Olivia Colman: ‘Only stick with honest friends’

The Oscar winner on fame, privacy and preparing to play her darkest role yet

Olivia Colman’s husband has written his first TV drama, a true-crime series starring his wife, and I have so many questions about this that she says she can bring him downstairs to join in if I like. Ah, the possibilities when interviewing someone over Zoom. “Eddy!” she shouts up the stairs while I peer into their comfy sitting room, somewhere deep in the English countryside (period fireplace, bookshelves). “I’m slagging you off!” she shouts with glee at him, followed by a distant grunt.

We carry on alone, accompanied only by one of their dogs, the excitable Alfred, Lord Waggyson, and a child who briefly pops into the room to a big grin from mum. Colman, blessed with the friendliest, giggliest face on telly, familiar from so many hit shows, somehow feels as if she belongs in my home, as if we are already friends. This, as we will find out, is something of a problem now she’s an international megastar.

I really love what I do. I would love to do slightly less in a year, but that would involve being paid different amounts. I'm not saying … You know, things are going really well. But if I stopped work we wouldn't last long

Her fame comes not just from winning an Oscar for her role as the greedy, naughty Queen Anne in The Favourite. (Her viral acceptance speech began with, "Oh, it's genuinely quite stressful. This is hilarious. Got an Oscar," and went on to, "I used to work as a cleaner and I loved that job. I did spend quite a lot of my time imagining this. Oh, please wrap up? Right. Okay.") It's also from playing Queen Elizabeth in two series of The Crown, the wicked artist godmother in both series of Fleabag, and Sophie in Peep Show.

She has also, more recently, had a further Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in The Father with Anthony Hopkins. This year she has Landscapers (the one written by her husband), as well as The Lost Daughter, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal and based on Elena Ferrante's novel, and a slew of other films ranging from period biopic The Electrical Life of Louis Wain to the animated sci-fi comedy Ron's Gone Wrong. When I ask why she's doing quite so much, she says something about having to pay the mortgage.

How big can that mortgage be? Surely you can now sit back and say no to everything but the £5 million gig and pay off all your bills for ever. “Well that would be good!” she says, hooting. “Have you ever been an agent? Maybe we could…” she asks, wide-eyed. “God, yeah, imagine. A £5 million job!”

Of course, she also takes all these roles “because I really love what I do. I would love to do slightly less in a year, but that would involve being paid different amounts. I’m not saying … You know, things are going really well. But if I stopped work we wouldn’t last long.”

Colman, her husband, Ed Sinclair, and their three children recently decamped from their south London terrace home to live more rurally, in a place where she can walk their dogs without having to talk to anyone. She doesn't reveal where, but I know she remains fond of Norfolk, where she grew up. She is a hermit, "so I'm happy here. I like being able to be outside and no one can see me. I wear a woolly hat and I'm loving the mask thing." She also takes a scarf to put over her face when others approach, clearly wary of people like me who think her friendly demeanour means she's up for a new pal.

She was out walking her dogs the other day, and “there was a group of people coming, and I panicked and put my thing up. And this woman went” – Colman puts on a comically booming voice – “‘I do recognise you, Olivia!’ Well, don’t say anything, then – I’m clearly trying to hide! What is wrong with everyone?”

In America they'll say, 'Excuse me, may I take a photograph?' And you say, 'Oh, well, thank you for asking so nicely!" But in Britain most people don't ask, and I think that's unspeakably rude and threatening

Americans are better at this, she says. “They’re ever so slightly classier than Brits about their actor people. They’re really nice. Sometimes in the UK someone will literally hold a phone to my face. That has never happened to me in America. Over there they’ll say, ‘Excuse me, may I take a photograph?’ And you say, ‘Oh, well, thank you for asking so nicely!” But here most people don’t ask, and I think that’s unspeakably rude and threatening.”

She would never do it, she adds, then pauses to think whether this is true. “I’d do it to a squirrel,” she concedes.

Still, at least she doesn’t have to do all the dog walks now, as Pockets, their Cypriot rescue dog, has taken to going alone – possibly in pursuit of nonconsensual squirrels. “Now she knows the area, people in the village bring her back to us. We’ve had to look at the fencing because she climbs trees and just f**ks off!”

COLMAN WAS BORN in Norwich and christened Sarah but cheerily threatens to leave Zoom after I try calling her that: her stage name has become her real name. She was privately educated at Gresham's School in Norfolk and later briefly attended a teacher-training course. She soon dropped out but was able to use her student ID to get into Cambridge Footlights, where she met not only the earliest incarnation of Mitchell and Webb, with whom she would go on to star in Peep Show, but also her future husband.

He went on to attend Bristol Old Vic theatre school, and she later copied him and applied – the irony being that her career would become the bigger one, though huge fame waited until now, her late 40s, which is, she says, so much better than if she had been 20. “I wouldn’t have coped at all. I got it late, when I already had my family. I don’t know how people cope with it young – and people who want to be famous, I don’t know what to say to them.”

