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Olivia Williams on bad behaviour, her ‘harrowing’ time on Friends and playing Queen Camilla: ‘I had queasy moments’

‘I have a soapbox to stand on and something worth saying’  (Shutterstock)
‘I have a soapbox to stand on and something worth saying’ (Shutterstock)

What on earth happened to Olivia Williams on the set of Friends? It’s not like she was in it for very long. She had a few lines in the episode set in London (where Ross said “Rachel” while marrying Emily), playing a flirty bridesmaid who comes on to Joey. She once said the experience was “harrowing”, though, before declining to elaborate. I had to know why! Was it David Schwimmer? Did he throw a strop? Did Jennifer Aniston slap someone? I couldn’t go to my grave without finding out. So tell me Olivia Williams, sat on the floor of your London home, video-calling with your ear pods in, what exactly went down on that show? The star of Rushmore and The Sixth Sense – who memorably played Queen Camilla on The Crown – indulges me, cracking a knowing smirk as if to say: it’s time…

“Gosh,” the 55-year-old begins, her voice upper-crust and jolly. “Well, just as an example, I was taken to the studio in a shared car with a wonderful actress whose character, I think, was called ‘Old Woman’,” she recalls. This elderly actor, whose name Williams frantically tries to google on her phone to no avail, was “distinguished” and “very good”, but quickly found herself in the firing line. “At one point, a producer – who shall remain nameless – just yelled at her: ‘You’re not funny!’” Williams mock gasps. “And she didn’t come back the next day. So that was alarming.”

“Oh,” she adds, “and Friends was a brand, and you had to fit the brand. You go into hair and make-up and you’re told, ‘There’s a look here, this is what we do.’ And that involved, essentially, plucking off all of your eyebrows.” She found herself ever so politely begging for mercy in the make-up chair. “Literally, ‘please don’t take my eyebrows off, I might need them in another job!’.” She can laugh at it now. “But yes, that’s the sense in which it was harrowing.”

Mystery solved. Williams has always been like this – funny, gossipy, with a zippy, erudite and deeply English bluntness. “Maybe I’d have a lot more work if I shut up more,” she laughs. “I might actually be on some socialist actor blacklist, I don’t know…” Keeping mum has never been her forte. This is an actor who once called the American television industry “a combined piranha pit and cesspool”. Who once used “cucumber-up-the-arse” as an adjective to describe one of her characters. Who once said she got along swimmingly with Arnold Schwarzenegger – her co-star in a serial killer thriller called Sabotage – owing to her “advantage, or disadvantage, of not having large breasts”. She later begged an interviewer not to watch it.

You can imagine her being a nightmare for industry types who take Hollywood very, very seriously. For everyone else, it’d ruin your evening if you weren’t sitting next to her at a dinner party. Which brings us nicely to The Trouble with Jessica.

In light of the dreadful business suffered by the Princess of Wales over this ridiculous photograph – compared with that, I think ‘The Crown’ will look like an advertising campaign!

Matt Winn’s black comedy, in cinemas this week, revolves around two well-heeled Hampstead couples (Williams and Rufus Sewell; Shirley Henderson and Alan Tudyk) whose tense get-together is further spoiled by the arrival of their single friend Jessica (a spiky Indira Varma). Jessica is a horror, a belittling author and Daily Mail columnist who masks latent hostility under a veil of truth-telling. So when she kills herself right after dinner is served, her sort-of friends don’t quite know what to do: do they call the police and mourn her passing? Or should they discreetly move the body so as not to affect the sale of the house they’re all dining in?

I ask Williams what she thought of her character, a moneyed pushover who is thoughtful and politically astute but also capable of terrible behaviour. “The appalling truth is that I deeply connected with her,” she says. “I think we’re probably quite similar.” Williams interjects to say she’s probably being a bit hard on herself. “I tend to go at myself with an emotional cat o’ nine tails – I was raised Catholic, so there’s a lot of guilt.” But she does worry that she’s occasionally a bit “holier-than-thou” or “judgemental” like her character, who “not only does a worthy job helping underprivileged people and puts her recycling out on time – rinsed and sorted into separate compartments – but she also really despises people who don’t do those things”.

For Williams, everything always starts with the best of intentions, she insists. “I’m the parent who was hand-picking organic spinach and liquidising it with, you know, biodynamic borlotti beans to give my two children [with the actor Rhashan Stone] the very best start in life. Then, 16 years down the road, you find yourself buying them Haribos and yum-yums to persuade them to revise for their GCSEs. So while I haven’t found myself dragging a dead body along a Hackney side street, it’s only by extension that one might find oneself doing that.”

