Olivia Colman’s Oscars win: From penniless cleaner to awards show glory

Olivia Colman worked as a cleaner and a secretary for years to make ends meet and almost jacked in acting completely to become a London midwife when her big break failed to materialise.

But today the married mother-of-three stands on top of the world after winning the Best Actress Oscar for her role as troubled Queen Anne in The Favourite.

The 45-year-old’s south London mantelpiece is now groaning with trophies because the coveted Academy Award now joins two Golden Globes and three Baftas

Olivia used her winner’s speech in Hollywood last night to inspire others not to give up hope.

She said: ‘Any little girl who is practising their speech on the telly, you never know. I used to work as a cleaner and I loved that job, I did spend quite a lot of my time imagining this’.

But just ten years ago she was ready to give up acting after a ‘dry spell’ left Olivia and her husband of 25 years Ed bringing up two then young children with very little cash.

British Best Actress winner Olivia Colman and husband Ed Sinclair on the red carpet last night - as her extraordinary acting journey took her to the very top at last

British Best Actress winner Olivia Colman and husband Ed Sinclair on the red carpet last night - as her extraordinary acting journey took her to the very top at last

British Best Actress winner Olivia Colman and husband Ed Sinclair on the red carpet last night – as her extraordinary acting journey took her to the very top at last

1994: Where it all began at Cambridge University pictured next to her friend Robert Webb, 46, who starred with David Mitchell and Colman in Channel 4’s Peep Show

1994: Where it all began at Cambridge University pictured next to her friend Robert Webb, 46, who starred with David Mitchell and Colman in Channel 4’s Peep Show

1994: Where it all began at Cambridge University pictured next to her friend Robert Webb, 46, who starred with David Mitchell and Colman in Channel 4’s Peep Show

The AA ad campaign saw Olivia playing two versions of Bev, one in a luxury vehicle after taking out a car loan and another faring less well - it was both a blessing and a curse for the star

The AA ad campaign saw Olivia playing two versions of Bev, one in a luxury vehicle after taking out a car loan and another faring less well - it was both a blessing and a curse for the star

The AA ad campaign saw Olivia playing two versions of Bev, one in a luxury vehicle after taking out a car loan and another faring less well – it was both a blessing and a curse for the star

Her extraordinary journey is all the more remarkable because as a young actress she needed to clean to make money and for a period was so broke she lived in a friend’s attic and had to rummage under the sofa cushions in search of coins to buy a single potato for dinner. 

As the cash rolls in Olivia hands 50 per cent of all she earns to her husband of 25-years 

Olivia Colman with Ed at the Harper's Bazaar Women of the Year Awards 2016

Olivia Colman with Ed at the Harper's Bazaar Women of the Year Awards 2016

Olivia Colman with Ed at the Harper’s Bazaar Women of the Year Awards 2016

Olivia met hubby Ed when both were cast in a student production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Table Manners. 

She said: ‘For me, it was thunderbolts straight away. I’m going to marry him. A bit weird I know, but yes. He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.’

They married seven years later. She said: ‘I stuck with him and made him realise he could only be happy with me. I still feel I’m punching above my weight.’

She added: ‘We met when we had nothing and we loved each other then. So we were all right. We were 20 and he was also an actor. If you meet at that age then you are fine.’

Ed, who had been reading law at Cambridge, went to study drama at the Bristol Old Vic and Olivia followed him, taking a job cleaning B&Bs before enrolling in the theatre school herself.

But Ed’s acting career never really got going. Olivia said: ‘I’ve no idea why. For Ed, the work just stopped. But actually I think he was quite relieved because he always wanted to write and he’s brilliant at it. I was lucky enough to pay the rent for both of us.

‘It’s swings and roundabouts with us. Every time I get paid I put half in his bank account. He does the same for me.’

Ed has written short stories, short film scripts and two novels which have not been published. She said: ‘He’s very secretive about his process. I know now what his book’s about, but for a couple of years I hadn’t a clue.’

He does now have a screenplay in development with Sky, a crime drama called Landscapers.

In 2008 he set up a company, Karaoke-Me Ltd, which ran a private karaoke venue.

It never made money and went into liquidation in 2011. 

