Great Expectations: Interview with Olivia Colman who plays Miss Havisham



The BBC’s new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations premieres Sunday 26 March. Olivia Colman takes on the role of the legendary Miss Havisham.

What were your first impressions of reading Steven Knight’s script?
The first time I read Steven Knight’s script, I thought it was much darker than what I had remembered from school. Quite a few bottom slapping moments, which I did not recall from the original Dickens! There were quite a few changes and I found it quite gripping.

What was it about Steven’s work that attracted you?

I worked with Steven previously on Locke, but I don’t think that matters really. I just always like a good script and he has written it very well. That for me is always the most important thing.

Can you tell us about Miss Havisham?

Miss Havisham is a woman who was madly in love with someone; she went to get married and he never turned up. Her life stopped from that moment, pretty much. She is only really in her forties, but she is always depicted as a much older woman. We have gone for long white hair and lots of broken veins. We think she went white with the shock and the heartbreak. In this version she is an opium addict, so she has had a bit of a life – indoors, no sunshine. She adopts a baby, Estella who she sort of trains to be an assassin in a way; to hurt men as much as she was hurt.

What games does she play with Pip and Estella?

She is using Pip as a guinea pig for Estella. Teaching him how to be a gentleman but sort of mocking him. She wants him to fall in love with Estella, so that she can break his heart. She can then, bit by bit, payback men.

How was it working with Fionn and Shalom?

I worked most of the time with Fionn and Shalom – they are irritatingly young and beautiful, and really good! I have had a lovely time, and I sort of forget I’m not the same age as them. Then I look in the mirror and go “oh yes, they have given me a great white wig.” It’s amazing working with them, they are brilliant. It is very exciting to see where they will go.

What was it like working with Johnny Harris?

We were so excited to meet each other! He was in makeup and I went in and went “hello” and he went “oh!” He got his earbud and I think he put it up his nose, he didn’t know what to do! We had heard so much about each other, from mutual friends, so working with him was so exciting. He is a proper, proper actor.

Can you talk about Verity Hawkes and the costume department that brought this to life?

Verity Hawkes and her costume department are basically my way in to Miss Havisham. The first time I tried on Verity’s costume, she said “I don’t want it dusty and old, I want it rotten. I think Miss Havisham is darker than that, she is rotten on the inside.” It was so great, and the dress is sort of rotting. You know when you see a lemon left in the fruit bowl, and it has gone those beautiful shades of green. The decay is growing up the dress, it’s amazing.

What was it like stepping on set and seeing Sonja Klaus’ work on the crumbling estate?

I had all my gear on and the first time I stepped into the ballroom, it was the first set I saw – it is just incredible. The way that the mould is taking over the dress, and the way the outside is coming in. Miss Havisham says “the outside has invited itself in” about a tree that falls through the window, but there are vines and things, and they are becoming stuck in this world. It is so beautiful what she has created, it is really amazing.

Does this feel like a different Miss Havisham?

They’re all a little bit different, are they not? I was given a stick and I ended up using it more as a fashion thing, rather than playing her as needing it. There might have been a couple of scenes where I forgot that, but don’t tell anyone! I think she’s vain and her ego is massively bruised – everybody plays it in a different way. That’s part of the fun. Every Shakespeare character is played slightly different by everybody who plays it, so we will see.


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