Interview : Olivia Colman, The Night Manager
A contemporary interpretation of John le Carré’s espionage drama – and the first television adaptation of a le Carré novel in more than 20 years, The Night Manager brings together love, loss and revenge in a complex story of modern criminality. The series follows former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) who is recruited by intelligence operative Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) to infiltrate the inner circle of international businessman Richard Onslow Roper (Hugh Laurie) and detonate the unholy alliance he has ministered between the intelligence community and the secret arms trade.
BAFTA Award winning actress Olivia Colman (Hot Fuzz, The Iron Lady & Broadchurch) plays Angela Burr in hit BBC drama The Night Manager. From a shabby office in London’s Victoria Street, supported by Whitehall Mandarin Mayhew, Burr runs her modest enforcement agency, at the heart of which lies her private crusade to bring down Richard Roper – the man whom she believes embodies the evil of all arms-selling. In Pine she finds a shared conscience, though by sending him into battle her integrity will be challenged by rivals close to home, who are determined to pervert the course of justice.
Could you start by telling us a bit about your character in The Night Manager?
I play Angela Burr, who works for the government as a spy. She is written as Northern and I thought that it was very important to keep that; there was something special about this renegade woman who sounds different and is a different gender from the public school and establishment men who surround her. I always thought of her as a zebra among the lions, but a zebra that wasn’t scared or intimidated by that and that’s what freaks the lions out.
What were your reactions when you first learned about the project?
It was a bolt out of the blue, because when I went to meet the director, Susanne Bier, I had just found out I was pregnant! Angela Burr was initially written as a man in the book, so not only did they have to rethink the gender of the character, but also incorporate the fact that she is pregnant. Luckily, the production team was very sweet and ran with it. I think that the pregnancy added to the character though. Like Frances McDormand in Fargo, it added a fragility to Burr in a way that she couldn’t register, or didn’t allow herself to. The domesticity also means that there is something going on in her back story too.
“I always thought of her as a zebra among the lions, but a zebra that wasn’t scared or intimidated by that and that’s what freaks the lions out.”
What do you think of John le Carré and his place as the father of the spy genre?
He has an incredible backlog of work and to have kept at the top of his game for decades is an extraordinary feat. We had the pleasure of meeting him on set and he’s a wonderful, charismatic and an incredibly young, energetic man. You can see why his books have stayed poignant and brilliant.
Could you tell us a bit about where we find Burr at the beginning of the series?
Although she is part of this sort of boys club and world of espionage by working for the government, she hasn’t got many friends in this world because she is resolutely honest – and that has really annoyed some of her slightly dodgier comrades. She has been ousted a bit, and when we meet her she’s working in this pretty dingy, damp office, desperately trying to get funds to do what she thinks is right. I love that she never seems to compromise and won’t be bullied. She doesn’t agree with how some other people play it but she is great and very strong.
‘The Night Manager’ trailer, starring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman.
How was it working with Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie?
It was such a treat working with Tom and Hugh! Hugh has a gravitas playing this despicable baddie who is equally so charming and suave. The whole piece is about class and power I think, and he’s got a sort of chip on his shoulder. At some point it’s mentioned that Roper was first generation Eton and normally that’s mocked by the old boys, but he has so much power, so much money and he’s so ruthless, that he holds the highest card. Hugh plays all of that so beautifully.
Tom Hiddleston is fantastic as Pine too – he is so multifaceted and his character is quite Bond-like. He’s similar to Burr in that he has integrity and a sense of right and wrong from his days in the Army. His character has seen awful things and is very clear on what’s right and where he wants to go. I think that’s what they (Burr and he) have in common.
What’s Burr’s history with Roper? Why is she so set on bringing him down?
Burr knows that Roper is an arms dealer of the filthiest kind and that he’s making a fortune out of people’s death, misery and poverty. She is determined to take this monster down, so she sets out to seduce Pine, knowing with his level of charm, sophistication and intelligence that he’d be able to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle and gain his trust to bring him down from within. She’s a good head-hunter – she does her homework on Pine and knows that he is the man for the job.
“Burr knows that Roper is an arms dealer of the filthiest kind and that he’s making a fortune out of people’s death, misery and poverty. She is determined to take this monster down, so she sets out to seduce Pine, knowing with his level of charm, sophistication and intelligence that he’d be able to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle and gain his trust to bring him down from within.”
Hugh Laurie had a huge amount of personal investment in this story as he optioned it years ago wanting to play the Pine character. Had he discussed that with you?
I remember on the train going up to Zermatt, he was doing an awful lot of work on the script, and I thought, that’s very keen for an actor! I just thought that that was how he works. It wasn’t until afterwards that I found out that he was so passionate about getting this story on the screen and that he’d optioned it years before. He was passionate about it and always very involved.
What does Pine represent to Burr, when she finds him in Switzerland?
I think he’s her great hope. Finally she’s found someone who could possibly put an end to all this awfulness. Trying to bring people like Roper down is her reason for being, and for the first time she’s found a man she truly trusts and she feels very motherly towards him. She wants to look after him – she’s put him in this dangerous situation and she’ll do anything to make sure he’s OK.
What was the most enjoyable part of this project to work on?
That’s very hard, because everyone was so nice we all got on so well. We were together for a long time and in various different countries, which was amazing. I’ve never travelled so much for a job – we filmed in Mallorca, Morocco and London. It was a very companionable job; we were all working on something we felt very passionate about.
THE NIGHT MANAGER IS A MAJOR SIX-PART TV DRAMA, AIRING ON BBC1 AT 9PM ON SUNDAY EVENINGS.
Many thanks to the BBC for providing the content for this interview.