After collaborating on 2015’s The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos and Olivia Colman reteamed for this year’s twisted take on the court of Queen Anne, giving a jolt to the period cinema genre, and picking up accolades all along the awards season trail. Lanthimos has said he wouldn’t have made The Favourite without Colman, whose character is the linchpin of a trio of strong women at the center of the movie. Director and star recently hopped on the phone with us to riff on the road to The Favourite, their working process and the friendship they’ve established over the years.
Yorgos, you’ve said wouldn’t have made The Favourite without Olivia. Why is that?
Olivia Colman: This is awkward, isn’t it Yorgos?
Yorgos Lanthimos: It’s weird that I have to say this in front of Olivia, but I told her at the time I just couldn’t think of anyone else for this role, it just didn’t work. For me, casting is very instinctive and if I don’t feel good about it, I just can’t go ahead and make the film. It’s not like we’re going to fix it, you have to feel confident about the actors.
Olivia, how do you feel about that? Did you need to be convinced?
Lanthimos: Yes, tell us about that [laughs].
Colman: Well, thrilled, because if he had thought about it any longer, maybe I wouldn’t have done the job and I’d have been really devastated to watch someone else doing it. I loved it when I saw the script and already loved Yorgos, so I was very happy. Thank you!
You guys previously worked together on The Lobster, so I imagine that builds up a lot of trust. How did that experience influence this one?
Colman: Sorry Yorgos, but Yorgos isn’t the biggest smiler in the world. But I knew from The Lobster he is actually the biggest-hearted, kindest, gentlest man you could meet. So it did mean that going into playing Queen Anne and putting on the weight felt great. He’s lovely, it’s a brilliant script, I already know I love working with him. I suppose it just made me run into it really excited about the whole process. I was a bit nervous hoping I would do it well, but I think you should feel that when you really like the script and the job. It helped me totally throw myself in because I knew that it was going to be fun.
Yorgos, have you developed a sort of shorthand with Olivia?
Lanthimos: I don’t know that I’ve changed anything in how I go about it. Yes, you get to know each other, you feel very confident and you just go and do it. I guess there’s a trust, but you don’t really have to think about it much or discuss it, you just feel more and more comfortable. I already don’t communicate a lot orally so you just feel like you can be more at ease even while you don’t have to say a lot. So of course it helps knowing the person better and better.
You had a sort of wacky rehearsal period, but Olivia, I understand you’re not a huge fan of rehearsing. How did that play out?
Colman: Well, it’s different. I love rehearsal for theater; that’s probably more fun than doing the play… even then there’s still a chunk of time when people have to talk about stuff in a really irritatingly intellectual way. Rehearsal for screen stuff I’ve never liked before because it’s sitting down and talking, which I don’t really like doing. This was really good fun because it was basically theater rehearsals. And it took us a while to realize, but then all six of us actors doing the rehearsals said, “Oh, right, this means there’s no embarrassment, there are no inhibitions.” We know each other so well by the time we start filming. It was joyous, and you end up knowing the whole film chronologically in the back of your head or psyche without having to really think about it. We were up on our feet playing games, which is what you do in the theater. We had movement lessons because of the dance sequence. There were physical games and trust exercises.
Yorgos, is that your typical process?
Lanthimos: Whenever I have time for rehearsals, this is my general approach. As Olivia knows, I don’t think trying to recreate the scenes as you would do on film helps, or definitely not talking about it or analyzing and explaining. These are things that I think don’t work for the things that I want to do so I’d rather rehearse with the actors.
I work with them like Olivia described, in a physical way. I want them to play games and get to know each other, and especially on this film because it was a period film, and there’s a certain expectation of how people should carry themselves and speak and move. I just wanted to break that preconceived notion around it and show that we were fooling around, it’s not going to be serious.
Another thing I find useful is the actors learn the lines of the whole film and the lines of the other actors through a process which is not literal and intellectual and analytical. It’s just like the lines go through them while they’re doing completely irrelevant stuff, because it’s complicated stupid silly games.
Colman: The one I always remember is the six of us holding hands becoming a sort of massive human pretzel and tying ourselves up, then trying to undo it while saying the lines. That was hilarious. It’s actually a really good Christmas party game. And Emma [Stone] said she found it made her not think about the accent; since she was so totally distracted physically, it came more naturally.
Olivia, you put on weight for the role. Was that encouraged or a choice?
Colman: I can’t remember how it came about, but Queen Anne was big and you can do prosthetics, but I know Yorgos isn’t keen on make-up and prosthetics because you can sort of see it. I think it was a preference of Yorgos’s and I don’t mind doing it.
I might not jump at the chance again. I’m in my mid-40s now and I was surprised how hard it was to lose afterwards. But it’s quite fun to let go and it just looked better rather than having a sort of fake weight. I just wanted to get the thumbs up from Yorgos. He thought I was starting to lose weight before the end of the job, didn’t you Yorgos?
Lanthimos: I did, I did encourage her to keep eating while we were getting towards the end; I just thought they should look healthy and well-lived [laughs].
Colman: Exactly. That queen, she ate a lot, she had access to all of the most beautiful rich food and she was famously a big girl. There’s no point in trying to turn up all chiseled and muscled because it would look ridiculous. It was nice to eat a lot; it was lovely.
The film features three strong lead roles for women. Was that part of the attraction?
Colman: It wasn’t my main reason. It was just that I thought it was brilliant, and the part I was being offered I really wanted to play, and it was only afterwards I think I realized, “Oh, look, we’re all equals.” It is three women leads and we are absolutely equal in this I think.
I think when you’re reading a bad script, which is slightly male-heavy and has token-gesture female parts, then you notice it. But you don’t really notice it when it’s just brilliant. You know, it’s, “The script is great, this is the part I want to play, the whole film is great.” Maybe that’s part of it afterwards.
Lanthimos: It wasn’t something I was looking for either, I just came across this story about these three women that impressed me. I didn’t rationalize or make a decision like, “Oh, yes, we’re going to make something to change the situation.” But on a personal level, it did interest me. I was intrigued in trying to create these three very complicated and complex characters for women and work with three great actresses. It was in my mind thinking you never see that: three female strong leads.
I didn’t think the whole state of things, I just wanted to do it. I liked the story and I thought it was a good opportunity, but it wasn’t so rationalized.
Colman: That’s the great stuff anyway. Things shouldn’t be rationalized and thought about. It should be a natural thing. So this is why this is so wonderful, that it wasn’t thought through, it was just fucking marvelous and just a great story. And everyone is realizing that, yes, of course, stories about women are great. It should be half and half and it will be, especially when you do it unconsciously.
Lanthimos: Yeah, it shouldn’t be an issue. Stories about women, about men, about homosexuals, about heterosexuals. We shouldn’t point at what it is.
Now that you’ve made two movies together, how would you describe your relationship to one another?
Colman: He’s my friend, I think, but also a friend that I’m slightly in awe of. I’m honored to know Yorgos and very pleased that he has given me work, and I think he’s a lovely man so I’m very happy to be able to say Yorgos is my friend.
Lanthimos: Yeah, I think we’ve become friends over these experiences.
Lanthimos: We’re happy to see each other whenever we can, and of course we’re both very busy and many times in different parts of the world. But we’re friends and collaborators and I would be happy to work together again.
Colman: You heard it here first.
Lanthimos: It’s great when you have those kinds of experiences and relationships because it can go the other way.