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In Depth

People In Film | Olivia Williams

Olivia Williams | A Historic Role

In HYDE PARK ON HUDSON, Olivia Williams plays Eleanor Roosevelt, the indefatigably energetic, fiercely independent First Lady and wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (played by Bill Murray), who reluctantly plays host to King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). For Williams, “it was very daunting playing someone of Eleanor’s caliber; she did so much for civil rights and race relations, using her position as First Lady to help others. I wanted to do her justice, and I also got to explore this world figure in a domestic situation – one where she had less power; her bedroom was her mother-in-law’s dressing room.”  As such, Williams focused on the casual gestures where the political meets the personal. “Eleanor didn’t patronize people,” Williams explains. “She wouldn’t curtsy to the King and Queen because she didn’t feel that anyone should be curtsied to. This was her principle, and I aimed to carry that off with dignity and without looking petty.” As an English woman playing an American icon, Williams was fully cognizant of her responsibility. But, as is evident from considering her career, jumping back and forth between America and England has been less of a challenge and more of a benefit to her unique talents.

Olivia Williams | Aiming High

If Olivia Williams had followed in the footsteps of her family, she would be performing inside a courtroom rather than on stage and screen. Born in 1968 to two successful barristers, Williams grew up with the potential of entering law, like her parents and her sister. Williams told the Guardian, “I loved ballet classes, and I was like Bottom in the school play: I wanted to be every part. But when I got to the age of choosing careers, I was always trying to be a lawyer or do something responsible." She ultimately graduated from Cambridge with an English literature degree, but when the time came to choose a career she deferred doing “something responsible.” Instead she studied drama at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for two years and then spent three years with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She had given herself until age 30 to succeed as an actress. By 1996, she was working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but wasn’t getting many callbacks from TV or film casting directors. And her hourglass was quickly running out of sand. That was until, while touring with Ian McKellen in Richard III, she got noticed by Kevin Costner, who was looking for a leading lady for his big-budget, sci-fi adventure The Postman. For Williams, the offer was both surprising and initially problematic. “I became an actress to do Shakespeare on stage,” she told The Telegraph, “and I'm going to make a huge multimillion-dollar movie, so I'm just going to do what I'm told and enjoy myself."  While the film didn’t turn out to be a big success, it put Williams on the map and gave her an important lesson: “I've had to learn to fly by the seat of my pants. I taught myself to let go, just trusted it would happen.”

Olivia Williams | Finding her Place

While Williams cut her dramatic teeth in England, she started first finding success in America working in both television and film. She showed up on the hit show Friends in 1998, and then in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore as the first grade teacher who becomes the obsession of both Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. It was a role that caught the attention of many critics, like the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle, who noted how she played that part “with sensitivity and intelligence.” And in M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 runaway hit The Sixth Sense, in which Williams played Bruce Willis’ wife, critics were quick to point her out, like Los Angeles Times’ John Anderson, who highlighted her “fine” performance. After succeeding in both TV, independent film and blockbuster movies, Williams was ready to return and conquer Britain. She immediately started starring in a number of comedies, including Dead Babies (from a Martin Amis novel) and Lucky Break, the follow-up film from The Fully Monty director Peter Cattaneo. While her role in the latter as a counselor in a male prison was a bit isolating, Salon.com was quick to note her presence as “a wonderfully appealing actress.” Her appeal was not to be lost on directors looking to cast critical supporting parts in the future.

Olivia Williams | A Force to Be Reckoned With

By the mid 2000s, Williams, who only a few years earlier had been on the fence about her professional trajectory, now had established herself as a force to be reckoned with. Occasionally she would take the lead in a project. In the 2008 BBC film Miss Austen Regrets, Williams starred as the famous novelist Jane Austen, and Variety noted, “Williams’ soulful and witty embodiment of Austen establishes the novelist as a compellingly independent woman for her day.”  But more often than not, she lent her considerable talents to a supporting role. Joining Joss Whedon’s 2009 fantasy conspiracy drama Dollhouse, Williams was, according to Popmatters, “brilliant” as “Adelle DeWitt, the ambiguously moralistic, Machiavellian head of the House.” The same year, she shone in Lone Scherfig’s An Education as the smart, sympathetic mentor for the film’s heroine, Carey Mulligan. The San Francisco Chronicle spotlighted how Williams “in just a few scenes and with clipped, spare dialogue, creates a warm portrait of a young schoolteacher.” The next year, she showed up in Roman Polanski’s political thriller The Ghost Writer, playing Pierce Brosnan’s spouse, a part that was singled out for praise by many critics. The Wall Street Journal deemed the film’s cast “a cache of jewels — the most glittering of which is Olivia Williams, who, in a virtuoso performance as Lang's wife Ruth, creates a character who defies all casual adjectives.” Each year Williams seemed to highlight a new shade of her talent by playing a different character. In Joe Wright’s 2011 action-packed HANNA, Williams played the staid matriarch of the traveling British family who befriends the title character. In 2012, she played a very different mother when she took on the part of Countess Vronsky, the haughty controlling mother of Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in Wright’s ANNA KARENINA.

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