I’m standing in a leafy Surrey street surrounded by a film crew, watching Olivia Colman emote silently on a TV monitor. As the camera zooms in for a close-up of her huge, brown eyes, I ponder how, in a short space of time, Colman has risen from playing small parts in sitcoms to national treasure status. She is the kind of star Britain loves: not a tall poppy but a modest, unassuming one, pleasant-looking without being beautiful. She seems reassuringly ordinary while harbouring an extraordinary talent.
I’m meeting her on the set of The 7.39, an original two-part drama by David Nicholls, who wrote the bestselling novel One Day. The 7.39 is a love story, a 21st-century version of Brief Encounter but with more emphasis on the fallout at home.
Colman plays Maggie, a happily married mother of two teenagers, whose husband Carl (played by David Morrissey) starts an affair with a younger woman he meets on the train to work.
The actress says she understands why her fictional husband goes astray. “I spent years commuting into London when I was working as a temp and I hated the monotony of it. David Morrissey’s character is at a point in his life when everything is the same every day. He’s bored, hates his job, but he’s forgotten that there’s this fantastic love at home and he has to weigh up whether it’s worth losing that.”
The “other woman”, Sally, is played by Sheridan Smith, another British actress on a seemingly unstoppable ascent. When I drive out to the set soon after the 2013 Bafta awards, the producer confides there was some nervousness about the fact that both actresses were up for an award, and huge relief afterwards that they both won something. It’s a testament to her versatility that Colman won two Baftas: one for best supporting actress for her dramatic role in The Accused, and the other for best female comedy performance in the Olympics satire Twenty Twelve. Although she made her name in sitcoms such as Peep Show, Rev and Twenty Twelve, she does pain well.
Her most successful role to date has been the sympathetic, small-town detective Ellie Miller in the acclaimed ITV crime drama Broadchurch. Her co-star, David Tennant, told Radio Times, “Olivia has the ability to be joking between takes and then when, the cameras roll, instantly be in the heart of darkness.”
A second series of Broadchurch is due to be shot in a few months’ time. When it comes out, Colman may have to stop taking public transport again. “In the final couple of weeks of Broadchurch I ended up spending a fortune on cabs, because every time I took the train l would see people nudging each other, whispering, ‘Ask her, ask her.’ I was getting texts from friends saying, ‘Tell me, tell me.’ But I couldn’t, because I’d signed all these legal documents swearing me to secrecy. I didn’t even tell my mum and dad.”
When we meet for our interview in a large white cabin on the set of The 7.39, I ask if her children, two boys aged five and seven, had been watching the Baftas. “They were in bed. My mum and dad had bought a bunch of flowers for them to give me the next day, but they clearly had no idea why or what they were for.”
She also thanked her school drama teacher, Mr Hands, in her acceptance speech. When I ask about him, she winces. “I’ve dropped him into a whirlpool. He has been inundated with requests from the media.”
She felt so guilty, she sent him an email apologising for all the fuss, and says he was very sweet about it.
It was standing on stage playing Miss Jean Brodie in a school play that convinced Colman to become an actress. “For the first time in my life I felt that I was good at something. I was rubbish at school.”
Her first break was meeting Robert Webb and David Mitchell in the Cambridge Footlights while studying to become a primary-school teacher. For a long time she was their female sidekick, cropping up in sketches and playing Sophie, the awkward, long- suffering girlfriend in Peep Show. But a few years ago, her agent told her she needed to break away from Mitchell and Webb and make her own way in the world.
Her big turning point came when she was cast as a battered wife in the small-budget but critically acclaimed British film Tyrannosaur, written and directed by Paddy Considine.
Her performance was an acting masterclass and proof she could do serious drama as well as comedy. Casting directors began to sit up and take notice.
For someone who had considered giving up acting a few years ago, her rise now seems unstoppable. In the past 12 months, Colman has appeared in or filmed about eight projects for both TV and cinema.
One of them is a film about salsa called Cuban Fury, with comedy stars Nick Frost and Chris O’Dowd, which comes out next month. The dance training was intense and Colman says she can now do a pretty mean floor sweep. She’s since been approached to take part in Dancing on Ice, but turned it down.
I ask her if she would consider doing Strictly Come Dancing. “No way!” she cries, looking horrified at the suggestion. For Colman, taking part in a reality TV show would be like crossing the Rubicon from jobbing actress to famous person – with all the baggage that goes with it. “I love watching the show and I appreciate the work that goes into it, but I would not be acting; I would be there as a ‘celebrity’, and it’s not my cup of tea. That’s crossing a line.”
She looks down at her hands and sighs. When I ask her what’s wrong with being a celebrity, she pauses and says, “No offence, you seem very nice, but I don’t find this aspect, talking to journalists, very enjoyable. It’s OK talking about a role, but if you are being yourself on TV, how do you control that?”
Colman doesn’t like talking about acting, either. She bats away my questions awkwardly with comments like, “It’s not very technical” or “I just pretend I’m in that situation”. It’s as if she finds the conversation pretentious and embarrassing.
At one point we discuss method actors who stay in character even when they’re not filming, a notion she clearly finds preposterous: “I’d feel bad pretending my life was anything other than pretty good, so I do the role as well as I can and then I go home, have a cup of tea, see my family and friends and appreciate what I’ve got.”
Fellow actors say she works instinctively. Hugh Bonneville, who played her boss in Twenty Twelve, says, “Olivia thinks talking about acting technique is a load of old twaddle. She’s probably right but, just for the record, I want to share this observation: Olivia Colman can’t act, because she can only be. She has a phenomenal ability to be utterly spontaneous in every role she plays.”
She once said in an interview that she’d like to be in Downton Abbey; when I ask her, however, she looks pained, as if she would prefer I hadn’t asked. After a long pause she says, very carefully, “I used to want to be in Downton because I had never been in a period drama, but then I did The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and had to wear one of those frocks and...” she tails off. “I didn’t feel very comfortable.” I surmise that this is because she finds it difficult to be spontaneous in a bonnet.
A young, attractive press officer pops her head round the door of the cabin to tell me my time is up. As I turn off my tape recorder and put away my notebook, Colman suddenly becomes animated again and asks the PR if she’s single. She’s not. “That’s a pity,” says the actress, “because one of the crew really fancies you and I thought I’d save him the trouble of finding out if you were available.” We all giggle.
When the spotlight is turned away from her and onto someone else, Olivia Colman relaxes.
See The 7.39 tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1