Olivia Colman is late to our interview.
A nervous publicist explains that the star of Broadchurch, which plunged the U.K. into a full-blown obsession when it aired earlier this year, is making her way on foot to our location, deep within the caverns of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. (Colman is slated to appear the next day on a panel for BBC America at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.) When Colman does turn up, she’s barefoot, clutching a pair of wickedly high-heeled Louboutins in her arms and apologizing for her tardiness.
Apparently, the BAFTA winner — who stars opposite David Tennant in BBC America’s murder mystery Broadchurch, which begins Wednesday, August 7 (it aired earlier this year to huge ratings on ITV in the U.K.), and can be seen in everything from Tyrannosaur to Peep Show — can do comedy and drama well, but finds walking in heels a real challenge. (It may be her rare flaw, in fact.) Hugs, however, are something she excels at. Colman and Doctor Who star Matt Smith embrace briefly as she passes by him, shoes in tow; she appeared in Smith’s very first Doctor Who episode (“The Eleventh Hour”).
“She’s amazing,” Smith tells me. “She’s great fun. Especially when you go and have a beer with her. She’s a riot.” And no one, I say, can cry like her. “Yeah, no one! And as a comedy actress as well, she’s incredible. She’s one of our finest exports.”
Colman is, in fact, a cottage industry unto herself, turning out highly nuanced performances from both ends of the comedy/drama divide. The Telegraph called her “the next Judi Dench.” Meryl Streep referred to her as “divinely gifted.” But Colman doesn’t wear those accolades comfortably. Bring them up and she laughs uneasily.
“It all seems a bit silly, doesn’t it? I did rewind the Meryl bit quite a few times,” Colman says, shifting in her chair. “That was amazing. I don’t know. It’s lovely and I’m aware that I’m lucky and there are many, many people who can do what I do. I’ve just been given an opportunity to do it, and I’m very grateful. It might all dry up. I’m making hay.”
The 39-year-old actress is absolutely riveting in Chris Chibnall’s eight-episode Broadchurch, where she plays Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, a sunny if harried mother of two who returns to the police force after maternity leave to discover that the promotion she was up for has been taken by an interloper to her sleepy British seaside community, Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (Tennant). But before these two — forced to work together as partners — have a chance to know each other, they’re plunged into a murder investigation when the body of an 11-year-old local boy, Danny Latimer (Oskar McNamara), is found on the beach. The victim is the best friend of Ellie’s son, and investigating the murder of someone in her own life forever shatters Ellie’s worldview.
Which puts Colman in the position of having to portray both the spirit of justice itself while also embodying what Chibnall calls “unfiltered pure emotion.” (“Her responses are human,” he writes in an email to BuzzFeed. “Ellie, hopefully, is us.”)
When Chibnall is asked what Colman brought to the role, he’s effusive: “Genius. Limitless range, between humour and emotion. An absolute inviolable deep humanity. And huge intelligence. She never fails to give the best possible delivery of any line, scene or look. She has an ability to seek out the truest, deepest emotion while also never losing the incredible warmth and humour that Ellie and Olivia share. She also brought a lot of tears. I refuse to say any more good things about her, because if people begin to understand how talented she is, and how wonderful to work with, she will never return my calls or texts again.”
Broadchuch would seem to take some inspiration in part from the Danish series Forbrydelsen (which in turn spawned AMC’s The Killing): a multi-layered mystery that tracks both the detectives closing in on the killer and the family left behind by the victim. With Broadchuch, however, Chibnall goes one step deeper by connecting the victim’s family with Ellie and her own, resulting in a taut thriller that has additional emotional stakes for the detective.
“The Killing was a huge hit in the U.K. and everywhere around the world, and I know Chris, our writer, was a big fan of it as well,” says Colman. “I think it paved the way for us. There was nothing about The Killing that patronized its audience, and it was quite slow and detailed, all of the things which, for a long time, people had been nervous of making. It showed that audiences want that; they don’t want to be patronized. They want to be able to work things out for themselves and talk about it and have a fight about it. Chris delivered all of that because he’d written such clear multifaceted characters as well. If it was the boy next door, in your community, how would it feel?”
And yet Colman’s Ellie isn’t the type of female detective we normally see on these types of shows, but that is part of what made the character so appealing to Colman in the first place: she’s not a Sarah Lund-type, all dark and tortured, or a Saga Norén (from Broen/The Bridge). Ellie, when we meet her, is frazzled but perpetually cheerful, a working mother looking to juggle all of the demands in her life. She appears ill-equipped to handle the rigors of an investigation like this one, much less the murder of someone close to her, a crime that rips open the placid town of Broadchurch.
“I loved her for exactly those reasons,” says Colman. “That she’s a mum and a wife and a friend. She has this job, which has never really tested her up until this point… I love the fact that she’s a normal woman who’s dealing with something horrendous with no training on how to deal with that sort of thing. When you’re training, you imagine, ‘If there’s going to be a murder, it won’t be someone I know, and it won’t be a child.’ Yet all the worst possible scenarios happen.”
