With two Bafta wins and a raft of goodwill, Olivia Colman's had quite the year. As she bows out of 2013 with an eerie yarn that's perfect for Christmas, Susan Griffin sets out to discover more about the down-to-earth star
Olivia Colman would like to think she's good at keeping secrets, but trying to keep the identity of the Broadchurch killer under wraps, while the nation watched transfixed earlier this year, was something else.
"I'd signed so many bits of paper, I thought I was going to be arrested if I twitched at the wrong point and gave it away," says the petite, dark-haired actress, laughing as she recalls the drama that focused on a tight-knit community in the aftermath of a boy's murder.
The second series is already in the pipeline, but Colman, who played DS Ellie Miller, is nervous about divulging too much.
"I don't know anything," she says, putting her hands up. "I'm so terrified of saying something I'm not supposed to."
She's happy to ponder the reasons for the series' success though.
"It didn't patronise anybody, which I think people forget sometimes when they're making programmes for the British viewing public. We're an intelligent bunch," says the actress, who studied at Cambridge.
It was while there that she met her future Peep Show co-stars David Mitchell and Robert Webb, before enrolling at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
There was a stint on a secretarial course, "to keep my head above water", but today, there's no holding her back, and she's received plaudits for roles as diverse as an abused single mother in gritty series Run, and as a young Queen Mother in Hyde Park On Hudson. But the understated star's aghast at the notion of being over-exposed, when it's suggested she must be one of the hardest working women in the industry.
"It was unfortunate that they've put everything out in the last few months. I'm like, 'Don't do that, everyone's going to get bored!'"
There isn't much chance of that. And no doubt viewers will be looking forward to seeing her back on screen this Christmas, when BBC Two airs the 90-minute drama The Thirteenth Tale.
Adapted from Diane Setterfield's best-selling novel, by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons), it's a haunting psychological mystery set in the modern day but with poignant flashbacks starting in 1940.
Its eeriness makes it perfect viewing on a cold, winter's night, although Colman would probably avoid doing that alone.
"I'm a big chicken," she reveals. "On Broadchurch, Jodie Whittaker and I were flatmates and there was a really, really bad horror on. She said [puts Whittaker's Yorkshire accent on], 'I mean, it's not even classed as horror, it's rubbish', and I had to go and wee with the door open so I could see her. I'm terrible."
Colman plays a female biographer called Margaret in the new drama, who sets out to interview the legendary but frail writer Vida Winter (Vanessa Redgrave) who, until this point, has refused to divulge the dark secrets of her life and past.
"I was really excited and really nervous," says Colman on meeting Redgrave for the first time. "I kept waking up in a cold sweat thinking, 'She doesn't like me', and then realising we hadn't met."
Margaret doesn't really know why Vida's chosen her and isn't sure why she accepts the job, but as the two women talk, an unlikely shared empathy is cultivated. "It turns out Vida had a twin sister and both grew up feral in the old mansion without any parental love, and the only grown-up interaction being with the housekeeper and gardener. Margaret can't go once she's started to hear Vida's story."
After The Thirteenth Tale, Colman will appear in the extra-marital affair drama The 7.39, alongside Sheridan Smith and David Morrissey, and beyond that, a movie called The Lobster, in which she and Ben Whishaw are part of a group who are told to find partners or face being turned into animals. "It's an amazing, bonkers script, which is unlike anything else I've read."
Colman's versatility is one of the reasons she's already been dubbed 'the next Judi Dench'. Although flattered, the comparison leaves the 39-year-old feeling a little uncomfortable.
"You'll get people forever going, 'But she's nothing like Judi Dench'," she says, laughing goofily and with her hands tucked nervously between her knees. "But she's [Dench] amazing and has always worked and been deliciously private, everything I admire, so the fact someone's put us in the same sentence is lovely."
Like Dench, Colman traverses easily between comedy and drama, as proven at this year's TV Baftas, where she won two gongs. "You know really cool people keep them in the downstairs loo. I'm really un-cool and they're on the fireplace," she says, grinning.
The first award was for her subtle, comedic performance in Twenty Twelve, which followed the fictional team responsible for organising the 2012 Olympics, and the second for her turn in Jimmy McGovern's hard-hitting court drama Accused.
The evening, she says, remains a blur. "I watched the speeches back and I can't believe I forgot the director's name, so thankfully I got another go," she says.
Colman, who was born in Norfolk, didn't celebrate into the small hours, though.
"After dinner, I said to my husband [Ed, with whom she has two sons], 'Can we go? I want to put my comfy socks on'. So we snuck off and had a cup of tea."
She's looking forward to more cosy times this month; Christmas is her favourite time of year.
"I'm usually a bit of a fascist about weekend mornings. The boys have a clock and if it's before eight o'clock, then they have to read or go back to sleep. After eight we can all play, but on Christmas morning I'm going, 'Get up!'" she says, clapping her hands excitedly. "Ooh, I just love it."
:: The Thirteenth Tale is on BBC Two on Monday, December 30