Do actors ever feel truly secure in their chosen profession? In the past year, Olivia Williams has spent six months filming the Joss Whedon sci-fi TV series Dollhouse, shot a movie in Berlin with Roman Polanski, played Ian Dury's wife in the upcoming biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll and taken a supporting role in Nick Hornby's adaptation of Lynn Barber's memoir, An Education – as tasty and varied a body of work as any actor could ask for. Yet, this very morning, the 41-year-old actress tells me, she considered once again whether she shouldn't have followed in her parents' and older sister's footsteps and become a barrister.
"But then my barrister friends are all sufficiently neurotic and barking-mad to make me realise that one isn't the sensible choice over the other," she laughs.
In fact, Williams might well have been hectoring juries today had serendipity (in the shape of Kevin Costner) not diverted the then-28-year-old, broke and trudging through auditions for body-cream ads, from her decision to take a law-conversion course. Costner picked her audition tape from the slush pile and cast the unknown Brit opposite him in his 1997 blockbuster The Postman. Though a spectacular flop, it kick-started Williams' career, leading to roles as Bill Murray's girlfriend in Rushmore (1998) and Bruce Willis's wife in The Sixth Sense (1999).
"With The Postman, I thought, 'This is beyond weird, it's inconceivable. I became an actress to do Shakespeare on stage, and I'm going to make a huge multimillion- dollar movie. I'm just going to do what I'm told and enjoy myself.'" And she has been enjoying herself, with intermittent lapses into career-choice fretfulness, ever since. We've met to discuss her foray into American sci-fi, in Dollhouse, the latest series from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Whedon. A strange choice for an actress who, by her
own admission, only knew Whedon's name from the closing credits on his biggest hit.
"Something was on after Buffy that I used to watch," she says. "I can't think what; might have been Have I Got News for You. And then my agent said Joss Whedon would like to talk to me on the phone. We hit it off immediately on many levels. He was funny and bright and extremely flattering, which goes a long way with actors."
The role Whedon had in mind for Williams was that of Adelle DeWitt, the head of a highly illegal organisation that wipes clean the persona of "Actives" and imprints them (over and over) with new personae before hiring them out to the rich and powerful. The first season was met with muted ratings and critical reaction.
"Unexpectedly I got a real kick out of the acting work," says Williams. "What I didn't know was that I was stepping into the combined piranha pit and cess-pool that is the American viewing figures. We were given what is known as the 'Friday Death Slot', which is 9.30pm on a Friday night, when the only people who stay in and watch telly seem to be people with young children – and they are understandably watching Supernanny. But, as with all Joss Whedon projects, the truly interested viewers stuck with it and they loved it once the episodes with the moral and sci-fi questions started kicking in."
Even so, media watchers expressed surprise when the show was granted a second season – a decision that means Williams has had to decamp back to Los Angeles with her husband, the actor and writer Rhashan Stone, and their two children, Esme, five, and two-year-old Roxana.
Williams and the American-born Stone (his mother was part of the 1970s duo R&J Stone, a one-hit-wonder with "We Do It") had known each for eight years before they had their first date in 2003. "We had lots of mutual friends and would end up at the same parties, and then finally – it sounds quite like an acting job – we both became available. We realised we'd been dating the wrong sort of person." Presumably one of those wrong sorts of people was the actor Jonathan Cake, who jilted Williams a few weeks before their planned wedding in 1998 when he fell for his co-star of the moment, Jemma Redgrave.
A woman of classical, slightly austere beauty that belies her personal warmth, Williams was bought up in London's Camden Town by the aforementioned barristers, studied English literature at Newnham College, Cambridge, before joining the Bristol Old Vic and spending three years at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her first major role in front of the cameras, as Jane Fairfax in a 1996 TV version of Jane Austen's Emma, seemed to point to a theatrical career interspaced with polite TV costume dramas. But then came the fateful intervention of Kevin Costner, and her life since then has been mainly in the peripatetic world of movie-making.
"I've made nearly 30 films in all, I think," she says. But like so many big-screen actresses, she has now realised that television – American TV in particular – is providing many of the more rewarding roles. "That's where the good writers are going. Plus, having a profile on telly is, well... for example I've just made an extremely intellectually and artistically high-powered film with Kim Cattrall as the female lead...", she says, trailing off, the unspoken implication being that Cattrall owes her current prominence to TV's Sex and the City rather than any movie she has made during the past 20 years.
That "extremely intellectually and artistically high-powered film" was Roman Polanski's adaptation of the Robert Harris thriller The Ghost, a roman-a-clef in which a recently retired British prime minister – a thinly disguised Tony Blair – has his memoirs written by a ghost-writer, who comes to fear for his life.
Williams plays the Cherie Blair figure ("if you want to go down that route", she says) married to Pierce Brosnan's former British PM. "Polanski is very funny and completely intense and hyper... not at all a remote figure. What you understand when you get closer to him is that he's seen it all in his head and he's just trying to make it happen in front of the camera. It takes some time to get used to that way of working but I ended up very fond of him."
With Polanski's current spot of bother (post-production of The Ghost has been put on hold following the director's arrest in Zurich), Williams' next appearance on the big screen following An Education is likely to be the Ian Dury biopic (due out in January) in which she plays Dury's ex-wife, the artist Betty Rathmell.
"Andy Serkis [who is best known for his role as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy] as Ian... that was the hook for me. I was actually in LA and he was on a radio show promoting another film and he wouldn't talk about the film he was supposed to be promoting and just said 'I'm so excited, I'm just about to play Ian Dury.' I thought, 'That sounds like something I'd love to be involved in.' And weirdly I went home to a phone call from my agent saying, 'These people have just offered you a job...'"
In the meantime, the second series of Dollhouse continues filming in Los Angeles. You'd think that if any actor deserved to feel she had a sure footing in the industry, it would be Olivia Williams. "You'd bloody think that, wouldn't you? But even when you're in the middle of a 13-parter, the studio system manages to make you feel like at any moment you could be thrown out and your bags thrown after you, that the limousine will be turned into a pumpkin and that you will be publically humiliated in some way."
The second series of 'Dollhouse' continues on Sci-Fi on Tuesday nights; 'An Education' ((12A)) is in cinemas nationwide