Of late, Olivia Colman has gained a stellar reputation for a host of tough-as-nails characters, including her Golden Globe-winning performance as formidable spy Angela Burr in the acclaimed adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager.
But her biggest role to date could be on the horizon with Colman’s name being feverishly bandied about in the media as a serious contender for the next regeneration of the Doctor in Doctor Who.
It says a great deal about the stature this inimitable actress and British national treasure has earned thanks to the almost 100 TV and movie credits she’s racked up since 2000.
Colman’s CV is littered with memorable roles: Carol Thatcher in The Iron Lady opposite Meryl Streep, the future Queen Mum in Hyde Park on Hudson opposite Bill Murray, harried nurse Harriet in Green Wing, and an uncouth marriage counsellor to Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall in I Give It A Year.
Until 2011, Colman was largely known as a comedic actress, but all that changed with her gut-wrenching performance as an abused wife in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, a role she has called “the thing I’ll be most proud of until I die”.
Many will undoubtedly know Colman as the tough and magnanimous DS Ellie Miller from the hugely popular murder-mystery series Broadchurch, a variation on the Scandi-noir hit The Killing (although the actress with her typical candour has said the show was “so brilliant that it seems a bit up yourself to say this is 'the British Killing'".
Colman’s character in The Night Manager, an intelligence operative hellbent on bringing in notorious international arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), was originally a man in Le Carré’s novel. The adaptation’s producers were out to modernise the story recasting the role as a woman, but there was one hitch - Colman was pregnant. They presumably valued her participation so much the pregnancy was written in to the role, but as a background factor rather than a defining one.
"I loved the fact that Burr had been a man before that. That fairly impressed me, since that’s not really expected," she has said. "I loved that they didn’t change Burr too much either, and it’s a woman who’s absolutely equal with all the men.”
Colman relished the role.
“People hurting other people is unacceptable, and I love the fact that she won’t turn a blind eye; she won’t have it. She genuinely wants to make the world a better place,” she told Vulture. “She’s the sort of person we should all aspire to be. I love her, and she won’t take the bulls***. She’s a brilliant human, and I think that’s what drives her - wanting to say no to what’s wrong.”
On the subjectively lighter side, the talented comedienne prefers to play comic roles that are “salt and caramel”.
“I think a good dollop of sadness is quite a useful thing in comedy sometimes,” she has said. “I think if everyone's happy all the time, it's a bit dull. It's like salt and caramel - you wouldn't imagine they would go well together, but they do. I think watching someone, from the comfort of your own home, doing something awful or wrong - you have the luxury to be able to laugh at it. I think it works.”
A case in point, Colman’s recent return to her comic roots in the dark comedy Fleabag. Her character, ‘Godmother’, is one that creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge calls “a horrible, horrible human being; a proper passive-aggressive woman”.
Colman also ruffled feathers over 12 years as Sophie, demanding girlfriend to Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) in cult sitcom Peep Show. It was part of a long-running collaboration with co-creators Mitchell and Robert Webb - she starred with them in their sketch comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look and The Mitchell and Webb Situation.
She’s also played a genial vicar’s wife in Rev (alongside The Night Manager co-star Tom Hollander), a lovelorn PA in Olympics satire Twenty Twelve and been a comic foil in a string of Nick Frost collaborations, including movies Hot Fuzz and Cuban Fury.
But back to the Doctor Who rumours that have in fact swirled around Colman for some years. It’s easy to see why she’s a top contender to take over from Peter Capaldi and become the 13th Time Lord in the much-loved series. Colman has all the strength, vulnerability and quirk required of the role, and it’s about time we had a female Doctor.
The actress is no stranger to the Who-niverse, guest starring in a 2010 Matt Smith-era episode as a character with piranha-like fangs, as well as appearing in the 2013 50th Anniversary Who spoof The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, where she lamented missing out on a shot at playing… the Doctor. “I’m usually in everything!” she deadpanned.
Colman is up against some stiff competition for the role, including Tilda Swinton, her The Lobster co-star Ben Whishaw and Richard Ayoade, but she could have the advantage. It turns out Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall will replace original showrunner Steven Moffat from next season.
Watch Olivia Colman in double episodes of The Night Manager every Wednesday night on SBS at 8:30pm, or catch up on the show from episode 1 on SBS On Demand: