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Olivia Colman on Playing a ‘Brilliant Human’ in The Night Manager Versus Acting ‘Vile’ in Fleabag

Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

The 2016 Emmy race is under way, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until the awards on September 18.

If you’re at all familiar with British television, Olivia Colman needs no introduction — the actress has been seamlessly shifting between roles in comedy (Peep Show, Rev.) and drama (Broadchurch, Accused) for well over a decade, in addition to a steady stream of film work. But this summer, Colman became more familiar to U.S. audiences with her Emmy-nominated, nuanced portrayal of Angela Burr in an adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager — airing on AMC — as an intelligence officer who teams up with Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) to take down a notorious international arms dealer. And before the awards on Sunday, her newest show, the darkly comedic Fleabag, will also debut on Amazon, in which she plays a godmother with a vicious streak a mile wide. Earlier this week, Vulture called Colman while she was filming season three of Broadchurch to discuss the two roles, what it’s like when a show she stars in gets an American remake, and her Marvel aspirations.

Congratulations on your Emmy nomination! How did you celebrate?
Thank you very much! I’ve been filming, so I haven’t had much time to celebrate, to be honest. It hasn’t really sunk in. It’s incredibly exciting, I still can’t believe it. I’m flying in on Saturday, and show is on Sunday, and I fly back on Monday because I’m filming again on Tuesday. I’m quite nervous, I might be quite drunk when I get to the ceremony.

When we spoke with Susanne Bier earlier this year, she said she immediately thought of you when the character of Burr was changed to a woman. When she approached you, what conversations did you two have about the direction you wanted to take the character?
Awww, I didn’t know that Susanne thought of me straight away! That’s lovely. I met her during auditions and a meeting for the role, and I was just so thrilled to be meeting her and to be considered for the part. I personally didn’t have much involvement with where the part went, because Burr had been established in everyone’s thoughts as a man. It metamorphosed itself, in a way. When they knew it was a woman it became quite obvious the sort of things she would say, and do, and who she was. I’d flatter myself into thinking I had any involvement in where it went after that. [Laughs.]

Burr is definitely the moral compass of the series. Besides bringing down Roper, what else motivates her?
People hurting other people is unacceptable, and I love the fact that she won’t turn a blind eye; she won’t have it. She genuinely wants to make the world a better place. She’s the sort of person we should all aspire to be. I love her, and she won’t take the bullshit. She’s a brilliant human, and I think that’s what drives her — wanting to say no to what’s wrong.

It was also incredibly refreshing to see a female lead be pregnant and just, well, be pregnant without it being constantly acknowledged.
It means a lot to hear that. I was pregnant when I met Susanne for the first time, so I had to tell her the news straight away. All credit goes to Susanne and the producers and John le Carré for being like, Okay, cool! I’m not aware that they had to worry about it, which I’m so thrilled with. Spies are people too, and it shows she’s got a life going on beyond her job. It’s not an illness, and it was great being able to work during that time. I felt fine.

Very little is revealed about Burr’s backstory throughout the series. Did you envision any biographical details for her to enhance your performance?
Not really, maybe a little. I thought, in my head anyway, that running through the story was this class battle. Burr was the opposite in every way from everybody — different gender, different class status. They think of her as the middle class to them, which is horrible. She probably didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, but she’s just as bright, if not brighter, than all of them. She has a different accent. That was really what I loved about the character, that she came from a different place and she wasn’t going to have any of that nonsense. She never felt put-upon or like a lesser being than all of these people who thought they were so grand, and I loved her for that.

Roper successfully goes down in the end, but not before the corrupt River House tried to shut Burr’s operation down. What do you think she learned through the whole ordeal?
She was very wise throughout what occurred. The reason she used to work for River House, and fell out with them, was that she would’ve been very disappointed that some of her colleagues weren’t doing things for the same reasons as she was. It wasn’t a surprise to her to discover that they were dirty, per se, but maybe the level of dirt might’ve been a surprise. It was a major sense of satisfaction to get them and shame them. I’m not sure it came from surprise at all, more of a sense of achievement.

