Olivia Colman: From royal to Wonka villain

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Together meets Olivia Colman an actress with incredible range

Once the quirky face of British television, Olivia Colman has metamorphosed from humble beginnings to the dazzling lights of Hollywood. 

The transition seems almost dreamlike, yet in the space of a few years, this chameleon of an actress who went from the small screen to clinching an Oscar nomination for her stellar performance in The Lost Daughter. 

From her rural roots in the east of England to the city skyscrapers of New York, the 49-year-old’s journey has come about via a heady mix of talent, dedication and the sort of self-belief that sometimes only emerges with vast experience on the screen and treading the boards.

“[She] has become a beacon of excellence in contemporary cinema and television”

Having showcased her versatile prowess in the dark corners and regal hallways of The Crown, plus the idiosyncratic dominions of The Favourite, the actress has become a beacon of excellence in contemporary cinema and television. 

This year, her step into the Marvel universe via the Secret Invasion mini-series has been spectacular, her role in Wonka, starring Timothée Chalamet, Matt Lucas and Sally Hawkins shows an ascending talent continuing to climb. 

Beyond the screen, she leads a simple life with her husband Ed, their three children and their idyllic life in the English countryside, proving that Colman remains the perfect enigma to so many.

So, tell us about the wonderful world of Willy Wonka?

Yes, it’s very wonderful, as is Timothée Chalamet who plays Willy. It was so exciting and amazing to work on this as it is of course an iconic story and a wonderful one at that.

It was funny, when I accepted the part, someone asked me what I was going to be singing and where would I be going to practice. To say that I nearly passed out is no exaggeration! I did have to double-check I wasn’t singing – it’s not something I’ve done for a long time and not something I want to go back to!

Thankfully, my singing voice wasn’t needed but Timothée’s is brilliant and far better than I could ever do. I was too busy having a laugh and having an incredible time on set to be doing that – nobody needs to hear my singing voice!

“I reckon this will be one of those films that families will want to watch over and over again”

This is going to be another one that your teenage children can perhaps relate to in a way they might not have been able to with some of the other things you’ve been in…

Awww, yes. I think more so because I reckon this will be one of those films that families will want to watch over and over again – especially at Christmas time. It was such a joy and a privilege to be involved in and I hope my kids enjoy watching it with me!

Although Wonka is a musical and a feelgood film, let’s go back to the beginning of your career – how was the transition from the comedy sketches and TV series which built your name and reputation in the first place, to the recent intense dramatic roles for you?

It was certainly a challenging venture. While comedy has its own rhythm and timing, drama demands depth and nuanced expression. Initially, it felt like venturing into unknown waters, a mix of excitement and apprehension. 

However, as an actor, you constantly push your boundaries, explore diverse characters and inhabit different worlds. This journey from light-hearted comedy to profound drama has been not only rewarding but also instrumental in my growth as an artist.

Is there added pressure when it comes to doing justice to such an iconic story that’s been around for so long?

It’s over half a century. That’s incredible to think of. I think we can all relate to the original and the magic it gave to us as children.

In a strange way I don’t think you can ever hope to replicate the simple magic and enchantment of the original, so you have to look for different ways to add to that potion.

Of course, special effects and incredible sets will do a lot of that for you nowadays, but I think a modern take on characterization can do similar things. The scripts for this were incredible – so intricate and, I feel, very brave in places too. So in all those respects, I think we have created a retelling of the story that stands up by itself without wanting to better or alter the original.

I actually wish a lot of remakes would consider that approach.

How has your upbringing influenced your approach to acting?

Growing up in what many would consider to be a rural part of England provided me with a unique perspective and a genuine grounding. My home city, Norwich, with its history, diverse populace and culture, instilled in me a sense of authenticity. 

It taught me the art of observation, the nuances of human behaviour, and the beauty of storytelling. It’s where I began to understand the complexities of human emotions. This upbringing became my foundation, shaping my approach to understanding characters and delivering performances that resonate.

Which role, so far, do you think has been the most transformative for your career?