That crowning Oscars moment arrived the year before the pandemic took over, when red carpets were still full. It appeared to be the shock of her life. “It was bonkers,” she says. “You’re being swept along by people, and you’re going, This can’t be happening. I think you go into self-preservation, emergency mode, because it’s too much to cope with. I only really remember it because I’ve seen it,” she says, explaining she had to watch it afterwards on YouTube like anyone else

Her husband told her it was the best night of his life, watching that happen to the person he loved. They had travelled out to Los Angeles as a family and borrowed a friend’s house outside the city, where the kids could watch the ceremony with their babysitter, away from the madness. “And she filmed them. That was a really beautiful thing that she did. Our youngest was far too young so didn’t have a clue what was going on, but the others were just going, Wow! I remember seeing it through their eyes,” she says, looking rather wistful at the thought.

Sinclair is no longer only the proud bystander in her life, now that Landscapers is to be screened on Sky (and HBO in the United States) in December. Having worked as as an actor and writer before, he always longed to create something for his wife to star in.

Tyrannosaur, Paddy Considine's incredibly powerful film, in which she played a domestic-abuse victim, really moved him, Colman explains, "but wasn't seen by many people – which rather broke our hearts". He wanted to write something with a similar degree of pathos. After reading a 2014 article in the Guardian Weekend magazine, about a couple imprisoned for the murder of the wife's parents, an idea started to form.

Susan and Christopher Edwards were sentenced to life in prison 16 years after the 1998 murders, having buried the bodies in their garden and gone to France. They lived a delusional, naive life based around Hollywood stars, buying movie memorabilia with the dead couple's savings and pensions while fraudulently claiming they were still alive. (The husband wrote a letter to Gérard Depardieu and was delighted when he wrote back, beginning a long correspondence. He found out only at their trial that his wife had been writing the letters all along.) Sinclair and Colman both felt the couple had been misunderstood, with Susan a victim of abuse all her childhood.

I have seen the series, and although it makes for great telly and is beautifully presented, I sometimes struggled with how much of Colman’s natural charm comes through. She plays Susan as a quiet delight. I ask if this was intentional: of course it was.

“Ed had written her sympathetically: that is how he felt about her. And I did feel her husband was her knight in shining armour who had taken her away from this horrible situation. The fact that she was abused as a child didn’t seem to have had any clout – I think that would be different now. But even five or six years ago it was sort of classed as, That was when you’re a child, but you murdered when you were an adult, so it doesn’t count.

“And he felt, Why is no one taking that into consideration, because what an enormous thing to have to deal with? He doesn’t have any doubts that they did it. You have to do time for that. But there are women who have killed their husbands because they face a lifetime of violence and eventually you snap. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It doesn’t mean you went out to kill people.”

Colman once appeared on The Graham Norton Show to promote a film and couldn't remember her character's name or much else about it. The audience were in stitches; she seemed delighted

Colman hasn’t met the couple, but Sinclair has been in correspondence with them. “And he told them, This isn’t a turn-around-justice piece, you know, but I am interested in your story, and would you be willing to let me? And they were so eloquent and well-read and gentle in their musings, and in their writings, and they still talk about each other in such a loving way.”

Did the newcomer have trouble getting the project made? “I have always read his writing and I have always known it was brilliant. And he lacked the courage to show people for a long time. What I love is that he then showed this and everyone went, Oh my God, it’s amazing. And I was, like, mwahaha, I told you … You know, he’s my biggest fan,” she adds, and there is such youth in her giggles after she says this, “and I’m his biggest fan, so he just wanted to make sure that … I don’t know, he just wanted to write something for me, which was lovely.”

I wonder if this is why she is so widely loved by the public. It is rare to get to the middle of our lives and retain such immediate access to our sweetness. We block things off, we know too much, whereas Colman sometimes seems to know too little, though I wonder how much she is just messing around and making light of things. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’m talking about,” she will often say, after answering a question with perfect sense. But she also doesn’t waste time apologising. For example, she once appeared on The Graham Norton Show to promote a film and couldn’t remember her character’s name or much else about it. The audience were in stitches; she seemed delighted.

I bring this up, tell her I would have apologised, called myself an idiot. She says she does get like that, too. “But I refuse to apologise for something I don’t know.” She wonders if this might be because she once had a maths teacher who explained something difficult to the class, asked if they understood, and Colman admitted she did not. “I didn’t have that sort of brain, for maths. But then a few other people said they didn’t get it either, and the teacher said, ‘Oh, okay, then, that’s not your fault, that’s mine.’ From then on I refused to pretend I knew.”

