Olivia Colman is to acting what Germany is to car making and gravity is to the universe – she is technically excellent and manages to be everywhere all at once. Two Bafta TV nominations this year – an unusual combination of best supporting actress (for Accused) and best comedy performance (for Twenty Twelve) prove how diverse her talents are. You could even say she is to acting what Gareth Bale is to football: hailed by peers, critics and millions of viewers.
From the soft-shelled cop in Broadchurch to the Queen Mother in Hyde Park on Hudson to foul-mouthed marriage counsellor in I Give It a Year to saucy vicar’s wife in Rev and, soon, Sheridan Smith’s love rival in David Nicholls’s BBC1 romantic drama The 7.39, she manages to steal scenes while staying firmly in character. With such outrageous talent you might expect her to be a diva to work with, but her co-stars are her biggest fans. Meryl Streep, no slouch in the acting department herself, called Colman “divinely gifted” during her own 2012 Bafta acceptance speech (Colman played her daughter Carol in The Iron Lady).
Typically, asking actors to explain a colleague’s mastery of their art is a thankless task. Actors are always busy or, if not, keen to pretend they are. Many have a habit of moving on emotionally from a project once it’s finished. And of course they often fall out with each other. In the case of Colman, however, David Tennant was on the phone within minutes of a tentative approach from Radio Times.
“Before Broadchurch I’d only worked with Olivia once, on a bone-dry read-through of a brittle sitcom that got binned by bored executives,” says Tennant of his co-star. “I’d seen her work for years and she gave the impression of being really sound and straightforward and unpretentious. So when I met her and found she really was those things, it was a massive relief.”
What’s her secret? “She has this ability to be joking between takes and then, when the cameras roll, to be instantly in the heart of the darkness – which is irritatingly perfect from someone as alarmingly down to earth,” he jokes. “The one thing she hated about filming Broadchurch was how she found each situation so appalling that she’d genuinely be in floods of tears during scenes. She kept trying to stop, saying, ‘I shouldn’t be crying, I’m a police officer.’ But it came to represent the part so well.
"We have a similar outlook on life and work, although she’s a devil, always trying to get us to go out and get drunk while I’m always keen to get home early and make a cup of tea, so we counteract each other’s excess. I hope she wins both awards, unless there’s a friend of mine I haven’t noticed on either list, in which case I’ll be appalled – and that’s my official statement.”
Tennant, of course, is a true gentleman. But Colman’s name brings an equally rapid reaction from colleagues she’s worked with across her career.
Her co-stars in Twenty Twelve – Hugh Bonneville, Amelia Bullmore and Jessica Hynes – are effusive and jovial. “Olivia thinks talking about acting technique is a load of old twaddle,” Bonneville explains. “She’s right, of course, but just for the record I want to share this observation: Olivia Colman can’t act. There, I’ve said it. She really can’t. She can’t act because she can only be: she has a phenomenal ability to be utterly spontaneous in every role she plays, even though it may have been rehearsed for six weeks or, in the case of Twenty Twelve, six minutes. Her comedic and dramatic range is extraordinary, as is her natural gift of being loved by everyone she works with. What a cow.”
Amelia Bullmore agrees. “What Olivia does is this: she turns up on set, giggles a bit, wrinkles her nose at herself, smiles at everyone, goofs about, gets to a take and then says what she has to say with a lightness of touch and live-ness and see-through-ness that is truly rare, as many times as is required, and then resumes the nose-wrinkling and goofing. It’s double finesse – what she’s able to do, and how insouciantly she wears that remarkable skill.”
Of course, this isn’t completely unexpected. When the 2012 movie Bafta shortlists were announced, the strongest trending topic on celebrity Twitter feeds was “Wot, no Colman?” David Baddiel, Shappi Khorsandi and Josie Lawrence all expressed surprise. “Shocked and disappointed with Bafta voters,” tweeted Great Expectations and Exile star Shaun Dooley. “You will not see a finer performance by an actress than Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur. Not happy!”
Why does Colman demand such respect? In part, clearly, it’s her raw talent. She went to Cambridge with dreams of being a primary school teacher. Robert Webb and David Mitchell knocked that plan off course when she met them at an audition for the Cambridge Footlights. For a while, after drama school, she was best known as Webb and Mitchell’s female foil, goofing around in both Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, before moving into warmer supporting roles in comedies like Green Wing, graduating to dramas like Tyrannosaur, Accused and Broadchurch, while keeping her foot in the comedy camp with Rev. “She’s fantastic and can do anything,” Webb explains. “She’s very funny but also a great dramatic actress.”
In following this arc, she joins a very small, elite band of performers who are equally at home with intense drama and ridiculous slapstick. Many have tried it – from Eddie Izzard to Steve Coogan – but only a handful – like Hugh Laurie or Julie Walters – succeed. John Simm knows why Colman can.
When Olivia was cast as my sister in Exile, I was already a huge fan of her work, which at the time had been mainly comedy,” he explains. “I made sure I sat next to her in the read-through so I could talk to her about Rev. Exile was a pretty full-on, disturbing story so it could have been a pretty bleak filming experience, but it ended up being one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever done. This was down, in no small part, to Olivia. It really was a joy to go to work, with her as my sis. We laughed. A lot. And what an actress. From our first scene together we seemed to just click. She makes it look effortless. She’s not acting, she’s being.
“This may seem like a cliché, and there’s a risk it’ll make her puke, but in this case it really is a hundred per cent true. As anyone who has worked with her will confirm, Olivia Colman is one of the most beautiful, genuine, compassionate, wickedly funny and insanely talented human beings on the planet. And next time I see her she’ll probably cuff me round the ear for this.”
Colman, by all accounts, is so fundamentally nice that she charms cast and crew alike. Even Jessica Hynes, her rival for a Bafta for Twenty Twelve, offers unstinting praise. “Olivia has a luminescent quality. She shines in everything she does. She is a responsive listener and brilliant at channeling her character’s emotions and letting that do the talking.”
And then, not even through gritted teeth, she adds. “I agree with David. She should win both awards – this is definitely a Colman year and hopefully the first of many.”
FIVE OF HER BEST
As local cop DS Ellie Miller, passed over for promotion by David tennant’s abrasive newcomer DI Hardy, Colman steals the show with her no-nonsense anoraks, tears and fear of becoming hardened. She’s kindly, tough, irritable and very real — making the killer plot finale a thrilling heartbreaker.
Alex Smallbone — Colman’s passionate, smart and straight-talking solicitor wife of Tom Hollander’s hapless inner-city vicar Adam — mixes charm and sex appeal with some of the best swearing on TV..
Colman turns in an award-winning (and Bafta-nominated) performance as Sue, who watches her best friend Mo (Anne-Marie Duff) take a stand against gang culture on their grim estate, only to suffer a tragic loss herself when the backlash starts.
Colman brings a curious sense of hope and transcendence to another award-winning role — a demanding job in the face of an emotional waterboarding from writer/director Paddy Considine. Hannah, a charity-shop worker, is viciously abused by her husband (Eddie Marsan) and assailed by an alcoholic stranger (Peter Mullan) who bullies his way into her life.
5. Peep Show
The deliciously awkward Sophie — initially the object of hopeless obsession for David Mitchell’s Mark, later becoming his girlfriend and, briefly, his wife — proved Colman’s breakthrough role after years of playing minor characters.
See Olivia Colman in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher on Sunday at 8:00pm on ITV