How does an actor with well-established comedic chops turn in a shattering performance in one of the year’s darkest, most disturbing films? Olivia Colman says she did it in “Tyrannosaur” by doing what’s real for her character—with the help of a pitch-perfect script.
“I didn’t go anywhere different for it,” Colman says. “You just go to where you need to go to do her justice.” Her work in this film by writer-director Paddy Considine was dubbed the breakout performance at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
One more breakout is coming her way, however. She more than holds our attention as Margaret Thatcher’s daughter, Carol, opposite Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady.”
But in “Tyrannosaur,” Colman plays Hannah, a Christian woman who works in a thrift shop and who holds out a literal and figurative hand to the damaged, raging Joseph (Peter Mullan). Yet Hannah bears her own scars, caused in large part by her marriage to the monstrous James (Eddie Marsan). The film began life as Considine’s short; in the feature film he expands Hannah’s role to show her background and develop her relationship with Joseph.
Back Stage: How did you meet Paddy Considine, and how did he cast you in this project?
Olivia Colman: We met on a film called “Hot Fuzz.” We met the first day of our rehearsals. I knew Paddy was coming, and I was so excited to meet Paddy Considine. And he came up the stairs, and I opened the door for him, and he said, “After you,” and I went, “Oh, no, no, after you.” And he says that at that point he thought, “Oh, right, she’s the one for my short film.” I’m so pleased I held the door open for him.
Back Stage: How much time did you have to prepare your character for the short?
Colman: I didn’t. I read the script, but then I had to fly to Glasgow and do my scenes just in one day, because I was in the middle of a job. The short went down very well. It won a BAFTA for best short. After that, people were saying, “I want to know what happens with these characters.” And then it was just about four years between the short and the feature.
Back Stage: If there was no back story for Hannah, did you make one up for her?
Colman: Everything was on the page. She worked in this charity shop; she was the only person who extended a hand of friendship to this man who most people would have walked to the other side of the street away from. I didn’t need to know an awful lot more about that. I know lots of actors might disagree with me, but to me I just did what was on the page. She was a lovely, warm person.
And when you come to the feature, she just shows herself as a lovely, warm person. She doesn’t show what’s going on, anyway, in her back story. It’s unveiled during the course of the film. But I think it’s right that she doesn’t show everybody, and that’s what’s more interesting.
And the whole film is about challenging perceptions: You make snap decisions, snap judgments about people, and you’re invariably wrong. Looking at the film after you’ve witnessed what Joseph’s done, you can’t believe you can feel so differently. But I don’t think you need to demonstrate everything, because that’s not what people do. They keep their secrets, and they keep them well.
Back Stage: Any other research?
Colman: I went to this charity called Refuge, in the U.K., which tries to help victims of domestic violence. I talked to women who work for the charity—not to any of the women, or men, they help—because I couldn’t promise I wouldn’t cry. So they gave me a case study to look at, which was so shocking—a hundred times worse than anything you saw onscreen—and that was enough. I’ll never get rid of that now, the horrible images from that. That was enough to inform what I thought Hannah was.
Back Stage: What was Paddy’s set like? Formal? Funny?
Colman: Informal and very, very safe, very friendly. They’re all funny people: Paddy, Eddie, and Peter. All lovely, warm people who tell funny stories and joke with each other. Also the crew. When you’re feeling exposed when you’re doing something, you don’t want to hear someone giggling ’cause they’re doing a private joke over there. No one did that [on this film]. Everyone was completely committed.
Back Stage: What kind of rehearsals did you have?
Colman: We had one day that had been put aside, before we started the shoot. Paddy and Peter and I sitting. But it ended up we didn’t really talk about the piece at all. We ended up going to the pub and having a drink. The characters were already so whole, so multifaceted, so complete on the page, I didn’t want to talk about it. It feels like you’re taking the lid off the pressure cooker. If I can feel it, it’s all there; please don’t make me say it before we have to do it.
I told Paddy, “I’m really nervous about rehearsing for this; I don’t want to.” And he felt the same. Because I felt it so deeply, I would be sobbing during a rehearsal. He said, “No, don’t say a word. Roughly when you get to that point, where do you think you might go? [The camera will] just follow you and make sure we get it.” That was lovely. It was liberating.
Back Stage: What did you learn about acting while working on this film?
Colman: There’s a certain feeling I have a bit more now, which is I do deserve to be here. I always thought, “I’m going to be found out.” I couldn’t have done “Iron Lady” three years ago. I did “Iron Lady” three years after this, and I thought, “It’s all right; I can hold my own,” after Paddy giving me confidence like that.
