THE New Year couldn’t be getting off to a better start for Olivia Colman, one of our most liked actresses seemingly on a fast-track to National Treasure status.
In November she won Best Actress at the Moet British Independent Film Awards for her heartbreaking performance as an abused wife in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, trumping Tilda Swinton in We Need To Talk About Kevin.
The film has shaken-off in sensational style any kind of perception of Colman as a strictly comic actress after years of appearances in some of out most popular TV comedies, including Peep Show, Green Wing and Rev.
Her role in the latter as a mumsy but frisky vicar’s wife has received whoops of appreciation from the genuine articles (“who wants to be portrayed as starchy?” she says) and a third series looks a certainty if star and co-creator Tom Hollander can rev himself up.
“I think he’s still a bit frazzled” she admits.
“It’s a solid year of work for him up to finishing the edit so I think if I was to ask ‘are we doing a third one?’ he might start twitching.”
Now she is starring opposite Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady as Carol Thatcher, a role she describes as even more intimidating than her battered spouse in Tyrannosaur.
The fear lay in the recognition factor – “we all know her voice and her face and I’m not good at impressions” – but Carol’s public profile proved a blessing in terms of research: Colman, 37, watched the entire series of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! in which Carol emerged triumphant as “Queen of The Jungle” in 2009.
“She was a favourite to lose when she went in and she ended up winning it” admires the actress who is completely convincing in the film, nailing Carol’s familiar voice with its soft Rs and looking like her too, aided by a prosthetic nose.
“She was gung-ho and witty and quite fun. She’s a ballsy person to play.” A tad potty too, I venture. “Yes, it’s great to play potty. Potty’s a good word.”
She recounts an episode in I’m A Celebrity in which Carol had to drive a car across a wobbly bridge over a ravine even though she can’t drive.
“She just climbed in thinking ‘death is preferable to failing the task and not feeding my comrades.’”
Yet Colman’s performance is no caricature and provides the picture with its warmest and most touching moments as Carol confronts the upsetting reality of her mother’s dementia.
It’s a storyline that has attracted controversy for it’s portrayal of Lady Thatcher as a lonely and vulnerable old lady conversing with the ghost of her late husband Dennis, played by Jim Broadbent.
It falls on Colman’s Carol to try and gently remind Lady Thatcher of her present-day circumstances (“you’re no longer Prime Minister and daddy’s dead”) while the story flashbacks to her past glories and challenges as Britain’s first female Prime Minister.
Streep is magnificent (“I just watched her with my mouth open” says Colman) but some have questioned the taste of portraying the former PM in such a way while still alive.
“I feel very sad if people find it distasteful” says Colman, suddenly quite crestfallen.
“It’s not mocking or cruel, it’s sensitive and tender and I think it’s actually incredibly flattering for Margaret Thatcher. It does show the light and darkness of her reign, some of the unrest, so it’s honest like that, but above all it shows her as a woman who achieved something remarkable. Maybe people are saying things who haven’t seen the film yet.”
As for Carol, the actress has never met her and shrinks at the possibility of doing so, although it’s hard to see how Carol can be anything other than chuffed at the spot-on casting: like Carol, Colman exudes a game positivity that makes her company quite life-enhancing.
“I don’t want to meet her in case she hates me. In case I’ve done a really bad job.”
Of course she hasn’t. Her Carol is immensely sympathetic and humorous. Their politics may be different, says Colman, who grew up in Norfolk, the daughter of a nurse mother and chartered surveyor father, but she has great sympathy for Carol’s predicament as the offspring of a world famous mother.
“The children of people so extraordinarily famous have a pretty hard time of it” she suggests.
“Anything you achieve is going to be compared to them. I would hate it and I don’t think I’d cope with it so there’s something admirable about coming out and doing whatever you do when everyone’s looking. It takes a thick skin and courage.”
Colman is a mother herself, to two boys aged six and four, and the bulk of the childcare falls on her writer husband Ed Sinclair who works from home, especially in the last year when Colman found herself in almost constant demand.
The pair met while students in Cambridge, Colman attending a teacher training college which she left after a year to study drama at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Ed at the university proper.
“I always try not to take jobs away from home so I can get back every night and offer him some moral support” she says of family life.
“I definitely have an easier time of it. You’ll do anything for your children and utterly utterly adore them but it’s still pretty tiring and hard work.”
Ed is a “brilliant parent” she enthuses.
“He’s much better at it than I am actually, much cooler about things. I always assumed I’d be a terribly patient mum but it turns out I’m not!”
There doesn’t seem much prospect of a let-up in 2012 for Colman. Later this month (January) she starts rehearsing for her part in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever in London’s West End alongside Lindsay Duncan and Jeremy Northam and directed by Howard Davies.
“Lots of wonderful people are in it who know what they’re doing so I’m going to hide behind them” quips Colman who describes herself as “pretty rubbish” on stage.
She’ll also be seen as Queen Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother, in Hyde Park On Hudson, an account of a weekend in 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor.
Directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill), it’s a romantic drama centred on the complicated love life of the US President, played by the notoriously elusive Bill Murray.
“The film was five years in the making and trying to pin him down was like trying to nail jelly to the wall apparently” chuckles Colman who found the actor “hilarious, anarchic and brilliant.”
Although she says she’ll take whatever jobs “come my way”, there’s no doubt that Tyrannosaur, which she describes as “the thing I’ll be most proud of until I die”, has opened up new avenues for her as a dramatic actress.
“Yes, I’ve had some different things come through the letter box which is so nice, it’s really exciting. The ultimate dream is to do a bit of everything” she says, fizzing with good cheer.