There’s a remarkable moment early on in The Favourite, the spiky palace-intrigue comedy from the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (and begins hitting theaters on November 23rd). It’s the early 18th century in England, and there’s a festive ball taking place at the court of Queen Anne. Revelers gather in lines, bowing and curtsying in their period-appropriate finery as they prepare to dance — the same scene we’ve witnessed dozens of times in stiff, stuffy costume dramas. Then, inexplicably, a few of the elite (including Anne’s secret lover Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz) suddenly break into hilariously anachronistic moves that are part hip-hop, part Russian folkdancing.
But that’s not the remarkable moment. What makes the scene work is what happens next: Anne, confined to her wheelchair because of gout, simply gazes at her dear Sarah on the dance floor. The camera holds tight on the queen’s face. Without a word, she communicates a delicate evolution of shifting emotions — pride, adoration and joy seguing into sadness, envy, anger and resignation — while holding back tears. It’s a powerfully naked scene that drives a stake into the heart of this gleefully comedic sequence, and hints at the unpredictable, tumultuous wells of anguish and grief coursing through this tweaked take on Masterpiece Theatre dramas.
The key to the devastating punctuation of that sequence — and arguably the linchpin of this movie’s greatness — is the British actress behind that run of the scales. Olivia Colman has always been a master at doing so much while doing very little. She’s given us an all-business hotel proprietor in Lanthimos’ much lauded satire The Lobster; a pregnant intelligence operative in the John le Carré miniseries The Night Manager; one half of the troubled, traumatized detective team in the popular BBC crime series Broadchurch; the ultimate passive-aggressive bohemian in Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ breakout sitcom Fleabag; and one of the tight-lipped suspects in the recent Murder on the Orient Express remake.
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But in The Favourite, which won her Best Actress at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Colman has been gifted with her finest film role to date — a violently temperamental character whose rage, insecurity and despair can be hysterical or heartbreaking, depending on her mood.
Just don’t ask her how she nailed that silent, devastating scene — a sense modesty won’t allow her to take credit for it. “Yorgos said, ‘You’re watching the dance and you love it, and you start to be cross that you can’t [dance],” Colman recalls. “‘And then you start to get jealous.'” She assumed her reaction shots would be intercut with the bizarre dance sequence; it was only when she saw the final film that the actress realized that the plan was to hold on her the whole time, letting Anne’s longing provide a poignant humanity within the humor. “I think that’s nice for the audience to watch the whole feeling of [my performance]. But that’s him being very clever.”
“It’s a testament to her talent,” says Lanthimos, in a separate interview. “[That scene] only took two or three takes. I knew that these two very antithetic things — the funny, ridiculous, strange dance and whatever’s going through her mind — seemed very contradictory, and that she would be able to convey that in one continuous shot. You can only do that with an actor like her.” He says he gave her little direction to allow her room to find those emotional beats on her own. “When you discuss those things, they become a little too obvious,” he explains. “It’s much more interesting when you don’t know what exactly the actor does and she draws you in: ‘What might be going through her head?'”
That same mystery occurs when you speak with Colman. Chatting by phone from London, her voice gentle and warm, she’s as reserved as her performances, inclined to let the work speak for itself — not because she can’t be bothered but, rather, because she tries not to analyze the process. “I find it very hard … I don’t know,” she offers, apologetically. “I don’t really think about anything too much.” She laughs. “My book on acting would be very short.”
The 44-year-old actress initially cut her teeth working in British television, winning accolades and BAFTA awards for shows like the cult Mitchell-Webb hit Peep Show and Broadchurch. She slowly began to move into films, racking up small but memorably comic, often goofy turns in projects like Hot Fuzz (2007). But it was 2011’s Tyrannosaur, a terse drama in which she plays a devoutly religious woman at the mercy of an abusive husband, that suggested she was far more than just a go-to comedian. The empathetic turn commanded moviegoers’ attention — including Yorgos Lanthimos.
“I saw her for the first time in Tyrannosaur,” he recalls. “Her performance blew me away. And then I saw her other work on TV, the comedies she’d done, the incredible range that she has. [Queen Anne] felt very complex — it needed someone who had the humanity but was able to be ridiculous at the same time, and then turn into someone terrible at other times. I couldn’t think of anyone who could do it better than Olivia.”
