Belfast Telegraph

Olivia Colman on playing Fleabag's 'vile' stepmother and why she is standing up for other women

'I'd a fairly uncomfortable relationship as a teenager ... between 16 and 24 you are working it all out. You see fights and tears on a film and think that's the way it has to be. It's not'

The Crown star Olivia Colman
The Crown star Olivia Colman
The Crown star Olivia Colman with her Oscar
Olivia Colman as the stepmother in Fleabag

By Susannah Butter

It's been three months since Olivia Colman won her Oscar for Best Actress but it still hasn't sunk in. She keeps the award, for her performance in The Favourite, in her sitting room in Peckham. "I dust it occasionally," she tells me, big eyes bright and animated. "It will seem real when someone asks when I'm getting the next one. Then I'll go, 'Oh s*** I have an Oscar." Are her children allowed to play with it? "Of course," she smiles. "I'm not that kind of mum."

We're sitting on the terrace outside the National Theatre in London, and agree that it would be a nice place to drink a glass of wine. But Colman is "off the booze", in preparation for her role as Elizabeth II in the next series of The Crown. Filming starts in August so the countdown is on to lose the weight she was encouraged to put on for her Oscar-winning turn as Queen Anne.

"I'm trying to eat less because Queen Elizabeth II was really tiny," she says, sipping her elderflower cordial, which she declares "lovely", adding: "I'm trying not to drink alcohol, eating healthily, just, erm, you know, walking."

Colman, aged 45, is as warm and spirited as she appeared in Peep Show and Broadchurch, with a ready grin, delicate bone structure and a bouncy, mischievous voice. Her outfit is business-like; a high-necked black blouse and blazer, navy skinny jeans and black mesh Stella McCartney trainers, which she says are "so comfortable, like slippers". Her nails are high-gloss burgundy and the semi-precious stones in her rings catch the light ("they're an aquamarine and a beryl").

We're speaking against the clock, with just 15 minutes - Colman is here for another award ceremony and, just like the Oscars, she warns she might cry.

This one is hosted by Tender, an arts charity working with young people to prevent domestic abuse and sexual violence, and they celebrate outstanding work by schools, youth centres and young people to promote healthy relationships. Colman has been a patron of Tender since 2014, when she heard about it while researching her role as an abused woman in the film Tyrannosaur. "I didn't manage to get through their last event without a little cry," she says. "I'll see if I can do better tonight."

We're constantly interrupted by a stream of fans - including Emma Freud. "They don't really want to talk to me," says Colman modestly. "They just want to see our view of the Thames." The children who are at the event, however, are less familiar with her work. "They don't really recognise me, which is great."

She's spent the day with her three-year-old daughter - the actor and her husband, writer Ed Sinclair, have three children. "We tried to turn the day into an adventure. We went to see the new Mountview drama school in Peckham and did chores." Colman manages to make chores sound fun. "I'm trying to do as many normal things as possible before The Crown. I try not to overlap jobs. At the moment I'm happy getting in all the stuff I can't do when I am working."

That means the school run and watching TV show First Dates - "I love it. Woah, I was crying." She'd like to read a book, but hasn't looked at anything but scripts in years. "I sit down and then…" she mimes dozing off and makes snoring sounds.

Does Colman have a favourite role? "I don't get attached to characters. The stepmother in Fleabag was really fun. I asked Phoebe Waller-Bridge to make up a really vile person for me to play and she went to town, imagined the worst possible thing, and it was great. That's always the dream, to jump around between different types of characters."

Another task for her time off is working with Tender, going to its drama workshops and "talking about them wherever I go". One of its trustees tells me the actor is an engaged patron, always suggesting they meet for tea, asking what she can do.

She calls their CEO "the big cheese". When they were introduced through a mutual friend, Colman went to a Tender lecture. "I was blown away. It made complete sense - it's like (sci-fi movie) Minority Report, trying to stop something before it happens. In this case by giving children the tools to have a happy, healthy, respectful life. It made me think about my children and if they had the confidence of the woman I saw speaking at the lecture.

"It's heartbreaking that domestic violence is still a problem, but I can see how the work Tender does with drama workshops can be generationally changing. I wish every child or young person could have access to it. It might turn on a light too - I didn't know I could be an actor until I was 16 and these people are finding it earlier."

Every week in the UK two women are murdered by a partner or ex-partner, and one in five teenagers has been physically abused by their boyfriend or girlfriend. Has Colman ever experienced abuse? "I had a fairly uncomfortable relationship as a teenager," she says, taking a breath. "That is predominantly when it happens, between 16 and 24. You are working it all out. You might see fights and tears on a film and think that's the way to be. It's not. I knew it happened and I just thought that was the norm. It doesn't have to be, we can create a new norm."

She felt able to talk about that relationship with her family and friends, but she was lucky. "I'm the sort of person who has always been able to talk about anything. Not all children have that." This is where Tender's workshops come in. "The safety of drama means you express yourself. Maybe it's not directly you talking, but you can say it. There was an account of a girl during a Tender workshop who did a ..." she searches for the word, "what do you call it when it's unscripted? A role play. She did a role play about a boyfriend and a girlfriend texting." Colman mimes being on a phone.

He was saying, 'Show me your chest,' and she didn't realise she could say no. He didn't realise you don't have to do that, all the other boys did. Being responsible, kind, gentle and loving doesn't mean you are not a man."

"Oh God," she exhales. "The relief of realising that you don't have to be that sort of aggressive boy or that girl who says yes. And vice versa - it's not always the boy asking the girl."

The implications of smartphones for relationships are daunting, as are "the regular texts after midnight". Her "big boy", aged 14, is her only child with a phone. "But we are quite strict about it. Luckily, he would rather talk to people, at the moment."

Acknowledging that certain behaviour is abusive is a crucial first step. "People think, 'We don't have that, it's not a problem in our school, in our country.' They are wrong. Statistically. Unhappy relationships happen anywhere, and when that escalates to the point there is abuse, everyone should recognise that.

"We think a smack is abuse but it's not just that, it can be the way you talk to each other. All our children should be able to recognise when it's not going well, when it's not happy, and they deserve to be happy and loved. Tender's work can enable a child to break free of what they've seen before, or if they've never seen it, to know the warning signs."

She's aware of the pressures on charities and says politicians "can't help" being distracted by Brexit. "That's the case for all things, it's trying to put your hand up in a massive field of needs. But we are going to keep plodding on and hope Tender gets to be in every school. It would help a lot with the knock-on (social effects) of everything else afterwards, so it seems a no-brainer to me. I've been in my kids' school regularly asking them to work with Tender."

She's "incredibly excited" about the next generation, and movements like Extinction Rebellion. "It's wonderful. There's more veganism and less alcohol and smoking. I wonder if they're going to go a bit off the rails and all go nuts?" Colman looks intrigued at this possibility. "But I'm impressed. Young people do get that it's down to them (to change things)." With that, it's time for the ceremony. She accepts a pea and Parmesan www from a waiter and heads off to continue spreading the message.

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