Family & Companions
While it was not surprising to see Royal Shakespeare Company player Olivia Williams in screen productions based on the works and life of Jane Austen, it was a pleasant surprise that the actress was able to avoid the costume drama typecasting of so many of her classically trained British peers. She was perhaps a bit too often cast as quietly suffering stiff-upper lippers, but able to carry off the "sensitive beauty" with humor, strength or wilting melodrama as called for. Williams worked in Hollywood as a supporting player in big-budget studio films like "The Sixth Sense" (1999), but also split her time between American and British independent films. She showcased an accessibility and wicked wit in comedies like "Rushmore" (1998) and "Lucky Break" (2001) and uncommon depth in "The Heart of Me" (2002), proving an adept supporting player whose luminous beauty was backed by a fierce intellectualism.
Williams was born to barristers in London, England on Jan. 1, 1968. A serious-minded girl who loved ballet and classical music while growing up in liberal Camden, Williams intended to follow in the family tradition (an older sister was also a lawyer), but wanted first to earn a degree in English literature from Newnham College, Cambridge. However she landed the opportunity to do two years of drama study at the celebrated Bristol Old Vic Theater School, and thereafter decided to pursue theater professionally, allowing herself until the age of 30 to "make it" or else pursue another career. As a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Williams spent years performing in London and Stratford-Upon-Avon, making her U.S. debut in a touring production of "Richard III" starring Ian McKellen. She appeared on U.S. television in the British TV production of "Jane Austen's 'Emma'" (1996), which aired on cable's A&E Network.
Then, just when the actress was preparing to pack it in at age 29 and return to school, she was cast by Kevin Costner to play an independent, post-apocalyptic frontierswoman looking for a man to inseminate her in Costner's overblown parable "The Postman" (1997). Unfortunately, the film missed the mark with critics and moviegoers, but Williams' averted fate and her phone began ringing on two continents. The following year, fledgling filmmaker Wes Anderson tapped Williams to portray an emotionally fragile elementary school teacher at the center of a tug-of-war between a business tycoon (Bill Murray) and a precocious high school student (Jason Schwartzman) in the stylish and offbeat comedy "Rushmore" (1998). The film was a hit on the indie film circuit, loved by critics and proved an excellent vehicle to showcase Williams' unaffected acting style and personable sparkle. From a guest spot on the perennial television favorite "Friends" (NBC, 1994-2004) Williams found her widest audience yet in the supernatural blockbuster "The Sixth Sense" (1999), where she played the melancholy wife of a consumed child psychologist (Bruce Willis).
Williams next portrayed Hera in the NBC miniseries epic "Jason and the Argonauts" (2000) and stayed on the indie film radar with the Sundance favorite "Lucky Break" (2001), earning an Empire Award nomination for Best Actress for her role in the British comedy about a prison theater troupe who stage a production that masks an escape attempt. In another British offering, Williams' played one of a group of wealthy, bored adults targeted by a murderer in the darkly amusing "Dead Babies" (2001), based on the novel by Martin Amis. Williams' next mainstream film appearance was in a key role as a military nurse trapped on a haunted submarine in David Twohy's supernatural thriller "Below" (2002). In George Hickenlooper's more esoteric "The Man from Elysian Fields" (2002), she gave an uncharacteristically sizzling performance as a the wife of a renowned novelist (James Coburn) who embarks on an affair with a lesser-writer and admirer of her husband (Andy Garcia). In another love triangle, Williams starred alongside Helena Bonham Carter as sisters in the 1930s-set romantic drama "The Heart of Me" (2003). Her icy characterization contrasted Carter's Bohemian sister to great effect in the adaptation of Rosamond Lehmann's novel, and Williams was recognized with a Best Actress Award from the British Independent Film Awards.
