“It’s always a bit weird seeing yourself,” Olivia Colman answers when she’s asked what she thinks of the poster for The Crown that shows her as Queen Elizabeth II. “They’re very kind with the airbrushing. They’ve left a little bit of jowl there but it’s an acting job,” she laughs.
The British actress is winning acclaim anew as the middle-aged version of the queen — having taken over from Claire Foy — in Netflix’s hit series The Crown. The actress brings her formidable prowess to the role, having won an Oscar and a second Golden Globe in 2019 for portraying another monarch, Queen Anne, in The Favourite. In the midst of this interview, Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown, chimes in with praise: “Olivia has a profound, instinctive talent that defies analysis,” he says.
“You’re very kind. That’s really enough, thanks,” Olivia says as she playfully slaps him on the thigh. She’s come a long way from landing roles in school plays while growing up in Norwich, England. Dropping out of Cambridge, where she was studying for a degree in primary school teaching, she went to the prestigious Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to pursue acting full time. From there, she landed roles on stage, television, and eventually in film, beginning with the 2006 mockumentary Confetti, and including an acclaimed performance as Carol Thatcher in The Iron Lady in 2011.
The actress, eminently watchable even in her supporting role as the protagonist’s godmother in the dark comedy series Fleabag, will soon appear alongside Anthony Hopkins in The Father, director Florian Zeller’s film adaptation of his play of the same title, and is currently shooting season four of The Crown.
What insights did you gain about the royal family from playing Queen Elizabeth II?
Certainly, I wouldn’t want their job. I have enormous empathy for them. It’s a job none of them chose to do. It’s obviously a job where they get to go to amazing places and meet amazing people. But what if they want to be a potter or they want to do something else or be a nurse? They’re not allowed to, and I think that’s very difficult.
You were quoted as saying that you were cool when you were offered this part.
No, I was deeply uncool. I went, “Yes!” straight away. I was such a fan of the first season. But then I had to watch the second season knowing that I got the job. And that was a different feeling — that was, “Oh, I should have thought about it, it’s really quite important and quite big.”
I have absolutely loved every second of it. I can’t believe we’re nearly at the end of my stint. I’ve got to hand over the baton to someone else.
Have you had much real-life interaction with the royal family?
(Laughs) No more than anyone else. Because of my job, I’ve been invited to a charity dinner. Prince William was there as a patron, so you say, “Hello, Your Royal Highness,” and stuff like that. There’s no relationship. I’ve been very lucky to meet and curtsy on a couple of occasions.
And did you curtsy well?
I don’t think so. That’s the part of this job that I haven’t been learning, so I think I was a bit rubbish at it. They’re very forgiving. They didn’t point and laugh.
Do you understand our fascination with the royal family?
I understand why everyone’s fascinated because you’re fascinated by something that you can’t imagine in a way. These people are currently living in palaces and having a life that none of us can imagine. That’s why it’s interesting. It’s normal people in an extraordinary environment. I can’t imagine it ever not being interesting.
Alternatively, I’m fascinated by undiscovered tribes in the rainforest because I don’t know what that life is like. So, any human being’s story is interesting and always will be. I hope it is. Otherwise, we’re out of a job (laughs).
What interesting details have you learned about the royals?
We have a lovely man on set who’s our etiquette guide. There was mainly that dinner where we were learning royal etiquette. My favorite thing is, not necessarily regarding the Queen, but at very posh dinners, it’s a little bit rude to say, “Could you pass me the salt?” So instead, I have to say, “Would you like the salt?” So, then the other person can go, “No, would you?” (laughs). Little things like that have been really fun to learn. And now, even when they lay the table, I go, “That should be on that side.” I learned where things should be.
What has it been like working with the cast?
I have to say, and without it sounding cheesy, but we all get on incredibly well. My favorite scenes, without a shadow of a doubt, are when we have to do family scenes. They take quite a long time to get through because we giggle a lot. Josh O’Connor [who plays Prince Charles] has a game for every moment. He invents games and we just have such a ball together. I also absolutely loved Jason Watkins, who played Harold Wilson. And Gillian Anderson, [playing Margaret Thatcher], who I’m spending a lot of time with in season four, I absolutely love. We’re quite badly behaved together. I don’t know how it’s happened but everyone who comes in — we have such a nice time.
How will you say goodbye to playing the Queen when you’re done shooting?
With a karaoke party? (laughs) It’s going to be sad. It’s the longest-running job I’ve done, but I’ve made really good friends. People you really love on each job you take with you, and so that’s the best bit of it.