Olivia Colman (‘Great Expectations’) is pleased to be neither a secretary nor a waitress: ‘I was terrible at both’
During a virtual press conference Tuesday morning to promote the lavish new FX Productions/BBC adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic “Great Expectations,” Oscar and Emmy winner Olivia Colman talked about how she didn’t begin acting until her mid-teens and the fact that being able to work consistently in the profession rescued her from a life of perpetual mediocrity.
“I was 16 when I did my first play at school, which was the first time I was able to do anything because I was so rubbish at school,” admitted Colman, who plays the iconic role of Miss Havisham in the hotly-anticipated limited six-part rendition of the Dicken novel from “Peaky Blinders” creator-showrunner Steven Knight that streams exclusively over Hulu in the United States and BBC One in the UK beginning with a pair of episodes on March 26. “It was a few years before I realized I could really be an actor because I thought you had to come from that. Then I met people who were different from people I’d grown up with who said, ‘No, you can work hard, make something and go for it.’
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“I think I was probably 19 or 20 when I finally realized you don’t have to come from that background and I said, ‘I’m gonna go for it.’ My parents were terrified, because they thought I should go and be a secretary or something sensible. And I was a terrible secretary, a terrible waitress, terrible at both. I was jolly and enthusiastic but not very good.” In hindsight, Colman is “grateful” she couldn’t do anything else because “I had nothing to fall back on and really had to keep plugging at it. And now, I get to work with these lovely people.”
“These” people are Colman’s fellow chief castmates who joined her at the online press briefing: Fionn Whitehead as Pip, Shalom Brune-Franklin as Estella and Ashley Thomas as Jaggers. “Great Expectations” tells the coming-of-age story of Pip, an orphan who yearns for a greater lot in life until a twist of fate and the evil machinations of the mysterious and eccentric Miss Havisham shows him a dark world of possibilities. Under the great expectations placed upon him, Pip will have to work out the true cost of this new world and whether it will truly make him the man he wishes to be.
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Dickens’ novel – a damning critique of the class system – was originally published in its complete form in 1861 after having first been released in a series of weekly chapters beginning in December 1860. Colman admitted on Tuesday that she’s never read the book and therefore never thought of playing Miss Havisham before. It certainly wasn’t on any sort of bucket list for her.
“It came on the back of a long run of work, and I felt I really needed a break, but I heard it was written by Steve and couldn’t say no,” Colman emphasized. “I don’t really think about things terribly deeply, so I just saw the script, really liked her, and wanted to play her. I’d seen adaptations on the telly before, but it was just oh, she sounds great, I’d love to get my teeth into her. That was my thought process.”
Steven Knight, the prolific British-born writer-director and an original screenplay Academy Award nominee in 2004 for “Dirty Pretty Things,” serves as writer and executive producer of the new “Great Expectations” alongside Tom Hardy, Ridley Scott, Dean Baker, David W. Zucker and Kate Crowe. Colman won a 2019 lead actress Oscar for “The Favourite” as well as a 2021 Emmy as lead drama series actress for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in “The Crown.”
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