Few actors have had the career of Olivia Colman. From her start in bit parts on British television to her work on prestige dramas like Broadchurch (and her taking over the role of Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown) to her sure-to-be Academy Award-nominated performance in The Favourite, Colman has shown an ability to make us double over in both laughter and tears. Her uniqueness and timing allow her to seamlessly blend into nearly any movie that she stars in, while also standing out. But the real reason to write this piece now is not only to celebrate the career of a heretofore-underappreciated character actor but because, with her lauded performance in The Favourite, she won’t be underappreciated for much longer. At least, that’s our hope.
Colman got her start in television in the British sketch show, Bruiser, in which other modern comic luminaries like Martin Freeman (who, like Colman, has transitioned exceptionally well to dramatic roles), Matthew Holness, David Mitchell, and Robert Webb also got their starts. But while these other comedians graduated quickly from Bruiser, Colman took a little longer to find her niche (or for audiences to wake up to her greatness). For the next few years, she would pop up regularly as a guest star in everything from the British The Office to Holby City, a mainstay of British melodrama. Her most consistent work came from fellow Bruiser alumni Mitchell and Webb, who starred in their own series of sketch shows and a sitcom, Peep Show, in which Colman played Mitchell’s unfortunate love interest, Sophie.
Perhaps her first big recurring role was as HR staffer, Harriett Schulenburg on the British hospital sitcom Green Wing. The show — which also featured Tamsin Greig of Black Books fame and Spaced’s Mark Heap — ranged from zany to groan-inducing, and its ensemble nature failed to highlight Colman’s star power.
When it came to films during this period, Colman seemed doomed to be relegated to roles in things like Hyde Park on Hudson (or the most mediocre thing that Bill Murray has ever starred in) and The Iron Lady (or the most mediocre thing that Meryl Streep has ever starred in). And while Colman is excellent in both of these movies, not even she — nor Streep, nor Murray — could save such middling projects.
Things changed in 2013 when she starred alongside David Tennant in the British crime drama, Broadchurch. It was here, in this dark tale of two cops (Tennant and Colman) tasked with finding the murderer of a child in a small English town, that she finally got to stretch her dramatic wings. Since her debut in Bruiser, Colman had been known for her expressiveness — her ability to, with a shift of the eyes or a twitch of her lips, slide from humor to shock, to disgust. She brings that same ability to Broadchurch, for which she won a BAFTA. What’s remarkable is that in a show as stark and necessarily bereft of humor as Broadchurch, Colman’s role as Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller was written specifically for her. It’s the fact that her peers kept finding ways to cast Colman that demonstrates how she was appreciated by her industry long before general audiences caught on.
In 2015, Colman landed a supporting role in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster — a dark, surreal, and acerbic take on the romantic comedy, in which people check into a hotel in order to find a partner, but will be turned into an animal if they fail. As the manager of the strangest love hotel that you’d never want to check into, Colman’s performance was emotionless, deadpan, and low-key terrifying. It further affirmed her status as one of the most unique and exciting character actors working at the time, and it marked the first partnership between her and Lanthimos.
This brings us up to the present (with apologies to all the fantastic Colman performances that we’ve omitted for word count). The Favourite has been collecting awards on the festival circuit since its debut at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, where Colman picked up the Volpi Cup for Best Actress. As a whole, the movie has been met with almost universal acclaim, but even among standout performances from Oscar winners Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, Colman’s performance has garnered the largest praise. When watching press conferences and interviews with Lanthimos and Colman, it’s easy to see the director’s adoration when in the presence of his star and imagine him begging her to work on his new movie after shooting had wrapped on The Lobster.
In The Favourite, Colman plays Queen Anne, a woman who she describes as lacking in self-confidence and with way too much time on her hands — a character who could not be more different from Colman. Besides her easy wit and charm, she knows how good she is in The Favourite. According to The Hollywood Reporter, when asked if she’d rather campaign for Best Supporting Actress (where she would be predicted as the… well, favorite) or Lead Actress in the run-up to the Oscars, Colman unequivocally responded that she was the lead actress. And right now, Colman (along with perhaps Lady Gaga for A Star is Born) appears to be a lock to at least get a nomination, and should be considered a dark horse to take home the big prize on Oscar night.
If that happens, unlike Queen Anne, and very much unlike her start in early-2000s era British sitcoms, there will be no shortage of work for the truly unique, awe-inspiring, hilarious, and dramatic Olivia Colman.