In "To Kill a King" (2003), Mike Barker's take on the events leading up to the execution of Charles I in the 17th century, Williams portrayed the fiery Lady Anne Fairfax, wife of Thomas Fairfax (Dougray Scott), who as a duo fought against a leader they believed was abusing his power. Williams was also seen that year as matriarch Mrs. Darling in director P.J. Hogan's "Peter Pan" (2003) and returned to the stage after an eight-year absence in "Love's Labor's Lost" at London's National Theater. The actress capped off one of the busiest years of her career with her marriage to American-born stage actor and playwright Rhashan Stone. Meanwhile, the actress' busy streak continued with a co-starring role alongside Andie McDowell as grieving women who serendipitously connect from across the ocean in the Irish film "Tara Road" (2005). After Williams lent her elegant voice to the Disney WWII animated feature "Valiant" (2005), she appeared on both U.S. and British television screens in "Krakatoa" (BBC, Discovery Channel), a dramatization of the eruption of the infamous volcano in 1883. "Flashbacks of a Fool" (2008), which starred Daniel Craig as a Hollywood movie star revisiting and reevaluating his life during a trip home to England, proved disappointing despite its supporting performance from the ethereal beauty, but she rebounded with an endearing performance in "Miss Austen Regrets" (BBC, PBS, 2008), portraying beloved author Jane Austen in a chronicle of her romantic history.
In 2009, the staunch Londoner relented to moving to Los Angeles when she was cast in Joss Whedon's sci-fi series "The Dollhouse" (Fox, 2009-2010), in which she played a high-ranking official of an organization that programs blank slate humans for various jobs and functions. Whedon's latest effort was met with generally positive reviews and excellent ratings following its midseason premiere in early 2009 but was canceled the following year. Around the same time, Williams' performance as the supportive teacher of an ambitious 16-year-old girl navigating her way through 1960s London in the Nick Hornby-scripted "An Education" (2009) was hailed at the Sundance Film Festival. The following year, she was seen in Roman Polanski's big budget political thriller "The Ghost" (2010), about a ghostwriter (Ewan MacGregor) who uncovers dangerous secrets while working on a political memoir of a member of Parliament (Pierce Brosnan). Meanwhile, after making her West End debut opposite Matthew Fox in Neil LaBute's "In a Forest, Dark and Deep" (2011), Williams was one-half of a Bohemian British couple on holiday with their family who take in a 15-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) and learn that she's a highly trained assassin on the run in the action thriller, "Hanna" (2011). From there, Williams was Countess Vronskaya to Kiera Knightley's "Anna Karenina" (2012) and Eleanor Roosevelt to Bill Murray's Franklin D. Roosevelt in "Hyde Park on Hudson" (2012).
By Susan Clarke
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Played Jane Fairfax in the British TV adaptation of Jane Austen's "Emma"
Made feature film debut opposite Kevin Costner in "The Postman"
Cast as a first grade teacher who becomes the object of affection for a high school student and a wealthy married man in Wes Anderson's "Rushmore"
Cast as Bruce Willis' wife in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense"
Played the trophy wife of a successful older novelist in "The Man From Elysian Fields"; screened at Cannes
Co-starred in British comedy "Lucky Break"
Co-starred with Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Bettany in British drama "The Heart of Me"
Portrayed Mrs. Darling in P.J. Hogan's live-action adaptation of "Peter Pan"
Played small role as Dr. Moira MacTaggert in "X-Men: The Last Stand"
Portrayed British author Jane Austen in BBC drama "Miss Austen Regrets"
Cast as Adelle DeWitt in Joss Whedon's short-lived Fox series "Dollhouse"
Played Carey Mulligan's teacher in "An Education"
Played Pierce Brosnan's wife in Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer"
Made West End debut, playing the sister to Matthew Fox in Neil LaBute's "In a Forest, Dark and Deep"
Cast opposite Keira Knightley's "Anna Karenina"
Portrayed Eleanor Roosevelt opposite Bill Murray's Franklin D. Roosevelt in "Hyde Park on Hudson"