Olivia Colman is a recipient of three Bafta Awards, with roles in hit series like Peep Show, Green Wing, and Twenty Twelve, and has received tremendous critical acclaim for her dramatic work in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, the miniseries The Night Manager, for which she won the Golden Globe, as well as the crime series Broadchurch.
Colman’s interest in acting stems from a role as Jean Brodie in a school production of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. As a comedic actress, Colman has appeared in television shows like The Office, Look Around You and Black Books, and on radio in Concrete Cow, The House Of Milton Jones and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
In film, Colman played Carol Thatcher alongside Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady; Hildegarde Schmidt in Kenneth Branagh’s remake of Murder On The Orient Express; and the hotel manager in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster.
She reteams with Lanthimos, and her The Lobster co-star Rachel Weisz, on The Favourite. Colman plays Queen Anne, a British ruler encumbered by grief, gout and insecurity, whose affections are fought over by Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone).
How much did you know of the history behind The Favourite?
Not a thing. It’s amazing, isn’t it? The film is surprisingly accurate, because it does feel so far away from what we know to be period drama. You think it has to be made up. But so much is correct. I just love the way Yorgos has done it. It’s not the way you think a period drama is going to be. Everything he did with the shots; the fish-eye lenses. It’s all so different from any period movie you’ve seen before. But, in a way, it’s less about the history of the piece as it is about this woman who has lost all these children, and her love for these other women. It’s less about holding yourself in a certain way, or getting used to the way people speak in period dramas. These are real people, and you can kind of smell them. They’re a bit grubby and unwashed. I was actually a little nervous about it being a period drama, but it just isn’t that.
Where do you begin?
It’s all written down. Yorgos is less interested in big discussions. When a script is done, he says, throw yourself into that. You don’t really need to know all the things around it. This was written so beautifully. It’s obvious, the moments when she’s being a cow, when she’s being manipulative, or she’s bored and she’s childish. So we just let rip and run with it.
What did you like about Queen Anne when you read the script?
The fact that she displays every emotion, good and bad. Every trait. It’s great to play somebody who does so many things. It’s a challenge and it’s fun, so it was a no-brainer. I really wanted to play her. It’s a gift, really, to play all these things.
Did you find it personally helpful to dig into any research?
Only afterwards, which is what I often do. Otherwise, I think, you’re throwing too much in. The work has been done for you if it’s a good writer. I think, “What could I possibly find out that the script hasn’t already told me?” It’s there in the scenes between Anne, Sarah and Abigail. You feel Anne’s frustration in the film. I wouldn’t want her job. You can’t really trust that anybody genuinely likes you. Everyone is just waiting to get their own needs met at all times, and you believe that of Sarah, but you find out she might be the only one genuinely there for Anne. She might be the love of her life.
You’d worked with Rachel before, on The Lobster, which Yorgos also directed.
Yes. Rachel and I only had one scene in The Lobster, where she was instrumental in tying me up. I remember that we got on very well, very quickly. She’s a lovely, fun person. Emma I’d never met. Yorgos held a lovely little dinner, for us to meet each other, and she came in full of energy and you instantly think, Oh, I’m going to like you. We will be friends for life, I think, the three of us. Rachel had done a lot of theatre and physical theatre as a young woman, and Yorgos loves to rehearse in a physical way. So it was so much fun to do that with her. She was gung-ho, throwing herself into it, and so brave. It’s a joy to work with someone like that, because once one person has gone for it, it encourages the rest of you to go, “Great, let’s all jump in.” There was no embarrassment here at all.
Yorgos seems particularly interested in awkwardness and embarrassment, and a lot of this film deals with that.
I think that’s true. I think that comes through the rehearsal process, especially for The Favourite. He comes from theatre too, so we’d play classic theatre trust games and things like that. You become very close, and that really helps. It’s not like you’re meeting on Day One, “How do you do?” And then you’re shooting a sex scene. That’s hideous. Also Yorgos has no embarrassment, and it always starts from the top. He’s a disarmingly big, gentle bear. He’s lovely, warm, friendly. I only once saw him roll his eyes and go, “Ugh,” and it was when I asked him what happened to the girl at the end of Dogtooth. He went, “Ah, I don’t know. The film is finished, make your own mind up.” He puts it all up on screen and then it’s up to you to decide. You want to impress Yorgos. He wants you to be human, and real, so you go for it. You’re snotty and spitting. I wanted him to think, “Oh, good. She’s willing to be disgusting.” I think we all felt that. We always want to see him do a little smile and nod at the end of a scene.
You say it’s not a traditional period drama, but you do get to wear some spectacular costumes in the film. Did you enjoy that aspect of it?
I loved them. It’s Sandy Powell [costume designer Powell is a three-time Academy Award winner and an 11-time nominee]. The Queen’s clothes were hilarious. I spent most of the film in a nightie, so I was fine. Poor old Emma and Rachel were a little more tailored. I was eating cake and pizza and trying to keep as fat as possible, while wearing a big, flowing nightie. Yorgos encourages his team: “Come on. Surprise me. Do something bold.” So you have Nadia Stacey, the make-up designer, coming up with such fun looks. In the ball scene, you may not even notice them, but instead of those heart-shaped beauty marks you see, she came up with stencils of horses and carriages. Taking something we’ve seen before, but making it bonkers. Sandy was the same way. A flash of red, or the servants wearing denim. There’s so much to see from all these different inputs, and Yorgos gave everyone the courage and free rein to have fun. Everyone was told, “Do it. Nothing is too silly.”
You’ve been on British screens for a while, and now you’re enjoying international success. How hard fought has that been?
It’s been a long, slow road, but I feel very blessed. I’ve always worked. Apart from the first couple of years, but I’m also grateful for that because it teaches you to push. I suppose you come into your own. There are more roles now for women in their forties, and the roles get more interesting because they lean on that experience. It used to be over once you’re passed the ingenue thing, but those voices are being heard now. People go, “I want to see myself depicted, because I’m the one in charge of the remote control and I’m paying the bills.” Love doesn’t just belong to people in their twenties. I’m thrilled those parts have come around for me.
The Favourite opens in South Africa on February 1, 2019.