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Olivia Williams talks about her role as the Prime Ministers Wife

The Ghost
31 August 2010

Olivia Williams was warned by her co-star that working with legendary director Roman Polanski can be a challenge and sometimes a little daunting.

Williams joined a “fantastic cast” on The Ghost at the last minute, just before the production started.  “Some of the best jobs I’ve ever had – and this being the pinnacle of those – have come to me because someone else has dropped out at the last minute and in this case, I don’t know who it was, but it meant that they had to cast quickly and efficiently and I didn’t have to audition and I didn’t jump through any hoops.



Q: I understand you came on board for The Ghost quite late. What happened?

A: It was all done through agents. Some of the best jobs I’ve ever had – and this being the pinnacle of those – have come to me because someone else has dropped out at the last minute and in this case, I don’t know who it was, but it meant that they had to cast quickly and efficiently and I didn’t have to audition and I didn’t jump through any hoops, I just got a phone call saying ‘you are in the running..’ and then another saying ‘you’ve got it..’ And then suddenly I was pulled up on the side of a road in Santa Monica looking at a Palm Tree and talking to Roman Polanski on the phone – I couldn’t believe it! (laughs). It was very strange especially as I was in the middle of doing an American TV show (Dollhouse) and wondering if possibly my life in art house movies was over. Not with any sense of dread because I was having a great time on Dollhouse but it was the most perfect juxtaposition of the two extremes of my career. And it continued to be a fantastic rollercoaster of experiences.

Q: Presumably that’s part of why you do the job isn’t it? You’re doing an American TV series one minute and then working with Polanski the next…

A: It is the beauty of it. It is also the thing that can make you queasy with anxiety and that’s increased since I have had children and a family. My husband and I have a ritual now of sort of going ‘we must enjoy this, because if you don’t there’s no point in all the other shit that goes along with It.’ And if you let the anxiety and trying to coordinate flights and nannies and parenting get you down, you have to step away. But this has been such a pleasure. Sitting by the road and talking to Roman Polanski about filmmaking and then on to the next movie, that weirdly premiered here in Berlin, to look like I knew how to paint for Sex & Drugs and Rock & Roll because my character, Betty (Ian Dury’s first wife) was taught to paint by Peter Blake who was art consultant on the movie. So yes, these extremes of unbelievable world class experiences.

Q: Did you know Robert Harris’s book (The Ghost) before you took the role?

A: No, I didn’t and I can remember the word was out when the more famous and better paid actresses were going to play the two female roles because it was when the Stephen Frears film was around and I thought ‘what on Earth is Roman Polanksi doing this for?’ And then I read it and very quickly it emerged as a great thriller and a great story with fantastic characters in it. I think I read the book first – I ran down to the bookstore and got a copy and that was the copy that took me through the whole show. And I raced through it. And his descriptions are so good and his scenes are so actable in the novel, which is demonstrated by the fact that it is almost directly lifted into the script. And it was just very, very exciting as an actor to have such great source material. I could go to the novel and get all the detail and expansion on the scene that I needed. That didn’t stop me harassing poor Robert Harris for details too – someone foolishly gave me his email address and I did make his life a misery for a few weeks before filming started. But he was extremely good natured about it and prolific in his replies.

Q: Did you ask Roman and Robert whether you were playing Cherie Blair?

A: Stephen Frears film (The Queen) was so fresh in my mind and Helen McCrory nailed Cherie so brilliantly and I’ve spent my career in awe of Helen and I didn’t want to come in with sloppy seconds as a bad impersonator after her brilliant performance. So I said to Roman ‘please don’t tell me you want me to impersonate Cherie Blair..’ and he said ‘no.’ And actually, I know the Chilcot inquiry has happened conveniently at the same time as we have, which is great, but I think probably this miserable chapter in British political history will be swept under the carpet whereas people will be watching Roman’s film when they don’t know and can’t remember who Cherie is. And there’s nothing worse than watching an impersonation and you don’t know who it is, so I just went back to the source material and to Robert and sort of passed his 45,000 contradictory adjectives through the computer of my body and the print out was what you saw on film.

Q: I would imagine she’s a great character to play but you mentioned that there are contradictions in her…

A: I wish I had the note Robert sent me – it said something like ‘neurotic, confident, contemptuous but in love with her husband..’ She does love her husband. My mother is a barrister and she has defended a number of fraudsters and she says what is astonishing is the absolute conviction with which they believe their own fabricated version of themselves. And anybody living a double life can’t do it for that long without entering into the spirit of it and what you have to remember is nobody thinks they are evil – she obviously believed that what she was doing was right, that American policy was right and that feeding them information would result in good things and that to guide the man she loved into this position of power would work for the good guys otherwise she wouldn’t do it. You know, Iago (from Shakespeare’s Othello) doesn’t think he is a baddie. So my job was to come with the conviction that she believed in what she was doing, not that she was a baddie. On the other hand I think that what is underrated and unfashionable as an actor is to know your position in the plot, particularly with Roman – he is not interested in what you had for breakfast or how you feel about a scene, he wants you to be in the frame and occupy a certain amount of space in a frame and your face is really just a surface off which light bounces off in a certain way, to speak at a certain pace and he has, I think, more respect for actors than this sort of cult of the sensitive actor allows because he expects you to be able to do it. He says ‘do it like this’ and you have to come with enough kit in your bag to be able to do what he says.



