Beautiful Olivia Williams is having quite the year, but admits that had she not been discovered by Kevin Costner as his leading lady in The Postman, she would have given up acting ages ago.
"I think I would have stayed in the theatre, would have had a gradually dwindling career in that, would have given up acting at around 30 and then re-train to be a lawyer and I would now be happily married with two children and a slightly part-time divorce family law practice,” she says.
We’re chatting at a publicist’s office in Los Angeles where she’s spending a few days "catching up with a few mates and saying hi to my American agents.” So why would the very single Olivia choose divorce law over acting if push came to shove, one meekly inquires?
"Family law just fits in quite well with having a family.” There seems to be a hint of regret as to how Williams’ life has unfolded. She has the great acting career but at age 35, remains unfathomably single.
"Well I think this job sucks as far as steady relationships go,” she says. "Instead, I’m paid to go to far distant places, stay in beautiful hotels for four months and shag other people’s husbands. That’s part of the job and it’s not conducive to steady relationships.”
Olivia calls London home, lives in a nice flat, enjoys the city of her birth and has fun in contrasting Los Angeles when she is ready to work here or do some publicity.
She has much to keep her from dwelling on the lack of a private life, with three films out this year, beginning with Thaddeus O'Sullivan’s adaptation of Rosamond Lehmann’s sad novel The Echoing Grove, re-titled The Heart of Me, in which she stars opposite Helena Bonham-Carter.
This often bleak 1930s-set British melodrama casts Olivia as the uptight Madeleine, married to Rickie (Paul Bettany), whose affair with Madeleine’s sister Dinah, a wild bohemian artist (Bonham Carter) has tragic consequences for all three.
Williams said that she was initially unenthusiastic about playing the conservative and cold Madeleine "until I was about half way through the script and realised that I know this woman, who’s one of those uptight cold people, who caused her husband to leave her. She’s another of these characters whom I’ve made a bit of a specialty of, who behaves in a very hysterical way after being unbelievably tested emotionally," she says.
"It seemed I had her down but one of the things I loved about the script is that almost as soon as I ventured into that opinion it was turned on its head by the revelation of how deeply and passionately she felt the loss of her marriage, how angry and deeply engrained was her distrust of her sister, the amount of pain she had been holding in about the way her sister behaved and how her father had loved her sister more than her.”
Some critics have complained at how stereotypical a British character Madeleine is, "which I think that’s why one laughs so much,” Williams counters. But the actress admits that women such as Madeleine are steeped in reality. "My grandmother is very like that. English people are clearly defined as you know by pre-therapy society and post-therapy society. Everybody now gives you a running commentary on how they feel: You know I’m really hurting right now, I’m angry you know.”
More LA than British perhaps? "Yeah, well, 'cause everyone in LA is in therapy and everyone who’s in therapy is writing scripts,” she laughs.
"The Heart of Me is about people who don’t tell you how they’re feeling; what they’re telling you is the opposite of what they’re feeling. They’re disguising what they’re feeling with their words, but sometimes you can extrapolate what they’re feeling despite what they say which much more interesting to act then is telling someone that I’m hurting right now.”
Asked how Olivia fits into that, she pauses. "I quite often will say something and mean the exact opposite, so people don’t really get the signals now which is quite fun. It’s the humour of sarcasm and irony which are vile but entertaining and actually is, why people love Monty Python and Black Adder. It is people saying one thing and meaning another which I think is what drama is.”
Since her breakout role in The Postman, Williams has worked equally hard on both sides on the Atlantic. Here in the States, she garnered enthusiastic notices for her work in the diverse likes of Rushmore, The Sixth Sense and more recently, the acclaimed indie feature The Man from Elysian Fields.
While in England, Olivia has scored in Born Romantic, Dead Babies and the 2001 Sundance favourite Lucky Break. Yet despite her current crop of successes this year alone, Williams says she has never had much of a career plan.
