Olivia Colman’s default mode, as seen on any of the countless awards acceptance speeches she’s given in the last few years, is jokey self-effacement. She smiles uncomfortably, looks embarrassed at all the fuss, deflects the praise on to anyone else she can think of, and makes a crack at her own expense.
You don’t, however, go from being a vaguely recognisable comedy face to one of the country’s most feted actresses in five years without having something about you. In Colman’s case it’s just a matter of unearthing what that something is. I stumble upon it by accident. We are discussing her role in the BBC’s new adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager. She plays Angela Burr, a spymaster who recruits the inscrutable Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) in pursuit of Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), an arms dealer of serpentine charm. I suggest to her that Burr stands in contrast to many of her previous roles, where she’s played stoics that have suffered, cried and made audiences cry with them. She cuts in:
“I’ve never played anyone weak, so no matter what they’ve suffered… I’ve never played a weak character.”
And of course she’s quite right. From Sophie Chapman in Peep Show to Ellie Miller in Broadchurch, from Hannah in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, the role that put a rocket under her casting profile, to Alex, the vicar’s wife in Rev, every Olivia Colman performance has at its heart a fierce inner resolve. She doesn’t do wets, she doesn’t do doormats, and once you realise that there’s always steel behind the smiles or tears, suddenly Colman’s combination of being both likeable and watchable makes sense.
Angela Burr is her steeliest role to date, and quite possibly her best.
“She is a wonderful person to play,” says Colman. “She’s incredibly principled and straight as a die. She would not be persuaded to take money for the wrong reason, unlike some of the other people that she’s fighting against.”
In The Night Manager, Burr has previous with Richard Roper, a character Le Carré christened ‘The Worst Man in the World’ and one who amply lives up to his billing. But in order to bring him down she needs the help of Pine. He a heroic former soldier whose moral fibre is allied to crisp diction and an English education – he fits right in with Roper and his old boys network of financiers and crooks. It is Burr, a Northerner, a pregnant woman, who is the outsider, and Colman – an actress whose career path has also been unorthodox – revels in the tension.
“My husband has described it as: imagine how spooked the lion would be to find a zebra that isn’t scared by them. And she is a zebra really: she comes from a different place. What they can’t understand is that she is just not one of them, and that’s exactly why she has power over them.”
In Le Carré’s 1993 novel, his first set after the Cold War, Burr was Leonard Burr. The writer David Farr (Spooks, Hanna) suggested to Le Carré that Burr might work better as a woman – not only is Burr clearly a Smiley-esque figure, and we are already well served with them on screen, but The Night Manager is a novel full of men. According to Le Carré’s son Simon Cornwell, Colman’s performance, which is a masterpiece of righteous anger and polite smiles, sealed the deal:
“When he met Olivia and saw her on screen his immediate reaction was that Burr should never have been a man.”
Colman didn’t just convince one of our leading authors that one of his favourite characters, a cipher for Le Carré’s own stout principles, should change sex; when Colman went in to meet director Susanne Bier she told her straight away that she was pregnant with her third child. The producers and Bier wanted Colman so badly that they offered her the role regardless, and simply wrote Burr as pregnant. As Colman says:
“There’s no reason why a spook shouldn’t also get knocked up, so they’ve embraced it – which is lovely. It’s nice to also show that pregnant women are people too.”
That is almost the perfect Olivia Colman pronouncement – she’s making a joke, everything’s nice and lovely, but she’s also making a point. All of her characters are principled, and though she’d never be so un-British as to say it explicitly, she is too. The Night Manager is undoubtedly a political piece: Roper is a tax exile, a member of the untouchable global elite who sees it as his unalienable right to do as he pleases. He is, in short, a shit who deserves to get his come-uppance, and it’s clear that this socio-political frame appealed to Colman too.
“It was written a while ago, but it’s been updated and is now set in the present day. Currently all of the things about tax are on everybody’s mind: who’s going to do what with tax, and who’s going to actually put their foot down and say, ‘No, if you’re here you pay tax.’ There’s another rule for the super rich, and there is something about Richard Roper tied up in all of that. He pays $5 million to a couple of high-up officials in order to cover some stuff up. This is all pretend, but that kind of thing may well happen in real life – and I think it probably does.”
I wonder whether the pre-National Treasure™ Olivia Colman, the one who spent 11 years grinning gamely in a succession of British comedies written by men, feels any comparable resentment of the cosy set up in the screen world. She was pigeon-holed as a second-tier comedy actress until Paddy Considine took a punt on her in Tyrannosaur. Success came relatively late in her career; it wasn’t gifted her through preternatural good looks or connections.
But when I ask her to compare and contrast with her Night Manager co-star Tom Hiddleston, another example of a gleaming scion of Eton who has glided up to Hollywood’s top table and seemingly ordered himself a cocktail – she is once again resolute.
“I don’t think that matters. He’s a totally decent human being; he’s really lovely. I don’t know what his background is.”
I tell her Hiddleston went to Eton and then Rada. She says that she trained at Bristol Old Vic and was a cleaning lady before that. Her mum’s a nurse and her dad’s a surveyor. She also went to private schools. It doesn’t, she stresses once again, matter.
It certainly doesn’t matter now – Colman is flying. Her career divides rather neatly in to a Before, where she did comedy and an After when she crossed over in to serious drama, discovered she could convey sorrow and homespun courage like few others, and became Good Queen Olivia of British television.
“It’s the same amount of work – I have been really lucky, touch wood, and have always worked, but it’s different now. I’ve always done sort of under the radar stuff which I’ve been so happy with – working, that’s all I ever wanted to do. Now I’m doing work that people see. I don’t know, it’s funny: it’s still peculiar to do stuff that people watch.”
The poster for The Night Manager has Colman in another drab trouser suit – I mention that some of the best performances in recent years happen to have come with some of the worst outfits on television, along with what she admits were some ‘abysmal hairdos.’ You could have watched most of her work since 2011 and been entirely unaware that she had legs.
“And that’s the only part of me that’s really skinny! I did Mr Sloane [a sixties-set comedy drama with Nick Frost on Sky last year] and I got to wear a sort of mini-skirt at last! Because on telly you just get shot from there,” she says, gesturing from the waist up, “which is not good for me, I’m not a shape for that.”
There was a moment not too long ago when it felt like Colman was in every blue-chip production going, both comedy and drama, and winning every award just for turning up. She stresses that’s a product of scheduling – you make a few things but then it’s up to the suits to decide what comes out when.
“It’s a sure fire way to make sure everybody’s really bored of me,” she says, noting that when the Bafta nominations came out last year, “It felt a bit like they’d accidentally got my name in there from the year before.”
All that adulation is still, however, met in the same way – with flappy-handed, shaky-headed incredulity.
“Firstly, we’re not saving lives, we’re not doing brain surgery, we’re acting and I don’t see the point in making that a big old drama, to use that word incorrectly. And then I don’t know if you really believe all that stuff – the compliments. Then again if you hear one bad comment you can’t get it out of your head.”
And what bad comments has Olivia Colman received recently? “Er, I’ve never had a bad comment from people! But it just makes you feel a bit nervous. It does me anyway: I’m not that thick-skinned.”
Thick-skinned she may not be but robust of heart and mind she most certainly is. Or to use her own favoured phrases, Olivia Colman is nice, but she is not weak.