Olivia Colman doesn’t remember much about the night she won her Oscar. She had been nominated for her performance in The Favourite, though in an especially tight Best Actress race, Glenn Close was the presumed frontrunner. But then the envelope was opened, and Frances McDormand read off Colman’s name. “This is hilarious,” she spluttered onstage, visibly dazed even as she cradled the gold statuette in her arms. “I’ve got an Oscar.”
Through tears, Colman thanked her co-stars and crew, as well as Close (“This is not how I wanted it to be!”) and her children, who she hoped were watching at home. (“This is not going to happen again.”) She wrapped up her speech by exclaiming both about and towards her fellow nominee: “Lady Gaga!“
“I can’t remember what I said. I only know because I’ve seen it played back now,” she tells ET over Zoom from her home in London. “I can’t remember what happened afterwards. My husband said it was the best night of his life. And had it been the other way around, if I could have watched him, I understand, I would have loved that, and I would’ve remembered everything. But I’m afraid I still can’t quite believe it happened.”
Contrary to what she said that night, Colman will soon have another chance to relive some of those memories, having earned her second Oscar nomination earlier this month.
This time, the recognition comes for her work in the dementia drama, The Father, which marks the directorial debut of French playwright Florian Zeller, adapted from his own award-winning stage show. The film centers on an aging patriarch (Anthony Hopkins) struggling to make sense of his progressing memory loss. Unlike other works that have explored the same subject, this is told through Anthony’s perspective, the very fabric of the film — the sets, the timeline, even the actors — shifting as its lead fades into the fog of confusion. We, the viewer, experience what he might be.
“The first time I read it was the first time I’d ever experienced anything written from that point of view,” Colman says. “To suddenly make sense of the confusion because you are as confused. It’s been quite nice to understand where the confusion can stem from. If someone has been gentle their lives, to suddenly see that they’ve got a rage in them, is that the real them? Was the other one not the real them? But it’s OK. We’d all be f**king furious having to deal with this every day.”
Colman plays Anthony’s daughter and de facto caretaker, Anne. The play, and thus the film, was inspired by Zeller’s personal experiences with an ailing grandparent, making Colman’s character something like a surrogate for both himself and the audience. There she is, attendant and infinitely patient as she attempts to mask her breaking heart with a sunshiny hopefulness.
“She’s my favorite actress,” Zeller says of casting Colman. “And I think that the film would not have been the same without her. She has something magical. As soon as you see her, you love her. That was really important for the film, because it’s not only about this man losing his bearings. It’s also about his daughter trying to face this situation.”
Zeller had written the script with Hopkins in mind, reasoning that because most people would have become familiar with Sir Anthony Hopkins throughout their lives, playing to his mortality would lend an additional layer of gravitas to the story. Colman found that to be the case when she got to set, explaining, “I’ve grown up with Tony’s face on films and I remember him being interviewed on Parkinson — it’s a chat show in the UK — and he was larger than life, a sort of acting god.”
“So, that made it extra poignant to me, I suppose, to watch this man who I admired so much confused or watch him crumple. All of that stuff in the back of my mind, in my history helped,” she says. “And he’s so wonderful to act opposite. He is so good that I didn’t have to do anything except to watch him and feel it and react to him.”
The horrors of cognitive degeneration aside, Colman found filming to be especially enjoyable. “I suppose that sounds bonkers,” she laughs. Between takes, she sat with Hopkins and listened to him share stories of his storied life, slipping into impressions of Jimmy Stewart and Frank Sinatra for his delighted one-woman audience.
“I just sat there and I went, ‘Oh, please don’t say that we’re back on set. I’m just loving this so much.’ And he’d lean in and go, ‘Aren’t we lucky? Isn’t life beautiful?’” Colman giggles, trying on her own impression of Hopkins. “And I know there’s lots of upsetting pieces in it, but we got to work with amazing people and the moment something sad is finished, you have a cup of tea and a cuddle and go, ‘It’s all right.’ And then you go do something else. You don’t carry on being miserable throughout the day. I wouldn’t be able to cope with that.”
The Father premiered at Sundance in early 2020 with a lauded festival run to follow. Still, Sony Pictures Classics, the studio behind the film, held off its theatrical release until the Oscars’ last eligible weekend, a risky move that nonetheless paid off: Not only is Colman nominated for Best Actress, but The Father is up for Best Picture and Hopkins for Best Actor, among six total nominations.
In an altogether unprecedented awards season, no one knows exactly what to expect from the forthcoming Academy Awards, let alone who might win one. Not that Colman believes it’s something you can ever prepare for, even now two years on from when she won her Oscar.
“I liken it to when I got married, someone said, ‘Every now and then, just pause and have a look and try and remember it all.’ Because it’s so much excitement and such a blur that when it’s all over, you go, ‘Well, all that planning, and I can’t remember it!'” Colman says. “The Oscars were a bit like that, just because I was sort of in a denial all the way. Sort of wafting into it, going, “It’s silly. It’s just silly. It can’t be real, can’t be real, can’t be happening.’ And then it happened.”
The Father is in theaters now and available on demand on March 26.
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