ROYALS, like successful actors, must make do without some forms of freedom. On the podium or in the camera’s eye, they live in roles that others have provided. Within the court and on red carpets, they’re invested with the harder task of playing themselves. Season three of The Crown, Netflix’s portrait of the rise and reign of Queen Elizabeth II, starts with the monarch contemplating her own aging image on a postage stamp, two enlarged designs from different eras facing her like mirror panes—an unsettling self-encounter echoed at vanity tables and on vintage TVs through the rest of the season. If the series’ first two installments, featuring Claire Foy, played on the theme of duty, the new one, starring Olivia Colman, concerns the pinch of life as a performer. It’s the story of a woman at the peak of self-command who works to excel at all her roles while also—quietly—remaking the norms of the job.
“It’s easy to just go, ‘Well, how hard can being the queen be?’ ” Colman tells me with a chuckle one morning over breakfast at the Ham Yard café in central London. She is dressed in a lightweight black Cos blouse with a shawl collar, a slender gold necklace, a delicate gold watch, and jeans. Friendly with an unexpected layer of self-effacing shyness, she has the disposition of listening even as she talks. “I think it’s really hard,” she says of the queen’s responsibilities. “You can’t just go, ‘I don’t want to do it today.’ ”
The comment is ironic coming from Colman. Long known as an actress of uncanny range—she first emerged as a comic performer on British TV programs such as Rev. (about a hapless vicar) and Peep Show (about feckless flatmates) yet earned early laurels for Tyrannosaur, a searingly bleak drama of trauma and dysfunction—she has emerged as one of Britain’s leading screen artists, an actress who never takes the same shot twice but somehow strikes true every time. “Whatever part she plays seems to fit her like a glove,” says David Tennant, her costar in the wrenching procedural Broadchurch. “She plays everything as if she was born to play it, as if it was written for her.” After Broadchurch, she drew praise again in The Night Manager, playing a pregnant spy while actually pregnant, and then in—well, pretty much every role since. “It’s hard not to cut back to her over and over. In the words of our director Harry Bradbeer, ‘She’s a fucking Ferrari,’ ” says Phoebe Waller-Bridge, in whose show Fleabag Colman plays the protagonist’s arty, pushy, maniacally cheerful stepmother-to-be. “She can be delightfully benign and utterly grotesque at the same time.” “Her talent is somewhat like Mozart’s in Amadeus—and the rest of us just watch like Salieri,” says Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown. “She’s never unprepared, and yet sometimes you find out she’s just learned her lines in the loo five minutes before.”
Colman’s signal moment came this past winter, when she won a best-actress Oscar for her performance in The Favourite as Queen Anne: a childish, heartbroken sovereign with a circle of sycophants and the eye makeup of a nightmare Ronette. Colman—“Collie” to many friends—took to the stage cracking self-deprecating jokes while tearing up, recalling her work as a house cleaner and calling out her weeping writer husband, Ed Sinclair. (“He later said that was the best night of his life, and the kids went, ‘What?’ ” Colman recalls. “ ‘To be fair, watching your wife give birth is very stressful.’ ”) “The person the whole world saw, the way they fell in love with her, not just her performance, that’s who she is,” says Rachel Weisz, a costar nominated for best supporting actress along with Emma Stone, who reports spending parts of the evening in tears at the thrill of seeing someone “so deeply good—and I don’t just mean talent” recognized. (“She is kind of a perfect woman,” Stone explains.) In an industry that trades in illusion and mystique, Colman has helped to announce a down-to-earth age, a moment in which the quality of stardom has begun to shift from the unreachable to the exquisitely human. “There’s no bullshit with her,” Tennant says. “That’s true of her performances, and it’s true of her as a person.”
