Olivia Colman: Revving it up

“It was terrifying,” Olivia Colman says of her National Theatre debut in 2009’s England People Very Nice. “It was the first time I’d done a play for nine years. I probably should have started at a pub theatre, because it was like starting again. And I wasn’t very good.”

It’s hard to tell if Colman is just being disingenuous in her appraisal of her own performance. Best known for comedy characters in TV programmes from Peep Show to Beautiful People, in person she is warm and self-effacing but one gets the feeling that she is not particularly comfortable singing her own praises.

Nor does she particularly care for public attention when not working, preferring instead to be “what I am at home – just a mummy and a wife, and pootle around with not much hassle. I think that if you’re the lead, then you don’t get as much privacy and I really do crave that. Ideally, I’d love for my work not to be seen – which sounds very weird,” she adds with a smile.

In her new role in BBC2 comedy Rev, she plays Alex, the wife of a country vicar who has just taken over a parish in inner city London, playing opposite Tom Hollander, who created the series with writer James Wood.

“It was one of those scripts that I really wanted to do,” she says. “I liked that it was dark and truthful. Most of the rudest stuff that’s in there is straight from the mouths of real vicars and real vicars’ wives. It’s about a man who is genuinely trying to be the best person he can be. He is a soulful, religious, good man, but he’s obviously human, and he errs like humans do. It’s the normal nitty gritty of everyday life, but with a dog collar.”

The comedy had a working title throughout filming of Handle With Prayer. “All the way through, they thought we needed to come up with a different name. They were right, I think. Handle With Prayer gives you the wrong impression of what it’s about. It might suggest it’s more tame than it is. Rev seems right – he’s a modern vicar.”

A graduate of Bristol Old Vic, Colman’s comedy-heavy CV came about more by accident than design. Part of that was due to her long-running association with David Mitchell and Robert Webb, whom she met at Cambridge University through Footlights and whom she has since worked with on numerous radio and television projects, from their various sketch show series to the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show.

At the mention of the double act, her eyes light up. “My boys!” she exclaims. She has, however, bowed out of working on any more sketch shows with them. “It was in discussion with my agent, who is much cleverer than me. She said it was quite hard to put me up for bigger roles if I was always seen doing little ones. To make that leap is blind faith.

“But I love them, I’d do anything for them, and they were very sweet about it when I said that I might have to not do Mitchell and Webb any more.”

For all the comedy roles she has been cast in, Colman clearly relishes any opportunity to present a more dramatic side. On television, her most dramatic role to date was in 2007 in The Time of Your Life, a mystery serial for ITV1.

In the near future, the dramatic side of her CV will be fleshed out with a leading role in the film Tyrannosaur. It is written and directed by Paddy Considine, whom she met when they were both working on comic film Hot Fuzz. They subsequently worked together on Shane Meadows’ comedy Le Donk and Scor-zay-zee, as well as Considine’s own short film, Dog Altogether, which won a BAFTA for Best Short Film in 2008. The new feature is, Colman says, an extension of that short.

“It’s amazing. I can’t really talk about it without sounding like a complete – am I allowed to say wanker? It was creatively extraordinary. I felt like I could die happy – it’s the job I’ve dreamt of since I was 16.

“It’s very dark. It’s domestic abuse, violence, alcoholism, it’s quite gut-wrenching. He has the most amazing ability to get into people’s emotions, which is beautiful and gripping.”

As a director, she says, Considine “could get a good performance out of a log. He just knows what to say to which person. I suppose because he’s been an actor, he knows the feeling. He knows that if you’re doing something that’s quite difficult and quite upsetting, you don’t want to do it once and then have to do it again because the lights go funny.”

Rehearsals consisted of loose blocking, with the actors not delivering their lines until shooting and also being given the freedom to move as they felt appropriate. “It was a dream,” she says warmly. “It took a while for me to get used to, because normally I stand where they tell me to and look slightly that way because it’s easier for the camera.”

While she may have been more liberated with movement, she was happier working with the dialogue as written. “I pretty much stuck to the script. It was so good, and I thought I’d definitely take it down a notch and make it not as good by improvising.”

When it comes to casting, Colman doesn’t know if she fits the mould of a traditional leading actress – “although I’m not saying to anyone, ‘don’t offer me the job’,” she laughs. Ultimately, she says, “I like working. I like the roles I’ve been able to do. I love the process of meeting everyone. Cast and crews are always, pretty much without fail, lovely. It’s very rare to find a big, unpleasant ego. You hear more about them, because it’s more interesting. You don’t hear about all the thousands of people who are perfectly lovely and doing a good job.”

  • This article appeared in the July 1, 2010 issue of The Stage

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Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.