When spy thriller “The Night Manager” went looking for an actor to play Burr, an intelligence operative obsessed with taking down Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) at any cost, they went looking for someone tough, determined — and, as a twist on the John LeCarre novel, female.
It was a change that more than made sense to Olivia Colman. “In 2016, all the decision-making characters should bloody well be women!” she recently told IndieWire.
As Burr, who recruits Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) into the spy game, Colman simultaneously brings a hard edge and a maternal energy to the role — perhaps in part aided by the fact that she was heavily pregnant while filming, something that was written into the script after her casting. “I was massive all the way through it,” she said with a laugh.
She laughs a lot, by the way. If you sit down with Colman expecting her to bear the slightest bit of resemblance to characters like Burr or Detective Miller on “Broadchurch,” you’re in for a shock. Per the original transcript of this interview, she laughed at least 17 times in the space of 15 minutes, especially when talking about why she always avoids having to shoot love scenes — even kissing.
Burr never gets physically intimate on screen, but that didn’t stop Colman from being nominated for Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie in this year’s Emmys. Below, she talks about the fun of getting to play the spy game and the limits to how vulnerable she’s willing to be on screen.
Originally, the part wasn’t written as a pregnant woman. When did you find out that they’d be able to accommodate it?
My first meeting with Susanne [Bier] — and I’m not sure who else she met or what, I wasn’t party to the discussions — they’d already decided to make Burr a woman. Because she was a man in the book originally. And then there was no point in me lying about it, so I said, “I’m also pregnant, by the way. [laughs] I hope that’s all right.” And to their credit, yeah, it was fine.
What did it mean to you, to know that the role had been originally written as a man?
Well, the book was written 20 years ago and so they updated it geographically, for one thing, and they quite rightly updated it in a gender balance area as well. Because it’s a truer reflection. There are many spies that are women. In 2016, all the decision-making characters should bloody well be women. Had it been left as a man, I wouldn’t have gotten the job anyway, so I’m very pleased that they changed it and I think they did it for the right reasons. And they’re better for it, I think.
It brings almost a maternal energy to it. Was that something you were conscious of?
Well, Le Carre said that the person in my position, putting someone into a dangerous place, takes on a sort of parental role. So my parental-ness [laughs] came out as a motherly sort of thing. And he was the one that told us that that was the right thing. It made sense that I was responsible for putting him in a dangerous position. So you do take that sort of, you know, “I hope I’ve done the right thing and I will protect him and try and make sure he’s safe.”
Was it fun playing in the spy world?
Yeah, of course! So much fun. Yeah, there were lots of moments, lots of lines where I just, “What!” I was storming into someone’s office, and she goes, “I’ll call the police!” “I am the police!” [laughs] That’s the sort of line everyone would love to say. But yeah, it was really fun. Acting is playing and it is like being a big kid. Yeah, it’s great. You get paid. [laughs]
I like the fact that you got to do those scenes while still so very pregnant.
Yeah, yeah. Storming around with a great big belly. Yeah. Brilliant.
Des Willie /The Ink Factory/AMC
How collaborative was the experience of working on the wardrobe?
Well, for me, we were slightly limited. Poor Signe [Sejlund], who’s our costume designer — who’s amazing at her job — just had to find big things for me. Being stuck in a beautiful holiday resort in Mallorca wasn’t always the easiest place to find jeans with a massive elastic side, And I was going quite rapidly as the weeks went by, so she was constantly having to find things big enough. I was constantly having to, “Sorry, I can’t get in it anymore!” And having to find bigger things.
Were you able to be involved in the choices of, say, which sweater she wore?
Yes! She had options, but mainly, I just wanted to be comfortable. I wasn’t interested in anything else and please, can I only wear trainers? And she was [laughs] very accommodating.
Was that pregnancy-specific or do you in general try to avoid heels?
In general, I’m rubbish in heels. I love them and I own a lot because it’s like being in a sweet shop, they’re pretty. But I’m not good in them. I don’t walk nicely in heels. From a filming point of view and being pregnant, it was just practical. I just wanted to be comfortable.
It makes sense. I’ve talked about that with actors before; it’s a minor detail what shoes you wear, but it can be so seismic.
Of course! Some people, it’s really important. And Angela Burr is not someone who’d be totting around in heels, is she? It was great. Had I been playing someone who kept commenting on how much they loved high heels, I’d have played it. But I was very pleased that I was playing Angela Burr, who goes for comfort. Speed, rather than anything else.
One of the things I really loved was the detail of you calling him Mr. Burr. It’s such a fun quirk — It’s not my husband, it’s “Mr. Burr.” And I imagine that’s scripted. But while he’s a presence to some extent with your character, we don’t see all that much of him.
[laughs] I like that. There’s so many male roles where the significant other is not significant to the story. And quite rightly, for her, what she does is important. It doesn’t matter what man is in her life. So it’s quite sad for Mr. Burr, but there’s something about them.
I think they’re friends, and they trust each other, and she does say that they aren’t in love. And I think that’s the basis of many marriages, probably. And it could be worse, couldn’t it? It’s quite sad that they’re not in love, but it seems to work for them. She’s obsessed with taking down Roper and that’s her main thing and he understands that. So it works out very well for them.
You know, if you told me, “Here’s a stranger, now you have to pretend to be married to this person. You have had a ten-year relationship,” that would scare the crap out of me.
Oh, me too! I can’t bear kissing scenes.
I can’t do it because I get really flustered and embarrassed. And I forget the time and actor. And there’s one moment where David Harewood would have to put my hair behind my ear, it took us ages because I kept giggling, “It’s David Harewood!” And I was rubbish at it. I’m the same as you. I don’t know how people do it.
So you make sure to avoid it.
Yes. At all costs possible.
The advantage to this role, then, is that you have all the history and backstory that comes with it, but you don’t have to actually touch another human being.
Yes! Much easier. Quite right. Elizabeth and Hugh and Tom have all had to be so intimate with each other. Well, not all…
Not at the same time!
No, that would be a triangle. That would be a whole other aspect to the show. But [my husband and I] were watching going, “I don’t know how they did it!” Because we all know each other. We’re friends, we chat after filming, we all have dinner. And they had to touch each other’s bits! [laughs]
I don’t know how they did it. Well done, them. I couldn’t. I’d have to have it rewritten. Just, “Cut to post-coitally, not having to do anything onscreen.”
Have you really managed to avoid it for the most part?
For the most part, yes. I don’t play those characters. Thankfully. I’d be too embarrassed. And when I’ve had to do little notes of it, I find it to be so excruciatingly embarrassing because I just forget the line. In all other aspects of my job, I feel completely in the moment and committed, but suddenly when you’ve got to pretend to be in love with someone, I find it so embarrassing. My agent’s probably going, “Oh, God! Shut up!”
No, that’s wonderful. It makes sense. I think it speaks to how people can be very different. There’s that line where Jed [played by Elizabeth Debecki] says, “I don’t care who sees me naked, I care who sees me cry.” And I feel like people can have completely different perspectives.
Yeah, I am the absolute opposite of that.
You will always be wearing a giant sweater.
Crying, yeah. [laughs] But never crying naked.