Interview: Olivia Colman, Sam Mendes, Micheal Ward on Making Empire of Light

The new film, also starring Tanya Moodie, is set in the English coast circa 1981.

In the new movie Empire of Light, writer/director Sam Mendes takes us into a cinema on the south coast of England, circa 1981. Hilary (Oscar winner Olivia Colman) is the manager, recently released from the hospital after dealing with psychological problems. Stephen (Micheal Ward) is a much younger man who gets a job at the theater in the hopes of escaping the town's microaggressions and racism. Together, Hilary and Stephen discover that they are kindred spirits, as cultural upheaval swirl around them.

Ahead of its December 9 release, Mendes, Colman, Ward, and costar Tanya Moodie sat down with TheaterMania to discuss bringing this lovely script to life.

Micheal Ward, Sam Mendes, and Olivia Colman on the set of Empire of Light
Micheal Ward, Sam Mendes, and Olivia Colman on the set of Empire of Light
(© Parisa Taghizadeh)

These conversations have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sam, where did this movie come from in your life?
Sam Mendes: I'm an only child. My mother brought me up on her own and she was struggling with mental health throughout my childhood and beyond, and I felt the kind of heroism of someone who's holding herself together just above the surface the whole time. I suppose, over the years, I realized how little people discuss, or are able to discuss, issues of mental health, because of how it's still stigmatized and brushed under the carpet.

At the same time, I had all these memories from my teenager years growing up in the early eighties. The music, the movies, the times that my political opinions were formed, the Thatcher years of high unemployment, terrible racial politics, riots, what have you. All of that went into the mix and I felt it rummaging around the attic of my mind a little bit and it coalesced into two stories, one that is internal, which is her's, and one that's external, which is his, and they collide. I wanted to be able to tell both of them in parallel, and I hope I do.

Tanya Moodie in Empire of Light
Tanya Moodie in Empire of Light
(© Searchlight Pictures)

What made you all agree to star?
Tanya Moodie: Sam Mendes!

Olivia Colman: You're not gonna say no to Sam Mendes. I said yes before I read the script, and then was really pleased that the script was great.

Sam: You were relieved.

Olivia: It's a beautiful character and a gift to play. There are so many places that the character goes that I'd never had a chance to play before. To work with Sam and Roger Deakins was a heavenly experience. I know there are some tough scenes, but it was such a joy. It was a beautiful experience. I loved it.

Micheal Ward: The uniqueness of the character, for me, was important. To portray someone like Steven has a lot of power in terms of inspiring another generation. Steven is such an amazing person. You can see that he has a lot of love to give and he leans into that when a lot of people don't. I really felt that. To be honest, when I initially read the script, I didn't know what it was that I had a connection with, but I just knew that I wanted to be part of this. I loved the story and it was exciting to play I hadn't really seen represented on screen before.

Tanya: I'm playing a West Indian nurse. That's not an unusual role to be offered in the UK. In the past 30 years of working, I've been offered quite a few West Indian nurses, frankly. Then you look at this script and you're like, "Oh, this is a really interesting character arc and situation." Especially taking place in 1981. I remember 1981 vividly, so I thought it was gonna be a trip. And it was fabulous. It was the most fun kind of research.

Olivia Colman and director Sam Mendes on set of Empire of Light
Olivia Colman and director Sam Mendes on set of Empire of Light
(© Parisa Taghizadeh)

Olivia, tell me about developing the closeness between your character and Micheal's character.

Olivia: Micheal and I got on straight away. He's such fun, and there's a naughty twinkle, which I really loved. He's willing to play. If anything, he's much more mature about all that than I am. But when we looked in each other's eyes, we realized it was going to be great. We're gonna go there together and trust each other.

Sam: Micheal and Olivia are very similar as personalities. They don't take themselves too seriously, they're joyous, and they're not worriers. They weren't overthinking it. There was something simple there. Acting is a release of something that's in them. I'd love to take credit for their performances, but when you cast it right and you rehearse it a little bit and the script is clear, all you have to do is get out of there way. I didn't have to work that hard.

Why should people go see Empire of Light?
Micheal: People should go see this movie because it's beautiful and it's got a lot of amazingly talented people within it, and the story is really important. It touches on mental health and racial undertones in parallel. It's about two people who are struggling, but at the end of it, there's a lot of love and lightness, and when you find the balance in everything that's going on, it just becomes beautiful. I think people will enjoy it.