Oscar-winning actresses, like royalty, normally require a certain protocol. There will be the entourage to manage, the punishing schedule to work around and a long wait before one is ushered into the Presence with a list of pre-vetted questions. Having spent most of the previous day immersing myself in an intriguing, very early cut of The Crown‘s third season, in which Olivia Colman steps into the Queen’s sensible pumps, I am expecting her to be a daunting combination of both Hollywood and Windsor. As a result, I almost miss her when she slides shyly into the foyer of the Ham Yard Hotel, a few minutes early, alone, and anonymous in jeans and trainers. ‘Oh gosh, I’m not wearing any make-up,’ she says, apologetically, when I introduce myself. ‘I thought I’d get here in time to put some on!’
Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that I don’t recognise her at first. Colman’s ability to embody different roles is unsurpassed, her range extraordinary. Having made the nation howl with laughter in Peep Show and Rev, she traumatised us with searing performances in ITV’s drama Broadchurch and the 2011 film Tyrannosaur, while the passive-aggressive stepmother she portrays in Fleabag somehow causes you to inhabit both states – laughter and distress– simultaneously. How does she do it?
‘The fierceness, the sadness, the darkness and despair that emerge in her work seem to issue from some other source, and make her gorgeous talent, whether it draws from real or imagined pain, undeniable,’ declares Meryl Streep, her co-star in The Iron Lady, when I email to ask. ‘I think she is one of our GREAT actresses, I felt so lucky to have worked with her; and I can’t wait to see where that antic, brave imagination takes us with the Queen. Because it will be imagined, as there is no more private, and hence mysterious, personage than Queen Elizabeth. But I am sure Olivia will lead with her heart and be guided by her unerring intuition and intelligence – and draw as accurate an essence as can be divined.’
While Colman put on more than two stone to play Queen Anne in The Favourite, the part for which she won her Academy Award for Best Actress this year, her genius is less to be found in imitating a character’s physicality and mannerisms than in mining their inner emotions. ‘The joy of playing that part was I got to be almost 15 people in one. Such extremes! That was so much fun!’
By contrast, I expect that her new role playing our current monarch, while highly anticipated by Streep and the rest of us, may well be the toughest of her career.
‘I don’t really enjoy research,’ Colman admits, as we chat over breakfast on the hotel’s roof terrace. ‘But for this, I have to accept it. I can’t just sit like me, I have to sit like her, and look like pictures of her. They have been teaching me how to walk – I’m really terrible at that, I have no physical awareness. I walk a bit like a farmer, one of the directors said.’
The voice was another challenge. ‘I thought that general“posh” would do it, but apparently not. Really unusual vowel sounds,’ she says. Like what? ‘Well, it’s not quite this, but if you’re saying “yes”, you say “ears”.’ She bursts out laughing. ‘It’s fun to do, isn’t it? Very hard to stop. Ears.’
Still harder for her, I would imagine, was perfecting the Queen’s all-but-unshakeable imperturbability, so beautifully embodied by Claire Foy, that offers barely a hint at the passions that maybe raging beneath. Colman, by contrast, seems to be lacking a protective layer of skin that has been granted to the rest of us. It is what makes her so compelling to watch on screen – you can see the emotions chase each other in succession across her mobile features – but can she play blank? ‘Claire was so brilliant at it that for the first few months, I just thought, “What would she do?” and I did that,’ agrees Colman, humbly. ‘I’m not very good at not moving my face.
‘There’s one episode where they tell the story of Aberfan –which, shamefully, I didn’t know – and it was so awful, tragic and harrowing, and I really struggled with it.’ (In 1966, a colliery spoil tip slid down a mountain onto a primary school in the Welsh village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Famously, this appalling tragedy elicited one of the Queen’s rare public missteps, when she refused to visit for eight days, giving rise to public criticism. In 2002, she admitted that this was her ‘biggest regret’.)
‘So they gave me an earpiece and put on the Shipping Forecast and I just listened to that and pretended that was all that was going on,’ says Colman. Even so, watching the episode in question, I could clearly see her eyes welling up.
Colman’s middle-period Queen has fewer of the grand set-pieces of Foy’s reign – much of the drama and glamour goes to Princess Margaret, played by Helena Bonham Carter, who cavorts on Mustique with Roddy Llewellyn while her sister grapples with drearier issues such as Churchill’s funeral, Prince Philip’s mid-life crisis, Wilson’s resignation, the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War… a period the monarch herself might have termed a ‘tempus horribilis’, perhaps?
Ironically, Colman’s own existence is a good deal more glamorous by comparison, right now at least, following her Oscar win this year. ‘I can’t register that it’s happened – it’s bonkers!’ she says, laughing in disbelief. ‘It’s in our sitting-room, on the sideboard, and we keep laughing at it. It looks fake, it’s so shiny. And it’s really heavy! I could do some amazing weightlifts.’
