Olivia Colman: 'Our academy doesn't watch British films'
She didn't expect – and didn't get – an Oscar nod, but has 'a problem with Bafta'. The actress tells Fiona Mountford about the pitfalls of awards
If proof were needed that Olivia Colman, star of the BBC's Rev and much-praised British film Tyrannosaur, is currently enjoying the sort of breakout year that most actors can only dream of, it comes with the closing credits of The Iron Lady. The names of the cast start to flash up. First is (double Academy Award winner) Meryl Streep. Next there's (Academy Award winner) Jim Broadbent. "And Olivia Colman" proclaims the third screen triumphantly, referring to Colman's touching portrayal of Margaret Thatcher's hearty but hesitant daughter Carol. It's a far cry from playing third fiddle to David Mitchell and Robert Webb in their various comedy projects.
I've met Colman, 38, to discuss her return to the stage in an all-star production of Noël Coward's sparkling 1924 comedy Hay Fever. Nonetheless, there can be no escaping that this is film awards season, climaxing tonight with the Oscars, and our conversation drifts to talk of prizes. Lately, Colman has been showered with quite a number, notably from the Critics' Circle and the Evening Standard, for her startling leading role in the low-budget Tyrannosaur, a kindly charity shop worker who suffers terrible violence at the hands of her sadistic husband. "It's been amazing," she says, modestly. "The Critics' Circle and Evening Standard watch everything and picked us. I have a bit of a problem with the fact that not all Bafta [members] seem to watch everything."
Ah yes, the Baftas. Colman was the most glaring omission from the list of nominees at the recent ceremony. "I felt fairly blue about that," she admits. "Because all along it felt like I'd been told I was going to get a promotion and then been overlooked at the last minute ...". She pauses. "I let myself hope, I let myself believe what people were saying and that was silly. I want to say, if you're going to be in Bafta, it's British Academy, you have to watch all the British films before you start watching the other stuff. If I had a pound for every time a Bafta member has admitted to me, weeks after the voting closed, 'I haven't seen Tyrannosaur yet ...'! I found it upsetting: Peter [Mullan] should have been up for Best Actor, Eddie [Marsan] should have been up for Best Supporting. It's our own Academy and they don't watch our films."
I show her the American magazine Entertainment Weekly, which campaigned for a "dark horse" nod for Colman to celebrate 'one of the year's most affecting performances'. "Ooh, that's very nice," she says, sounding surprised. Do awards really matter, though? "I didn't think they did, but they do", she says with a weary laugh. "Particularly for something you feel so proud of."
Colman was glad to miss all the pre-Bafta parties, busy with previews of Hay Fever. "It's nice to play someone different, a bit of a vamp", she says of her character, Myra Arundel, an unwilling guest at the country house party from hell hosted by the hectically bohemian Bliss family. Arundel is a vamp with a great cloche hat and all the best lines: "You're artificial to the point of lunacy," is her summing-up of Judith Bliss (Lindsay Duncan) and her clan. It's an impressively detailed performance from Colman in her most high-profile stage role yet, although she admits to suffering from stage fright. How does she deal with it? It's simple. "I pretend that if anyone's watching they don't speak English and they're all naked."
Those outside niche comedy circles might not have heard of Colman had she not, a few years ago, taken the bold decision to break away from pals Mitchell and Webb, with whom she starred in That Mitchell and Webb Look and Peep Show. After meeting the pair through the Cambridge Footlights during a brief stint at teacher training college, she transferred to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. So it was a wrench to leave them. "My agent said, 'If you want to get bigger parts, you have to stop being seen as the person who will take smaller parts'. That was heartbreaking, because I love Rob and David and I owe them so much. I was crying and they were very sweet and said, 'We can't believe you've stayed with us this long!'."
The gamble paid off and led to her casting as Sally, the lovelorn, hyper-efficient PA in the Olympics mockumentary series Twenty Twelve, and as Alex, the gently cynical wife of Tom Hollander's inner-city vicar in the Bafta-winning comedy drama Rev. I suggest that part of the reason for Rev's success is our residual fondness for maligned institutions such as the Church of England. "We're so lucky that the Church of England is so all-compassing and accepts everybody," she says. "Likewise the NHS. We spend so much time complaining about everything here and you go to another country and they say, 'What? You have free medical care?'. We have no idea how lucky we are."
Colman cites her happy home life in south London, with writer husband Ed Sinclair and their two small boys, as a counterbalance to the mania of awards season. It is the personal qualities of her co-star Streep that Colman admires. "She's a wonderful woman, and just so nice. It's a lovely lesson to learn: you never have to behave horribly. Just be good at what you do." Like Streep, Colman enjoys a stable marriage and worries how Sinclair would fare should she ever be offered work in America. 'For Ed, it would mean ... I'd be meeting new people on set and he'd be lonely. That sounds miserable.' She is her family's main breadwinner and is amazed how fascinated people are by that fact. "A lot of my female friends are in the same position. To me it's never been anything other than normal."
She's ambitious, but wary of the double-edged sword of fame. "Tom Hollander and I were walking to Broadcasting House and this guy stood right in front of Tom and took a picture of him with his phone. I said, 'What do you think you're doing? Do you think he's a pigeon? You ask his permission!'. It's just rude." In her next film, Hyde Park on Hudson, she is consort to Sam West's George VI. Once you get to play the Queen Mum you've pretty well made it, I'd say.
'Hay Fever' is at the Noel Coward Theatre, London (0844 482 5140) to 2 June. 'Tyrannosaur' is on DVD
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