‘Tyrannosaur’s’ Olivia Colman: A Little Campaign for a Big Movie

The low-budget drama was a surprise winner at the British Indie Film Awards — but don’t call it a little movie, says its star

The budget was small, the subject matter dark and the opening scene vicious: A man gets drunk, gets thrown out of a bar, goes outside and viciously kicks his dog.

When I saw "Tyrannosaur" in Toronto, that was all it took for the couple sitting in front of me to leave their seats and head for the exit, before the credits had even begun.

They missed an unexpectedly tender and touching film from actor-turned-director Paddy Considine, in which the story of a drunken lout turns into a finely drawn character study, and an unlikely (and non-sexual) love story between a pair of people who can only be considered damaged goods: an aging widower who hasn't gotten over the death of his wife, and a kindly thrift-store owner trapped in an abusive marriage.

Olivia Colman"Tyrannosaur" also contains one of the year's most indelible performances, by Olivia Colman.

Best known in England for comedic roles on television, Colman (who also plays Margaret Thatcher's daughter in "The Iron Lady") is vivid and heartbreaking as a woman who has retreated into a cocoon of excuses and religion to escape and excuse the brutality she endures at the hand of her husband (Eddie Marsan).

The film has such a low profile in the United States that an admiring online columnist, Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere, actually raised the money to hold three press screenings in Los Angeles. The screenings weren't well attended, but the online campaign raised Colman's profile – as did her victory in the Best Actress category at Sunday's British Independent Film Awards, where "Tyrannosaur" also overcame big-name rivals "Shame" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" to win the Best Film award.

Also read: 'Tyrannosaur' Named Top British Indie Film

(Photo by Dave J. Hogan/Getty Images)

This is such an unlikely story, a little movie that needed a blogger to raise money for screenings …
That was amazing. But we didn’t think of it as a little movie. We knew we had constraints, but Paddy kept saying to us, "It's not a little movie. We're making cinema." It is about big issues, and it goes quite gothic at the end. And I'm thrilled at how people have taken it to their hearts, because that's how we felt about it. We knew we were making something special.

It's remarkable that a film that begins with such brutality ends with such heart.
Yes, exactly. I'm so pleased you said that. It's so upsetting when people say, "Oh, it's so bleak." Although you're quite quiet afterwards, you have a lot to think about, it does end with heart.

And that's all Paddy's heart, his compassion on the screen. It is about love. I'm so pleased that that's what you came away with. It challenges your perceptions. The first time you see Joseph, and you see him commit that act, the fact that you change your mind about him by the end of the film is a real feat.

That opening scene was too much for a couple of people at the screening I attended — they left as soon as he kicked the dog.
They missed the point. And if you just think about it a little bit longer, clearly no dog is actually being hurt. It's just film.

Olivia Colman and Peter MullanHow did you become involved?
We did a short a few years before, with the same characters. And people came out of seeing it and said, "I want to know what happens to Joseph and Hannah." It sort of went from there, and became a feature. And Paddy said the part was mine, which was lovely.

In the short, what do we know about her?
Nothing. We don’t know anything about her backstory and her life. All we see in the short is she works in a charity shop, Joseph comes in and hides behind the clothes, and she prays for him. She's a good person who offers him a hand of friendship that nobody else would do. And that's all we know. The beginning of the feature is pretty much the short, and then it goes on.

When you made it, did you have a backstory in mind?
A little bit. Paddy had sort of said a little bit where he thought Hannah was from, but not to the same degree at all. I know that she didn’t have a nice time of it, but I didn’t really know why it was difficult.

She's somebody who is incredibly warm to everybody, has a smile for everybody. Because you don't want them to know what's going on. It's only as you watch it that you start to see that there is stuff behind her smile. It was very exciting to read the feature script and find out what was going on, and quite daunting.

Was it rough to shoot those scenes where you're brutalized by your husband?
It wasn't hard. Nobody there was a method actor. [laughs] You don’t want that anywhere near this subject matter. The difficult scenes were only done two or three times at the most, and we all really liked each other. It was easy. A lovely, lovely job.

It's Paddy. I think he's found his thing, writing and directing. He's said that was always what he wanted to do, even when he was acting.

What about you? Was acting always what you wanted?
Yes. I'm shit at everything else. I can't do anything else.  A little thing keeps coming up: know your limits.

But growing up, you must not have always known you wanted to act.
I did my first play when I was 16, and it was a moment of clarity: This is amazing, I love this, I'm not bad at this. Because I was never terribly good at school, and quite lazy. And this was suddenly something I'm not lazy at, and I wanted to do it. Before, I was always putting off my work, or using big writing to fill up a page when I had to write something. But this, I wanted to do well.

Did your parents encourage you?
My mom said I suppose you can give it a year. I thought, I'll probably give it 10, and if that doesn't happen I'll give it another 10, because I don’t want to do anything else. I was a terrible secretary, a terrible waitress. Quite a good cleaning lady, though. But there was never anything else for me.

Olivia ColmanHas the reception for "Tyrannosaur" affected your career?
I think so. I think that's why I got "Hyde Park on Hudson." And why I got "The Iron Lady," or why I was seen for it.

That must have been a big change from "Tyrannosaur."
It was weird, going from one to another. To go from "Tyrannosaur," where some of the financiers pulled out and we had to make it for less money, to suddenly getting prosthetics, being with lots of people, being a small cog in a very big machine. But I get to be in a room with Meryl Streep, which was pretty great.

Not only were you in the room with her, but you played her daughter.
Yeah. Margaret Thatcher's daughter is a well-known character in the UK, so that was pretty daunting, playing somebody that everybody knows. Luckily, though, when you're standing next to Meryl nobody's going to be looking at you. She made my life very easy.