Back Stage: What did you learn watching Streep?
Colman: She has a very strong work ethic. There is no ego; there’s no vanity; there’s no place for that. That’s why she is so extraordinarily good at what she does. I don’t want to? see the working behind a performance. To be; that’s it. And to feel it.
And laying on extra stuff—I don’t enjoy watching that. She takes what she needs to, to make that person real. People would have paid to sit there and watch her in the flesh doing it. And she was amazing, and you completely forgot that underneath the prosthetics she looked different. She became the person.
Back Stage: In “Tyrannosaur,” what was the most difficult scene for you?
Colman: The one I was always terrified of, from the moment I got the script, was Hannah’s breakdown. I was scared of doing it justice. I didn’t want to let Paddy down. And he shot us chronologically, which was brilliant. Because he’s an actor, he knows how important that is. So the whole journey, you’ve already done it. It makes your job very easy.
There was [another] scene which didn’t make it to the final cut. I think we all felt it wasn’t working. Paddy kept trying. And then I traveled home for the weekend. And Paddy called me and said, “We’re going to reshoot that scene.” And I was so upset that I hadn’t done it right, I’ve let him down, he’d taken the gamble. And then he says, “It wasn’t you. I was saying all the wrong things, and I was directing it wrong.” Which is sweet of him.
Back Stage: And the one scene you wouldn’t mind reshooting?
Colman: The scenes I found hardest were the scenes that were re-creating the short. It was weird—it was like an echo. We did it four years previously, and I was trying to make it? fresh again now, but I could still kind of hear my own voice. I found those the hardest, which is why I wouldn’t want to shoot them again, ’cause it would just get worse.
Back Stage: What was your worst audition ever?
Colman: It was for the Donmar [Warehouse, in London]. I was going to be meeting [casting director and creative associate] Anne McNulty, and I was so excited. Quite early on [in my career]. Wanted to be taken on by my agent. And the script had a lot of mention of camera shot things. And it was for the part of a whore.
So I had a short skirt and tried to look as whorish as I could—or as I could bear. Got there, took my coat off, and she looked at me and said, “What do you think of the script?” And I said, “Oh, it’s good.” And she still looked puzzled. And then she said, “Should we have a little read?” And it wasn’t the script that I’d been sent. It was for the part of a nun. We did laugh about it, but it was humiliating. And I didn’t get that part.
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.
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.
WHAT to do on meeting a double Oscar-winning actor playing a triple election-winning prime minister?
It’s the sort of matter etiquette guides don’t cover, so Olivia Colman went with her instincts and gave Meryl Streep a playful biff on the arm.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself,” says Colman, who plays daughter Carol to Streep’s Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. “She looked like Margaret Thatcher, which is pretty intimidating and scary anyway. And I knew it was Meryl Streep under it, which is also pretty intimidating.”
This is said in such a breathless, oh-gosh way you might never guess the speaker has just won the British Independent Film Award for best actress (for Tyrannosaur), is a cult comedy heroine courtesy of Peep Show and Rev, and seems to be on more “people to watch in 2012” lists than Hillary Clinton and Beyonce combined. Colman, refreshingly, is not your flint-faced diva type. Naturally wide-eyed and dressed in a fake fur coat, she looks like a woodland creature who has wandered indoors to a PR firm’s Soho offices for a heat rather than a rising star punting a picture.
Heat has already come The Iron Lady’s way, with former ministers and aides queuing up to condemn Phyllida Lloyd’s biopic, usually on the basis of the trailer alone. One called the film indecent and exploitative for showing Thatcher as an infirm old lady.
Although “on the other side of the fence, views-wise” from Thatcher, the film made Colman, 37, appreciate what a mould-breaker the Tory leader had been. “It is extraordinary that a woman fought against a sea of men, and a sea of men who didn’t know how to cope with women anyway because they were all public schoolboys. To rise to the very top of all of them, amazing. Everything else is a matter for debate.” She pauses and laughs. “I’m trying to be diplomatic about it.”
What has irked some Thatcher supporters is the way the film highlights her current frailty. Unfair? “It would be unfair if we were laughing at her predicament. That would be appalling.” Instead, says Colman, the film shows in a tender way how even the most powerful person can be made fragile by old age. “Sickness doesn’t care who it is attacking.”
Whatever the reaction to the film in 2012, last year was a very good one for Colman, with critics hailing her portrayal of a battered wife in Paddy Considine’s demanding drama, Tyrannosaur. Also starring Scotland’s Peter Mullan and Eddie Marsan, it looked like a tough gig.