Like most aspiring actors, Olivia struggled for work. She took jobs as a secretary — ‘not a very good one, although I was cheery’ and as a cleaner. 

She said recently: ‘There were years of no work. It was a hard time. I actually really loved my cleaning jobs. I loved the job satisfaction. I’d really go to town. I’d wipe skirting boards, the top of lights. I never looked in drawers.’

She never wanted to do anything but act, though. ‘Being able to put ‘Actor’ on my passport was all I wanted in the world.’

Speaking of her early days with now husband Ed Sinclair, she said: ‘We had what we call our Angela’s Ashes day when we first moved to London from Bristol (in 1998). I had £1 left in my overdraft and cash machines don’t dispense pounds.

‘Ed didn’t have any money either, so we managed to find enough pennies from the sofa to buy one potato to share.’ 

They lived in the attic of friends who had a place in Epping, Essex, for two months.

In 1999 they bought a two-bedroom flat in London’s East Dulwich, using a £30,000 inheritance from Ed to help them meet the £90,000 asking price. They sold it two years later for £150,000.

The couple took out a credit card in 2001 and ended up £3,000 in debt — a relatively small amount but Olivia found it traumatic as neither was earning regularly.

However, she was determined to pursue an acting career. ‘My mum said, “You’ll probably give it a year.” And I said, “No, I’ll give it ten”.’

Her career began to take off in 2003 when she was cast in Channel 4’s Peep Show, with old friends David Mitchell and Robert Webb.   

Her career appeared to stall again, thanks to her starring role in AA’s Kev and Bev adverts.

However, the success of the 2004 ads proved problematic for the star, who told The Mirror: ‘AA! That has become the bane of my life. I thought they were going to run that for about a week but they ran it for what felt like four times a day for a year.’   

As well as her continuing Peep Show appearances she appeared in another sitcom, Green Wing.

She counted herself lucky to be paid £25,000 for each comedy series, which took nine months to film, and said that it was enough for her and Ed to live on if they were frugal. 

As recently as 2009 she had a five-month ‘dry spell’ which led to her starting to look up midwifery courses.

Olivia was born Sarah Caroline Olivia Colman near the ‘golden coast’ of north Norfolk in 1974. 

She is the daughter of chartered surveyor Keith Colman and his wife Mary, a nurse.

She said: ‘They both had a good work ethic. I was really proud of my mum, dedicating her life to making people better.’

Both parents also devoted themselves to renovating houses. Olivia estimates that she uprooted herself 17 times in childhood, and that her parents have moved 30 times in all.

She said: ‘They basically fall in love with a property that hasn’t been cared for and do it up sympathetically.’

Olivia's biggest break came as Sophie in Peep Show alongside her university friend David Mitchell, who played her hapless love interest Mark

Olivia's biggest break came as Sophie in Peep Show alongside her university friend David Mitchell, who played her hapless love interest Mark

Olivia’s biggest break came as Sophie in Peep Show alongside her university friend David Mitchell, who played her hapless love interest Mark

All around success: She has also enjoyed TV success as D.S. Ellie Miller in Broadchurch. Pictured with co-star David Tennant as D.I. Alec Hardy

All around success: She has also enjoyed TV success as D.S. Ellie Miller in Broadchurch. Pictured with co-star David Tennant as D.I. Alec Hardy

All around success: She has also enjoyed TV success as D.S. Ellie Miller in Broadchurch. Pictured with co-star David Tennant as D.I. Alec Hardy

The confidence the agents had in Ms Colman was clearly well placed as now – 19 years later – she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite

The confidence the agents had in Ms Colman was clearly well placed as now – 19 years later – she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite

The confidence the agents had in Ms Colman was clearly well placed as now – 19 years later – she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite

Among properties they have lived in, done up and sold on are a nursing home in Horstead and cottages in Freethorpe. They also renovated a cottage in Great Yarmouth, buying it for £310,000 in 2013 and selling it for £850,000 in 2017.

Oscar winner: ‘I would have made a terrible teacher’ 

Olivia spent a term at Homerton College, Cambridge, doing a teacher-training degree. 

She said: ‘I didn’t know what else to do and I still couldn’t quite let myself want to act.

