A mainstay of the British theatre scene, Olivia Williams spent her early career turning in celebrated stage work at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National before being snapped up by Hollywood, starring in Rushmore and The Sixth Sense, among other successful movies. Now, she features in the new sci-fi series The Nevers, a fantastical retelling of 19th-century London in which a group of women with superpowers – known as the ‘Touched’ – find themselves ostracised by society. Williams is also set to appear alongside Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman in the Oscar-winning drama The Father (out next month), a heartbreaking and illuminating first-person exploration of dementia. She talks to Bazaar about Victorian superheroes, her tomboyish childhood and the power of fiction.
To start off, what initially drew you to The Nevers?
“I have to confess that I knew the creator [Joss Whedon] and he rang me up and offered me a job, which, for an actor – particularly at my age and stage – is a dream come true. For most work, there is a lengthy, prolonged and painful process of auditioning, so when someone with an extraordinary track record comes along and is like, ‘Do you want to work for me again?’ The answer is yes. It is a tremendous leap of faith to take a longform-television job like this and it paid off a million times.”
The Nevers shoot had to be shut down last March due to the pandemic. What was it like having such a big gap in the production schedule and, once you returned, how did you find working during Covid?
“There were also a couple of hiatuses before that... I was actually offered the job in November 2018. We formed the most wonderful company of actors – we have a very jolly WhatsApp group that was a lifeline through lockdown. There were problems of hair growing or being cut, but the power of the story, with its strong characters and costuming, meant those continuity issues weren’t there.
“I think I had it most on my first movie The Postman [the 1997 Kevin Costner action film]. When I got the job, I was very slim. After 101 shooting days with the most beautiful craft services, which I had never seen, and the most wonderful food – lobster flown in from Maine – it was like the last days of the Roman Empire. You sometimes shoot exteriors and interiors months apart, so there was one scene where I walked up to the door of a house a very slim person but, by the time I opened it and got in the room, I was about a stone heavier!”
There’s a real anxiety about the unknown from some of the male characters in the series, who express their xenophobia, sexism and mistrust of modernity – they even refer to the ‘Touched’ as a “feminine plague”. What do you think drives their fear of the other?
“It’s based on the history books and the reality of a colonial patriarchy. All racism and sexism is fear of the other. I think, if anything, compared with what was really going on at the time, it’s probably pretty mild. We have very little to pat ourselves on the back for in terms of progress. This show is as much about race as it is about gender, but a lot of the thrust of the sexual politics are played out so brilliantly by Laura [Donnelly] and Ann [Skelly]. To have a female-inventor character who is thrilled by how she can alter the physical world around her is so empowering. There are still very few examples of that for young women to see themselves in STEM subjects. I’ve got teenage daughters so I feel very strongly that we need a show like this to say that Instagram obsessions with eyebrows and nails are all very well, but you’ve got to see some people doing other things. It’s so sad that the internet has ended up being something that creates more uniformity for women.”
It’s really fun to see these Victorian women as superheroes, particularly since we’re only just beginning to get standalone movies fronted by women in the MCU and DCEU. Why do you think audiences are now interested in seeing stories centring on female superheroes?
“I was called a tomboy at one stage of my childhood. My favourite film was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wanted to be them. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that Thelma & Louise came out, which was seen as the great female buddy movie. Looking back at it now, they have to encounter such appalling behaviour from men on their journey and the so-called happy ending is them flying off a cliff! If we want women to watch these projects, we have to make them attractive to women, and we’re getting the budget now. The Nevers is a show that’s attractive to women and presents us doing extraordinary things.”
The ‘Touched’ have a range of superpowers in the show: seeing the future, setting fires, walking on water... If you were ‘Touched’, which superpower would you want to have?
“It’s very boring but I’ve never got over the magic-carpet thing. I would just love to be able to fly.”
In 2017 you said “a working knowledge of Comic-Con and sci-fi is probably more relevant to an actor now than reading The Empty Space”, which, given the cultural dominance of franchises, seems to be the case. I wonder what you make of the fact that these superhero narratives have become the chief storytelling mode in modern Hollywood?
“To be really honest, I am not a sci-fi aficionado. I do know a bit more about The Empty Space than I do about these comics. What it all comes down to is imagination and what is possible. In that sense, Homer and The Odyssey are really the same as Star Trek and Star Wars. It’s writers and thinkers who have imagined a world into being. I love when sci-fi interweaves with our world – be it the present, the future or the past. It is an extraordinary creative artform.”
Sci-fi can comment very astutely on our current time, even if it is rooted in an otherworldly concept.
“Absolutely. The greatest minds and the bringers-down of bad governments have always used fiction to point out the failings of authoritarianism in its various forms. The more prevalent the thinking, the more clever you have to be to slip by the censors (whether governmental or societal). The only way to be influential is to think in a different way.”
You’ve had a really varied career since breaking out in the Nineties, working with everyone from Wes Anderson to M Night Shyamalan. In your view, what have been the most significant changes in the entertainment industry during that time?
