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Interview: Olivia Colman

2nd December 2013

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Olivia Colman, best known for her successful and vastly differing roles in Peep Show and Broadchurch, is proving herself as one of the country’s most versatile actresses.

Colman is about to take on another drama role, in the gothic BBC2 adaptation of best-selling novel The Thirteenth Tale – in which she plays Margaret, a reclusive literature lover who gets sucked into the mysterious world and dark past of writer Vida Winter (Vanessa Redgrave.)

Here she talks about the project.

What’s The Thirteenth Tale about and who do you play?

It’s quite difficult to describe, there are lots of pieces to it; flashbacks and modern day - a thriller and ghost story. It’s very exciting, it looks into this fascinating woman’s life and you see everything that’s happened, but it’s not necessary clear and you have to piece it together as you go along.

I play Margaret, who is a writer and she is asked by Vida to go and write her life story. She’s a little confused as to why she’s been asked in particular but that becomes clear later on, as Margaret has something in her background that Vida is interested in.

What attracted you to the project?

Is it too shallow to say that Vanessa Redgrave was in it and I wanted to work with her? That was a big part of it, but it’s also a beautiful story - one that you read for the first time and want to re-read it, to put in what you know into all the scenes you’ve enjoyed along the way. It was gripping.

You have some intense two-hander scenes with Vanessa. How was the experience?

The days running up to the Big V coming in were quite exiting and she is an incredible, charismatic, very tall, very beautiful, very, very bright, quick woman. She’s an extraordinary person and when you’re acting with her it’s really present and a really enjoyable experience. You never know beforehand if an actor is going to be really ‘acting’ or if they’re going to be looking in your eyes and doing it honestly and she is the second kind of actor. So it’s easy, you just play off each other and look at each other and she’s a consummate professional so it was really nice.

Was the location as you expected?

The location aspect was one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole film. I’d filmed in urban parts of that area before, but we were about an hour and a half out of Leeds to the North East and North West. It was unbelievably beautiful - my phone is full of videos of stunning countryside and I really want to go back and take my kids. It was an honour to go to film in those lovely houses.

I had a pre-conception of going to the moors: I thought it would be very bleak and dour but we were very lucky with the weather and it was beautiful. You can see why it has inspired so much literary beauty and depth and you can see why, if you’re a writer, you might go there. It was amazing - quite hard to come back to London.

Do you enjoy supernatural fiction?

I love darkness in stories but I am a bit of a chicken. I do remember watching Carrie as a child and being terrified, but loving it. I would rather go on the tea pot ride than the rollercoaster!

Did you read the novel before starting filming?

I know that because of time restraints you can’t show a whole novel in a film, so I didn’t want to read it in case I’d think that it was a shame we’d missed a certain bit. You just have to commit to the script that you’ve got and afterwards go back to the book for enjoyment purposes. My character just knows that story.

What kind of audience do you think that The Thirteenth Tale will appeal to?

I think that it’s got very broad appeal because it’s not heart attack material; it’s a gripping story, and the past of someone who’s led an exciting life and a long life is fascinating. I’ve always enjoyed hearing people’s stories from older generations and what it was like then and this shows you all of that. Also, it’s an extraordinary tale of children who are unloved and left but have each other... there is love there. It’s interesting and will appeal to any age group.

The Thirteenth Tale will premiere on BBC2. An air date has not yet been set.

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