Well-heeled Hampstead ghouls: Williams and Rufus Sewell in the dark British comedy ‘The Trouble with Jessica’ (Parkland Distribution)
Well-heeled Hampstead ghouls: Williams and Rufus Sewell in the dark British comedy ‘The Trouble with Jessica’ (Parkland Distribution)

She means it as a joke. I think. In film, though, she’s capable of anything. She was prim, lovely and slightly washed with grief (in Rushmore, The Sixth Sense and The Postman). She was polished and villainous (in The Ghost and Maps to the Stars). She’s been kind and ingratiating (in The Father and An Education). Typecasting has never been an issue. It’s just nice when she pops up in something. That’s partly why her casting in The Crown was so interesting, her natural ebullience transforming one of the royal family’s most divisive figures into someone, dare I say, quite fun. Williams did come into the show in its death throes, though. The Crown ended last December amid poor reviews and an even louder backlash over its uneven approach to fact and fiction. (Although that didn’t stop it from picking up another eight Bafta nods to make it the most nominated series ever.) Now that the dust has settled, is Williams still happy she played Camilla?

“Oh, absolutely,” she beams. “Being swept off to stately homes around the UK with a fabulous wig on was all great fun. I did have queasy moments at the time about whether the things we were depicting would make life more difficult or less difficult for people whose privacy has been so horribly intruded upon. But I think, by any metric, The Crown was empathetic – while telling the story as drama.”

She admits to softening on the show even further in recent months. “In light of the dreadful business suffered by the Princess of Wales over this ridiculous photograph – compared with that, and what social media does and, with all due respect to your profession, the news has done, I think The Crown will look like an advertising campaign! And particularly in the telling of the Camilla story. If it’s been perceived by the people involved to have done more good than harm, then I would be pleased with that.”

The dual cancer diagnoses experienced by both King Charles and the Princess of Wales – and their call for privacy during their mutual treatments – also hold personal significance to Williams. In 2018 she was diagnosed with a rare type of pancreatic cancer, which required multiple surgeries. “You may have a diagnosis of cancer and it might kill you, or something else might kill you, but you bet that you’re much more likely now to be living with cancer,” she says. “That is the new reality and that’s what I’m doing now. My cancer is not cured. It is being managed. That doesn’t mean I’m going to die next week. I’m probably much more at risk of being knocked off my bicycle because there are insufficient bicycle lanes in London than I am to die of this cancer,” she laughs.

She initially turned down a request to become an ambassador for Pancreatic Cancer UK, insisting she wasn’t famous enough to be particularly useful. Then she was alerted to the survival statistics for the disease (an estimated five per cent of people diagnosed survive for 10 or more years), and therefore how important her voice would be. “I have a soapbox to stand on and something worth saying, which is, ‘don’t cry for me because I’ve got cancer – help people live with cancer’. Because that’s the new normal, and there are so many people who are doing it alongside me.”

Fabulous wig: Williams as Queen Camilla, alongside Dominic West’s Charles, in ‘The Crown’ (Netflix)
Fabulous wig: Williams as Queen Camilla, alongside Dominic West’s Charles, in ‘The Crown’ (Netflix)

She breaks into a big grin, and worries our interview has got a bit downbeat. She turns her attention back to her co-stars in The Trouble with Jessica: Sewell is “a master of dry comedy”; Tudyk “phenomenal”; Henderson “wonderfully eccentric”; Varma “a friend of years and years”. “Sitting around that table with those people talking about clafoutis was endlessly pleasurable,” she says. Oh right, the clafoutis. With all due respect to The Trouble with Jessica’s cast, it’s a bumpy French tart that secretly steals the show in the film – sitting at the dinner table uneaten, yet endlessly gazed at and remarked upon.

“And we never got to eat the bloody thing either!” Williams hoots. “The props department made hundreds of them, too, but we weren’t allowed to touch any of them.” That reminds her: “There’s this myth, by the way, spread by food stylists on film and TV that if you eat the set food then it’s seven years of bad sex. And that’s how they stop you eating anything, by peddling this myth. But I have to tell you: it is not true! I’m not telling you how I know, but I know.”

OK. So two mysteries solved.

‘The Trouble with Jessica’ is in cinemas from 5 April