And while chalk-and-cheese detective pairings are far from a novel occurrence on television, Ellie and Alec’s working relationship pushes that now-familiar dynamic into some uncharted territory, setting up the two as polar opposites on an unseen moral compass.
“She assumes everybody is good and she gives everyone the benefit of the doubt,” Colman says. “He does the opposite. She’s always in demand, she’s got a family; we don’t know about his. But as more is revealed about him, you realize he might have been hurt at one point, but so much as happened and so much has hurt him and he’s had his fingers burnt that he’s had to build up this armor. She learns from him so they become closer and closer. Because I think he does understand where she’s from, but he’s trying to protect her.”
As the animosity between Colman and Tennant’s characters transforms into something resembling friendship, there is also a naturalistic quality to Ellie and Alec’s interactions, according to Chibnall: “Look at any scene with David and Olivia — they contain multitudes. You can play two minutes off them eating fish and chips and chatting. They are playful, precise, technically gifted and instinctively brilliant performers.” And it helps that the characters weren’t devised as archetypes. “I wrote the characters I wanted to see as people — we researched with the police and both characters seemed credible to me,” he adds. “Only later did I think, oh, he’s the hard-bitten cop from the city, she’s the country mouse. Sometimes, just doing the simple things well, works.”
It also helps that the two coppers are played by actors as beloved as Tennant and Colman. “He’s the sweetest man in the world, an absolute joy to work with,” says Coleman of ex-Doctor Who star Tennant. “Everyone keeps asking me what it’s like working with him, and I wish there was something that I could make up as he’s so nice. He’s awful! Very rude!” She laughs. “He’s a really lovely, funny, witty, gentle man… After a day’s work, I’ll go, ‘Shall we go and have a beer?’ and he’ll go, ‘No, no, no. I’m going to learn my lines and then I’ll have a cup of tea.’ …I’m forever trying to get him to come out and have a drink! But he’s such fun. A giggler.”
For her part, Colman might have been best known for her roles in such comedies as Peep Show, Rev, Green Wing, Twenty Twelve, and That Mitchell and Webb Look, but dramatic turns as Hannah, the abused charity shop worker, in writer/director Paddy Considine’s bleak 2011 film Tyrannosaur and as hard-bitten Carol in Channel 4’s current drama Run (not to mention a memorable turn as Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol in The Iron Lady and as Queen Elizabeth in Hyde Park on Hudson) have quickly transformed the overall perception of the hard-working actress, who cut her teeth on comedy. Just don’t call her characters downtrodden.
“Hannah was a soldier, the strongest character in that film,” says Colman of Tyrannosaur’s heartbreaking female lead. “She suffered torture every day and she was impenetrable. She was extraordinary. Somebody once said in a Q&A, ‘she’s like a doormat.’ Oooh! They didn’t think it again afterwards.”
That spirit of conviction — and of commitment — is what powers some of the best of Colman’s performances, including Broadchurch’s Ellie Miller. “Ellie probably became stronger because I realised that whatever I wrote Olivia would deliver beyond my expectations,” writes Chibnall. “So that then becomes a challenge: how far can we go with this? How funny can we make her (I love the deftness of her performance in the dinner scene in episode 4)? What reserves of anger and toughness can this character have? Olivia understands the contradictions in characters and reconciles them. She can play loveable and selfish, calm and furious, funny and broken-hearted all at the same time. Ellie has those facets because I had a performer who could bring them.”
Colman is clearly attracted towards playing complex characters in the throes of some dark matter, and in her late thirties has tapped into something primal and powerful in her performance.
“To play something which is a big spectrum is so much more fun, so much more of a challenge,” she says, “and also because I think I spent so many years doing comedy, which I fucking love. But when you’re given a chance to do something different, I think maybe I’m going a little bit nuts with it at the moment. I’m loving it, playing all these different things.”
Which means that there is still a chance of seeing her reprise her role on the popular comedy Peep Show as the long-suffering and posh Sophie opposite Robert Webb and David Mitchell, whom she met when the threesome attended Cambridge University.
“Oh, I hope so,” Colman says, smiling. “I couldn’t do Series 8 because I was doing Broadchurch. But Series 9? I really hope so, because they are my favorite people in the world — Rob [Webb] and David [Mitchell]. I love them. I hope so.”
Whatever she opts to do next, Colman will continue to ricochet between comedy and drama, a trajectory that she genuinely loves. While some actors might experience psychological whiplash from such a constant shift between genres, Colman is resolute about leaving her roles at the dressing room door.
“You don’t take it with you,” she says. “I know some people do. I really don’t. It’s all pretend and by the end of a filming day, whatever you’ve done, it’s the end of the working day. Hopefully, you’ve done it justice and you’ve told someone’s story well, committed to it. But it’s gone.”