When he sent her the script for The Favourite, convinced she’d be perfect for Queen Anne, she recalls reading it and thinking, “I want to say all those words! I just really hope he doesn’t change his mind.” She had worked with the filmmaker before, of course, although she wasn’t sure they had hit it off.
“I left The Lobster not knowing that he’d particularly liked what I did or not,” she admits. “And then I slowly worked out that if he smiles — just a little one, he very rarely smiles — that’s as good as a round of applause. He’s deliciously understated. You realize, ‘Oh, he must be happy or he would have said something.’ That’s rather lovely when you find that out. I can’t bear it when someone lays it on too thick with the praise, because then I never believe it. When Yorgos liked it, then you trust him much more.”
In The Favourite, two women from vastly different stations vie for Queen Anne’s affections: her loyal, posh confidant Sarah; and a plucky, scheming servant named Abigail, played by Emma Stone. The strategizing, conniving and clandestine shtupping make for exquisitely droll comedy, and Colman said the sense of fun was established during rehearsals, where the three actresses bonded by playing games.
“We would hold hands and get ourselves tied into a knot,” she says, “and then we’d try and work backwards and undo the knot. We’d skip from carpet tile to carpet tile. We’d run backwards without bumping into each other in the room. We giggled and nearly wet ourselves three times a day. It was so much fun. You just become kids.”
Unlike her costars, though, Colman was happy not to be saddled with the requisite corset since her sickly character spends her days relegated to her massive bedroom. (“They were trussed up like turkeys the whole time, and I was in a nightie,” she recalls, laughing. “I had a lovely time.”) But Anne’s gilded cage, which Colman calls “a prison with cake,” encapsulates the character’s tragic inability to connect with anyone — to never know for sure what people, even Sarah, really want from her.
“She’s led such a sheltered life,” Colman says with palpable sorrow in her voice. “She’s never really known if anyone genuinely loves her.” There’s a pause on the other end of the phone line. “That’s so sad to never know if you’ve been properly loved.”
Colman knows her way around royalty, at least in fiction. As she acknowledges with a giggle, “I’m on my third queen,” a reference to the fact that she played Queen Elizabeth in 2012’s Hyde Park on Hudson and will be taking on Queen Elizabeth II in the upcoming season of The Crown. Asked if there’s something about her — maybe a regal bearing — that prompts casting directors to think of her as queenly, she scoffs, “Oh, I shouldn’t think so. I don’t sit with a pile of scripts and just go” — she adopts a snooty tone — “‘Mmm, which one should I pick?’ It doesn’t work like that. It’s just been the luck of the draw, really.”
Yet Colman’s portrayal of Queen Anne feels like a culmination of everything she’s done, combining acidic dry wit and puppy-dog vulnerability. With her Golden Globe victory for the The Night Manager, her upcoming role on the Netflix drama and now the Oscar talk surrounding The Favourite, she seems in the midst of a major career explosion.
Not that Colman would acknowledge that. “My family and I went on holiday to America,” she mentions, “and it was so lovely to walk around and nobody sort of does a double-take. Potentially that might change, I suppose.” With a laugh, she adds, “That’s a bit of a shame, because it was so nice to go to Disneyland and Universal Studios and the beach and be free.” She’s more used to being recognized back home. “I tend to not go out,” she confesses, laughing. “I’m a bit of a hermit.”
And is that something about this queen — a woman doomed to live in a world where she’s constantly scrutinized — that Colman relates to?
“Not knowing that people genuinely like you for who you are — I think that’s what Queen Anne feels,” she notes. “I’m a big girl, I’ve got my loved ones and my friends. I just know to keep my head down and stay at home.”
But then Colman thinks more about this idea, and you can hear her growing more reflective. “I know who I trust and who I love,” she says, finally. “If you get an awful lot of recognition when you’re very young, I think that must be really difficult to know which way is up. I’m very grateful. I’m mid-40s and feel more able. But even then, I’m still not very thick-skinned. You still have to protect yourself.”