Olivia Colman and I are drinking tea in the sitting room of her double-fronted south London home, talking about school runs. Only problem is, I’m distracted. Because on the floor, just inches from my feet, is a pile of scripts. “Second series of Broadchurch,” she explains, with that open, lovable, gummy smile. “I’m so frightened that someone will get hold of them that I burn a few pages every time we light a fire.”
Brilliant, devastating Broadchurch. More than nine million of us were on the edge of our sofas last winter as we watched the terrible truth about who killed 11-year-old Danny Latimer unfold. In the end, the fact that Broadchurch did not disappoint was largely down to the Bafta-winning brilliance of Colman’s performance as DS Ellie Miller. Who can honestly say that they didn’t feel her heart breaking when her boss, DI Hardy (David Tennant), told her the news that it was her husband Joe whodunnit?
And now Broadchurch is back for a second series. But whether it can be improved upon, or what on earth can happen in a tiny Dorset town where most of the inhabitants are now devastated, dead or under arrest, remains to be seen. For there is a danger here — and it is a real danger, let’s face it — that Broadchurch will turn into a seaside version of Midsomer Murders and that the ultimate victim will be its own integrity.
“Well, yes, I must say my initial instinct was to leave it well alone,” admits Colman. “I thought it was perfect as it was, and that it would be a travesty to touch it. But then Chris [Chibnall, the show’s writer and creator] talked us through his ideas for the second series and we all went, ‘Oh, OK… cool.'” Beyond this, Colman cannot — and will not — be drawn. ‘All I will say is that it doesn’t disappoint,” she says quietly, in her distinctive, treacle tone. Colman — “Collie” to friends — looks much younger than her 40 years, padding around her house in leggings and socks, her hair still wet from the shower. She talks constantly, with a rat-a-tat sweetness, as she makes endless cups of tea. And although she’s the very same soulful eyes and heartfelt smiles you see on television, somehow in person she’s smaller, despite insisting “by the time I finished filming Broadchurch last week, I was mainly eating cake.” But her (absolutely false) lament that she is overweight suits her love of jokes and self-deprecation. “You just can’t tell my size because I’m wearing black,” she says. “But I honestly almost cancelled this shoot because I couldn’t bear the thought of being the fattest person in Vogue.”
Whether she’s playing a battered wife (Tyrannosaur) or a vicar’s wife (Rev), the sister of a reluctant salsa dancer (Cuban Fury) or the mother of a murdered child (Accused), Colman draws us in, time and time again, with the sheer force of her humanity. Her extraordinary empathy — “like a watch with the mechanism visible” according to her Rev co-star Tom Hollander – has seen Colman rise from comic sidekick to tragic heroine in the space of a decade. “Olivia absolutely embodies all of our contradictions,” says Chibnall, who wrote Broadchurch’s Ellie with her in mind. “She’s not afraid to cry but she’s also incredibly tough. She’s funny, but she’s able to go into the deepest, darkest emotional territory. She inhabits a character from the inside out and, most of all, she understands what it is like to be alive – how ridiculous it is, how heartbreaking it is and how wonderful it is.”
There’s nothing saccharine about Colman. Her wide-set, brown eyes might well up with the tears at the slightest thing (“I have no armour, I’m afraid”), but they also flash with an intelligent feistiness which is, arguably, the true secret of her success. If a subject that comes up doesn’t sit well with her, she pounces on it like a cat. “Why the fuck should I care?” she blazes, when I ask if she was upset when Gracepoint, the American remake of Broadchurch, was cast with Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn playing the role of Ellie Miller opposite David Tennant. “It’s not my part. I don’t own it.”
The phrase “national treasure” might make her nose wrinkle with embarrassment, but it does go some way to describing the way that Colman is adored, Judi Dench style, by audiences and contemporaries. “I feel a little bit like I’m not ready to have that very nice title on my shoulders just yet,” she says quietly. “I know it comes from a warm and loving place, but I wonder if it means that I’m at the end of my career, and I feel like I’m only just getting going.” She catches herself “Well, at least, I hope I am, anyway.” Colman’s very British modesty has its roots in a loving, middle-class Norfolk upbringing. Her chartered surveyor father and nurse mother worked hard to send her to Gresham’s School (alma mater of Benjamin Britten and WH Auden), where she didn’t make any particular impression until, aged 16, she took on the title role in a production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and “suddenly felt really at home”.