“The astounding amount of interesting work for women in their fifties! Fortunately, if you imagine it like an eclipse with a shadow travelling across the land, I’ve been walking in the light throughout my career. I’m so, so lucky. You don’t have to be a young, alluring teenager to get interesting roles as a woman now – that’s been amazing. Also, the fact that film-making of such an incredible standard is way more international. If you wanted to make movies when I was in my twenties and thirties, you were in LA a lot, and now you can be anywhere. Everybody is making extraordinary film and television and theatre, and that is thrilling.”
Let’s pivot to The Father, which is such a brilliant, devastating film – and your unexpected appearance in it really underlines how destabilising dementia is. What was your experience working on it?
“It was a perfect job. I felt all I had to do was show up and, honestly and without guile, just say the words and not get in the way of Anthony Hopkins’ extraordinary performance, and of [the film-maker] Florian Zeller’s beautiful original play and his very simple but very sincere direction. It was from the heart. What’s extraordinary is that from such a grim reality, Florian and Anthony produced this beautiful and at times extremely funny and affecting film that one connects with on such a deep level. It’s quite hard to persuade people to go and see it – because with dementia there is no happy ending – but if you’re open to being moved and astonished by this new standpoint on dementia [i.e. from the sufferer’s perspective], it must be seen because you will be affected by this in your life, either it happening to a relative or happening to you."
How did you find reteaming with Olivia Colman after collaborating on a number stage and screen projects together?
“I actually got to be Olivia Colman after years of working with her! To morph into the same person was like being assumed into heaven, I felt like I’d become one with the goddess, so that was an absolute pleasure. She’s always a phenomenal person to work with.”
You have such a passion for acting and are very open about how much you love practising your craft. Where does that love come from? Can you trace it back to one pivotal moment?
“I went to see A Comedy of Errors, starring Judi Dench, at the RSC with my parents when I was 10. It wasn’t just that I enjoyed watching it – because I loved it – but I actually wanted to climb over the seat and get on stage and be with those actors who were clearly having the best fun ever. Other people say they hate audience participation, whereas I’m always like, ‘Me! Me! Please, please pick me!’ There’s something really elemental about it. I just want to get up and join in. When I’m acting it’s a sort of out-of-body experience. I completely give myself over to it and all the other stuff that clutters my brain goes. It’s my mindfulness. I stop having to be me and I can be someone else for a change. It’s such a lovely feeling.”
How do you stay creatively stimulated as an actor?
“God, I’m rubbish at that! I became a sort of zombie with my knuckles dragging along the floor in lockdown, although my husband [the actor Rhashan Stone] and I were very lucky to get involved in a couple of lockdown projects. I’m useless – when nobody else is there, I don’t exist! I go into a decline. I wish I could say I was brilliant in my own company and could sustain myself, but actors need to work with other actors in front of people. At least, I do. I’m just a great big show-off probably.”
I want to ask about your work with Pancreatic Cancer UK, a charity you became an ambassador for after your own battle with the disease. Can you talk about the new campaign Transform Lives: Prescribe and what it’s aiming to achieve?
“Unfortunately, people know very little about their pancreas, but it produces the enzymes that help us digest our food. If you’re diagnosed with pancreatic cancer of the worst kind, there is a strong likelihood you will die of starvation. To stop this, you need to take enzyme-replacement tablets. As a survivor of pancreatic cancer, I live with these things. I take them every time I eat and, if I didn’t, I’d starve and I very nearly did starve because nobody knew what was wrong with me [it took four years for Williams to be correctly diagnosed]. Doctors said I had irritable bowel syndrome, I didn’t. So if you’ve got something wrong with your pancreas, ask your doctor if you need enzyme-replacement therapy, then take the tablets and you will be able to absorb your food and be the healthy person that you see before you. Let’s improve the quality of life for people who have got this dreadful condition.”
That’s a really important message. Before I let you go, I have to tell you that your role as Carey Mulligan’s empathetic English teacher in An Education was really key to my teenage development.
“I’m so glad! She’s great, isn’t she? Well, there’s a story attached to that. I’d always wanted to work with Nick [Hornby, the screenwriter], then this came up and they offered me Miss Stubbs. A couple of people said, ‘It’s really inconvenient. Why are you doing this?’ I was like, ‘I just really like the character.’ A lot of things had to be shifted around for me to be able to do it – and I was only filming for two days on it. I’m so glad you connected with the character, I love her so much.”
I was applying to university to study French when it came out, so watching Carey sit around daydreaming and listening to Juliette Gréco felt very relatable.
“And there we go again! You saw someone like you, making the choices you were making and went to university and read French. I’m so happy that inspired you.”
All episodes of ‘The Nevers’ are available on Sky Atlantic and the streaming service Now. ‘The Father’ is released in cinemas on 11 June. Olivia Williams is an ambassador for the charity Pancreatic Cancer UK and is supporting its new campaign Transform Lives: Prescribe, launching on 26 May. For more information and to donate, click here.
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