“The role of Queen Anne has been a wonderful gift”
Of all British entertainment’s exports to have taken Hollywood by storm, Olivia Colman must surely be the most honest and endearing. Colman’s phenomenal acting talent has always been evident, since her breakthrough role as emotionally unstable love interest Sophie in David Mitchell and Robert Webb’s hit cult comedy Peep Show, in which she first appeared in 2003.
More than a decade and a half later, she is now reaping the rewards for her tour de force performance in Yorgos Lanthimos’s acclaimed The Favourite, alongside Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Her comical portrayal of Queen Anne has seen her win a Golden Globe and BAFTA – and she is hotly tipped to take home the Oscar, too.
“The role of Queen Anne has been a wonderful gift,” says the 45-year-old. “I’ve never played this big a lead in a film before and so it’s quite a nice milestone for me. You always look for these kinds of opportunities and once you have this kind of major role given to you it’s very satisfying. I’m very grateful for being able to work with Rachel and Emma. It’s rare to have three women in the lead, and where they are driving the story forward on their own and not as somebody’s wife or girlfriend, as is often the case.”
This is not the first time Colman’s unique talent for atypical female characterisation has been matched with a widely admired show. In 2016, she starred in the BBC mini-series The Night Manager. She won the 2017 Golden Globe for that performance – although never believing she would win, decided not to travel to the US for the awards as she “had work the next day” filming alongside Dame Judy Dench. There have also been three series of Broadchurch, where Colman portrayed the no-nonsense Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, making her a household name.
“Not only are these great roles for me, but they’re great roles that women can identify with and stories that women can relate to,” says Colman. “I think that men and women will both be glad to see women presented in a more realistic way. “Women are constantly in contact, aren’t we? We’re constantly involved with each other in the workplace, in relationships, and raising children together. So it never made sense to me that so many films and TV series didn’t give women a greater voice or presence.”
Although Norfolk-born Colman was a member of Cambridge Footlights acting club, she actually trained as a teacher, and after graduating, worked as a secretary – “not a very good one, although I was cheery,” she said. She also worked as a cleaner, while enduring a dispiritingly fruitless round of auditions in her early 20s. “My mum told me, ‘You’ll probably give it a year.’ And I said, ‘No, I’ll give it 10 years.”
The news that Colman will be stepping into the shoes of our current queen will only fan the flames of excitement around the third series of The Crown, due later this year. Playing a living British monarch proved challenging. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve done, I think. It’s daunting,” says Colman. “Queen Elizabeth has had a very difficult task. She has to present a strong image in public but she isn’t really allowed to show any emotion. That’s what makes it interesting to show what goes on behind closed doors.
“The only thing similar about Anne and Elizabeth is that they’re both queens,” she laughs. “They could not possibly be more different. I feel so grateful to be working so much and getting so many good parts. I was frustrated for a while because in this business they like to stick you in a slot and for a long time I was thought of as someone who can only do comedy. But once I had the chance to do drama it changed people’s thinking. Now I have the freedom to do a mixture of things which is exactly what I want to do.”
While charming and witty with acceptance speeches to bring the house down, Colman does not shy away from the debate for greater female representation and a wider scope for women on screen - as well as equal pay. “Everybody wants to see women being portrayed as messy and complicated and confused and ambitious and all of those things that make us who we are. We just have to make sure that we allow women to be able to tell these stories ourselves. “It’s very important that the discussion has begun and should not stop, but it doesn’t mean anything until women are paid as much as men for their work. That’s the only way people can understand their value. Wage inequality is unacceptable, and we need to talk about it, support each other, and make sure that our voices are being heard.”
And what of her own voice? Having added her name to the pantheon of acting greats by virtue of her various awards and nominations, Colman is finding herself hot property on both sides of the Atlantic. But, despite her popularity, she remains refreshingly down to earth, saying that, rather than being at home looking glamorous on the red carpet, she’s “more a jeans and sweater, with something spilled on it, person.”
Her idiosyncratically charming acceptance speech at the Golden Globes resulted in a flurry of approval on social media, touched upon her co-stars, director, and included a mention of sons Hal, 13, and Finn, 11. Colman married writer Ed Sinclair, who she met at university. They live a quiet life in south London and also have a three-year-old daughter, whose name they have decided not to reveal. “I’m actually quite a hermit and I don’t look at social media,” she reveals. “I’m a chicken and don’t like to read things about me that are mean.” Colman need not worry about the territory of Twitter and its ilk – scouring the internet turns up barely a negative comment. Colman is clearly at the pinnacle of her career.
“I can still remember how I felt after I played the lead in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at school. It was the first play I had ever done,” she recalls. “I will never forget the feeling that came with being up on stage, with the sound of people clapping, and thinking to myself, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be a great life if I could get paid for doing this’.”