Sophie’s Choice

Oscar Dark Horse Olivia Colman on ‘Tyrannosaur,’ Meryl Streep, and More

Olivia Colman delivers a devastating performance as an abuse victim in the indie film Tyrannosaur. The British actress opens up to Marlow Stern about the film, her own experience with domestic abuse, and high-profile roles opposite Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady and as Queen Elizabeth II alongside Bill Murray.

Near the end of Tyrannosaur, Paddy Considine’s tragic film about rage and redemption in northern England, Olivia Colman floors you. Up to that point, her character Hannah, a timid, Christian charity shop worker, has experienced ungodly acts of humiliation by her abusive husband, James (Eddie Marsan). She’s been cursed at, hit, urinated on, and raped. When a fellow damaged soul, Joe (Peter Mullan), himself a widower and reformed menace, confronts her, she screams—her eyes welling up with tears—and drops to the floor in complete and utter defeat. Her trembling hands clenched together, she looks at Joe with her kind, bruised face, and says, “Will you hold me, please?”

It’s a turn that rivals Sean Penn’s Mystic River breakdown in pure emotional catharsis, and, according to Colman, was her most difficult scene to shoot. Since Colman has, she tells The Daily Beast, been in a loving relationship with her husband for nearly 18 years and they’ve “never really had an argument” with one another, she used a friend, who endured several years in a psychologically abusive relationship, to help her occupy Hannah’s head space.

“I’d watched a witty, strong woman unravel,” said Colman. “He would phone whenever she was out, assume she was doing something bad when she wasn’t, told her to dress a certain way. She started to believe that she was not worthy, and useless, and not attractive.” Colman pauses for a moment. “It was just horrible to watch and it was very hard to try and tell her otherwise. When you’re broken down to a point where you’re not as nice as you thought you were, then it’s very hard to leave, because you don’t have the strength.”

Almost every year in the Best Actress Oscar race, amid all the flashy biopics and box-office heavies, there seems to be one indie performance from across the pond that gets short shrift. Last year, it was Lesley Manville’s hysterical turn in Mike Leigh’s Another Year. Before that, Sally Hawkins’ brilliant turn as the terribly cheery Poppy in another Leigh film, Happy-Go-Lucky, went criminally overlooked by the academy. And now, going up against Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Michelle Williams’ Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, and The Help’s Viola Davis, there’s Olivia Colman’s quietly devastating performance in Tyrannosaur.

Marking the feature film directorial debut of actor Paddy Considine (In America), Tyrannosaur was adapted from his 2007 short, Dog Altogether, which featured the same cast and took home the BAFTA award for Best Short Film, and the Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion award. Shot in four weeks in Leeds, England, on a budget of £750,000 ($1,180,350), Tyrannosaur centers on Joe (Mullan), a widower and former alcoholic who experiences self-destructive fits of rage, whose chance encounter with an abused Christian charity worker, Hannah (Colman), sends him on the path to redemption. The Ken Loach-like film was the recipient of several awards at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, including Special Jury Prize gongs for Colman and Mullan’s performances, and a directing award.

Colman, 37, attended Cambridge University before getting her formal acting training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. While at Cambridge, she met comedy gurus David Mitchell and Robert Webb—now known as Mitchell and Webb—and the trio would eventually star together in the U.K. comedy TV series, Peep Show, beginning in 2003. The show quickly became a cult hit and Colman became a staple in the U.K. comedy scene. Prior to that, she made a guest appearance as a magazine reporter interviewing the loathsome David Brent, played by Ricky Gervais, on the BBC version of The Office, confessing that it “was just so exciting, and it was very difficult to film because he kept giggling!”

Her feature film debut, however, didn’t go so well. Colman played one-half of a naturist couple—opposite pal Webb—who want to have a nude wedding in the 2006 British mockumentary, Confetti. Apparently, Colman and Webb were both misled by the filmmakers, who told them that their nudity would be entirely pixelated in the film (it wasn’t). The mere mention of the film gives chills to Colman, who describes her experience on it as “utterly, utterly miserable.”