With today’s political climate, watching The Night Manager made me very anxious.
Oh yeah. Sorry! But I do know that for every bad egg, there’s a good egg. It’s so easy to feel depressed about everything these days, but there are truly good things in the world. I believe there are more good people than bad. As long as we cling to that thought, we’ll be all right.

Switching to Fleabag, your character is described as a “horrid godmother,” but I was surprised how amiable she started off in the first episode. How was it slowly unraveling into this “horrid” persona with each episode?
Oh, it was incredibly satisfying, because I knew where she was going to end up. Phoebe Waller-Bridge [Fleabag’s creator and star] is one of my dear friends, and I’m so glad to be her friend, she’s a genius. We met on the set of The Iron Lady and fell in love in the rehearsal room. [Laughs.] We’ve only just started to see the tip of the iceberg with what she can do and what’s in her mind. When she gave me the part to play, she said, She’s a horrible, horrible human being, a proper passive-aggressive woman. You know when you’re telling someone about a relative, and it’s really hard to describe how quite vile they really are? And people are like, Oh c’mon, they’re not that bad, it can’t possibly be that bad. Oh, yes it is! You see, through Fleabag and myself, how truly vile this creature is, and I thought how she wrote it was brilliant.

She isn’t afraid to do some ballsy things, like slapping her goddaughter and hitting on her handsome boyfriend—
—Oh yes. Very, very handsome.

Do you find it to be more enjoyable to play these slightly more unhinged characters, as opposed to inherently dramatic ones?
One isn’t more enjoyable than the other, so I don’t have a genre preference. To be honest, I feel incredibly grateful that at the moment I’m allowed to be doing a little bit of all sorts of work. That’s what we all go into this business for, at the end of the day, to play other people. You very often see people that get feedback like, oh, she plays that, so they only get offers for that particular thing. I’m really enjoying being able to do these unhinged comedies and emotional dramas alike. I’m having a lovely time. After shooting a role that requires months of crying, it’s quite nice to be able to play something very different. [Laughs.]

Is there a role you have yet to be offered that you’re keen on playing some day?

I’ve always wanted to play a Marvel baddie. I’m not sure I fit the mold, though. Like a powerful, extraordinary woman. Somebody with superpowers would be really fun, but I’m not sure how many middle-aged woman they have in Marvel.

That’s fabulous, I would love to see that!
Oooh, me too! Fingers crossed, both of us. I imagine that dream is gone, but that would be amazing.

Two U.K. shows that you star in have been remade for U.S. audiences. Broadchurch aired for a season in 2014, and Peep Show is currently in development
—Oh, it is?

It is!
I knew there had been Peep Show discussions for years, but I didn’t know it was happening now. That’s exciting.

Is it difficult seeing these shows try to make new life in the States, especially since you’re such an integral part of their original DNA?
Oh, no. We’ve always done that, haven’t we, between our two countries? We take just as many of your shows and try to redo them. I think there’s nothing wrong with them trying to do … eh, I sometimes wonder why. When I’ve seen the original American versions of some shows, I think, Oh, why did we change it? Maybe people feel the same. Take that Scandi-noir show, The Killing, that started in Denmark and came to America, and it’s one of the influences of Broadchurch. I think it’s something all countries do, and it’s great. We have our own homegrown stuff and we find influences from other countries. It means there are more jobs for us. [Laughs.]

The cynical side of me is like, Why can’t American audiences just adapt to the original shows?
Yeah, I mean, that would be great too from our point of view, having been in it. But I completely understand both sides of it. But also, Broadchurch was so revered in its original form, and it was also popular in its American version when it aired. It’s all good! Things are getting made and stories are getting told, so that’s what counts.

What makes an Olivia Colman character? Is there a distinguishing quality that connects all of your roles?
They all look like me. [Laughs.] That’s interesting, I never thought about it. I love to do something that is much further away from me than what I look like and what my accent is. I think each person you play has a little bit of you in it — you can’t really help that. I’m really rubbish about talking about that sort of thing. I don’t have a process, I just feel it. My book on acting would be very short.

Olivia Colman on The Night Manager and Fleabag