Olivia Colman is continuing her streak of incredible performances with two big ones this December. First is the HBO miniseries The Landscapers (Mondays in December), based on the true story of Susan and Christopher Edwards, the mild-mannered British couple charged with the murder of Susan’s parents and with concealing it for years. “The most bizarre parts of the script were the bits that were real—the film memorabilia, the sort of fantastical escapism in her mind, and the escape for 15 years after this terrible crime was committed. It’s an amazing story.” The second project for Colman is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, the film The Lost Daughter (Netflix, December 31). “Some directors are just gifted and amazing, but it is particularly lovely being directed by someone who has also been an actor.” Colman plays Leda, a professor who consciously decides to disrupt another family’s vacation by taking a beloved doll from the little girl whose mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) and family are visibly toying with Leda. “Leda’s sort of having an awakening of many things, looking back and forgiving herself about how she was like as a younger mum.”
There are so many elements of The Lost Daughter that are so stressful, making for a great suspense film. Did you feel the anxiety?
A few weeks into filming we were all having a drink and I said, “Why do I take the doll?” I found that so stressful. It’s just a weird, subconscious thing. I think she surprises herself when she sees it in the bag. But I know exactly what you mean by watching the film. Why do that? I don’t know if she wanted to. I really don’t know. Seeing someone like Nina [played by Dakota Johnson] and you know you’re struggling, but also I think that she wants to f**k it up a bit.
Do dolls scare you?
That doll was scary. I did try to clean the pen off and it literally wouldn’t come off. The doll is very well-loved and it looks a little scarier. It’s gone a bit bald. Have you ever read the Velveteen Rabbit?
So you know that you’re loved when your hair’s been rubbed off, but they still look a bit scary.
Leda is a complicated character who made difficult decisions as a mother. What about her was interesting to portray?
It’s written very honestly. Female friends of mine who came to to the premiere in London, mum friends of mine, can recognize themselves in this. They said thank you, it’s really weird to see the worst bits of me on screen. And these are all mums who I think are amazing mums, but behind closed doors sometimes you aren’t very good at it and you lose patience and feel really wretched and guilty about that afterward. But it’s nice to know that everybody actually loses their patience or just can’t do it sometimes or they don’t know what they’re doing sometimes. And that’s normal. So that message should be made much wider. I don’t think Leda is a bad mom; she really loves her daughters. She just has a breaking point. She goes away and she comes back, and I love that she’s very honest. She says I was selfish that’s why I came back and then she has to repair the damage and try to prove to her daughters that she’s back. But from an acting point of view, it’s much more fun to play someone that’s not straightforward.
You have so many scenes, especially with Dakota Johnson, where you don’t say anything at all. Are those awkward to shoot?
Oh, they’re the most fun, because I do believe, especially on-screen, what you’re thinking comes through if you’re thinking it. But those scenes were slightly extended by Maggie in the edit. It was fascinating to me, watching the final product, there is a lot of us trying to read each other. Also, Maggie did this lovely thing, she would whisper something to Dakota and I don’t know what she’s been given, and I’m told something else. And that’s really fun to then try and work it out. So you can just look at each other for a long time. What are you thinking? So that was a special trick of Maggie’s. We both enjoyed it.
What was it like working with Maggie Gyllenhaal, and is it different working with an actor-director?
Some directors are just gifted and amazing, but it is particularly lovely being directed by someone who has also been an actor. Maggie wouldn’t ask us to do something that she wouldn’t do. She knows that you have to feel supported and loved and safe. One of Maggie’s favorite things was being in the edit, because we all trusted her and we all gave her whatever she wanted. She said that it felt so precious. She felt like she was holding our performances in her hands, taking them to the edit and then very delicately going to make sure all of our best bits were preserved. Sometimes as an actor she’s watched a final thing and went, “You went with that take?” She didn’t want us to feel that so she really looked after us. We felt supported and then you can do whatever is needed.
Leda’s interactions with men in the film are so interesting: flirting on one hand, but there’s also a danger there.
Leda’s sort of having an awakening of many things, looking back and forgiving herself about how she was like as a younger mum. And it felt a bit like synapses were reforming. Am I going to be a sexual person again? Am I flirting? Oh, no, that’s a bit uncomfortable. [laughs] She was testing the water. What part of me do I still want to play with? That was fun. And flirting with Ed Harris, terrified and “Oh, my God,” how embarrassing and leaving. And enjoying Paul Mescal’s character. She’s sort of flirting with him, but also sort of selling her daughters to him. It’s very odd and really enjoyable to do.
You are also are starring and exec.-producing HBO’s The Landscapers. What was it like producing for the first time, and what inspired you to do this film?
I feel a bit fraudulent saying I was a producer because it was other people who are doing all the hard work. I really can only concentrate on one thing, so I did the acting bit of it. A couple of times I got a whisper that someone maybe wasn’t happy and I thought, “Okay, as a producer, I must make sure people are happy.” But then I passed it on [to another producer], so I wasn’t a great producer [laughs]. But we had a wonderful time. It was that script. That was Ed Sinclair, my husband, he wrote that script. It’s an extraordinary story. He saw the court case in the paper and he suddenly got very intrigued as to why this woman, in particular, her childhood of abuse never played a part in the trial? She’s not necessarily just a baddie, she had a really, really tough time of it. And the most bizarre parts of the script were the bits that were real, the film memorabilia, the sort of fantastical escapism in her mind, and the escape for 15 years after this terrible crime was committed. It’s an amazing story, and he wanted to explore it and I wanted to be part of it.
British true crime is always able to find the funny in mysteries and true crime. Why do you think that is?
Dark humor is very appealing to us. And gallows humor. Weirdly, in the saddest events, a natural human antidote to pain is to find something hysterically funny. When you’re watching something hard, I think you can go in deeper if you’re allowed to laugh as well. I think the rug can be really pulled out from under your feet if for a moment you’re laughing and then, oh God, I wasn’t ready to go into something that’s quite upsetting. I think it’s a useful tool. I think those two things go hand in hand.
With both The Lost Daughter and The Landscapers, you’re forced to go to some really traumatic places. How do you find those emotions?
I think if the script is good enough, I find it very hard to not go there. On The Crown, there was a very upsetting episode, and I couldn’t cope with it. So they gave me an earpiece and I listened to the shipping forecast so that I could ignore everything that’s happening around me because the queen is stronger than me and she doesn’t cry. So the problem is trying to stop me from crying. If it’s something I find sad, I just can’t hold it in. If I had any other job, it might be a problem, but luckily with the job I have, it’s quite useful, albeit puzzling to people around me. If someone tells me a sad story, I burst into tears and you can see people think, “Oh god, she’s mad.”
When you’re out and about, what surprises you most from fans?
Well, I’m a bit of a hermit, I don’t go out that much. But I do love it when people love Peep Show because that’s was when we were very young. And that’s a particular comedy where I know the people who like it, I know we’re going to get on. In recent years it’s been The Crown. That was probably the biggest viewing figure I’ve had in a job.
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