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Olivia Williams: ‘It’s still extraordinary how people find women frightening’

The actor says what the world needs now is some Victorian superheroes – preferably female ones…

Like many of us, actress Olivia Williams has been reassessing her place in the world and the meaningfulness of her work of late. This period of introspection began before the pandemic hit, but since lockdown Williams has been rethinking her gloomy assessment.

“I was quite ill a couple of years ago, I had a really horrible cancer,” says Williams, speaking via Zoom from her North London home. “That made me think that my life and career were a waste of time and I really needed to help people and heal them, do something useful.

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“Actors, on the whole feel that it’s a sort of dilettante existence. But I saw the other side of the coin during lockdown, when I was at home with two teenagers and we binge fed on every consumable form of TV entertainment.”

Williams is refreshingly frank in her assessment of her work.

“So I am prepared to be persuaded that we actors have some value. Things I made years ago that disappeared – sometimes, rightfully – without trace finally came to the top of people’s watchlists, out of desperation. I got hilarious feedback for a Schwarzenegger movie which I frankly thought I’d got away with. It made it to the Netflix movie chart. I was like, no, stop, I’ll never work again!

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“But some of the worst movies make the best dinner party anecdotes,” she adds, face full of mischief. “Look closely at my resumé and you’ll find some great anecdotes!”

Williams merrily talks through the hits and misses of a long and winding career in which she helped pioneer a new way for British actors to mix working in theatre, TV and film, big-budget and indie, period and futuristic, US and UK.

“I’ve never had a chance to make an acceptance speech, but I would say it’s thanks to Kevin Costner,” says Williams. “I was very happy pootling about in British theatre and on the periphery of telly. But I was unemployed and he offered me a huge role in a huge Hollywood movie [The Postman]. Some people allege they’d have found me anyway, but they’d have had to have a bloody hard look around the basements of Camden Town.

“It was surreal for a few years. I got the blockbuster flop with The Postman, then Rushmore was an extraordinary indie movie by Wes Anderson – if someone offers me a job and says they love Rushmore, 99 per cent of the time, their movie is great. And M Night Shyamalan took a chance on me to play Bruce Willis’s wife in The Sixth Sense. Before the interweb he was the master of the twisty ending.”

Another actor unable to make a proper acceptance speech was Anthony Hopkins at this year’s Oscars, where he won Best Actor for The Father. The film, in which Williams co-stars, is an extraordinarily artistic and moving interpretation of the torment of someone living with dementia.

“I knew it as a play, so when I heard it was being made as a movie, I told Christopher Hampton – who co-adapted it from the French – I would do anything to be part of it,” says Williams. “These stories of Demi Moore sending people a bunch the flowers to play the lead in something? That’s never worked for me. But on this occasion it did and it was perfect.

“One was in shock and awe to be on set with Anthony Hopkins, doing this incredibly important work. It was all about the acting. It was all in the face. All in the words. Just watching his face was astonishing.

“I think its genre is actually horror. To play out what it’s like to have a complete stranger walk into a room and say they’re your child or to forget – it makes me weep to say it – your daughter’s dead? It is a brilliantly conceived, insightful piece.”

Before UK audiences can watch The Father comes new HBO hit, The Nevers.

“After all the homemade television, let’s have some fucking escapism,” says Williams. “One of the joys of The Nevers is that it is historical, nostalgical, scientifical and futuristical. It ticks every lockdown box.

“Twice in my life Joss Whedon has rung to offer me a job and I knew I could rely on him to write me an astoundingly strong, interesting female role.”

Whedon’s name has been removed from the marketing material for The Nevers as allegations about his on-set behaviour and treatment of actors pile up. A rare pause.

“I’m gonna do a big old no comment,” says Williams. “The fact that when he rang up to offer me another job I said yes demonstrates what I would want to say on the subject.”

How did Whedon sell The Nevers to her?

“Victorian superheroes!” she says. “I play a rich spinster in a wheelchair for a reason we don’t yet know who runs a refuge for women with extraordinary powers. If there are superheroes now, there must have been then, right? But how would they have been treated? A century earlier people would have burned them. In Victorian times, they treat them with suspicion.”

The Nevers has a lot to say about how the patriarchy fears women gaining parity, let alone accessing a superior power.

“It is still extraordinary how frightening people find women and how men don’t like being told things by women,” says Williams. “I literally came off the street a minute ago from politely asking a man in a Mercedes to turn his engine off while he was idling. The abuse that came back involved the words ‘stupid woman’. I wondered what in my gender was relevant to the conversation?

“I don’t know if I appear stupid to you, but I think that was a phrase from his collection of prejudices rather than what he heard.”

How did she respond? “I have an array of insults,” Williams says, grinning. “But in the circumstances, I thought I’d stick to the point.”

The Nevers is on Sky Atlantic and Now TV from May 17. The Father is out in cinemas in the UK from June 11.

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