NEW YORK – Like many of us, Olivia Colman has been personally victimized by Disney animated movies.
One of the actress' earliest theater memories was seeing a rerelease of the 1942 tearjerker "Bambi" with her grandmother, who "had to take me out of the film because I was screaming," Colman recalls. She had a similarly distressing experience when she became a mom and brought her kids to see 2010's "Toy Story 3," which finds Woody and friends facing certain death in a fiery incinerator.
"Our eldest, who was then tiny, stood up and went 'Noooo!' " Colman says. "I was like, 'It's OK; it'll be OK!' And he was like, 'How do you know?!' It was awful. I felt like we really traumatized him."
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Cinema's ability to provoke and stir us is just one of the subjects explored in Colman's new drama "Empire of Light" (now in select theaters, nationwide Friday). In the film, she plays a lonely theater manager named Hilary who comes out of her shell after falling in love with a younger Black employee named Stephen (Micheal Ward). Set in 1980s England, the movie takes on a myriad of tough social issues as Stephen encounters racism from white nationalists and Hilary resists treatment for unspecified but debilitating mental health struggles.
"Empire" was written and directed by Sam Mendes ("1917," "Skyfall"), who drew partly from his own mother's struggles with mental illness. He wrote the role with Colman in mind after seeing her Emmy-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix's "The Crown."
"I couldn't imagine anyone else playing her," Mendes says. With this character, he wanted to show "the cycle of medicated mental illness: coming off medication, the exhilarating highs, the terrible crash, going into the mental hospital, coming back out. And then the cycle begins again."
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Colman, 48, is nominated for a best actress Golden Globe for her performance in "Empire." She says Hilary is unlike anyone she has ever played, including roles that earned her three Oscar nominations (and one win) for her stunning turns in "The Favourite" (2018), "The Father" (2020) and last year's "The Lost Daughter."
"I love that feeling of being a bit scared," Colman says. "When I read it, there was quite a pressure to not let down Sam and to portray someone with those issues honestly. But my hands were held all the way through it by Sam and – it sounds weird to say this – I really enjoyed it. Even the big breakdown scenes were cathartic, because in my everyday life, I'm a very happy person. I don't really cry, so it's great to be able to do that and do it honestly."
In one of the movie's most memorable moments, Hilary sobs alone in a theater watching Hal Ashby's 1979 comedy "Being There," starring Peter Sellers. It mirrors another of Colman's best scenes, when she tearfully berates a group of disruptive theatergoers in "Lost Daughter."
"Yelling and crying: Those are my two strengths," Colman jokes. In that sense, "I'm a filmmaker's dream. I'm very vocal and I feel it all. But I don't think there's a secret to it – it's about not holding back. When people ask about acting, I just can't answer. I think I would trip myself up if I thought about it too much. There's no place for feeling humiliated when you're trying to show an emotion. You can't imagine that you look unattractive when you're crying."
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Although Colman has no qualms about laying bare her emotions, filming intimate scenes with Ward was a slightly different story.
"I did say (to Mendes), 'Oh, do we have to have sex scenes? I'm older than Micheal's mum,'" Colman says. "I'm terribly English about it. It just makes me feel embarrassed. I try to avoid sex scenes at all costs." But having an intimacy coordinator on the set "was a total game-changer for me. She took away the awkwardness and turned it into a dance routine."
Colman continues to be in high demand, with roles in the upcoming "Wonka" prequel film opposite Timothée Chalamet and comedy "Wicked Little Letters" with her "Lost Daughter" co-star Jessie Buckley. Next up is "Joyride" (in theaters and on demand Dec. 23), in which she plays a reluctant new mom who takes an unexpected road trip across Ireland with a troubled teen (Charlie Reid).
"I loved the story," Colman says. "When I read the script, I thought it was going to be much darker than it ended up being. But also, Ireland in the summer, why would you ever want to go anywhere else? The sea is clear and blue, it's so green and everyone is lovely."
She also plays a special agent in next year's "Secret Invasion," a new Marvel series on Disney+.
"I can't give you spoilers because I can't remember!" Colman quips. "I feel slightly unfaithful to the smaller films, but I am a Marvel fan. After every Marvel film (was released), I'd go to my agent, like, 'Can I be a superhero?' So eventually I got to do a tiny bit in a Marvel (show) and I was thrilled. From an actor's point of view, to play and do all sorts of things is the dream. And I got to meet Samuel L. Jackson – the other Sam that I love – and Don Cheadle.
"I know that there's a fight for spaces in cinema and I understand all that. But I had a ball doing it."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Olivia Colman on 'Empire of Light,' avoiding sex scenes 'at all costs'