Today Colman is busier than she’s ever been, and her appetite for new work is so strong that her agents block out calendars with bright colors to make sure she doesn’t double-book herself. “If you’re working, you’re so fucking lucky,” Colman says. “A lot of actors better than me aren’t.” In late summer, she appeared in the creepy snake-populated indie thriller Them That Follow, about a Pentecostal family in Appalachia—a role that required her to perfect a deep-rural American accent. When we meet, she’s just been let loose from production on The Father, a film adaptation of Florian Zeller’s play, starring opposite Anthony Hopkins. She had July off and spent it catching up on her watching (Chernobyl and The Other Two, as well as the reality show First Dates) and taking long walks: a pleasure that fame forces her to forgo in London. Come August, she was back at work on the fourth season of The Crown.
Colman has a double challenge when it comes to Queen Elizabeth. On one hand, she is playing a real, known person whom she’s never spoken to at length. (Colman did receive a more sustained greeting from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge after winning a BAFTA this year. “I got over-grinny and a bit nervous and was sort of introducing Prince William to everybody,” she says.) On the other, she follows Foy, whom many viewers associate with the role. “I sort of tried to imagine how Claire would do it,” Colman says. “But I’m not actually the queen and I’m not actually Claire Foy.” Unlike the two of them, she also has brown eyes, and contact lenses were attempted, despite what Colman describes as her “very strong eyelids.” “It was basically like an exorcism: ‘Just hold me down and thrust it in!’ ” she recalls. Finally the production resigned itself to a brown-eyed queen. Tobias Menzies, who plays Prince Philip, was not so fortunate in makeup: He had the front of his hairline cropped to mimic a thinning coif. “That’s commitment, isn’t it?” Colman marvels. “Because he’s got to go to Sainsbury’s with a slightly shaved head.”
“She’s a bit obsessed with this,” Menzies tells me dryly, touting her buoyant attitude on set. (“The most influential person on a set is the leader of the company of actors, and Colman is a brilliant leader and a brilliant example,” Morgan says.) In private, Colman’s Queen Elizabeth is chillier than Foy’s, or at least more controlled, as if time and experience have worn down certain of her corners and hardened her core, and the season explores her vexed relationship with members of the royal family. She must command them while requiring their skills and favors to safeguard her success.
Colman’s own professional and artistic ascent is especially striking because it did not happen overnight. The truism in Hollywood has long been that, although a man could emerge into the klieg lights at almost any age, a screen actress who didn’t break through by her mid-30s had lost her chance. For Colman, life as a true movie star didn’t begin until after 40; her coronation holds the promise of a slow, thrilling transformation in the industry. “Definitely, roles are getting more interesting, complicated, and textured,” says Weisz, who, like Colman, has been shining brightest in her 40s. “But women in their 40s are interesting.” Over breakfast, keeping one eye on the clock because the second of her three children has an early dismissal from school, Colman tells me that she doesn’t think she could have made it big as a young actress, nor would she have wanted to. “To be the ingenue and to keep working is rare because once people see you as that, they don’t like the process of aging,” she explains. “Which is fucking ridiculous!” She meets my eyes. “I grew to my place.”
It is customary for Vogue to choose its cover stars from emerging young talent and soaring celebrity leaders. At 45, Colman is a cover woman for a new era: proof of the glamour of slowly and devotedly building one’s life and craft; a reminder that, for a rising generation of powerful women, it is possible to reach success and mastery while remaining honest, patient, healthy, whole. “Everyone shines a little more when she is acting with them,” says Waller-Bridge. “I will always aspire to her level of brilliance, but I’ve been equally inspired by who she is as a person and a professional. Work hard, and be nice to people. And don’t take yourself too seriously. And karaoke. I say those are the secrets to being as close to Olivia Colman as possible. Oh—and be hysterically funny and a genre-defying acting genius.”
