Olivia Williams: ‘The email said “you have cancer”. The next minute I was on set’

After years of debilitating illness, actress Olivia Williams was finally diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith how humour – and sheer bloody-mindedness – got her through the dark days

When actress Olivia Williams learned she had a 7cm by 4cm tumour in her pancreas, it felt like a death sentence.

Olivia wears dress, Me & Em. Jewellery, Shape of Sound. Photograph: Rachell Smith. Picture Director: Ester Malloy. Styling: Anna Waz. Hair: Halley Brisker. Make-Up: Kelly Cornwell.

‘Tears just fell out of my face – it was like a waterfall,’ she says. Olivia was overwhelmed, not least by memories of her dear friend and fellow actor Tom Beard, who, having thought he had backache, was dead ‘within a terrifyingly short time’ from pancreatic cancer.

It’s a disease that kills one in four patients within a month of diagnosis and 80 per cent within a year. The ‘slightly brutal’ doctor who broke the news to her three years ago demanded to know: ‘Why are you crying?’

‘I told her about my friend and she said, “OK, but you might not have that sort of cancer.”’ She told Olivia, now 52, they wouldn’t know what they were dealing with until they performed a biopsy.

Olivia, best known for films such as The Sixth Sense, for her role as Felicity in Friends and who’ll soon be seen playing Camilla Parker Bowles in season five of The Crown, headed straight to hospital for the procedure. The next day, she returned to work in Los Angeles, filming the Amazon Prime series Counterpart, ‘insanely optimistic’ that the tumour would be non-cancerous. A week later, she was in her trailer when the same doctor emailed her the result in the most devastatingly stark manner possible: ‘It’s malignant, pancreatic neuroendocrine tumour/cancer. Thank you,’ she read.

Olivia and Nicholas Pinnock in the first series of Counterpart, 2017. Photograph: Rex Features

Just then someone knocked on the door, asking for Olivia on set. ‘I said, “Give me a minute!”’ She tips her head back. ‘I walked to the set like this, so my tears wouldn’t roll down my face and smudge my mascara.’ Later, back in her hometown of London, Olivia was asked to re-record dialogue for the scene she’d filmed that day: ‘So I got to see what you look like 15 minutes after learning you have a malignant tumour. It was an awful scene where I was saying goodbye to someone but, of course, my head was somewhere else, you can see a muscle in my jaw going like a steam engine and my eyes are darting around. It was mad.’

Although obviously terrified, Olivia’s trademark sense of humour pushed through. ‘I was thinking about the words on Spike Milligan’s gravestone: “I told you I was ill!”’ After all, she had endured five years of debilitating symptoms including chronic fatigue, diarrhoea and aching limbs. She’d become so thin that one of her daughters (she’s the mother of Roxana, 17, and Esme, 14) once burst into tears of distress after seeing her in a nightdress that revealed her gaunt figure. When filming Counterpart, the weight loss had accelerated to the point where Olivia was having to have her costume taken in every day and she was so dehydrated it had become near impossible to draw blood for tests. The reason, as she was later to discover, was her pancreas was so damaged she couldn’t digest food. ‘I very nearly starved to death because nobody knew what was wrong with me.’

Jumpsuit, Nynne. Earrings, Atelier VM. Photograph: Rachell Smith. Picture Director: Ester Malloy. Styling: Anna Waz. Hair: Halley Brisker. Make-Up: Kelly Cornwell.

Yet for years, doctors had dismissed her symptoms, often saying she was simply perimenopausal (blood tests showed she wasn’t). ‘One clinic referred me to a psychiatrist because they said I might be mad.’ She tested negative for bowel and colon cancer. ‘After that, I remember sitting in the Counterpart make-up chair and saying, “Well, I don’t know what this is but it’s not cancer.” How wrong I was!’ Learning the truth in Los Angeles – 5,000 miles from home, her children and actor husband Rhashan Stone (last seen in BBC One’s Welsh drama Keeping Faith) – was agonising. ‘But I had a good friend I live with in LA and she was my emotional support there. I also have an amazing husband, so he kept the home fires burning and made things feel safe for the children, while working himself.’ With characteristic dryness, Olivia adds. ‘He was doing a play. Set in a morgue.’

Since the only way to treat her tumour was to ‘chop the damn thing out’, Olivia booked in for surgery in London, but – determined not to let the show down – spent the next week frantically filming every remaining scene from the series. ‘In these situations, I go into a hyper-coping mode.

I feel like one of those superheroes, batting things away as they come at you. I was like, “Stand clear, I’m coming through!”’

When she flew home, she and Rhashan broke the news to the girls. ‘They knew my tummy sometimes played up, but we decided not to tell them the full story until we knew what was going on. So we sat down and had the conversation after I knew they were going to operate.’ Olivia guards her family’s privacy fiercely and won’t talk about how they reacted, only saying the girls ‘stepped up. They’ve been through a lot.’ She underwent a seven-hour operation to remove the tumour and then spent three weeks in hospital recovering from complications.