But Colman came from a sensible world, where people didn’t do things like pretend to be someone else for a living. After leaving school she enrolled on a teaching course at Homerton College, Cambridge to buy herself some time. “I didn’t know what else to do and I still couldn’t quite let myself want to act,” she remembers. An early audition for Footlights (where she met her future co-stars David Mitchell and Robert Webb) set her on the right path. “I suddenly found all these people who were a bit weird and a bit shy like me; people who found being someone else easier, somehow, than being themselves.” Soon afterwards she met and fell in love with her future husband, Ed Sinclair, a law student who also harboured dreams of an acting career, and the deal was done. “We skipped of together into this nice, not-at-all-sensible world, where you were allowed to play forever.”
Once Colman settled on what she wanted to do, the force of her ambition burned brightly. She followed Sinclair (now a novelist) to Bristol Old Vic drama school but success did not immediately follow her 1999 graduation. The 25-year-old did a typing course and worked as a temp (“quite a jolly secretary, but not a very good one”) and even took work as a cleaning lady. At no point, however, did she consider giving up. “I couldn’t and wouldn’t do anything else,” she shrugs, almost apologetically. “Being able to put ‘Actor’ on my passport was all I wanted in the world.” Her parents were bemused but supportive; when her mother suggested she give it a year, Colman replied, with that honeyed steel of hers, that she thought she would actually give it 10.
Her scene-stealing performances in The Mitchell and Webb Situation sketch show in 2001 led to bit parts in comedies such as The Office and Black Books and a larger part, as a frazzled mother-of-four in the hit 2005 Channel 4 sitcom Green Wing. Bigger roles followed (Hot Fuzz, Peep Show), but it wasn’t until actor Paddy Considine cast her as abused wife Hannah in his harrowingly brilliant 2011 directorial debut Tyrannosaur that Colman’s star truly ascended.
Colman’s instincts are spot on; like an arrow to the emotional heart of something, she needs only to read the first few pages of a script to know whether it is for her. “It’s hard to explain,” she says, “but I can just feel whether I can do it or not.” Which is not to say that she doesn’t have a game plan. “I have a sneaking suspicion that audiences have seen me crying a little bit too often in the past couple of years,” Colman admits. “And if people get really fed up with me, then I won’t get more work. And if I can’t do what I love, then I will shrivel up and die.” So she is returning to comedy for the foreseeable future. Although stopping those tears may be easier said than done. “If something touches me, I cry. That’s it. I’m a bit raw, a bit rubbish really,” she explains. “Often a director will say to me, ‘I don’t think this is a scene where your character cries.’ And all I can say is, good luck with that!” In life, it is the same. “It was slightly embarrassing at a parents’ meeting the other day when a teacher was nice about my boy and I started to well up.” However, the thought of people turning on their televisions and seeing her, midflow, makes Colman giggle helplessly, ‘Oh look,”‘ she acts out. ‘Here we go; she’s crying again.'”
Fame, for Colman, has taken a bit of getting used to — “I do find it weird when people I don’t know are looking at me” — but her private life provides the perfect refuge. “As long as I have Ed and the boys, everything is all right,” she says of her husband of 13 years and their two young sons (eight and six), whom she asks, politely but firmly, not to have named. Their home is a happy, light-filled place, decorated beautifully in neutral colours. There are scooters in the newly converted, glass-fronted kitchen and a tree house, built from scratch by Ed, at the bottom of the garden. They don’t go out an awful lot. At the party after last year’s Baftas — at which Colman won the Best Actress Award for Broadchurch and the Best Supporting Actress Award for Accused (and, naturally, cried throughout her acceptance speeches) — she turned to Ed and suggested they sneak home. “We were in our socks, drinking tea by 10 o’clock.”
Every work move is made with her family firmly at the front of Colman’s mind. “I don’t like being away from them. It’s as simple as that.” It is not for this reason, though, that her work has been largely restricted to Britain. “If a script was good, I’d go anywhere for it. Truth is, I’ve never been offered a job in America.” But something makes me suspect that Colman — who will next be seen starring alongside Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and John C Reilly in a “bonkers” futuristic sci-fi film called The Lobster (filmed in Dublin rather than Hollywood) — knows as well as anyone that international acclaim is well within her reach.
In the mean time, a new series of Broadchurch will no doubt secure Colman’s place in British hearts. And when she gets on that plane to Hollywood — as she’s sure to any day now — and leaves us feeling bereft, it will certainly be with “Actor” on her passport.