“Actually it was one of the most enjoyable shoots I’ve ever had, which sounds weird having seen the film. We all felt we were part of something very special. Those are the sort of films most actors want to do. I can’t imagine anything topping that experience, ever.”
And there was always Mullan to cheer things up. “He’s such a raconteur, he’s got a million stories and he’ll have everyone in stitches then go straight into a scene where he’s ….” At this point three things happen. She segues into a Scottish accent, suddenly looks horrified, and starts to apologise. “Sorry, I can’t believe I did that accent to you. How awkward.” I’m too busy laughing at the impersonation to be offended.
To those who only knew Norfolk-born Colman from Peep Show, Tyrannosaur would have been a surprise. She first met David Mitchell and Robert Webb in Cambridge. They were “clever, clever” students at the university, she was doing a teacher training course. She doesn’t quite know why they clicked. “They’re two of the loveliest people I know and they always were. They haven’t changed. We were just a bunch of 20-year-old idiots. Slightly bumbly. We just got on.”
Colman didn’t become a primary school teacher – “There’s a whole generation who should be grateful for that” – and instead went to drama school in Bristol.
Having appeared in Hot Fuzz, Green Wing, and That Mitchell and Webb Look, she achieved spotted-in-the-street recognition as Sophie, David Mitchell’s demanding girlfriend in Peep Show.
What sort of a girlfriend was Colman? “It depends who the boyfriend was. I think I was quite a good girlfriend. I never really went in for drama.
“I used to watch some of my lovely, witty girlfriends being dramatic with boyfriends and think that was a bit boring and tiring. I was quite fun. Probably more fun than Sophie.”
Sophie certainly gives heightened meaning to the word intense. Particularly during those childbirth scenes, which turned out to be remarkably similar, in sound effects, to Colman’s own experiences. “Apparently I mooed,” says the mother of two. “My husband said it sounded quite like a cow. I said that’s nice, thank you.”
At the prompting of her agent she decided to start branching out on her own. “I was so terrified about telling [Mitchell and Webb] because I love them so much. They were so supportive, with Rob saying ‘We knew it was only a matter of time’.”
It was a gamble, she admits, but it is paying off. Besides Tyrannosaur and The Iron Lady, she’s on stage in London in February in Noel Coward’s Hayfever, and she has just done a pilot for a new Channel 4 comedy series, Bad Sugar, a British take on Latin American telenovelas. Also starring Nighty Night’s Julia Davis and Pulling’s Sharon Horgan, written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), and directed by Ben “The Inbetweeners” Palmer, the omens for Bad Sugar are good.
Colman, Davis and Horgan came up with the original idea, though she’s keen to give the credit to her co-stars and particularly the writers. “I couldn’t have written it and I wouldn’t have the confidence to think of an idea without them.” Really? “Definitely. I haven’t done it up till now. Lots of people think of things all the time. I never did. It’s clearly not what I naturally do.”
It’s hard to reconcile this view of herself with the opinion others, Mitchell, Webb, Considine and the rest, obviously have of her. She, however, is more comfortable talking up their talents rather than her own.
“It’s very nice that people might think it’s a collaboration but that would be wrong of me to take that glory. We all get on very well. Maybe there’s something about me that makes them think of something. It would have happened without me.”
Her children won’t see her in The Iron Lady – not really the thing for a four-year-old and a six-year-old – and they’ve been too young to catch her other stuff (the Doctor Who part was far too scary). But many others will see her soon as Carol Thatcher, false nose and all. She was glad of the prop.
“It made me feel a bit more confident. It’s scary playing someone we all know so well. I’m slightly terrified about her seeing it and saying ‘it’s nothing like me’. It’s a piece of fiction with a hint at her. I can’t do impressions so I’m hoping people will forgive me. And they’ve got Meryl to watch.”
The Iron Lady opens in cinemas on January 6.
In Paddy Considine’s directorial debut “Tyrannosaur,” Peter Mullan (“War Horse”) and Olivia Colman (“The Iron Lady”) play Joseph and Hannah, two troubled souls trapped in destructive home lives that manage to connect and find hope in the other. The two characters meet after Joseph, a bitter widower who’s just killed his dog, stumbles into a Christian charity run by Ms. Colman’s unhappily married wife, who’s also being abused by her alcoholic husband.
The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this past January and recently swept the British Independent Film Awards, wining awards for best British independent film, best debut director for Mr. Considine and best actress for Ms. Colman. The film beat out more heavily favored dramas “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Shame.”
Speakeasy spoke to Mr. Mullan and Ms. Colman earlier this year.
Speakeasy: Both of you first became involved in “Tyrannosaur” roughly five years ago, when both of you starred in Mr. Considine’s short film “Dog Altogether,” the basis for “Tyrannosaur.”
