What I wouldn’t have given to be in an actual room with Olivia Williams, rather than down a Zoom. For all her early-90s RSC pedigree, she is forever the surprise find of The Postman, Rushmore and The Sixth Sense, films in which her casting seemed so idiosyncratic.
How did this British actor, with her amused detachment and her totally rose-garden, tan-resistant complexion, end up in Hollywood? I always saw her as an ambassador for the nation, roaming around the end of last century, giving the world the impression that we were all incredibly graceful and surprisingly tall. She, conversely, maintains that she only ever got those parts because they’d blown the budget on their male lead and needed someone cheap. I just won’t have that, I’m afraid. Surely it’s faux modesty? Nope, she’s pretty dug in – all those films, “they needed people who were just going to get on with it. Because they didn’t have any budget or time to worry about people who were overly concerned with vanity or how long their trailer was.”
She will, however, allow that there was a bit more to it: “I had a sort of theatrical fearlessness that I think stood me in good stead. They were looking for someone in Sixth Sense who could square up to Bruce Willis. They were looking for someone in The Postman who could square up to Kevin Costner. For Rushmore, Hope Davies suddenly became unavailable, God bless her. I’m not proud, my father was a barrister and he always said his best cases were returns, the ones that nobody else was available for.”
We’re here to discuss The Nevers. I can’t tell you much about Williams’s character because of spoilers; let’s just say she is stunningly austere. The show has had a rocky entry on to the screens: some time between conception and delivery, several actors from previous shows by its creator, Joss Whedon, accused him of creating a “toxic environment”. What was originally slated as a 12-episode first season of The Nevers has become two six-ep mini-seasons, with Whedon replaced by Philippa Goslett as showrunner and executive producer for the second. Whedon cited the level of commitment necessary and the “physical challenges of making such a huge show during a global pandemic”, saying it was “more than I can handle without the work beginning to suffer”.
It’s had mixed reviews. I thought it was wonderful: an intricately built universe of magnetic inventiveness, its tempo almost like a teen drama, its themes unbelievably dark and densely allegorical. I thought about it for days afterwards. At one point, I became convinced that its premise – “touched” people, mainly women, with freakish abilities, demonised and feared in Victorian London – was actually a metaphor for the pitfalls of third-way progressive politics. Williams wasn’t really having that. When she thinks a question is stupid, she sort of nods, and moves along.
But she will tell me what attracted her to the role. “It was Joss calling me up and saying, ‘I’ve got a new job for you.’ Because the last time he did that it was a fabulous role in Dollhouse.” Yes, about Joss Whedon … “I know I brought him up, but I don’t want to dwell on it,” she says. “There’s nothing I can say that couldn’t be twisted into something on Twitter. I don’t speak in 240 characters. Everything I say takes 24,000 characters.” She’s deeply suspicious of social media. “Very early on, I read something racist about my elder child on an IMDb message board. And I thought, ‘OK, we’re not going to be doing that any more.’” (She has two teenage daughters, Esme and Roxana, with the actor and writer Rhashan Stone.)
More than that, though, Williams is extremely chary of talking about what is currently the hot…