Her mantelpiece already groans with awards including two Golden Globesand three Baftas. Now, following her Best Actress nomination for her performance as Queen Anne in The Favourite, Olivia Colman may be adding an Oscar to her collection.
If she wins an Academy Award next month she can expect demand for her services (not to mention her fee) to go through the roof.
It’s all a far cry from the days when she was so broke she lived in a friend’s attic and had to rummage under the sofa cushions in search of coins to buy a single potato for dinner.
From her job as a cleaner and struggles with debt to the ‘gorgeous’ husband she gives half her pay cheques to — as Alison Boshoff discovered, there is far more to this down-to-earth actress than meets the eye.
A cleaner and cheery but hopeless secretary
Like most aspiring actors, Olivia struggled for work. She took jobs as a secretary — ‘not a very good one, although I was cheery’ and as a cleaner. ‘There were years of no work. It was a hard time. I actually really loved my cleaning jobs. I loved the job satisfaction. I’d really go to town. I’d wipe skirting boards, the top of lights. I never looked in drawers.’
She never wanted to do anything but act, though. ‘Being able to put ‘Actor’ on my passport was all I wanted in the world.’
Finding pennies down sofa to buy a potato
Speaking of her early days with now husband Ed Sinclair, she said: ‘We had what we call our Angela’s Ashes day when we first moved to London from Bristol (in 1998). I had £1 left in my overdraft and cash machines don’t dispense pounds.
‘Ed didn’t have any money either, so we managed to find enough pennies from the sofa to buy one potato to share.’ They lived in the attic of friends who had a place in Epping, Essex, for two months.
In 1999 they bought a two-bedroom flat in London’s East Dulwich, using a £30,000 inheritance from Ed to help them meet the £90,000 asking price. They sold it two years later for £150,000.
If it all goes wrong I could be a midwife
The couple took out a credit card in 2001 and ended up £3,000 in debt — a relatively small amount but Olivia found it traumatic as neither was earning regularly.
However, she was determined to pursue an acting career. ‘My mum said, “You’ll probably give it a year.” And I said, “No, I’ll give it ten”.’
Her career began to take off in 2003 when she was cast in Channel 4’s Peep Show, with old friends David Mitchell and Robert Webb.
There followed the ‘Kev and Bev’ AA adverts and another sitcom, Green Wing.
She counted herself lucky to be paid £25,000 for each comedy series, which took nine months to film, and said that it was enough for her and Ed to live on if they were frugal. As recently as 2009 she had a five-month ‘dry spell’ which led to her starting to look up midwifery courses.
A childhood full of grand designs
Olivia was born Sarah Caroline Olivia Colman near the ‘golden coast’ of north Norfolk in 1974. She is the daughter of chartered surveyor Keith Colman and his wife Mary, a nurse.
She said: ‘They both had a good work ethic. I was really proud of my mum, dedicating her life to making people better.’
Both parents also devoted themselves to renovating houses. Olivia estimates that she uprooted herself 17 times in childhood, and that her parents have moved 30 times in all.
She said: ‘They basically fall in love with a property that hasn’t been cared for and do it up sympathetically.’
Among properties they have lived in, done up and sold on are a nursing home in Horstead and cottages in Freethorpe. They also renovated a cottage in Great Yarmouth, buying it for £310,000 in 2013 and selling it for £850,000 in 2017.
Olivia went on: ‘I had a lovely, feral, free childhood — out and then come back when you’re hungry or it gets too dark. I feel slightly cruel that I’m not offering my children the same.’
Her father was car crazy and she learned how to drive at his knee aged 12 in the fields of Norfolk. By the time she was 16 she had a rally licence. Her first car was a Morris Minor she called Moomin.
She can be up there with Meryl
Young Sarah was sent to Norwich High School For Girls, an exclusive establishment with a shining academic record. Fees go up to £4,854 a term. She first got the acting bug playing Miss Jean Brodie, aged 16.
‘I was on stage, and I suddenly felt really at ease, and at home. Of course, at that age you keep it to yourself, you say, “I want to be a nurse or a teacher”.’
In the sixth form she switched to Gresham’s in Holt, Norfolk, where she is remembered for being ‘popular and kind’. The private boarding school charges £11,660 a term.
Her former drama teacher Paul Hands said: ‘Even when I taught her when she was 18 I knew this was going to be the likely future for her.
‘She is a very special actor and she was a very special student, too. She was never difficult — when you see her being interviewed now, that funny, sensitive and delightful person was the person she was to work with when she was a teenager.’
Olivia returned to Gresham’s recently to open a boarding house and unveiled a plaque in the common room, which includes the words, ‘Olivia Colman, Old Greshamian, who played Miss Jean Brodie at an impressionable age and never looked back’.
Mr Hands adds that he believes she will be counted as ‘one of the great British actors of her generation’ saying: ‘I think she can be as good as Meryl Streep.’
The dramatic breakthroughs
The 2011 film Tyrannosaur was a turning point. She played a charity shop worker abused by her alcoholic husband. She was then cast as Carol Thatcher to Meryl Streep’s Maggie in The Iron Lady.
Next came her performance as DS Ellie Miller in Broadchurch, which won a Bafta, and The Night Manager, for which she won a Golden Globe. She is now filming The Crown, in which she plays our current Queen. But there is a problem: ‘I emote. The Queen is not meant to. She’s got to be a rock for everyone, and has been trained not to [emote]. We’ve discovered that whenever anyone tells me something sad, it makes me cry. It’s sort of shameful, but they give me an earpiece and play the shipping forecast. It’s somebody going, “And the winds are fair to middling…blah, blah.” I’m sort of not listening to what they are saying. I’m trying so hard to tune in to the shipping forecast and not cry.’
Extended home sweet home
In 2011, she and Ed bought their current home, a large five-bedroom Victorian terrace on the Peckham/Camberwell border. They paid £885,000 for it and it is now worth around £1.5million.
It has been extended twice — with a loft conversion in 2011 and a huge six-metre kitchen extension in 2013, which opens out via glass doors onto the garden.
Ed built a treehouse for their children, aged 12, ten, and three, from scratch.
Also at home is a Jackapoo, Alf.
Olivia has said that she hopes to own a second property ‘as a pension’ one day and gossip in Binham, Norfolk, suggests that she has already done just that.
Certainly she is now very well paid; it is suggested that she is getting around £350,000 per series of The Crown.
She said: ‘There’s all sorts of things now we can fix. We can fix the loo, which hasn’t worked for about three years.’
Balancing fame and family
Olivia hesitated over Broadchurch, as it meant four months filming in Dorset — but went home every weekend. She said: ‘If I was away for a long time, we’d all have to go. I don’t like being away from them. It’s as simple as that.’
Olivia finds fame difficult. ‘I hate the loss of anonymity. No one teaches you how to deal with that. I now tend to stay at home because it’s so weird not to be on an equal footing with people. They know your face, and you don’t know them. It’s not that people aren’t lovely’, she adds, ‘but it’s harder to deal with than you imagine.’
Dreaming of meeting Oscar
‘If I’m really honest, I’ve always dreamed of holding an Oscar…but I’m really trying to sort of keep everything in check, keep calm.
‘This is silly. What are the chances? I don’t want to get excited. I don’t want to face that disappointment. I just want to be on an even keel.
‘I’m a mum, a wife, I’m a mate. I’m other things. You can see how people get sort of swept into it and I want to stay sane.’