Olivia Coleman

Cheerful, pragmatic, Oscar-winning – no wonder Olivia Colman is one of the UK’s most loved stars. By Gabrielle Donnelly



It's the drama that has captivated audiences worldwide with its intimate portrayal of life in our royal family.

This time, at the helm as Queen Elizabeth II – taking the reins from her predecessor Claire Foy – is Olivia Colman, newly minted Best Actress Oscar-winner for her performance as another queen (Queen Anne, on that occasion) in The Favourite. The Oscar has joined a clutch of Baftas and Emmys on Colman’s mantelpiece and firmly marks her transition from much-loved TV actress to one of the world’s most bankable stars.

Not that the formal international recognition has changed Colman one bit: all nervous giggles as she received the trophy at the star-studded ceremony in Los Angeles earlier this year, she cheerfully announced that she and her party were ‘going to get sooo pissed later’, while waving dizzily to ‘all you beautiful people’ in the audience.

It’s all a far cry from the days when Colman was so broke she lived in a friend’s attic and rummaged under the sofa cushions in search of coins to buy a single potato for dinner. Although she would probably hate the notion, Colman is now nothing short of a national treasure.

Yet throughout it all she has remained the same irrepressibly goofy presence. As anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with her will tell you, she is consistently wide-eyed and irresistibly eager to please, her speech peppered with words such as ‘golly’ and ‘obvs’. She’s also quick to pay a compliment – rare in an industry known for its narcissism.

Her cheerful pragmatic nature, say friends, has its roots in a happy childhood. Olivia was born Sarah Caroline Olivia Colman near the ‘golden coast’ of north Norfolk in 1974, the daughter of chartered surveyor Keith and his wife Mary, a nurse.

Devoted house renovators, the family moved frequently, but there was one consistent theme in Olivia's upbringing: freedom. ‘I had a lovely, feral, free childhood, coming back when hungry or when it got too dark,’ she has said. ‘I feel slightly cruel that I’m not offering my children the same.’

She got the acting bug aged 16 at Norwich High School for Girls, when she was cast as Miss Jean Brodie. ‘I was on stage, and I suddenly felt really at ease. Of course, at that age you keep it to yourself; you say, “I want to be a nurse or a teacher”.’

Paul Holt, her former drama teacher at Gresham’s in Holt, Norfolk, where she went to sixth form, described her as a natural. ‘She is a very special actress and she was a very special student, too,’ he recalled. ‘She was never difficult — when you see her being interviewed now, that funny, sensitive and delightful person is the person she was to work with when she was a teenager.’

Yet so convinced was Colman that acting was not a practical possibility that she spent a term studying primary school teaching at Homerton College, Cambridge – where she met Ed Sinclair, her husband of the past 18 years – before she finally gave in and moved to Bristol to attend the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

‘And that’s where I found my tribe. I found my people and realised I’d found what I wanted to do,’ she recalls. ‘And after that, it’s a matter of just plugging away at it.’

Not that her parents were convinced. ‘My mum wanted me to get a sensible job instead,’ she recalls. ‘After I left drama school, she and my dad said, “We suppose you’ll give it a year”. I said, “No, I’m going to give it ten or 20 years”. Because it’s all I can do – I’m rubbish at everything else.’

Nonetheless, like most aspiring actors, she struggled for work. She took jobs as a secretary — ‘not a very good one, although I was cheery’ –and as a cleaner. ‘There were years of no work. It was a hard time,’ she has admitted.

She has joked about what she and her husband call their ‘Angela’s Ashes’ days when they first moved to London in their mid-20s, initially living in the attic of friends who had a place in Epping, Essex, for two months.

‘I had £1 left in my overdraft and cash machines don’t dispense pounds,’ she has previously recalled. ‘Ed didn’t have any money either, so we managed to find enough pennies from the sofa to buy one potato to share.’

Her career began to take off in 2003 when she was cast in Channel 4’s Peep Show, with old friends David Mitchell and Robert Webb, although it was her role as downtrodden charity- shop worker Hannah in the bleak 2011 film Tyrannosaur that proved a turning point, rubber-stamping her burgeoning reputation as one of TV’s most versatile actresses.

Roles in Rev, and Carol Thatcher to Meryl Streep’s Maggie in The Iron Lady followed, before she was cast as DS Ellie Miller in Broadchurch, then detective Angela Burr in The Night Manager – for which she won a Golden Globe and which she filmed while pregnant.

 

Both she and Ed are raising their three children – their four-year-old daughter and two older boys, Finn, 14 and 12-year-old Hal – with fierce protectiveness of their privacy. She has described being a mum as ‘the most beautiful thing in my life’, and has been candid about home – a large five-bedroom Victorian terrace on the Peckham/Camberwell border that the couple share with a Jackapoo and a rescue dog from Cyprus – as being her sanctuary.

‘I get to do a lot of stuff through my work and because I am very fulfilled, I feel like I’m allowed not to do much else when I’m not working,’ she has said. ‘I like being at home. I love being with my family.’ Indeed, domestic life is something she treasures ever more in the wake of her burgeoning fame, which she has candidly confessed to finding difficult.

‘I hate the loss of anonymity,’ she has admitted. ‘No one teaches you how to deal with that. I tend to stay at home because it’s so weird not to be on an equal footing with people. They know your face, and you don’t know them. It’s not that people aren’t lovely,’ she adds, ‘but it’s harder to deal with than you imagine.’

Ask her how she stays humble in an industry that is not known for that quality and she looks a little bemused. ‘I do my job,’ she says. ‘I love my job but you just have to try to keep a level head. Don’t read everything about you, don’t look at anything people are saying about you, then it’s OK.

‘In the beginning, I had many years of not working, and I’m actually very grateful for that because it means you really appreciate it when you are working. I’m very lucky to be offered the roles I have been offered lately. I love the work, I love the people I meet every day through my work.’

It’s fair to say they love her back. ‘There’s not a nicer person this could have happened to,’ enthuses her former Broadchurch co-star David Tennant of his friend’s success. ‘She’s a unique and brilliant talent and also a delightful human being, and I think it’s the humanity which comes through in her acting that wins her awards. Those of us who have been fortunate to know her previously are already in love with her, and I think the world has quite rightly fallen in love with her now.’

Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, meanwhile, describes the woman that she affectionately calls ‘Coly’ as a ‘genius’. ‘She’s as British as anything, and when I’m writing for her, it’s not a question of “What can Coly play?” because really the question is, what can Coly not play? I’d love to work with her through everything I do because I love her so much.’

‘Coly’s’ next screen appearance in The Crown is one she has described as ‘incredible fun’. ‘Because the character is unlike any of the rest of us,’ she reflects. ‘There’s only a handful of people who know what that life’s like, so it’s eternally fascinating.’

Of course, there is no doubt that she will nail it, although the ever-modest Colman insists that her emotional nature means she has struggled with the Queen’s famously inscrutable demeanour.

‘I emote: the Queen is not meant to. She’s got to be a rock for everyone and has been trained not to emote. Whenever anyone tells me something sad, it makes me cry.’

The solution has come in the form of an earpiece provided by the production crew through which they play the shipping forecast. ‘It’s somebody going, “And the winds are fair to middling… blah, blah.” I’m trying so hard to tune in to the shipping forecast and not cry.’ Such is the esteem in which we hold her that if she did, we would probably forgive her anyway.



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