Watching again the moment when she was proclaimed the winner, I note with interest that she seems almost appalled to hear her name read out. ‘I was terrified, because I was going to have to say something in front of all these people,’ she acknowledges. ‘Ed [her husband] sent me a text saying, “Please, just think of these points,”but I was like, “It’s not going to happen, Eddie.” It feels unlucky to prepare something.’ Who did she expect to win? ‘Glenn Close. She was sitting right in the middle, wearing gold, so I thought she must know something.’ Prepared or not, Colman’s spontaneous, witty address was one of the highlights of the night, as, breathless and seemingly on the verge of tears, she sang the praises of her co-stars Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone– ‘the two loveliest women in the world to fall in love with’ – and then blew a raspberry at the continuity person telling her to wrap it up. She also declared that, even while she was working as a cleaner to make ends meet, she had dreamt of such a moment. ‘Everybody does, don’t they?’ she asks. ‘A bit?’
Born Sarah Olivia Colman, the daughter of a nurse and a chartered surveyor, she had a happy childhood in north Norfolk – itself, of course, a favourite Windsor stamping ground. ‘Well, they never came round our house,’ she jokes. She went to a girls’ school in Norwich, where she discovered her love for acting playing the title role in a production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. ‘I was so shit at everything at school, but I did the play and thought, “Oh, I like this!” I actually had the urge to do the homework and learn the lines,’ she says. ‘I was quite a jolly kid, but not particularly confident, and suddenly being someone else was amazing. And I could do things as someone else that I could never have done as myself. But I didn’t know if I was allowed to be an actor. Nobody knew how to be in that world.’
Instead, she decided to apply to a teacher-training college inCambridge, and acted in university productions alongside David Mitchell and Robert Webb, who became her close friends. Realising that teaching would never be her métier, she supported herself working as a cleaner – ‘the job satisfaction was amazing!’ she declares with sincerity – and continued to perform, eventually winning a place at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. In her final term there, she was asked to attend an audition for a TV show, and arrived to find Mitchell and Webb waiting for her. ‘And then, they were basically responsible for all my work for years…’ she says.
This bouncy summary suggests that Colman’s rise to fame was unclouded by any of the issues highlighted by the Me Too and Time’s Up campaigns, but she is unexpectedly vehement on the subject. ‘I am thrilled that it’s happening, and I hope that it doesn’t lose momentum, and people don’t get bored of it,’ she says. ‘People are so used to the norm, and they don’t want to rock the boat – if you put your head above the parapet, you can be seen as difficult. And if a woman’s seen as difficult, then people don’t employ her. Deeply unfair…’
In her own case, she says, the discrimination was subtle yet nevertheless present. ‘I wasn’t preyed on in that way,’ she says, ‘but when you’re doing comedy, the girl never really gets the punchline… that sort of stuff, which is very annoying.
‘I loved being part of it all, and I sort of understood, because I hadn’t written it. But if I had, I’d have shared out the punchlines. At the time, I was just thrilled to be working with really great people; it’s only afterwards that you look back and go, “Oh, hopefully that will change.”’
We talk, too, about equal pay, in the light of the revelation last year that Foy was being paid less than Matt Smith, who played Prince Philip. Is Colman getting as much as her consort Tobias Menzies? ‘I bloody well hope so! It’s not called Philip, it’s called The Crown!’ she expostulates. Still, she admits a little ruefully, ‘as we know, there isn’t equal pay, so Oliver Colman has probably paid off his mortgage, but Olivia hasn’t. The idea is that you get an Oscar and suddenly – boom! You’re a multimillionaire! No –I definitely can’t complain, but I’m nowhere near the realm of paying everything off yet.’
Colman lives in south London with her husband, the writer Ed Sinclair, their three young children, aged between 13 and three, who are ‘deliciously uninterested’ in her work, and two dogs, Alfred Lord Waggyson and Pockets. She tries to keep her home life as normal as possible, and routinely refuses jobs that take her away for any length of time. ‘I get homesick. If it isn’t in the school holidays, so we can all go together, I don’t want to do it. I did a little film in Ohio for two weeks, and that was the longest I’ve been away from Ed in 25 years.’
But the accolades and leading roles have inevitably led to a loss of anonymity, which troubles her, despite the public’s huge and uncomplicated affection. ‘I’m very shy and private,’ she says. ‘I find it very, very difficult to be stared at.’ How does she cope? ‘I don’t go out! I find that fixes it. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a therapist, and I said, “It’s fine, I just don’t leave the house any more.”As soon as I said it out loud, I realised it sounded quite weird,’ she admits. ‘It’s not what you expect, the other side of it.’
It was in a vain attempt to keep a lid on her ever-growing fame that when she was given a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list this year, she had it awarded in her married name, Sarah Sinclair. ‘I was thinking it would cause less fuss, and be nice and private,’ she says with a sigh, ‘but now everyone just knows my real name.’
Still, I say, trying to cheer her up, it might mean that she meets her alter ego in the flesh… ‘I imagine she has other stuff to do,’she says wryly. ‘I’m trying not to get my hopes up – but I really want it to be her.’ I bet the feeling is mutual.