Williams’ Halcyon days
She has a Hollywood pedigree, but her role in the ‘new Downton’ will make Olivia Williams a household name, says
In another life – and with, perhaps, a different set of choices – Olivia Williams might have been a lot more famous. After she played Bruce Willis’ wife in the supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense, she came dangerously close to Hollywood superstardom herself.
‘‘The fact that, 20 years on, I don’t happen to be a well-known celebrity in every home strikes me as a bullet dodged,’’ she says. ‘‘It may have cost me professionally but, on the plus side, I can take my kids out without putting a bag on their heads to protect their identity.‘‘
Now aged 48, this witty, toweringly elegant, crystalvowelled, Cambridge-educated actress is doing perfectly fine. She may not command the US$20 million payouts once demanded by her Hollywood co-stars, but she works consistently, on both sides of the Atlantic and in every medium – stage, TV and movies.
She was also, by the way, a judge in last year’s Man Booker awards. Looks and brains combined.
Williams will soon be seen supplying an aristocratic element to The Halcyon, ITV’s sparkling new eight-part period drama set in a swanky five-star hotel at the heart of Blitz-torn London society. Think Downton, with bellboys on.
She plays Lady Priscilla Hamilton, the hotel’s reluctant proprietress, who is chilly but, beneath the surface, wounded, and, when we meet, she’s in full regalia – silk pyjamas and dressing gown, topped off with a velvet turban.
‘‘We’re filming an air-raid scene where everyone has to troop through reception and into the bunker, and this is how Lady Hamilton dresses for bed. Just as well it isn’t me: I’d probably be wearing a slightly too short T-shirt that was a freebie from the gym and nothing else. And that would be embarrassing.’’
Laughter – hers and other people’s – matters to Williams. ‘‘Perhaps it’s because I came from a family who thought that what I did and said was entertaining. Trying to get a laugh for everything, whether it’s funny or not, is now a default position.’’
Just as Lady Hamilton is a product of both her class and her era (‘‘Let’s just say that she lacks what Kipling would have called the common touch’’), so too is Williams, who was born in 1968 and brought up by two ‘‘pinko Lefties living an unostentatious life’’ – barristers Anna Worrall and the late QC Graeme Williams.
Williams is married to the actor, comedian and writer Rhashan Stone, the Americanborn, UK-raised son of black singer Joanne Stone, one half of the 70s duo R&J Stone, whose hits included We Do It.
‘‘My husband was born in New Jersey but raised in provincial England, so I can’t claim any massive Rainbow Nation thing going on in our kitchen. But one of the striking advantages of where we live is the colour of my children’s skin is commonplace, and the fact they are mixed race is not an issue. We are very lucky they have grown up largely unaware that there are places in the UK where it doesn’t feel so inclusive, especially now.’’
The couple have two daughters, Esme, 12, and Roxana, 9. ‘‘When my daughters were born, it felt to me that the midwife was handing me my liver or my heart, an exterior vital organ. It was mind-blowing to think that we were now responsible for how this new life would turn out.
‘‘Eventually, of course, they stop being entirely dependent on you and they start being smart and hilarious in ways that have nothing to do with either of their parents. And, at that point, you realise you need them around just as much as they need you. My life has been so enriched by my children.‘‘
Williams’s continuing success has meant she and her husband split the parenting 50-50. It’s a marriage, she says, not unlike that of her own parents. Her mother, Anna, was perhaps the more ambitious one – ‘‘women at the Bar had to be, to succeed. But the parenting was shared and both were incredible mentors and supporters.
‘‘If you have amazing parents, you look for them again in other people that you love. It’s not very rock’n’roll, but I am prepared to accept that much of what I fell for in Rhashan is what I admired in my father.’’
We’ll be seeing more of Williams, not only in The
Halcyon, but also in Stephen Frears’ film Victoria and Abdul. The ensemble cast includes veterans Sir Michael Gambon and Tim Pigott Smith, with Dame
Judi Dench as the Queen who befriends a young Indian clerk.
Williams’ only unresolved ambition would be for Strictly Come Dancing to call. ‘‘I’m the mother of two daughters who couldn’t be less interested in what I do, but if I said Strictly to them, they might look up from their e-readers.’’
In the meantime, if Lady Hamilton were to loosen up a little, she might get to lindyhop as others do in the hotel club.
‘‘Not sure if she’s ready to shake a tail feather yet,’’ Williams laughs. ‘‘Maybe series two?’’
– Telegraph Group
The Halcyon 8.30pm, Thursdays from July 27, Prime.
Olivia Williams plays Lady Priscilla Hamilton in The Halcyon.
The Halcyon promises to deliver plenty of drama and intrigue as it brings 1940s Britain to Thursday night television.