Her name, her heroes, her humor: A tour through the mind of Olivia Colman

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from "The Father"
Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from “The Father.” “He can tap into real emotion instantly,” Colman says of her costar.
(Sean Gleason / Sony Pictures Classics)

These days, Olivia Colman can do no wrong: Not only did she pick up an Academy Award for “The Favourite” in 2019, but she’s also been top-lining Netflix’s “The Crown” (as Queen Elizabeth II) for the last two seasons and is poised for a big Oscar season this year, paired up with Anthony Hopkins in Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Father,” which releases later this month. But there’s more to the cheery Colman than deep drama — as The Envelope discovered during a recent phone call — where she spoke about her comedic past, having a “holy s—” moment over Meryl Streep, and how she ended up as “Olivia.”

“The Father” takes a unique approach to telling the story of a man with dementia and his daughter Anne — who you play — as we experience the world from his point of view. Why was that intriguing for you?

I have never read anything from inside the eyes of the sufferer of this particular condition. Normally, you’re watching and not understanding why they’re confused. But this was so brilliantly and beautifully done, with such empathy. Why has it never been done before? God, it’s genius.


In both comedy and drama, films like ‘The Father,’ ‘Palm Springs’ and ‘French Exit’ keep audiences guessing as to where the story is going and what it all means.

Jan. 5, 2021

Anthony Hopkins is truly a unique individual. What’s he like to work with?

He’s divine. And we approach things in a similar way: I take the work seriously, but not myself, and he is quite similar. He’s always there, always present, and you just have to react to one another. He can tap into real emotion instantly. He kept saying, “We’re so lucky, life is wonderful. With all its nasty bits, it’s still wonderful.”

You’re an A-list Oscar winner now yourself, but have you ever been intimidated by any legends you may have worked with?

Meeting Meryl Streep was a “Holy s—ball, it’s Meryl Streep” moment. The more people you end up meeting, the more you realize every one of them is a person. It would appear that the higher up they are, the sweeter they are.

Do you feel like you have to strain for normalcy now that you’re in a hit TV show and have the film industry’s most prestigious award?


I’m very lucky; I’ve got some good friends who’d be the first to go, “rein it in.” I’ve got dogs, and they still vomit, and you have to pick it up, and you can’t be too up yourself. I don’t think my husband would find me attractive if I suddenly started demanding things.

So where do you keep that Oscar?

It’s actually in a cupboard, because I’m slightly embarrassed if people come over … I don’t want to be too “Oh, look at me!” But I open the cupboard once in a while and go, “Mm-hmm, can’t believe it’s there.”

Olivia isn’t actually your given name; you’re a Sarah. Why make the change?

You’re not allowed to have the same as someone in Equity in the actors union in the UK. So, my flat mate was called Olivia, and I loved her name and asked if I could borrow it.

And you probably wear it more proudly than she does now.


Yes, it must have really pissed her off: “That’s my name!”

You’re all about drama these days, but your earliest work was in sketch comedy. Had you always planned to segue from comedy into more serious parts later on?

I think I always dreamed of doing some really lovely meaty drama. It takes a bit of a gamble, especially if you’ve always been known for comedy. Someone has to take a punch to give you another type of role. As a kid, I wasn’t great at school, but making people laugh was useful. And, certainly, boyfriends. I didn’t ever win anyone over by how I look, but if I made him laugh, they’d say, “Oh, she’s quite fun.”

What makes you laugh?

It’s awful, but if my husband falls over, that’s the funniest thing in the world. When our kids were tiny, running between his legs and misjudging him and getting him in the nuts, there’s nothing funnier. I know that makes me bad, but that gets me to the point where I have to lie down I’m laughing so much. But poor him.

“The Crown’s” latest season is digging up a lot of old dirt on Charles and Diana. Have you been surprised at the way people are responding?

I don’t know how they’re responding, because I like to put my head in the sand. I don’t want to know. I’ve got no idea, which is the way I like it.


What’s still at the top of your bucket list of things you want to do — professionally or personally — once you get out of the house again?

I’m really boring. I just want to keep working, because the idea is it’s all going to dry up, it’s terrifying. Like, I’m really s— at everything else. I need to keep acting. I don’t have any other skills.