to the present day.“
Want to know what Olivia Colman is like in person? Then go and look up one of her many awards acceptance speeches. It’s all there – the nervous smile, the jittery self-effacement, the embarrassment at all this fuss. Praise is always deflected onto anyone she can think of, bar herself. Jokes are always at her own expense. Yet the breathy, ditzy thing is, at least in part, a front. One of Britain’s most feted actresses, she is discussing her role in the new TV adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager.
She plays a spymaster, Angela Burr, who recruits inscrutable Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) in her pursuit of an arms dealer (Hugh Laurie). This “spook“ stands in contrast to many of her previous roles – stoics who have suffered and made audiences cry with them. “I’ve never played anyone weak,“ she begins, “no matter what they’ve suffered. I’ve never played a weak character.“ She is quite right. She’s best known in New Zealand as betrayed police detective Ellie Miller in Broadchurch, but every one of Olivia’s performances has at its heart a fierce resolve.
Burr is her steeliest role to date and, quite possibly, her best. “She is a wonderful person to play,“ Olivia says, “incredibly principled. She would not be persuaded to take money for the wrong reason, unlike some of the people she’s up against.“ In the 1993 novel, set after the Cold War, Burr was Leonard Burr. The television adapter, David Farr, suggested to le Carré that Burr might work better as a woman, and according to the writer’s son, Simon Cornwell, meeting Olivia sealed the deal. And when the novelist finally saw her performance, he was overwhelmed. “His immediate reaction was that Burr should never have been a man.“
Olivia didn’t just convince a bestselling author that one of his favourite characters should change gender; when she went in to meet the director, Susanne Bier, she told her straightaway she was pregnant with her third child. Susanne and her producers wanted Olivia so badly, they offered her the role regardless, and simply wrote Burr pregnant. As Olivia says, “There’s no reason why a spook shouldn’t get knocked up. It’s nice to show that pregnant women are people too.“
That is almost the perfect Olivia pronouncement – she’s making a joke, everything’s nice and lovely, but she’s also underlining a point. “The original was written a while ago, but it’s been updated
to the present day.“
to the present day.“
Olivia spent 11 years grinning gamely in a succession of British TV comedies and success came relatively late – it wasn’t gifted to her through preternatural looks or connections. But when asked to compare and contrast herself with her Night Manager co-star Tom Hiddleston, 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.“
Tom went to Eton and RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts). Olivia nods, and says she trained at Bristol Old Vic theatre school and was a cleaning lady before that. Her mum is a nurse; her dad, a surveyor. It doesn’t, she stresses, matter. Now 42, Olivia is flying. “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. Now I’m doing work that people see. It’s still peculiar to do stuff that people watch.“
But it’s not glamorous. The poster for The Night Manager, which screens on TV3, has Olivia in another drab trouser suit. In fact, some of her best performances in recent years happen to have coincided with some of the worst outfits on TV, along with what she admits were “abysmal hairdos“. You could have watched most of her work since 2011 and been unaware that she had legs. With the success of Broadchurch and now the highly acclaimed The Night Manager, we’ll be seeing more of Olivia than ever before.
All the adulation (and her 2014 BAFTA win) is still, however, met in the same way – with flappy-handed incredulity. “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 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 she received recently? “Er, I’ve never had a bad comment from people. But I’m not that thick-skinned.“ Maybe not, but robust of heart and mind, certainly.
Or, to use her favoured phrases, Olivia is nice, but she’s not weak.
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