COLMAN LIVES IN SOUTH LONDON, in a timeworn, light-filled house that she and Sinclair purchased seven years ago. It is nested in a quiet neighborhood, leafy but not precious, with parks not far away. On summer weekends, neighbors work in their front yards, tending rosebushes and lavender. When I show up, it is the day after the solstice—one of the bright summer Saturdays in London that begin with trees catching the early–morning winds and end with a long, wild, luminous-blue gloaming sky. Sinclair, a silver-haired man with a trim beard, is dressed in cargo shorts and a daddish button-down shirt, untucked; Colman wears a casual charcoal-gray dress. I get on my knees to greet the dogs: Pockets, a Kokoni mix rescued from Cyprus (who leaps to lick my face), and her senior, Alfred, Lord Waggyson, a magisterial terrier-poodle. Sinclair is gathering children out the door, bound for the market.
“Eggs?” he calls.
“I think we have enough,” Colman says, gazing into the refrigerator.
The goods are for a barbecue that they are hosting that evening. Sinclair, who does the daily household cooking, will be grillmaster. Colman, a hesitant but dutiful baker, has been charged with dessert. The Colman-Sinclairs are close to their neighbors not just proximally but socially—weekend cookouts, shared playdates for the kids—and the neighbors are in turn protective of the woman they watched grow from a hardworking actress to a global star. “These streets are a lovely community—they really look after you,” Colman says, handing me a mug of tea and leading me to her backyard, which shimmers with summer green. “I think I might never be able to completely leave London, even though I do dream of buggering off to the seaside.”
Colman grew up as a seaside girl, in Norfolk, a windy, tide pool–trimmed idyll on the North Sea. Her mother was a nurse, her father a surveyor who returned to university as an adult student. “We moved houses quite a lot, just for fun,” she says. “I had a nice, outdoorsy childhood—lots of camping, lots of walks on very wet beaches with anoraks.” She had no ambitions to become an actor (“It felt like being a circus performer—if you didn’t do it from childhood, how could you?”) but watched what she could on the family’s black-and-white TV: The Two Ronnies, Knight Rider, Doctor Who. From time to time her grandmother would take her to the movies. “When Bambi’s mummy got done in, I think I had to be taken out of the cinema, and I didn’t go back for years,” she says. “Quite an emotional child. Hard as nails now, obviously.”
On set, Colman is known for deep-diving in and out of character as if flipping a switch. “She just jumps; there’s no, like, ramping in or ramping out,” Weisz says. “Acting is about the speed at which your mind and your imagination keep up, and she’s got this incredibly fast mind.” David Tennant describes Colman’s plunge into the emotion of a character as “infuriatingly, powerfully effortless”: “It can be quite hard to pinpoint where Olivia ends and where her characters begin—she has incredible access.” “Every actor I’ve worked with has some version of getting into character,” Stone says. “She doesn’t even seemingly for a second—like, ever. She’ll go from being ridiculous, making a joke, whatever, to snapping into a woman who’s just had a stroke, is devastated, and is gout-afflicted.” Colman calls herself “emotional, but also emotionally stable”: tossed around by the turbulence of each moment, but placidly on course for the long journey. She suggests that this style of being makes acting less psychically corrosive than it might otherwise be. “Some people, if they’re playing a very emotional part, it can take hold of them a bit, and I don’t have that,” she says. “I feel it very much in the moment. But as soon as they say, ‘Cut’: Ahh. It’s cathartic. I actually feel much lighter, having had a good cry.”
In high school, Colman struggled to take pride in her appearance. “I look up pictures of myself as a teenager, and I think I was gorgeous. But I didn’t feel that,” she says. “All those little comments through those precious years can have long-lasting negative effects. You see images of a perfect person and say, ‘I can never be that.’ ” Age and wisdom helped, as did the confidence she found in acting and in her marriage. “Over the years, pounds have gone on, and my body has changed; I’ve had children,” she says. “If someone doesn’t like me because of the size of my bum, they can fuck off. Because I’m quite a nice person to be with, actually.” Even so, she still works to feel comfortable with her body and—despite being an international star and a Vogue cover—sometimes finds herself glancing away from mirrors.