Q: But what’s that like to work with on a day-to-day basis?

A: Well, I really responded to that in the end. It’s pretty shocking at first. When he first comes round the camera going ‘no, no, no..’ but once he explained that he had this original model in his head and that when his head was in his hands he wasn’t trying to remember my agent’s phone number so he could fire me, he was seeing this ideal that we were all trying to recreate I really got a kick out of acting that way. So to reveal how you know, in love with her husband she really was, and how torn she was as a CIA agent, would have screwed the plot. I see it as the main job as an actor is to play a right sized cog and if you get the size wrong the machine doesn’t work. And it’s unfashionably technical but I think just like Roman expects the set designers to be able to design a set, he expects the actors to be able to act. I think too many directors come out of film school having been told that they to have that attitude where (soft voice) ‘that was great, but maybe we could try it another way..’ No, not ‘maybe’ – ‘I want you to do it the way I want it to work.’

Q: Before you started filming, you must have wondered what it would be like to work with Polanksi. Were you intimidated at the prospect?

A: I did wonder ‘what’s it going to be like?’ working with Roman and I didn’t really know what to expect (laughs. People can tell you theoretically, just like they can tell you what childbirth is like theoretically, but until you actually experience it yourself you have no idea. Until you are acting your heart out and Roman stops the camera, puts his head in his hands and says ‘No!’ You can’t know what that is like because it had never happened to me before. Ewan and I have become good friends and we hammered out the experience. He saved my ass, really, because he had been working with Roman for a month before I showed up and he did an impersonation of Roman doing that before I got on set so in a way when it first happened to me I thought ‘that’s exactly how Ewan described it – that was really good..’ So it took the sting out of it slightly. The other thing I’d heard was that it was some kind of Machiavellian sort of Drama Centre style plot to break the actor down and get a performance out of them and that is palpably bollocks, that’s not his deal, he is just going to expect you to do what he asks you to do. There’s no plot. If he hurt you or broke you down, he’d be devastated. There was one scene where the camera was at a funny angle and I had my hair behind my ear and he came up to me and said ‘your ear is bizarre!’ I’d got to know him quite well by that stage and I said ‘Roman, I don’t know where you come from, but where I come from you can’t tell a woman she has got bizarre ears, that’s just rude..’ and he kind of snapped out of it and laughed and scuttled back behind the camera. You know he is not looking to hurt anybody or get a performance out of you, it’s just ‘do it..’ He is as irritated by a bottle being in the wrong place as he is if an actor gets a line wrong.

Q: What did you think the central theme of Robert’s book and the film is?

A: When I did ADR for The Ghost, I was seeing little clips of the movie and literally chills ran up my spine from watching those four, three second bits. And my agent said later ‘how does it look?’ And I said ‘it’s chilling, it’s cold, this isn’t a warm, cosy movie..’ I was chilled by what I’d seen. To create that very intense sense of isolation is an incredible feat and that is Roman’s skill. He creates that sense of desperation and that’s why he is such a great director. Isolation, as it is in so many of Roman’s films, is a very big theme in our film and Robert was talking about it in the novel and made this great observation that a prime minister doesn’t know how to use an ATM machine or an I-pod and Roman has amazingly captured that on screen.

Q: Did you ever meet the Blairs?

A: No, I was never on their party list and now I don’t think I will be (laughs). And I won’t be holding out for a Christmas card.

Q: Robert’s book is also a very strong critique of the Blair era, would you agree?

A: Yes. I’m from a family of lawyers and a lot of my friends are lawyers and one of my friends has the unbelievable job of representing five or six inmates of Guantanamo. None of them are British citizens but their wives and children are and one of them went on holiday to the Gambia and the CIA were waiting for him and took him in an unmarked jet to Afghanistan and then Guantanamo for five years. Who told them he was there? Allegedly – I have to say ‘allegedly’ or I’ll get sued (laughs).

Q: Has your view of politicians changed?

A: I don’t know, I was in America when Obama was voted in. I thought my innocence was over but I was so totally caught up in that and star struck. Actors talk passionately and with authority very often on subjects that they know nothing about and if I ever do get up and make a noise on something politically again – and this comes again from having lawyer parents – I’ve got to make sure I really know my facts and know my stuff. I have innumerable hobbyhorses but I couldn’t debate them with anybody who had actually done some research on the subject.

Q: How are your family?

A: They’re absolutely wonderful, thank you. I have two girls, five and two, and they are chatty and funny and lovely. We took them to see Cirque de Soleil in Santa Monica Zoo and our hopes of them being accountants or plumbers are dashed and they are both going to run away with the circus (laughs).

Q: Are you living in the States now?

A: We haven’t packed our bags and moved back yet. The kids are in school there. It’s kind of like being in the army and we are awaiting further orders, our movement order to come through for where we go next. Let’s say we live in London although at the moment we are in Santa Monica.



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