Wil­liams’ Hal­cyon days

She has a Hol­ly­wood pedi­gree, but her role in the ‘new Down­ton’ will make Olivia Wil­liams a house­hold name, says

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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.

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