The 2011 awards season may be young, with a great many breathless winners yet to soak the stage in tears, but I’m not sure we’ll see another acceptance speech quite as humbly overwhelmed as Olivia Colman’s at the British Independent Film Awards earlier this month. Visibly trembling and sincerely astonished at having beaten a roster of nominees including Tilda Swinton, the unassuming London-based actress managed to stammer out a brief list of thank-yous before scuttling off the stage, seemingly shaking her head in disbelief at her good fortune.
It was, of course, not the first trophy she’s won for her shattering performance as a brutally abused charity worker in actor Paddy Considine’s hard-bitten directorial debut “Tyrannosaur,” which also won the top prize at the aforementioned BIFA Awards. Her success began nearly a year ago with an acting award (shared with co-star Peter Mullan) at the Sundance Film Festival, while a Chicago Film Festival prize followed in the fall. Earlier this week, she snagged a nomination from the London Film Critics’ Circle. All through the year, Colman has remained a prominent dark horse in the Oscar conversation, fiercely championed by critics and bloggers who fear this minute UK indie will slip through the cracks: the actress isn’t optimistic about her chances of being invited to that particular dance, but such talk, she finds, is its own reward.
“It’s incredibly flattering, but let’s be honest — it doesn’t seem like a feasible prospect, does it?” she asks cheerily over the phone. She’s just returned home from a day of filming of a long-nurtured TV pilot in Watford; supper is being prepared as we speak. She audibly beams when I mention Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeff Wells’s self-funded campaign on her behalf, arranging screenings of the film in L.A. for potential awards voters, though she’s clearly as amused as she is touched by the effort.
“I didn’t even know until people started talking about us that there was all this massive campaigning around the Oscars every year, I had no idea that’s how it worked. This film means so much to me, and when people show that they like it, I couldn’t be happier. I’m in shock that people are even talking about me, but it’s lovely, and it may never happen again — so why not go with it? But I’ve never expected to win anything, and I still don’t.”
Whether it happens again or not, the likelihood has been significantly raised in the past 12 months, as Colman’s big-screen profile has shot up with key roles in two major 2011 releases: in addition to her weighty lead turn in “Tyrannosaur,” she’ll reach even more audiences in The Weinstein Company’s upcoming Oscar hopeful “The Iron Lady,” where she plays Margaret Thatcher’s put-upon daughter Carol, and consequently shares the screen in multiple scenes with Meryl Streep. Under a blobby prosthetic nose and distressed blonde wig, Colman gives the most open, affecting turn in an often stifling film; her rapport with Streep, as the elderly, dementia-plagued former British Prime Minister, is sweetly evident.
This one-two of dramatic projects is an unexpected breakthrough for an actress, now in her mid-thirties, previously best appreciated as a secret weapon of British TV comedy: shows like “Green Wing” and “Look Around You” built up to a long-running gig as seemingly gormless, but ruthlessly manipulative, office drone Sophie in the superb “Peep Show,” where she makes a rich comic virtue of the character’s utter lack of wit. Her dry gifts also reached cinema audiences in the hit police spoof “Hot Fuzz,” where she first worked with Paddy Considine. The off-kilter actor was sufficiently impressed by Colman’s work to offer her a part opposite Peter Mullan in his short film “Dog Altogether,” which won awards from BAFTA and the Venice Film Festival, and essentially served as the opening chapter for “Tyrannosaur.”
“I’ve always done some smaller serious roles along the way, but I’d go to auditions, and I wound up getting picked for a lot of comedy parts — which is great fun, and a lovely way to spend your life,” she says, speaking with great affection of her work on “Peep Show” in particular. “But drama is where my heart’s always been, and it took Paddy to see it. And I don’t know why he did, because no one else had — it was always other actors who got the big, ballsy parts. I’m so thrilled he took a chance on me.”
“Dog Altogether” introduced the emotionally damaged protagonists of “Tyrannosaur,” Joseph and Hannah (called Anita in the short), but left them dangling in their suffering. Colman explains that Considine initially conceived a second short following Hannah’s story in more detail, but when funding for that fell through, decided to expand the project to a full feature — writing the script in just one week. Colman and Mullan remained on board throughout, she says: “They’re such beautiful people to play: to have someone write a character like that specifically for you is amazing, but then you have to justify their faith.”