‘I would have been a terrible teacher. I liked having a lark more.’

She says that she had never heard of the Footlights, but ended up doing an audition for David Mitchell and Robert Webb, who became lifelong friends and collaborators.

‘At the audition they said: “Find something in here and try to sell it to us.” I picked up a cigarette butt and was trying to sell it to them as nutritious and then ate it.

‘Instead of laughing, they just looked shocked,’ she said, adding: ‘I suddenly found all these people who were a bit weird and a bit shy, like me.’

Olivia went on: ‘I had a lovely, feral, free childhood — out and then come back when you’re hungry or it gets too dark. I feel slightly cruel that I’m not offering my children the same.’

Her father was car crazy and she learned how to drive at his knee aged 12 in the fields of Norfolk. 

By the time she was 16 she had a rally licence. Her first car was a Morris Minor she called Moomin

Young Sarah was sent to Norwich High School For Girls, an exclusive establishment with a shining academic record. Fees go up to £4,854 a term. She first got the acting bug playing Miss Jean Brodie, aged 16.

‘I was on stage, and I suddenly felt really at ease, and at home. Of course, at that age you keep it to yourself, you say, “I want to be a nurse or a teacher”.’

In the sixth form she switched to Gresham’s in Holt, Norfolk, where she is remembered for being ‘popular and kind’. The private boarding school charges £11,660 a term.

Her former drama teacher Paul Hands said: ‘Even when I taught her when she was 18 I knew this was going to be the likely future for her.

‘She is a very special actor and she was a very special student, too. She was never difficult — when you see her being interviewed now, that funny, sensitive and delightful person was the person she was to work with when she was a teenager.’

Olivia returned to Gresham’s recently to open a boarding house and unveiled a plaque in the common room, which includes the words, ‘Olivia Colman, Old Greshamian, who played Miss Jean Brodie at an impressionable age and never looked back’.

Mr Hands adds that he believes she will be counted as ‘one of the great British actors of her generation’ saying: ‘I think she can be as good as Meryl Streep.’

The 2011 film Tyrannosaur was a turning point. She played a charity shop worker abused by her alcoholic husband. She was then cast as Carol Thatcher to Meryl Streep’s Maggie in The Iron Lady.

Next came her performance as DS Ellie Miller in Broadchurch, which won a Bafta, and The Night Manager, for which she won a Golden Globe. 

She is now filming The Crown, in which she plays our current Queen. But there is a problem: ‘I emote. The Queen is not meant to. She’s got to be a rock for everyone, and has been trained not to [emote]. We’ve discovered that whenever anyone tells me something sad, it makes me cry. It’s sort of shameful, but they give me an earpiece and play the shipping forecast. It’s somebody going, 

“And the winds are fair to middling…blah, blah.” I’m sort of not listening to what they are saying. I’m trying so hard to tune in to the shipping forecast and not cry.’

In 2011, she and Ed bought their current home, a large five-bedroom Victorian terrace on the Peckham/Camberwell border. 

They paid £885,000 for it and it is now worth around £1.5million.

It has been extended twice — with a loft conversion in 2011 and a huge six-metre kitchen extension in 2013, which opens out via glass doors onto the garden.

Ed built a treehouse for their children, aged 12, ten, and three, from scratch. Also at home is a Jackapoo, Alf.

Olivia has said that she hopes to own a second property ‘as a pension’ one day and gossip in Binham, Norfolk, suggests that she has already done just that.

Certainly she is now very well paid; it is suggested that she is getting around £350,000 per series of The Crown.

She said: ‘There’s all sorts of things now we can fix. We can fix the loo, which hasn’t worked for about three years.’

Olivia hesitated over Broadchurch, as it meant four months filming in Dorset — but went home every weekend. 

She said: ‘If I was away for a long time, we’d all have to go. I don’t like being away from them. It’s as simple as that.’

But her career rocketed after starring alongside David Tennant.  

Olivia finds fame difficult. ‘I hate the loss of anonymity. No one teaches you how to deal with that. I now tend to stay at home because it’s so weird not to be on an equal footing with people. They know your face, and you don’t know them. It’s not that people aren’t lovely’, she adds, ‘but it’s harder to deal with than you imagine.’

 

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