“Once I was in a steam room and there were these two women, big women, who sat there, hot and sweaty, so beautiful—I felt like they were almost goddesses,” she recalls. “I want that confidence.” Getting there is an ongoing process. She eats healthfully (vegetarian Monday to Friday, fish and chicken on the weekends) but doesn’t lose sleep or happiness over it: Food is one of life’s pleasures. Netflix set her up with a trainer (ironically or not, playing the queen requires vigorous form), but she is not one of those actors who hit the gym at 5 a.m.: If sacrifice of time and sleep is in order, let it be for family. Most of all, she tries to remember that beauty is mostly an assured way of being in the world. “I just always want to tell my children that they’re beautiful,” she says.
We are sitting with our tea on a bench in the corner of Colman’s backyard: a large rectangle of rich-green lawn with a treehouse that Sinclair built for the kids. A cricket bat has been abandoned in the grass; some toys and a scooter are upended underneath a gnarled birch. Colman apologizes for the disorder and then, after a moment of reflection, unapologizes. “Although I get fed up with the mess and things, it’s exactly what I always wanted,” she admits. She had dreamed of a family since she was 11 years old, but in part because she and Sinclair were in no great rush—they had their first child when Colman was in her 30s, after more than a decade of partnership—she thinks that she was able to savor the experience of motherhood fully when it came. “I wanted it slightly anarchic, noisy, grass with toys on it,” she says.
Colman and Sinclair met as young actors in Cambridge: He was at the university, and she was living in the town, working as a house cleaner, a job she loved. “It was such a position of trust,” she says; she took great pleasure in making a house beautiful. She had enrolled in the teachers-training program at Homerton College, Cambridge, but soon dropped out. (“I was rubbish at it.”) Cleaning houses let her stay in town, crashing lectures, and, on a whim, auditioning for student–theater productions. She was not a young woman in a hurry. “It was very important to me in my late teens and early 20s to have fun—it’s a great time to have fun,” she says. Her auditioning led her into the Cambridge University Footlights, a dramatic club that she had never heard of, despite its reputation for being a hatchery for generations of British comedians—Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, John Oliver, and several stars in Monty Python, to name just a few. Two members at the time, David Mitchell and Robert Webb, recognized her comic genius and worked with her often. (Much later, Mitchell and Webb featured in Peep Show, her first big break in Britain.) By then, she had met the inspiring young actor Ed Sinclair.
“I saw Ed, fell in love, and lost it completely,” she says. “All I could see was him.”
Colman worked as a temp and cleaner in London while Sinclair finished his Cambridge degree; when he went on to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, she followed him, still smitten, assuming that she wasn’t drama-school material herself. As he brought friends by for dinner, though, Colman found she loved hearing about their work at school. “They’d eat and talk about the theater, and I went, ‘This is where I should be—I want to be part of it,’ ” she says. The next year, she applied and, to her surprise, got in.
It has become an irresistible irony that Colman, the house cleaner who tagged along to Bristol with her drama-school boyfriend, is now the family’s star actor and its lead breadwinner, too. (Sinclair has acted professionally but works now chiefly as a writer.) Colleagues of hers all marvel at her capacity to build her career around the life she found it important to live. In a notoriously peripatetic profession, Colman has remained close to home; Them That Follow, filmed in Ohio, was her first production in America, and her two weeks on set was the longest she has spent away from her family. “I get homesick. I don’t sleep well without Ed, and I miss the kids.” In London, she is able to spend the day at work, then return home in the evening to her family and neighbors. (Her kids, she says, have zero interest in Mom’s job; they prefer math, science, and crafts.)
It’s partly on account of her family that Colman does less theater than she used to—a loss in the eyes of many. (Weisz: “I saw her in Mosquitoes at the National Theatre in London, and she kind of brought the house down. We were crying in our seats.”) A theatrical run, which provides off-time during the day, is great when there’s a baby in the house, Colman explains, but now that her kids span between kindergarten age and the early teens, it keeps her from tucking them into bed—a ritual she cherishes.