Peter Mullan: When Paddy first sent the script for the movie, I wasn’t sure about it because the first eight, nine pages were basically the short film and I thought, oh my God, he has sent me the wrong script. And then it got into what is now the film and it blew me away. Initially, I didn’t know where he was going to take the short film, but I became so impressed with how he opened up the Hannah character and all that she is having to go through, and then gently reintroduced the Joseph character. Well, maybe gently is not the right word, given Joseph’s character. And then there was the great twist at the end and it all just blew me away.
Olivia Colman: I also loved the end, the extension of the short. You now see Joseph’s home and his life is not what you might expect. You think he is a complete bum and he’s not. He has got this proud, clean, tidy little house. And it’s lovely isn’t it, to see their whole love story?
Given the quick nature of the shoot, it sounds like Paddy gave you room to improvise and flesh out characters from the page.
Colman: Paddy was lovely at that. He would say, “You don’t even have to say the words [on the page.] Just show us where you think you might go so that we make sure there is no boom [microphone] in the way, and even then, you can change it again and we’ll just move.” For me, it took a little while to get used to because I’m so used to being told [by directors] we’ve already lit the scene, we want you to stand on that mark. So when Paddy goes, “Do what you want,” I panicked a little. I need instruction. It was great.
Mullan: I liked how the story remains as much a mystery to you as to anyone, and I don’t mean that in any kind of bleak way. I mean it is genuinely a mystery because you don’t quite know what you are going to do next or what is going to happen next. You may have read the script and you might know the journey, but for me, if a film is going to work acting-wise, the work can’t be premeditated. Then there’s no pursuit of truth. What you’d effectively be doing is a vanity exercise. If you break it down too much, it won’t work. When you don’t think too much about your performance, you have to feel it more. I didn’t know half the time whether my character loves this woman or if he’s just wanting her to cut his throat. I genuinely don’t know.
Whether or not they’re in love, the characters have a spiritual connection.
Colman: Well it’s shared upset and shared pain and they can sort of sense that in each other.
Mullan: Hannah has declared her faith and that’s the flame for [Joseph’s] particular moth. It’s like, “Oh really, you have faith? Watch us now try and break it into total pieces.” But the truth is, people like Joseph don’t actually want to break it. They want you to resist and then earn their respect. Of course, to Joseph’s horror he does break Hannah’s faith to a degree and then obviously he doesn’t feel good about it. One of my favorite scenes is when Joseph is watching Hannah give the last rites to his friend. I genuinely don’t know why I have no recollection of us doing it but what fascinates me about it is, and my reading of it may be wrong, but my reading of it was there’s this guy looking at someone wishing to God that if he is to die, then you’ll be the one that is there. At the same time, he’s horrified by the very notion of his own feelings.
Does it surprise you that some audiences seem to be more offended by the scenes of animal cruelty than the violence against women?
Mullan: The misplaced priorities anger me, to be honest. I mean there was this lady in the UK who became the most hated woman in all of England because she put a cat in the dustpan. The literally got death death threats, and the venom that was directed at this woman was astounding. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, do you watch the news? Do you know what is going on in Zimbabwe? Do you see what we’re doing in Afghanistan and Iraq? I mean, no offense to cats, but it wasn’t like she was putting him through a meat grinder. I wouldn’t mind so much if they would transfer that care to human beings. But no offense to the animals. I love my dogs, you know.
Especially because since it’s a film, there is no harm actually being committed to the animal.
Colman: Exactly, it’s imagery. It illustrates, right away in the film, the extent to which Joseph has got himself in such a place that he’d damage a loyal, gentle thing. It’s a great way of telling you exactly where Joseph is at that point, isn’t it?
Mullan: Completely. I remember when Apocalypse Now first came out. All the press talked about was the whole bit when they severed the head of the cow towards the end. It’s like, you just sat through two and a half hours of a Vietnam War movie, one of the biggest, genocidal war crimes in human history, but you care if someone really cut the head off that cow? It’s what we do, but for me it’s so misplaced and then you really start to wonder about people and humanity.
Which TV series would you take to a desert island?
Mad Men. I love the attention to detail: the clothes, the curvy silhouettes which you don’t see any more on telly, how everyone smokes in every scene… It’s so alien now.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
America’s Next Top Model. You couldn’t parody Tyra Banks; she’s already too funny.
What did you last change the channel to avoid?
Sport. My husband will watch anything with a ball in it so occasionally, out of sheer boredom, I cry “Look over there!” and turn over. I do like sport but I enjoy his distress a little bit more.
