel entirely creatively fulfilled these days?

I feel creatively fulfilled more and more for me as I get older, and especially as I’m able to play bigger parts. I get given more leads now than I did when I first started. You get to say more, there are more interesting characters, and the characters get more interesting as you get older. So, playing someone in my mid-forties, they’ve done more than someone in their mid-twenties.

There’s more to talk about and more stories to tell.

Right! And now I feel more and more that I can choose a thing that’s interesting to me — but that’s also the luck of the draw and the fact that I’m being given those opportunities now. Actually, you asked if there was a turning point and I didn’t think there was but there was a film called Tyrannosaur, and I think from that point on, I was offered different things. Also for me from a bravery point of view, after that job, I was so scared of doing it well... That character was a survivor of domestic abuse, and I thought if anyone watching had experienced that, I didn’t want them to think, “That’s not how it is.” I wanted to do that one well. And things did probably change after that.

“I’m just an actor — I turn up, I do the best I can with the script I’m given.”

What other factors add pressure to you as a performer?

The hardest thing is playing a living person, I think. In The Crown I’m playing Queen Elizabeth II during the 1960s, which is before I was born, so it’s a little easier. It will be much harder once you get into the period of history which I can remember. That will be difficult. In The Favourite, I played Queen Anne, and that was completely different. I knew nothing about Queen Anne, but she was fascinating, she lost 17 children! And when you look at something like the love affairs she had with these women… She would’ve obviously had to hide it. It’s a hell of a life to lead to have to keep your love secret, as people around the world are still having to do unfortunately.

Were those anecdotes something you found out in your research of these characters?

For me, the script is everything. It’s all in there. With a good script, they have done all the research; what am I going to find out that they haven’t already looked into? They have presented what they want the person to look like.

And if the script is bad?

(Laughs) That’s when you have to sort of try and scramble around to try and help. But it was clear to me in the script for The Favourite why Queen Anne was the way she was, why she was so spoilt, unhappy, under-confident, childish… It was kind of easy for me because it had been done for me, really, the work. I’m just an actor — I turn up, I do the best I can with the script I’m given, I try and make the director not fire me, and I have a lovely time. I love my work. I love it!