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Much has been made of The Night Manager‘s male leads, and for good reason. Both Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie are mesmerizing, as an undercover spy and charismatic arms dealer, respectively. But another male lead never got airtime, and that’s because his part never got cast. Instead, Olivia Colman took his place.
In John Le Carre’s espionage novel on which the AMC miniseries is based, former soldier-turned hotelier Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston) wants to take down Richard Roper (Laurie) but doesn’t have the guts or means until Secret Intelligence Service agent Leonard Burr recruits him to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle. In the AMC adaptation, however, Leonard Burr was rewritten as Angela Burr, and Colman landed the part.
Colman and Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier explained to The Hollywood Reporter why this gender-bending take was important to the updated adaptation.
“Lots of spies are women. They’re really good at it,” Colman tells THR. “So you need to represent the people who are watching. Also, this is in the U.K, where 51 percent of the population are women. So you can’t have every program with all the leads men.”
“Burr is the moral heart of the novel, and Burr is also the moral heart of the series,” Bier adds. “In the novel, I guess it was more because of this British class thing, which is like white male, public school-educated, which is Roper and Pine to a point. And Burr was sort of from a different class, a less upper-class background. And if you were to update it to today, it felt very natural that that character become a woman, because there is a sort of intrinsic class fight — in this case, then, a gender fight — which becomes a part of it. Not that it’s actually outspoken in the series, but it’s there as part of the DNA of the whole thing.”
Colman hopes that redressing the gender imbalance continues with more programs. “It’s a start, and I’m very pleased and proud of them all for doing it, because it really works,” she says. “There’s this powerful woman, and there’s something about her being the opposite sex, and she comes from a different place [from] the men. My husband said, ‘Imagine how freaked out the lions would be by a zebra that’s not scared.’ The fact that she is completely opposite to them in every way I think really adds to their mistrust of her and fear.”
It’s not just about balancing out the number of roles for women, but the weight and quality of those roles. Angela Burr is the one who empowers Pine and drives Operation Limpet to destroy Roper. It’s not the typical Hollywood role for a woman, but that’s exactly why Colman was drawn to it.
The British actress started out in comedy and eventually transitioned to become one of the most in-demand dramatic actresses. Her most acclaimed roles have been playing DS Ellie Miller opposite David Tennant in the British mystery series Broadchurch, which shoots its third and final season in May, and an abused wife in the heartbreaking film Tyrannosaur.
“I think [the atypical roles] are the ones that I’m interested in,” Colman says. “If you do a couple roles, people go, ‘Oh.’ They see you as that, which is slightly blinkered of people, which is why people get pigeonholed. I’m quite lucky that I’ve been stuck in that [good roles] pigeonhole. I have said no before to the sort of two-dimensional characters that I just don’t enjoy playing. It’s a position of luxury, really. I’ve been working my way up for a while, and I feel very lucky now that I’m able to say, ‘I’d like to do that.’ ”
In fact, Colman is so in demand that when she told Bier that she was pregnant and would be during the proposed shooting schedule, the director had the pregnancy written into the role. “I think it’s only mentioned only twice, and I like that,” Colman says. “There’s not big deal made of it, because spies get pregnant too. Pregnant people are people too. I felt quite strongly that she just kept on with her normal life, as thousands and millions of women do every day anyway.”
Le Carre himself supported Colman as the updated version of his character from the novel. “I heard that he was very pleased that Burr had become a woman, and then I think he said having seen her a woman, he couldn’t imagine her as not being,” says Colman. “That’s such a great feeling.”
The Night Manager airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on AMC.
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