'Great Expectations' star Olivia Colman: Man-hating Miss Havisham has rotting heart

Olivia Coleman stars in a new adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations." Photo courtesy of FX on Hulu
1 of 5 | Olivia Coleman stars in a new adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations." Photo courtesy of FX on Hulu

NEW YORK, March 24 (UPI) -- Oscar-winning actress Olivia Colman says she doesn't view her latest character, Miss Havisham in Hulu's six-part adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, as a feminist icon. It premieres Sunday.

That's despite her helping her ward, Estella, navigate a 19th-century England entrenched in the patriarchy.


"My idea of feminism is equality, not hatred, and she does teach Estella to be a weapon and to pay back men and to hate men," the actress said in a recent virtual press conference.

"She's pretty cool and forceful and scary, but again, I'm not sure any of those things are flattering toward feminists," she said with a laugh. "I know plenty of men who are feminists, as well, and that's just about equality and thoughtfulness and caring."

The limited series follows Pip (Dunkirk actor Fionn Whitehead), an orphan whose dreams of a better life start to come true when he crosses paths with the lonely, wealthy and mean-spirited Miss Havisham and the beautiful and aloof Estella.


The Tourist actress Shalom Brune-Franklin said it was fascinating to explore a character like Estella, who was raised in isolation and taught to manipulate and hurt people to help her guardian feel satisfaction after she was jilted long ago by the man she loved.

"You've been raised a certain way and told and made to believe a certain thing, but then when you start to go out into the world and have a little bit of an experience of the world for yourself, you start to see that's not all these things that you've been told. So, you're incredibly confused," she said.

"Miss Havisham hasn't given her the best toolkit," the actress added. "There's always sort of an internal battle of what she is feeling versus what she is thinking she has to feel."

Pleasing Miss Havisham is Estella's main goal.

"That's, obviously, a really toxic and horrible relationship that she's having to navigate and grow up in," Brune-Franklin said. "Miss Havisham would have been a lot nicer to her if she just did as she was told and was cruel to this boy, and, so, she did exactly."

Colman knows her character is awful, but still feels sympathy for her.


"I feel sad that Miss Havisham managed not to meet any really good, nice men, so she decided everybody was in the same mold as Compeyson [the man who left her] and missed out on what could have been," Colman said.

"She could have washed her hands of him and moved on, given her and Estella a much nicer life," she added. "But, back in those days, of a really full-on patriarchy, they were stuck. They couldn't work, couldn't anything, so it was going to have to be marriage, and her only insight into marriage was horrendous."

What resonated with Whitehead about Pip was the idea of being a young man and feeling the need to do everything on one's own.

"You have to sort of forge this path and not ask for help, and not need help. And kind of repress a lot of stuff, like a lot of emotions and everything else, and just kind of power on and keep going," Whitehead said. "That is a sort of universally, relatable thing."

The actor felt it was important to always keep Pip's impoverished background in mind, even when he is acting the part of the gentleman.

"For me, it felt more important to have the sort of refined 'gentleman speak' and that way of behaving to be more of an act that he is putting on when he's in London, almost trying to convince himself that he is [a gentleman]," he added. "He kind of carries through and can't really change who he is."


Showrunner-executive producer Steven Knight described Great Expectations as a story about haves and have-nots that remains relatable in 2023.

"Any great work of literature is pretty timeless when it deals with the human condition and the way things are," Knight said.

"It's about class, and it's about someone who is trying to escape from their destiny, and I think in our society at the moment -- I'm speaking for England and maybe for the United States, as well -- things are getting pretty tough, and things were pretty tough for Pip."

Whitehead, who said he listened to Eddie Izzard read the audiobook version of Great Expectations to prepare for his performance, agreed with Knight's analysis.

"There's been a lot of divisive politics, which have been widening the gap massively, and so this is kind of just extremely relevant at the moment," Whitehead said.

Colman had never read Great Expectations and didn't have Miss Havisham on her bucket list of roles to play.

"I heard [the script] was written by Steve and that's quite exciting," she said, referring to the filmmaker whose credits include Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, The Girl in the Spider's Web and Peaky Blinders.


The Broadchurch, The Crown and The Favorite actress said she had been working a lot and really needed a break when that excellent screenplay came her way.

"I couldn't say 'no.' I don't really think about things terribly deeply. Sorry to disappoint you, but I just really saw the script, really liked it, wanted to play her and wanted to work with all these people," Colman said, joking that the wardrobe, hair and makeup did "three quarters" of her job for her anyway.

The spoiled dress she commonly wears was created by a designer who saw Miss Havisham as a woman who is rotting from the inside.

"It's a shame you never get to see it really clearly in broad daylight, but it literally looks like mold is growing up it and you can see her heart is rotting and I love that," Colman said. "Rather than dusty, she was dark and rotten."

Bleached eyebrows completed the wicked spinster's disturbing look.

"My little girl wouldn't cuddle me for the entire duration of the shoot until I could dye my eyebrows back," Colman said. "But it was fun. I think it really works. I looked bonkers for weeks it was worth it in the long run."


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