IN THE LOST DAUGHTER Colman plays a celebrated academic, a translator of Dante, who comes unstuck as a mother. "And Maggie" – Gyllenhaal, its director – "is very well-read. I mean, I might have read lots of books, but I don't retain the information," Colman says, typically self-deprecating. "So she had to talk to me in a different way." Gyllenhaal would be talking about the meaning of Dante, she adds, "and I'm more Jilly Cooper".

It is an utterly spellbinding film, and has been garlanded with praise at film festivals. I'm not surprised – it is largely set in a sultry Greek beach village yet reveals, partly through younger flashbacks in which Colman's character is played by Jessie Buckley, what happens when you start having bad days as the mother of small children, and when the bad days become most of the days. I have never seen maternal ambivalence shown on the screen like that before. Colman nods, very much in agreement.

"There's a sort of deal among people that we don't talk about these things. And Elena Ferrante broke the deal, said it out loud. And Maggie thought, I'm feeling this. What if a whole cinema of people are feeling this? It's amazing how many people have said thank you for putting it on screen and saying it out loud."

Ferrante said Gyllenhaal, whose interest had also been piqued by reading something the author wrote in the Guardian, could have the rights to the book only if she directed it herself, “or the deal was off. She made Maggie do it, not chicken out. I was so pleased, because she was amazing. And I watched with a load of my mum mates who had that, same as you, sort of, ‘Oof, I know that feeling.’ When you just want to be on your own.”

There is an intriguing, quasi-sexual vibe between Colman’s character and Dakota Johnson’s; strangers, both mothers, though at different stages, who become acquainted on a beach holiday. The way the camera watches their encounters is loaded with ambiguity. “I mean, Dakota is breathtaking to look at,” Colman agrees. “So you do stare at her. Maggie would whisper to me, on set, ‘You can’t take your eyes off her. She’s so beautiful.’”

I wonder how familiar that maternal ambivalence was to Colman personally. “Dakota laughed at me when we did interviews together. She said, ‘You never felt like that!’ And no,” Colman is hurriedly muttering now, “I didn’t really. But I don’t know anyone who didn’t have a little bit of postnatal depression. First baby, I found it absolutely shocking. And my mum had said, ‘Oh, having a baby is like shelling peas!’ In a bid to become a granny, I think. I was like, what?!”

This is like when a couple of my friends told me giving birth would be just like bad period pains, I say. “Oh f**k off! Dump those mates straight away! How dare they? Only stick with honest friends. And I – the birth was quite traumatic, and that sent me into a … I didn’t know what to do with myself. And I just felt like I wasn’t very good at being a mummy. And that lasted a while and,” she says rather more quietly, “I never want to have that feeling again.”

She says it’s so innocuous, the way they call it the baby blues. “Mine lasted a bit longer. And I am a very happy person, but there are moments when your hormones are all over the shop. But then I fell in love with him, and I wasn’t scared of having more, because I thought, I can do this now. Nothing is as shocking the second time around … If I had my way I’d be on number six by now, and I would really rather they all just stayed within a metre radius of me. Ed is a little more level.”

That close childhood bond is in marked contrast to the upbringing of her character in Landscapers. How does she handle the responsibility of depicting a real, living person? Colman says it was more stressful playing Queen Elizabeth in The Crown. She “emoted” too much for the part, would cry at anything emotional, so had to wear a secret earpiece with the shipping forecast playing in it while she delivered her lines. All of that Tyne and Dogger kept her feelings on an even keel.

“Playing the queen was the most pressurised thing I’ve ever done. Because everyone goes, That’s not right.”

Did she get that sort of backlash?

“I don’t tend to read anything, because I’m not very thick-skinned – so I don’t know. But we had amazing voice and hair and makeup departments – you’ve done half your job before you even step out of your van.”

Turns out it wasn't the actual queen she found the hardest act to follow – it was Claire Foy, who had played the same character at a younger age in the earlier series. "I kept thinking, How would Claire Foy do this?

“Oh shaddap,” she suddenly adds – the dog is barking. “I’m gonna put him in the kitchen,” she says, dispatching Alfred. It sounds bad in there. I ask if he’s committing a murder, but no: “Our lovely nanny has come back from the shop, and he’s just letting everyone know.”

I’m glad she admits to having a nanny and isn’t pretending she can manage without one. Colman’s insistently down-to-earth shtick is part of her appeal. But she is responding to her enormous fame in a perfectly reasonable way: with bafflement, excitement and wariness. Most of us would do the same, I think.

But then, just as I make the mistake of thinking we’re buddies, she punctures the illusion. It’s what I’m drinking: Earl Grey, when she’s having a mug of Tetley’s. “Oh, you’ve ruined it. Earl Grey! Eurgh. It’s nasty, like drinking water you’ve washed your hands in. Oh Sophie,” she says, sighing, “and I thought we could be friends.” – Guardian

Landscapers is on Sky Atlantic and Now on December 7th. The Lost Daughter will be in select cinemas from December 17th and on Netflix on December 31st