Without a doubt, my role in The Lost Daughter stands out as a turning point. It wasn’t merely an on-screen character’s journey, but also a profound personal exploration.

“Without a doubt, my role in The Lost Daughter stands out as a turning point”

Delving into the intricacies of the character, experiencing her dilemmas and portraying her evolution demanded a deep introspection. It allowed me to push my limits and redefine my capabilities as an actress, resulting in a transformative experience for both my career and my understanding of the craft.

The reviews were astounding and it seemed destined that you would receive an Oscar nomination…

Thank you. It was heartening to hear from numerous women who’ve appreciated its openness. I intentionally avoided reviews due to my apprehensions, but the immediate reactions post-film festival screenings were deeply touching – they truly felt like a blessing.

I think at the heart of the movie is the idea that you don’t have to think you’re the only one feeling a certain way, and that is really important.

“My family is my everything and, of course, I’d sacrifice it all for them”

My family is my everything and, of course, I’d sacrifice it all for them. Yet, when my kids were younger and fatigue overwhelmed me, there were times I yearned for solitude or resorted to switching on the TV – a decision I wasn’t fond of, but sometimes you just need a break. 

It was accompanied by guilt, especially when I found myself desperately trying to catch some rest anywhere possible.

On that note, how do you manage work-life balance, especially being a mother of three?

Balancing professional commitments with the responsibilities of motherhood is a delicate dance. It requires meticulous planning, flexibility and unwavering support from my family. My husband has been an incredible pillar of strength, ensuring we maintain a nurturing environment for our children. 

While acting is my passion, my family remains my anchor. The key lies in prioritizing, cherishing the small moments, and ensuring that despite the demands of the industry, home remains a sanctuary of love and warmth.

Are there any roles you’ve turned down and regretted?

Over the years, there have been roles that I chose to pass on for various reasons. Some of those films went on to become significant. But I firmly believe in the adage that every choice, whether it leads to an opportunity or a missed chance, shapes our journey. 

I don’t necessarily have regrets as I don’t personally think it’s a healthy thing to do. Rather, I see these decisions as lessons, guiding my instincts and reinforcing my belief in the paths I’ve chosen.

Having worked on both TV and films, do you have a preference?

Both mediums offer distinct experiences and challenges. 

Television provides the opportunity to delve deep into characters, evolve with them over time and connect intimately with audiences. 

“Television provides the opportunity to delve deep into characters”

Films, on the other hand, are a grand canvas, offering expansive narratives and wider reaches. I’ve been fortunate to work in both arenas and each has enriched me in its own way. I don’t have a strict preference; it’s the story and character that captivate me.

How do your children perceive your fame and success?

My children have a refreshingly grounded perspective on my profession. To them, I’m primarily their Mum – the one who helps with homework, cooks meals and for the youngest, shares bedtime stories. 

They are aware of my work, but their reactions are often endearingly nonchalant. It’s a stark, beautiful contrast to the industry’s glamour, reminding me of the simple joys and what truly matters at the end of the day.

You do have two confirmed projects on the way – a leading role in Thea Sharrock’s film – written by Jonny Sweet – Wicked Little Letters, and Paddington In Peru. What can you tell us about those?

So, for Wicked Little Letters I play Edith Swan and it’s centered around a true story in the 1920s in a coastal town in England, where someone begins targeting neighbours with nasty letters. 

Edith’s neighbour Rose Gooding – played by the amazing Jessie Buckley – is suspected in the mystifying case and she runs the risk of losing custody of her daughter. The wonderful Anjana Vasan plays the policewoman Gladys Moss who is trying to solve the mystery of who is doing it and why. 

“I think an old story done well is, in many ways, a new story”

As for Paddington In Peru, I think people may be more familiar with that one! Most of the cast from the previous films are in it and I play a character called The Reverend Mother.

I think the Paddington movies have breathed incredible life into an old character, much like I hope is the case with Willy Wonka. I know people are always craving new stories, but I think an old story done well is, in many ways, a new story anyway.