"I think it’s Michael Caine who said an actor takes the best job available at the time. My agent says there are three things: the money, the location and the project which encompasses director, other stars, good script or whatever that might entail, and two out of the three have to be right. My career plan was take the best job available at any given time but I have lived by that and I didn’t decide to do studio movies and then decide to stop doing studio movies. I just took the best job that was available at the time at every stage and there was a period in my life where the project and the location were both London, and the money wasn’t there at all.”
Not these days. Though she admits to having "a lot of regrets” in terms of her personal life, she takes her acting career one step at a time. Still refusing to move to Hollywood, which she admits gives her life added perspective. "I mean in every other respect I, it’s a fabulous life to live, but I would be in LA for one reason only, which would be my career, which I think is very unbalanced. I need all sorts of other elements in my life, my family, my friends, my other interests which I can’t renew here, and it’s the only reason I’m not here which is to maintain the balance in my life. Of course, when I’m in London, my career isn’t what I want it to be either,” she adds smilingly.
Perhaps that will change by year’s end when the long-awaited Peter Pan hits screens worldwide? Though she avoids being away from London too long, she endured several months of shooting in Australia on the lavish film for one simple reason. "I have three words for you and two of them are in initials,” she says referring to Australian director P.J. Hogan of Muriel’s Wedding fame. "He is a genius.”, she says with gushing enthusiasm. "I fell for P. J completely. Auditioning for P. J Hogan was one of the most fulfilling half-hours of acting I’ve done in my life,” she says.
The actress, who plays Mrs Darling in the multi-million dollar film, says that Hogan was "the right director for Peter Pan, the way he explores the magic of childhood and the fantasy of it. The social facts are also there, the fact that J.M. Barrie had a pretty dodgy relationship with an understanding of children that Mr. Darling and Captain Hook are the same guy, none of that gets past P.J. It’s not a sentimental Hollywood version, but on the other hand it has all the imagination and magic that it requires.”
As for the much-publicised delays in getting the film finished, Williams is unphased by it all. "These are life jobs that happen in anybody’s working year. The fact that when it happens during shooting is bad, but there are lots of productions which when a film is over budget as he has been, would have called a halt. But everyone believes in this so much. We were meant to be done by March, I think. The boy who never grew up is definitely growing up.”
Olivia didn’t mind the extra time. After all, she got to fall in love – with Australia. "I didn’t understand what a beach was until I went to Australia. Sand is like talcum powder, the water is clear and beautiful and clean. The Gold Coast is not Sydney in terms of cultural enlightenment, but everybody is so nice, and my driver became one of my best mates. The guys who held open the doors looked like they were movie stars, and greeted you with warmth and somehow managed to combine that with a certain laid-back sincerity. I really fell for your country big time,” she says, warmly.
She sees Mrs Darling as more than just a token wifely character in the film. "She is a great role, and the sort of role that people will respond warmly to if they recognize you, and not at all if they don’t.”
Before the release of Peter Pan, the UK is releasing the third of her films, To Kill a King, a new take on the events leading up to the execution of Charles I in the 17th century. Rupert Everett plays the tragic Charles, Tim Roth stars as Puritan Oliver Cromwell and Dougray Scott is Thomas Fairfax. Williams is the latter’s fiery wife.
"She was an extraordinary character and she and her husband believed that the king was abusing his role as a king. So they fought very strongly in favour of the people, the rebels but also felt that Charles should not be beheaded, and his trial was not founded in the British justice system, which it wasn’t. She was a force to be reckoned with, and she is not made up, which is wonderful because usually you have to kind of write and pretend she’s some drippy tart.”
One can’t imagine Ms. Williams ever playing "a drippy tart". A force to be reckoned with, she would rather remain unemployed than play a character that lacks depth.
In between a busy filming schedule, Olivia also managed to tread the boards in Love’s Labour’s Lost at the National Theatre, the last production to be directed by the legendary Trevor Nunn. "I felt I was in some form of thespian heaven, cycling from my new flat down to South Bank, listening to one of the foremost world experts on iambic pentametre, talk about Shakespeare. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” Oh yes, it’s quite the year for this accidental movie star.