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Oscar winner Olivia Colman jokes that on-screen affair with ‘man half my age was a bonus’

As she dazzles once more on the big screen, Olivia Colman talks movie moments, mental health stigma and on-screen chemistry, with Esther McCarthy

Olivia Colman stars opposite Micheal Ward in Empire of Light© ??  `??_/O??

Olivia with director Sam Mendes© ??  `??_/O????????

Olivia as cinema manager Hilary with her younger lover

Olivia with Toby Jones in the film

Sunday World

She has dazzled us onscreen with roles in The Crown and The Favourite. Now Olivia Colman is back on the big screen — playing a cinema manager who has a passionate affair with a younger man.

Olivia and Top Boy star Micheal Ward share a strong on-screen chemistry in Empire of Light, a love story set as racial tensions stir in 1980s England. The actress says director Sam Mendes had a hunch his two lead stars would click, and so it proved.

“We got on straight away and Sam says he knew we would get on. He says we’re very similar because we giggle a lot. We take the work seriously, but not really ourselves. And we just had a really fun time on set. For me, it was a bonus I get to have an affair with a man half my age,” she jokes.

But there’s a serious side to their romance. Olivia’s character Hilary is struggling with loneliness and depression, while Micheal’s Stephen faces racist threats of violence in the town in which they live.

“It’s two lost people who see each other, not what colour they are, not what age they are, they find each other,” she explains. “From Hilary’s point of view, it’s the most loving relationship she has — he’s the only one who comes to see her when she’s at her lowest moments.”

Olivia as cinema manager Hilary with her younger lover

For the star, the role came with an additional responsibility, for she knew the character was based loosely on Mendes’ own mother, who herself struggled with depression during his childhood.

“It was a little bit scary because obviously, Hilary is loosely based on Sam’s mum. I didn’t want to let him down, or anyone down who had seen a loved one go through it or had to experience it themselves.

“But in the ‘80s it was definitely a taboo subject talking about mental health, mental issues. And now, we have come a long way but it’s still not spoken about enough.

“Sam answered this question with: If you came out of hospital having had cancer treatments, people would say, ‘How are you?’ But if you come out of hospital having been in a mental institution, people would avoid the subject. They wouldn’t ask you how you are. And that’s a step we need to get beyond and to go: ‘How are you? It’s OK, you can talk about it’.

“There shouldn’t be shame, because it’s nobody’s fault. I felt honoured to be able to portray this and I hope even some conversations start up about it.”

In many ways, the film is also dedicated to the experience of going to the cinema. Like many of us, Olivia loves a night at the pictures — even if her very first movie experience, Bambi, left her in tears when Bambi’s mother died.

“I remember the first film I saw when I was tiny, my granny took me to see Bambiwhich was not a great experience. She had to take me out of the cinema quite early on,” she smiles. “It was a drawing, they could have not drawn that! They didn’t have to do it that way.

“But that was a moment when it really impacted me. I think in some ways, a fascination certainly started then. That was the first time I’d ever been in a cinema. I’d never experienced the scale of it, the event of going out, being allowed to buy chocolate.

“But my tastes changed as the years went on. I discovered art films in my teens and then I was hooked.”

For her co-star, part of the joy of signing up for the film was not just working with Colman, but also Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose film work includes The Shawshank Redemption and Fargo.

“That was something I really enjoyed watching, actually,” says Micheal. “From the first day, Roger came down when we was doing rehearsals in London, rehearsing this one scene. And at lunch, Roger said, ‘This isn’t going to work because this, this and this.’

“Just to see that Roger had that intel straight away, just from the setup that he saw, was just amazing.”

The movie is set in 1981, just after Margaret Thatcher came to power, amid growing social and racial unrest in England.

Olivia with Toby Jones in the film

“I was seven in 1981 so there’s not an awful lot I remember about that,” says Olivia. “My memories of the ‘80s come in a few years later. I do remember my granddad having a car like some of the cars (on set). I realised how noisy those cars were and how smelly they were. But an awful lot of it I don’t really remember — I was busy riding my bike and getting muddy at that time.”

She adds that it really struck her how similar that time was compared to the times we now live in.

“What’s extraordinary is you look at this in the ‘80s, a time of great political upheaval and racial upheaval, and you think we’ve come a long way. But then you realise, oh, no, we really haven’t.

“Sam was writing it during the Black Lives Matter movement and everything was happening, and you realise we haven’t come far enough by a longshot.

“It’s interesting to go to the ‘80s and realise the social upheaval, the sexism we’re doing slightly better with now, but there’s a lot that still really needs to be sorted out.”

  • Empire of Light is in cinemas now

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