What was the last thing you recommended?
One Born Every Minute to an emotional friend who likes to cry a lot. My husband and I sat there and bawled; people having babies is a winner every time.
What do you sit down to watch as a family?
Our children are very little so they insist on watching films ad nauseam until we can’t bear them any more. I must have watched WALL-E and Bolt 50 times but had to sneak out for the first 20 minutes of Up because I found it too upsetting. I’m a softie, a filmmaker’s dream – if they’re going for saccharine and sobs then I’m their man.
Could you be tempted onto a reality show like Strictly?
Not for anything in the world. I’d rather eat my own feet. I’m just an actor; there is nothing interesting about me apart from that fact. The very word “celebrity” makes me feel sick.
Who was your first crush?
Michael J Fox in Back to the Future. All my fellow little girls fancied him so I fancied him.
Who’s your ideal dinner guest?
I’m not sure I could cope sitting at the same table as David Attenborough or Stephen Fry or anyone else I’m in awe of. I met Jennifer Saunders once and could barely function. I’d rather keep my heroes at a distance.
How do you while away your time online?
Gawping at luxury mansions. My husband calls it “house porn” but I prefer to think of it as old-fashioned nosiness. I’ve even got a RightMove app on my phone.
Have you ever Googled yourself?
I have and I didn’t enjoy it one bit because I was worried I’d find rude things written about me. I’m not very thick-skinned.
In the first series of Rev you had to dress up as a prostitute – what had you blushing during the filming of series two?
There’s a short burst of dancing during a camping trip. Might not sound like much, but I felt embarrassed. They ended up cutting it short because it was so bad.
When did you realise you wanted to be an actor?
At the age of 16, when I was in my first school play. I liked the smaller, comic parts in plays because you didn’t have to learn as many lines and got people to laugh, so it was instant gratification without much work.
What’s the secret to making people laugh?
You still have to be truthful. Even if it’s heightened comedy, if it doesn’t come from a truthful place it’s not going to be funny.
Is there any sitcom that you like to watch again and again?
I’ve always adored Friends. I was at university when it first came out and now I’m a proud owner of the box sets. It’s still a good old comfort blanket.
You play Carol Thatcher in the forthcoming Iron Lady movie with Meryl Streep and are currently in LA – have we lost you to Hollywood? What’s going to become of the Rev Adam Smallbone without his long-suffering wife Alex?
It’s very nice here, but I’m only here for a week. Couldn’t leave Adam!
I have uploaded photos from the Virgin short awards 2011 and the British Independent Film Awards 2011 to the gallery click the pictures to see them:
Channel 4 has commissioned a new comedy pilot featuring three of Britain’s leading comic actresses.
Bad Sugar will star Olivia Colman, Julia Davis and Sharon Horgan, who also conceived the idea for the show together.
The half-hour pilot centres on a dysfunctional, wealthy mining dynasty, with an ailing patriarch and some greedy siblings. The show, produced by Tiger Aspect Productions, is described as ‘a peculiarly British take on telenovela style melodramas, played for laughs’.
Bad Sugar has been written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the award-winning writers behind The Old Guys and hit Channel 4 comedies Peep Show and Fresh Meat. It will be brought to the screen by The Inbetweeners director Ben Palmer.
The programme will also feature Peter Serafinowicz, Reece Shearsmith and David Bradley, best known for appearing in Ideal and the Harry Potter film series.
Executive Producer Sophie Clarke-Jervoise said: “The process of bringing together such gigantic talent, both on and off screen, has been tremendously exciting. Bad Sugar is a darkly comic world where anything can happen, and does!”
Writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong add: “We’ve always wanted to write a show with poisonings, death threats, extreme psychological pain and big hair. With the help of the amazing cast we’re hoping it might be what everyone in UK television has been waiting so long for – Grey Gardens, the sitcom.”
Nerys Evans, Channel 4’s Comedy Commissioning Editor, says: “We’re so delighted to have three of the country’s funniest comedy actresses come together on this glorious project, it’s beautifully written by Sam and Jesse, who are without a doubt the hottest comedy writers in the UK right now. If that mix of comedy talent wasn’t tantalising enough, it’s also directed by Ben Palmer, fresh from the record-breaking Inbetweeners Movie. To say we’re excited by Bad Sugar is a bit of an understatement.”
Bad Sugar will be shown on Channel 4 next year. Meanwhile Olivia Colman is currently starring in Rev and will continue to appear in Peep Show when it returns next year; Julia Davis stars in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror on Channel 4 on December 11th; and Sharon Horgan is currently making Created by Sharon Horgan and Holly Walsh.