When Sam Mendes of “1917” and “American Beauty” paged Olivia Colman for his 1980s interracial drama “Empire of Light,” the Oscar-winning actress immediately came aboard.
“I can’t imagine many actors, when they speak to Sam Mendes on a Zoom in their kitchen going, ‘Ah, nah, I’m not that interested.’ So I said yes,” Colman, 48, said in an online press conference.
“You,” she said to Mendes, sitting beside her, “told me a bit about it and when the script came through I was so thrilled I said yes. ‘Cause Hilary is a part I hadn’t played before. Something I found a little bit scary, which is exciting to me.”
“Empire” is set in a grand if fading 1950s regional film palace where Colman’s Hilary manages the staff while having a misbegotten affair with the married manager (Colin Firth). A time of racial unrest, Hilary becomes involved with the newly hired, much younger Stephen (Micheal Ward) and succumbs to another nervous breakdown.
“Playing a woman of my age who’s having a love affair with a younger man, that’s the most terrifying part of the whole film for me. But Micheal made me feel much more at ease. Micheal was much more mature about it than I was,” Colman said with a laugh about her 25 year old co-star. “The whole journey with the people involved was all very exciting. And very flattering that Sam considered me.”
Noted Mendes of this semi-autobiographical work about his mother, “The film at its core is about mental illness, about Hillary’s mental illness. While there’s a lot of talk about it as a celebration of the movies, that’s not why I wrote the film. It’s, in many ways, how if you’re broken or you’re an outcast like Hillary is or Stephen, for different reasons, that movies and music and words can help put you back together again.
“For me as a kid growing up in an unstable environment, cinema was an escape in a way that probably people now don’t even understand. Because then there were no such things as movies on television. You had to go to the cinema to see a movie — and it was an escape into an entirely different part of yourself.
“I tried to put that in the film when Stephen says, with the passion of someone who’s just discovered it himself, ‘You should go and sit in the dark amongst people who don’t even know what you look like, can’t even see you. That little beam of light is escape.’
“I still feel that. I still am pulled back to the cinema.”
‘Empire of Light” opens Friday