On Hot Fuzz, Colman’s second film, her fortunes would change for the better. Edgar Wright’s hilarious action-film satire featured Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as a mismatched pair of policemen investigating a series of bizarre coincidences in the quaint English town of Sanford. Colman plays a town cop helping the boys. She acted opposite Paddy Considine, and the two immediately hit it off.

“Paddy’s one of the funniest people you could meet,” said Colman. “He had a hilarious mustache for it, and at the time there was an advert in England—which we still have—about an information number to call, 118, and it was two guys in mustaches running around. He was forever going around saying, ‘We’re filming the 118 commercials!”

It was at their first encounter, however, that Paddy decided he’d found the right actress to play the fragile Hannah in his 2007 short, Dog Altogether.

“We were both going into our first day of rehearsals, and I was beside myself with excitement about meeting Paddy Considine,” Colman recalled. “He went up the stairs and I held the door for him. He said, ‘No, after you,’ and I said, ‘Oh please, after you,’ and apparently that was when he thought, ‘Oh, she’d be all right for the film!’ He says he just felt it, which is amazing, and he phoned his wife and said, ‘I think Olivia should do it.’” She adds, “I was very pleased I held the door open for him.”

Dog Altogether became the feature, Tyrannosaur, which called for Colman to try her hand at a soul-baring, dramatic lead performance, making her another in a long line of comedic actors to seamlessly cross over into dramatic roles.

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“This is what I’d always hoped I would do,” said Colman. “Hilariously, people think there’s any element of choice in an actor’s career. You get what you’re given, you do your best, and you’re grateful for it. When I read the script, I was scared that I wouldn’t do it justice, and that I would let Paddy down, because he took such a gamble on me. But there’s no way in hell I wouldn’t have done it.”

Colman then went from what she describes as a “very spiritual four weeks” shooting Tyrannosaur, filming scenes in live clubs, and drinking real gin and tonics, to playing Carol Thatcher, the daughter of Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher, in the Oscar-bait film The Iron Lady. The $13 million movie, while cheap by Hollywood standards, seemed “massive” for the TV and indie film vet. And working with acting legend Meryl Streep wasn’t too shabby, either.

“I kind of sat with my mouth open a lot of the time and really had to concentrate to say my lines,” said Colman. “She is so lovely. She makes everybody laugh. Absolutely no sign of ego at all. When they say cut she just goes straight back to being Meryl, or does something silly and old lady-ish to make us laugh.”

One Streep moment in particular really impressed Colman. They were shooting close-ups of Thatcher’s hands, and Streep had a “mature” lady as a hand double, but sometimes you’d need to see Meryl’s hands in shots that track from Thatcher’s hands up to her face. “Meryl has elegant hands, so she had this trick to make her hands look puffy by putting really tight elastic bands on her wrist so her hands swelled up,” said Colman. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s so cool!’ A lot of actors wouldn’t do that for vanity reasons.”

After The Iron Lady, Colman will star as Queen Elizabeth II opposite Franklin Delano Roosevelt, played by Bill Murray, in the film Hyde Park on Hudson, from Notting Hill director Roger Michell.

“Acting with Bill Murray—another dream come true,” gushes Colman. “He’s got a proper naughty twinkle—a streak of anarchy—that is a lot of fun on set. He walked around with this enormous stereo, and between scenes something random would come pouring out of the speakers—like Russian church music or ‘80s pop—and he would giggle as people around would look puzzled.”

Between the awards buzz for her riveting turn in Tyrannosaur to her highest-profile roles to date in buzzy biopics opposite acting gods Meryl Streep and Bill Murray, Colman, who is relatively unknown in the U.S., is having a moment. But the happily married 37-year-old mother of two won’t let it go to her head.

“Every now and then I step out of myself, have a look, and go, ‘Gosh, it’s gotten a bit peculiar!’” said Colman. “It’s happening to me, I’m enjoying it, and I can’t really believe it. I’ve been very fortunate and always worked, but now I’m doing jobs that other people are interested in and talking about. I feel very lucky and just that I should make hay, because you never know if you’re not going to work again.” She takes a long pause. “So… it’s lovely.”