As the winner of three Bafta awards for Broadchurch, Accused and Twenty Twelve – including two in the same year – you might assume that Olivia Colman spends most of her time either filming or sifting between piles of possible scripts. Counterintuitively, though, greater success has brought more frequent unemployment.
“I think there’s a perception that I’ll be too busy,” she says. “So actually, after those first two Baftas, I didn’t really get offered anything, which makes you think: Oh, no! And, after I finished the second series of Broadchurch, nothing came up for six months, which really is a long time and I got a bit panicky.”
Her current schedule is rushed, however. Immediately after our conversation about the film London Road (in cinemas from Friday 12 June), she is flying to Morocco to resume shooting The Night Manager, a six-part BBC adaptation of a John le Carré novel.
Colman plays Burr, a British spy who was a man in the book but has been rewritten as a woman and – to accommodate the impending birth of the actress’s third child – a heavily pregnant one. Le Carré approved the changes when she met him, although the actress didn’t realise she had. “I didn’t know it isn’t his real name. At the read-through, I was chatting away to someone called David Cornwell, telling him how great the story was, without realising that he was John le Carré.”
Babies are a pressure on diaries and costumes that male screen actors are spared, but Colman says that she has always been lucky with morning sickness and, “It would be worse if I was having to hide it on screen because I’ve already got a waddle. But, so far, it’s always worked out for me that I’ve been able to be pregnant in the job I’m doing.”
In London Road, Colman does something she has never previously done on stage or screen – sing. When she was called to meet Rufus Norris, the new artistic director of the National Theatre, she perhaps imagined an invitation to give her Cleopatra or Hedda Gabler. But Norris – after an audition with a musical director – signed her up for his cinematic version of the stage show London Road by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork.
Although most conveniently described as a musical, it resembles nothing previously attempted in that genre. Playwright Blythe conducted interviews with residents of the area in Ipswich where, in 2006, five women working as prostitutes were murdered by forklift truck driver Steve Wright. Verbatim extracts from these conversations were then set to music by composer Cork.
A local’s expression of apprehension – “Everyone is very nervous” – becomes an aria, while the guilty verdicts in Wright’s trial are sung by a chorus of TV news reporters. It is the most original piece of music theatre I have ever seen and the film retains the shock and originality.
“It was very difficult at the beginning,” Blythe recalls, “because there were no references for what we were trying to do. I’d say to the residents, ‘It’s a musical but it’s not like Mamma Mia, but then it isn’t an opera either.'”
The actors learned the words from tapes of the original speakers, with every hesitation and repetition included. Colman – who plays Julie, organiser of a scheme to rehabilitate the area after the killings – had to adjust, unusually for an actor, to being told-off for not stumbling enough: “Alecky would say, ‘There’s actually a count of three between the ‘um’ and the ‘but’.
Learning somebody else’s speech rhythms is very difficult. It would take me a whole day to learn one speech and my husband would be testing me and would say, ‘You missed out an ‘oh’ there’ and I’d think, ‘But it’s not even a proper word!’”