why olivia colman deserves every award under the sun
Gentle, funny, smart, self-deprecating -- Olivia Colman’s un-starry and disarming interview style might seem like the best Oscar campaign Hollywood could buy, if she had not so clearly always been this way.
Olivia Colman -- a SAG-nominated, Oscar-nominated, Bafta-nominated, two-time-Golden-Globe winner -- has brought a pint glass to The Graham Norton Show. It is, per Graham Norton’s New Year show tradition, for the purpose of performing her best party trick. She is, as is befitting an appearance on the Graham Norton New Year show, dressed as if she has been styled for a movie premiere: a navy velvet jumpsuit, earrings hardly smaller than a pair of human fists, a modish pixie cut. It is 31 December 2018. The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ punkish period tragicomedy, will be released the next day. Colman plays the lead, Queen Anne, and she has never looked more pulled-together or more glamorous than she does right now. She has never been more critically-acclaimed, more tipped to join the pantheon of all-time-icon actors. This is, as they say, “her moment”.
“Do you need to explain what you’re going to do first?” Graham Norton asks.
“No, I don’t think so!” Olivia Colman answers, brightly.
Olivia Colman puts her mouth up to the opening of the glass, and wraps her hand around the rim, and makes a sound. The sound, she says, is her “impression of a lion”, and therefore presumably the noise Olivia Colman makes is meant to be a roar. What it resembles is an absolutely massive, deafening belch: a kind of Barney-Gumble-from-The-Simpsons primal scream, emanating from this bright-eyed, cheery woman in a velvet jumpsuit. She throws her arms in the air, eyes insane with triumph, as if this might be the best damned thing she’s ever given us, her public.
When exactly one week later, she accepts Best Actress at the Golden Globes for her performance as Queen Anne, she is both shocked and gracious. She walks up to the podium and says: “’Ello! Oooh, blimey!” like a very, very British cartoon, but there is no grandstanding, no manic glee. This is the beauty of Olivia Colman as an actress: that committing to a goof is second-nature to her, but being rewarded for what Meryl Streep has called her “divine genius” makes her squirm with disbelief. “The awards chat,” she said in an interview late last year in The Guardian, “makes me want to be sick in my mouth”.
A list of certain other things Olivia Colman has said in interviews since roughly 2012: that she won’t “give a fuck” if all the swearing in The Favourite harms its chances at the Oscars; that her only ‘process’ to play Queen Anne was the fact she “ate a lot”, and that she sees herself as fundamentally “a jeans and sweater-with-something-spilled-on-it person”; that she once believed she had been recognised by the proprietor of a restaurant, only to be told that he had “mist[aken] [her] for a mate of [his]”; that “if you’re not skinny: fuck it”; that she made her husband steal “two squares of loo roll” from Buckingham Palace; that acting in films is great, because “you get paid”.
Her un-starry and disarming interview style might seem like the best Oscar campaign that Hollywood could buy if she had not so clearly always been this way. She is a gentle, funny, smart, self-deprecating stone-cold nutcase, and a genius, and to disagree would be to disagree with Meryl Streep. “She will ‘go there’ without hesitation and you will always believe her,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge told The Guardian in 2018. “I remember sitting in the edit with Harry Bradbeer [the director of Fleabag] and we’d watched a string of incredible takes when Harry paused it, leaned back in his chair and, with a sigh of pure artistic joy, said: ‘She’s a fucking Ferrari.’”
“In real life,” the Fleabag writer adds, “she is without pretension, vanity or bullshittery and is outrageously funny. The key to why everyone loves her is that, as well as admiring her monumental talent, people can sense she’s about the real stuff.”
In The Favourite there is stuff so full of fantasy and so anachronistic that it’s borderline-surreal, and there is stuff so real that it feels like a cinematic paper-cut. One scene, where Colman’s Queen Anne tells her ladies’ maid that she has lost seventeen children, is almost impossible to bear. “Some were born in blood, some without breath, and some were with me for a very brief time,” she says, as softly as if she were trying not to wake a living child. “Each one that dies, a little bit of you goes with them.” Picture this, and picture the immortal gif of Colman’s Peep Show character, the batty office everywoman Sophie, saying “let’s get pissed”, and it’s enough to give you psychic whiplash. Thinking of another actor with the same range, I thought of John C. Reilly: a character actor with a pedigree on Broadway, as acclaimed by Joaquin Phoenix and Paul Thomas Anderson as he is for his insane, kid-dumb work in Stepbrothers and Talladega Nights.
“Everything’s very close to the surface with Olivia,” David Tennant, her co-star in ITV drama Broadchurch said in an interview with Vanity Fair. “She laughs more heartily than anyone, and she cries more rawly than anyone … that’s part of the key to her brilliance.” As it happens, nobody has explained Olivia Colman’s brilliance better than Olivia Colman, when attempting to describe the mixture of comedy and unnerving tragedy in the 2016 TV program, Flowers: “It’s like salt and caramel -- you wouldn’t imagine they would go well together, but they do.” As at home in a sketch show compulsively saying “now we know” during a sex scene as she is playing a wife literally pissed on by a physically abusive husband, Colman makes herself as easy to know in her jovial, good-hearted interviews as she is difficult to second-guess in her disparate choices as an actor. All this, and she only needs a pint glass to impersonate a lion -- or at least approximate a very, very vibrant burp.