Sam Mendes says Olivia Colman was ‘very embarrassed’ about sex scenes

Sir Sam Mendes said actress Olivia Colman was embarrassed to perform sex scenes in his upcoming film Empire Of Light alongside her younger co-star but he had wanted to see the characters’ “physical desire”.

The new film from James Bond director Sir Sam is set in an old cinema in an English seaside town in the early 1980s and explores human connection and romance.

It marks the Academy Award-winning filmmaker’s first foray into solo screenwriting and was inspired by his childhood growing up around someone who suffered from mental illness.

European premiere of Empire of Light – BFI London Film Festival 2022
Olivia Colman attending the European premiere of Empire Of Light during the BFI London Film Festival 2022 at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London (Yui Mok/PA)

Appearing on the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme, Sir Sam said: “The stigma that is still attached to mental illness, there’s still a cloak of darkness that’s thrown over it.

“If you come out of hospital and you’ve just recovered from cancer, I’m immediately saying to you ‘how are you?’. If you come out of a mental health facility, I don’t talk about it, I probably don’t ask you the question.

“So there’s still that strange stigma attached to it.

“My goal primarily in the movie was to try and dramatise the effect and what it is to live through bipolar and manic depression, rather than to explain it.”

Oscar-winning actress Colman, 48, best known for The Crown and The Favourite, stars in the romantic film alongside 25-year-old Jamaican-British actor Micheal Ward.

Sir Sam said of working with Colman: “She was very embarrassed about performing the sex scenes, as is often the case. You’re seeing people at their rawest, at their most emotionally vulnerable.

“It’s like anything, you’re trying to push a little further into the places that you’re not normally allowed to go into, you’re going behind the curtain as it were and I wanted to see their physical desire.”

During the interview, Sir Sam, who won the Oscar for best director in 1999 with American Beauty, said the great era of going to the cinema is “dying”.

“I look back at my films and I think American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Away We Go, these would all go to streaming now and that makes me sad,” he said.

“I think those middle-budget movies don’t get made for cinemas anymore and you look at the multiplexes and people go ‘there’s six screens’ and then you go to those six screens and it says ‘screen one Avatar, screen two Avatar, screen three Avatar’ – that’s not a six-screen cinema; that’s just six screens showing the same movie.

“That is a different understanding of why those buildings were created in the first place.

“What it means is filmmakers have to accept and embrace the ambition of a big screen and make things that need to be seen on the big screen, or they accept that they’re going to be seen by millions of people on streaming, which is no bad thing.

“But the 20th century, the great era of movies, the great entertainment form – which was going out to the movies – that is dying.”

Sir Sam also described the possibility of having gender-neutral awards at the Oscars as “inevitable” and that he had “total sympathy” with the idea.

It comes after The Crown star Emma Corrin, who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them, said they hoped award shows will opt for gender-neutral categories in future.

Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg
Sir Sam Mendes said there was still a strange stigma attached to mental illness (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA)

Sir Sam said: “I have total sympathy with it and I think it might well be inevitable in the end because I think that’s the way it’s moving and I think it’s perfectly reasonable.

“For me, people forget with awards, I think this happens all the time that they use it as a bellwether for the industry, but the truth is awards are a TV show.

“Awards are there to promote films. If that film wins an award, I’m more likely to go and see it and that’s what you’re doing there. It’s not about yourself, it’s not about the art or craft of the industry especially. It’s about selling films.

“I’m not dismissing the importance of them but I’m saying they were there to promote films and the craft and art of films. They’re the shop window but they’re not the thing itself.”

Sir Sam also called for the Prime Minister to “correct the wrongs of the last year” and reinstate funding to arts institutions, calling the erosion of arts across the country over the past decade a “scandal”.

His comments follow the news that the Arts Council England’s programme for 2023-2026 will see some institutions facing a cut to their annual funding, including grant reductions at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre where Sir Sam was founding artistic director.