Prior to taking on lead duties opposite Peter Mullan in”Tyrannosaur,” British actress Olivia Colman was best known for her witty turns in “Hot Fuzz” and a slew of TV projects, including “Peep Show” and “Green Wings.” Now thanks to her award-winning performance as an abused housewife in the feature directorial debut of actor-turned-filmmaker Paddy Considine, Colman has proven to the world that she’s no one-trick pony.
In “Tyrannosaur” — which netted best acting honors for both her and Mullan at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere — Colman plays Hannah, a kindly Christian charity worker who suffers at the hands of her horrifically abusive husband (Eddie Marsan). When she befriends Joseph (Mullan), an unemployed widower with his own share of demons, she sees in him a kindred spirit. Things get hairy when her husband becomes aware of their growing affection for each other.
Strand Releasing is releasing the film on DVD today, so to mark the occasion we caught up with Colman to discuss her breakout dramatic turn and her recent work opposite Meryl Streep as Maragaret Thatcher’s daughter in “The Iron Lady.”
Prior to seeing you in “Tyrannosaur,” I knew you mostly for “Hot Fuzz.” This marks quite the change of pace.
Yes, I’d imagine it was a bit of a shock for you.
What led Paddy to thinking of you for this?
I don’t know, really. We just got on incredibly well. On our first rehearsal for “Hot Fuzz,” I was so excited that we was coming in that I opened the door for him. He said that at that moment he thought I’d be right for his short film. I’m eternally grateful he thought that.
Your character undergoes a horrific amount of abuse in “Tyrannosaur.” What were your initial impressions when you first caught wind of what your character would have to endure over the course of the film?
Paddy warned me where he was going with the character. In the short, you didn’t really get to see Hannah’s life at all. It was by far the best script I read ever, I think. I just wanted to do him proud. He really took a chance on me, since he hadn’t seen me do things like that before. I just wanted to do it well. I was definitely nervous, but also quite excited about being given this wonderful opportunity.
Were you wary of taking on a film where you’d be required to do much of the dramatic lifting?
I didn’t have any reservations, really. It was the sort of part I dreamt of since I was a teenager wanting to be an actress. The main thing I didn’t want was for anyone who’s been through that to watch it and not think it was done in a real way. So I just wanted to do it as well as I could. I just grabbed it with my hands.
Did you reach out to abuse victims to prepare?
A bit. There are various organizations here, as I’m sure there are in America, that help victims of domestic violence. I went to two women that work for one. I did imagine that I would speak to some abuse victims, but they thought that wouldn’t be very helpful. So they took me through the work they did there and answered a lot of my questions. The most useful thing they did; they sent me a case study to read of one woman in particular that was so shocking. I showed it to Paddy and he was horrified. We both thought if it had been a horror film, nobody would have believed it. That really helped inform me that this is real.
After some screenings, a couple of women have come up to me telling me that the film brought up memories of when they found themselves in a place like that. That was very emotional. They said thank you for telling their story. That made me feel very happy that we had done it well. How did you navigate the trust that you had to have with Eddie Marsan, who plays your husband?
Paddy knew that Eddie and I had worked together. He knows Eddie well. Eddie is a consummate professional, he’s a lovely man. Paddy said you don’t want a method actor anywhere near this film. I need to feel safe, and Paddy always made all of us feel very safe. But we were acting. We were all aware that it was pretend. And Eddie is a wonderful actor. When he turns it on, he’s so genuinely terrifying that you don’t have to act. I was just reacting and that was fine. We were all very supportive of each other.
How was the vibe on set?
Weirdly — it’s probably hard to imagine after watching the film — it was the most enjoyable time I’ve ever had on any set. Paddy had the gift of picking people who would get on and support each other. The days were pretty short. He only ever did four takes, tops. At the end of each day we’d go to the bar and have a good laugh.
Peter Mullan is particularly brilliant at being able to have everybody in stitches telling funny stories, and then go straight into an emotional scene. I was not quite as cool as him. I stayed a little bit grumpy in my head before the scene.
I’m guessing you did something light to lift your spirits after wrapping?
Yes. Straight after I went on to “Rev.,” a comedy show in the UK. I did that and then I did “Iron Lady.” So yeah, it’s all quite nice. But we all stayed in touch and have remained really good friends.
I had no idea you were in “The Iron Lady” until the credits rolled. Those makeup folks deserved their Oscar win. I know this sounds mundane, but how was it working opposite lady Meryl?
I wish I could say something really controversial, but she’s just the loveliest woman I have ever met. She’s so generous. There’s no vanity, no ego at all, just really lovely. She surpassed all my hopes. Actors don’t have to be rotten at anybody to be good at their jobs, and she was just wonderful.
Now in the upcoming “Hyde Park on Hudson” you play Queen Elizabeth…
Yes! I can’t wait to see that one. They’re screening it soon for cast and crew. That was a lovely experience.
You’re following in the footsteps Helena Bonham Carter who recently took on the icon. What can we expect of your take on the Queen?
Ooh, I don’t know. Helena Bonham Carter was breathtakingly wonderful in “The King’s Speech.” I couldn’t watch it before doing the film. I didn’t want it to influence me. There was very little recording of her voice — we know her as the Queen Mother — so thankfully I could get away with murder a bit.
Are you set to reunite with Paddy anytime soon?
I have no idea about his next one, but I’m really hopeful that we will do something together soon. I’ve never enjoyed working with anyone as much as I’ve enjoyed working with him. I always tell him that I’d be happy making tea on his next film.