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Olivia Colman ‘said yes to Empire of Light without seeing the script’

Going to the movies has always been a vital part of Olivia Colman’s life, so it’s no surprise she jumped at the opportunity to play a downtrodden cinema worker in her latest film, Empire Of Light.

The Oscar-winner grew up in Norfolk and says her teenage trips to watch the latest releases in Norwich were life-changing.

“As I got older and I became a teen, I discovered the Arts Cinema and it was a game-changer,” she tells us. “I felt very cool that I was going to see some arty films, and I discovered a whole new genre of filmmaking that I didn’t know existed before. Going to the cinema was a big event – travelling into the city for an hour to go and see a film – that was very exciting.”

Prior to that, The Crown star says she hadn’t always been able to watch the films she wanted – something that didn’t do her many favours socially. “I’m reminded of sleepovers where we’d all try to get scary films,” she recalls. “I’m still not one for scary films. But when it was my turn for a sleepover, at about 10 or 11, I said to my mum, ‘Please, can you get a really scary film?’

“All the other girls had films like A Nightmare On Elm Street and I just wanted to be as cool as them. Well, my mum went into the video shop and she said, ‘I’ve got you A Christmas Carol.’ I said, ‘What?’ And she said, ‘Well, it’s got ghosts. I thought that would be scary.’ I was so embarrassed I pretended that the video shop was closed. That was really not cool.”

Olivia, who turns 49 later this month, has already received critical acclaim for her heartbreaking role in Empire Of Light, which was directed by another Oscar-winner, fellow Brit Sam Mendes. The actress stars as Hilary Small, a lonely duty manager at a coastal cinema in the 80s. As well as battling mental illness, Hilary is having an affair with not one but two men – her boss, Mr Ellis [Colin Firth], and new colleague Stephen, played by Top Boy’s Micheal Ward.

With so much talent involved, it’s no wonder Olivia was immediately on board when offered the chance to play complex Hilary.

“I said yes before I’d even seen the script,” she reveals. “I can’t imagine many actors, when they speak to Sam Mendes on a Zoom in their kitchen, going, ‘Ah, nah. I’m not that interested.’ So I said yes.”

Luckily, her instincts were spot-on and when she finally laid her hands on the script, she knew the part was perfect for her – although the nerves soon kicked in when she realised she’d be sharing some intimate scenes with a man half her age.

“This was something I found a little bit scary, which was exciting to me,” says the mum- of-three, who’s been married to writer Ed Sinclair for 21 years. “Playing a woman of my age who’s having a love affair with a younger man, that’s the most terrifying part of the whole film for me.

“But then I met Micheal [who plays Olivia’s young lover, Stephen] and he made me feel much more at ease. Micheal was much more mature about it than I was!”

In fact, Olivia tells us that working with the actor was one of the highlights of making the movie, even if her emotionally fragile character was at her wits’ end during one scene.

“I really loved the breakdown scene in Hilary’s flat with Stephen,” she says. “We filmed that twice, actually, but I’m so grateful to Sam for letting us do it a second time because I felt the second time I had no barriers and I just let rip. I loved that. I love those two.”

Despite her own solid family background, Olivia says she still enjoys the camaraderie that comes with making movies, adding that she loves the “part-time, temporary family” she forms with each new cast she gets to work with.

“You become very close,” she says. “You’re in each other’s pockets day in, day out. When I was younger, I’d find it quite hard that it always had to change, but I’ve got better at it now.”

And those friendships don’t end once the cameras stop rolling. “I know that the people you really love, you will stick with,” she says. “You might not see each other for a few years, but you’ll come back. I’ve always loved that.

“When I first went into acting, I felt like I’d found my tribe. I love that I found people that I understood and got on with – emotionally available people. That is my experience with an ad hoc family.”

Last month, Olivia was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance By An Actress In A Motion Picture – Drama for Empire Of Light. And that’s just the latest in a long line of accolades she’s received during her career.

While there’s no doubt playing a troubled character was challenging for the star, she says she’s not the type of actress to dwell on a role once the director has shouted, “Cut!”

“I’m not one that takes things home with me, so I was fine,” she says. “I like to throw myself in, I like to be as truthful and honest as possible – but then, I don’t have that problem [switching off], which I’m very grateful for. It can leave a residue, but I don’t have that.”

This year is already gearing up to be a busy one for down-to-earth Olivia. In addition to Empire Of Light, she’ll be reprising her role as Nick Nelson’s supportive mum, Sarah, in the Netflix smash Heartstopper. She also voices Mama Bear in the forthcoming DreamWorks animation Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, due in February, while later in the year she’ll star opposite heart-throb Timothée Chalamet in the Charlie And The Chocolate Factory prequel, Wonka.

So what does Olivia do when she has a rare day off?

“I could watch Paddington all day, every day. I need a happy ending,” she says. “With kids’ films, they always break your heart at some point. Toy Story 3? Heartbreaking!”

Empire Of Light is released on 13 January

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