For Colman, that meant going to some psychological territory she’d not yet been in her work: the abuse endured by Hannah at the hands of her husband (strongly played by Eddie Marsan) is as tough to watch as it surely was to play, beginning with a much talked-about scene in which he urinates on her as she pretends to sleep. The action she takes against him forms the nervy moral crux of the film.
“Paddy had warned me while writing the script that he was taking it somewhere quite dark,” she says. “And I remember seeing his wife Shelley at an event and her saying to me, ‘Oh God, I can’t believe what Paddy’s going to make you do.’ So I’ll admit that when I read it, I was scared. But I wanted to go there. That he believed I could do that was incredible, and I wanted to prove him right. With Paddy at the helm, you feel like you can do anything.”
Colman speaks of her director with immense affection, calling him “an extraordinary creature” and citing his own formidable acting experience as a key factor in encouraging her to lay it on the line: “It goes without saying that Paddy is a great actor, but it turns out he’s an even better director. I felt completely safe with him, even doing the hardest scenes; he would sit as close to me as he possibly could on set, so I never felt I was on my own while he was staring at a monitor. He understands what it feels like to be that exposed, which other directors don’t — they might think it’s better to leave you to your own process, which doesn’t always give you courage. It’s magical to see that little smile on his face at the end of a really tough take and think, ‘Yay, I’ve made Paddy proud.'”
As unflinching as the film is in its depiction of emotional suffering, Colman was determined not to play Hannah simply as a doleful martyr, and found her comedy experience valuable in this regard. “The comedy I’ve done, that I’ve always been drawn to, tends to have a bit of darkness to it. You can find darkness in comic characters — in ‘Peep Show,’ for example, Sophie makes one bad choice after another — and conversely, in an unhappy character like Hannah, you can find a lot of strength and warmth. Everyday life is about finding comedy in misfortune and vice versa; acting is much the same. There’s nothing lovelier than hearing people bursting with laughter in the cinema; you need that release. But you can surprise people with those moments in films where they aren’t necessarily looking for it.”
That sense of balance carries over into the narrative’s most tragic stages, she continues: “As an actress, I respond to characters who are human, who are understandable rather than perfect. Hannah is both human and animal, I suppose — they go hand in hand. An animal can only be pushed so far: at some point, it’s not your fault if you snap. She believes in goodness and she believes in love, even if she’s exposed to so little of it in her daily life. As an actress, I have to make the audience understand that.”
In “The Iron Lady,” the principal challenge that concerned Colman was more a technical one: how to successfully inhabit a living figure whose face and distinctive lisp are still fresh in the minds of UK audiences, thanks to Carol Thatcher’s recent exploits on local reality TV. She recalls turning up for the audition, her jangling nerves amplified when she observed the spot-on mimicry of some of her rivals for the part: “I’ve never been very good at impressions myself. So I did think it was pointless, since, well, why wouldn’t they want the soundalike? Luckily, I was wrong. Or maybe I wasn’t, and they asked the soundalike, but she turned them down. I don’t know.” She laughs.
“I’m intrigued to see how people take me as Carol,” she says, genuine curiosity creeping into her voice. “I used some broad brushstrokes, but overall, I tried to ignore the fact that I was playing someone so familiar and focused instead on making the mother-daughter relationship work. Surely that’s what’s more important. Anyway, Meryl’s doing such an extraordinary job, so you’re already standing there alongside her worrying about what a tough act she is to follow. How much pressure is it reasonable to put on yourself?”
Colman isn’t too blasé to describe working with Streep as a “sheer out-of-body experience,” though she floated back to earth soon enough. “The first day I went to meet her, I couldn’t sit down — I was beside myself with excitement and nerves,” she recalls. “And then Meryl walked right past, then spotted me and backtracked, before giving me a big hug and saying how pleased she was to see me. I couldn’t say anything; all I was thinking was, ‘Oh my God, Meryl Streep’s given me a hug!’ But in a snap, that feeling’s gone, because you just realize that she’s real and lovely and just this incredibly warm, funny woman. She makes you feel like you’re her equal, though who is?”
As we say our goodbyes and she settles in for a hard-earned dinner, I don’t tell her that her performance in “Tyrannosaur” is one Streep would have been proud to give in her prime. Perhaps I should have. But one of Olivia Colman’s greatest personal and professional assets, it seems, is her lack of outward awareness of just how good she really is.