How Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward Helped Sam Mendes Bring ‘Empire of Light’ to Life

Photographs by Dan Doperalski

Empire of Light co-stars Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward first met at a party for the former’s 2021 film “The Lost Daughter.” The up-and-coming Ward, who won the 2020 BAFTA Rising Star Award, approached the Oscar winner in a moment that sounds straight out of a movie. “This beautiful man comes into the party and I’m with all my girlfriends, who were all my age,” recalls Colman. “And he went, ‘You and me, we’re going to have an affair.’” Colman laughs at the memory. “It was like the music in the room stopped. Then he said, ‘In the film! In ‘Empire of Light!’”

Of the opening line, Ward admits, “I was nervous! I didn’t know what else to say to her!” But it was the beginning of a partnership full of mutual respect, admiration and the ability to have fun even when dealing with the toughest of material.

Set in a coastal town in England in the 1980s, “Empire of Light” casts Colman as Hilary Small, a woman grappling with her mental health who works at a local movie theater. Hilary finds herself forming a friendship and romantic connection with a new employee, a young Black man named Stephen, played by Ward. 

While all films are somewhat autobiographical to their creators, Sam Mendes drew heavily on his own past for the pic, which marks his first solo writing credit. “During the pandemic I had a lot of time on my hands, as we all did, and I had a period of self-reflection,” the Oscar-winning director says. “I had been thinking about my own upbringing, which was being brought up alone as an only child by a single mother, struggling to get by and struggling with mental health issues.”

At the same time, he says, he wanted “to also tell another story in parallel, which was my teenage years and the music and movies of the time but also the political landscape of the Thatcher years and racial upheaval and high unemployment. There was an internal struggle, which is Hilary’s, and then the external struggle, with these issues, and them colliding.”

Dan Doperalski for Variety

Sam, at what point did you know you were writing this part for Olivia Colman and Olivia, at what point did you know Sam was writing this for you?

Mendes: About 20 pages in, I started without thinking I was necessarily even going to finish — my laptop is full of unfinished projects. And then I watched “The Crown” and there she was. And I thought, “Oh, that’s Hilary, obviously.” So I started writing it for her. And about halfway through, I kind of hit the wall. And then I thought I’d give her a ring, even though I’d never even talked to her before. 

So I Zoomed her at her kitchen table and told her I was writing something for her to try. And give me the inspiration to finish. And we just sort of gossiped for an hour with her enthusiasm and the fact that she was so open. So it got me to finish it and it made me excited again to tell the story. By the end, it was completely for her and if she’d said no, I would have been really upset.

Olivia Colman: The first I knew of it was on that Zoom. “He said I’m writing this film with you in mind—” and I was like: “Yes! OK. Yes, please.” I was very grateful that the script turned up. And thank God, it
was great.

I think you said that you didn’t ask him anything about the role at the time, you just talked about other things?

Colman: I think we talked about injuries. I’ve got a bad knee. You had a bad ankle. We sort of gossiped about —

Mendes: Age.

Colman: Yes, age. 

Mendes: I didn’t want to tell her the story, really, because I wanted her to read it for the first time when it was done. I just wanted to get a feeling of her, I suppose. So we just gossiped and chatted on about … ailments. 

When you finally got the script, what was your reaction?

Colman: I was relieved that I’d said yes to something that turned out to be good! But also, I was excited that Sam had entrusted me with this. Just to play something I’ve never played before, to go to places I’ve never gone before. And it made me feel a bit nervous, which I like. I think the thing that scared me the most was having sex scenes with a much younger person. And Michael was by far the most mature of the two of us, and really helped me, because I was begging Sam to cut out the sex scenes. 

Mendes: Not really!

Dan Doperalski for Variety

Colman: It was just embarrassing. But Micheal made it all easy and we had an intimacy coordinator. 

Micheal, I know, you have a very different experience coming to this film. Can you sort of tell us about the process of reading the script and landing the role?

Ward: Luckily, me and Sam are both with the same agency. And my agent had read it and said, “You know, I can’t get you out of my mind for this character.” When I read it, I really connected with it, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was that I connected with, until we started getting through the process. Talking to Sam and him asking me questions about how I felt about the script helped me to understand I wanted to be a part of this more than I knew. I wanted to bring the sense of vulnerability Stephen has but just to communicate this hope and love that he exudes for everything and everyone around him — especially for this older woman that you never really get to see represented on camera.

I know you weren’t able to make a chemistry read happen. How did you know this relationship would work? Or is it always kind of a gamble?

Mendes: In this case, I felt they were very similar. They’re both really open and they’re quite joyful people to be around. And I could feel that lightness is coming from both of them. So I thought they would get on, which I think is everything, really. But you never really know, you just hope actors connect, that they look at each other and they’re not just looking in their general direction, which I think we’ve all seen. But it was really obvious straightaway and I thought, “OK, we’re fine.”

But you know the weird thing? There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in a movie. You don’t need it quite as much onscreen as you do on stage, you can trick your way to that. Movies are a mysterious thing. 

Ward: I was in Rome, filming another movie, when Sam called me and I was surprised there wasn’t a chemistry read with Olivia but at the same time, I also just knew that Sam got my essence and knew it would work, it would be OK. I was just so excited by the whole process. Getting to go through the audition and working with Sam, I already felt like I had won. The film was just a bonus to the process.

You’re dealing with some very serious issues and the story is dramatic but there’s also so much joy that emanates from the movie. What was the atmosphere on set like? 

Colman: So much fun. The cast was amazing — everybody who was working in the cinema, we all decamped to this place by the sea and everybody was just lovely. We all sat together and we’d play games and do Wordle. We’d send Wordles to each other.

Mendes: It was weird because it was at the tail end of the pandemic, and so it forced us into a bubble. And, that’s always the nature of a movie set anyway, but we were also in a in a far-away, coastal town in the middle of the winter. And we weren’t really allowed to be with anyone else. So there was this natural kind of family, which really mirrors what’s in the movie.

It was helpful because the experience of making the film was quite solitary for me. Directors have a muscle that you develop very early on — you have to step out of the pub after half an hour, so they can bitch about you. I mean, it’s almost essential, you can’t be everyone’s friend, it just doesn’t work like that. But you have to both be there and also create a family — and then you sort of step away from it. So the cast, the warmth of the actors, and the little family that was generated in that cinema really was my kind of life raft. And I was really aware they were having a good time, which was important to me.  

Dan Doperalski for Variety

Ward: We got to spend a lot of time together and I remember Sam telling us these absurd jokes — but really fucking funny. We’d be ready to roll and Sam wouldn’t stop until he got to the end.

Mendes: My bad jokes.

Ward: They aren’t even bad!

Colman: They are.

Mendes: They are!

Ward:  Okay, some of them. But the point is, I’d always be laughing on my way that down to the camera. So for me, it was that we could just have fun and also tell this
amazing story. 

Mendes: So much of it is about trying to take away self-consciousness so that when the cameras are rolling, it’s not a big deal. It’s just part of the flow. And what digital cameras have allowed us to do, you can roll takes together and do it again and again. You don’t have to talk and describe things and that helps with the flow of allowing people to take away the third eye, the little eye that critiques yourself.

I need to know: who is the best Wordle player?

Colman: It really, really hurts me to say, but I think maybe Sam.

Mendes: I did do a cheat once, though. I did. I got it in one but I looked it up first. I couldn’t sustain it for like more than five minutes. I sent it to her and she was like, “You absolute bastard!”

You’re disqualified, then.

Mendes: You’re right, I am. Forever.