Also, her theater nerves are not what they once were. “I get genuinely terrified: panic attack, dry mouth,” she says. “The fear manifested itself as adrenaline before, but now it’s just fear.” For a long time, the red carpet inspired similar terror. “A lot of people take on a pretend persona, but I’m crippled by it. I feel embarrassed,” she says. “A breakthrough for me was at the Venice Film Festival, wearing Stella McCartney”—a glorious flowing ensemble with a trailing cape. “I felt, I can do this, I can do this,” she says. “I’d always used clothes as a sort of mask. I discovered that they can make you feel strong and powerful.” In other words, more truly oneself.
Colman wants to make meringues for her barbecue guests and suggests that I “help”—a term I place in quotation marks to preserve its intended spirit. (My confidence as a baker roughly correlates to Colman’s on the red carpet; my record is worse.) First, though, comes fortification, which is to say more tea. Colman pumps a gurgling spurt into my cup from a boiling-water faucet arcing over the sink. She takes milk from the refrigerator and notes a pitcher of lemonade that her children made earlier that day. “It looks like a urine sample, but it is actually very delicious,” she insists. She begins splashing milk into my mug, then peers at it dubiously. “I’ve made that very pissy—is it too weak?”
“I’ve had a lot already,” I say. Behind me, the kitchen table is covered with Legos and colored pencils, and children’s drawings are stuck to the wall, near a narrow shelf of cookbooks. Colman is whooshing through an iPad, brow furrowed. It emerges that she has never made a meringue before. It emerges that neither of us has ever made a meringue before.
“It’s two ingredients. How hard could it be?” she asks, still reading. “Oh—‘Difficulty level: showing off.’ ” She pauses for a moment and our eyes meet; Colman gives a little shrug. “It can’t be that hard,” she says. She heats the oven, opens a carton of eggs, and begins jogging a yolk back and forth between two bits of shell.
“It’s a bit like snot, isn’t it?” she exults. She casts away the yolk with a flourish. “Nothing can go wrong now.” Colman looks quizzically into the bowl. “I’ve lost count,” she says. “Was that four?”
“Four or five?”
“Let’s pretend it’s four,” Colman says, cracking open another egg. She consults the iPad. “ ‘With your mixer still running, gradually add the sugar and a pinch of sea salt.’” An immersion blender is produced. She hands me a cup of sugar. “I’m gonna keep whizzing while you put that in!”
Alfred, Lord Waggyson, is watching us from as far away as possible, curled up at the head of a sofa near the front windows of the house. I am not so vexed: There is something fun about working with Colman, even on this small and foamy project, and I start to understand why David Tennant recalls “laughing more than we should have done” while making even the grim, bleak Broadchurch. “It’s obviously getting so thick,” she says suddenly, nervously peering into the bowl. “I’ve about over-whisked it.”
“I don’t think over-,” I say.
She checks the instructions. “ ‘Seven to eight minutes until the meringue is white, glossy, and smooth. If it feels grainy, whisk for a little bit longer, being careful not to let the meringue collapse.’ ”
We stare at our bowl for a while. The egg whites sit there in a foamy lump. “I don’t think it’s collapsed,” I finally say. “It looks quite . . . present.”
Colman sticks in a finger. “It doesn’t feel grainy,” she says.
“It does look glossy and smooth,” I say.
Colman spreads a sheet of parchment on a baking pan and pours the mixture into two gigantic dollops. “Wish it good luck,” she exclaims and carefully ferries the tray into the oven.
I ask her then whether she doesn’t marvel sometimes at the course her life has taken: Two decades ago, she was cleaning houses, and yet, unlike with the mythical waitress turned starlet, the accrual of magic in her life happened over years, touching work and family alike.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it? Ed and I do sometimes go, Look. We’re still together. We’ve got a family. I’m working,” she says. “Appreciating what’s happening when it’s happening, I think, is quite good and healthy,” she says. “When the kids do badly with exams or something, I want them to know that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. Life’s that big.” She smiles and gives me a warm, bashful look. “I just want to try to keep them buoyant and happy. And seeing life as—potentially—beautiful,” she says.