Blazer, Joseph. Necklace, Completed Works. Photograph: Rachell Smith. Picture Director: Ester Malloy. Styling: Anna Waz. Hair: Halley Brisker. Make-Up: Kelly Cornwell.

Convinced she was now cancer-free, she threw herself back into work, only to learn a few months later she needed another procedure on her liver. A year on she found out this hadn’t fully succeeded and yet more surgery was needed. Having been certain she would survive, ‘For the first time I felt real dread. It completely knocked me back.’

Yet that final operation appears to have sent the cancer into retreat and, two years on, Olivia’s very much still here. She’s since become an ambassador for Pancreatic Cancer UK, although when they initially approached her she declined, thinking she wasn’t famous enough. ‘They replied, “We’re not asking you because you’re famous, we’re asking you because there are no other survivors,”’ she says. In the UK each year 10,500 people are diagnosed with it and 9,000 die from it.

Olivia co-starring alongside Jason Isaacs in the 2003 film Peter Pan. Photograph: Rex Features

High-profile victims of the cancer, which tends to be spotted too late for treatment, include Alan Rickman, Luciano Pavarotti, Aretha Franklin, John Hurt, Patrick Swayze and Steve Jobs. If better testing existed they might have been diagnosed much earlier and still be alive. Tests would also show exactly what kind of cancer they had. Right now, people with undiagnosed VIPoma like Olivia’s (a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that can be treated if caught early enough) are often written off as beyond help.

Having lost half her pancreas, spleen, gallbladder and ‘a big chunk of my liver’, today Olivia – whose family left London for the countryside before the first lockdown, as she was on the vulnerable list – looks and feels great. The only real difference day to day is she now takes enzyme-replacement pills in order to digest food.

Throughout it all – where treatment would allow – she has never stopped working. Right now, you can see her not only in cinemas in the deeply moving film The Father, which won its star Sir Anthony Hopkins a best-actor Oscar, but also on Amazon Prime starring in Victorian supernatural thriller The Nevers. She’s also due to appear on an episode of the British remake of the French Netflix series Call My Agent, in which she and her friend Helena Bonham Carter, who attended the same North London girls’ school (‘She was a good friend of my sister’s’) – play exaggerated versions of themselves.

Olivia wears dress, Me & Em. Jewellery, Shape of Sound. Photograph: Rachell Smith. Picture Director: Ester Malloy. Styling: Anna Waz. Hair: Halley Brisker. Make-Up: Kelly Cornwell.

Presently she’s filming The Crown, taking over from Oscar-winner Emerald Fennell in the role of Camilla Parker Bowles. As with anyone connected with the world-famous drama, she is banned from talking about her role. It is clear, though, that when I ask her about ‘The Firm’, Olivia is a fan of the Queen. ‘In an age when people don’t keep their word, the Queen’s kept her word. I have a profound respect for that,’ she says.

Another project that she has just finished is a special one for her and her family. My Name is Leon is a BBC film, produced by Sir Lenny Henry, about a mixed-race boy in Birmingham in the 1970s to whom Olivia’s character becomes ‘an unwilling, slightly racist foster mother’.

The dialogue for this ‘clueless white person who’s always getting it wrong’ didn’t come as a surprise to Olivia. ‘This film seemed to be a way I could connect with my children and my husband [Rhashan, 51, pictured above, was born in the US but moved to Norfolk when he was six],’ she says. ‘It is particularly painful to say words that are often deemed “not painful” by people who don’t suffer the consequences. These are words that have been used to, or in front of, my husband and children without qualification or apology – that they are supposed to laugh at or dismiss as harmless or well-intentioned.’

Olivia with her husband Rhashan and their daughters, 2013. Photograph: Joanne Davidson/REX/Shutterstoc​k

Olivia, who is the daughter of two barristers and has a degree from Cambridge, has had a few shocking experiences of racism, beginning when Roxana was a baby. ‘I was in my dreamy, milky, postnatal state and perhaps out of vanity looking through my own messageboard on my [film website] IMDB page and it said, “Olivia’s had a baby,” and someone said, “It will be a beautiful baby because she’s beautiful.”’ Olivia fluffs her hair to show how flattered she was. ‘Then, “No it won’t because her husband’s [black].” So there you go.’ Last summer’s murder of black US citizen George Floyd by a white policeman, which led to huge protests from the Black Lives Matter movement, was ‘a dark period in our household’.

Olivia was a successful British stage actress when, aged 29, she broke into Hollywood after being cast in Kevin Costner’s blockbuster The Postman. It flopped spectacularly, but it led to her landing the role of Bruce Willis’s wife in the mega-hit The Sixth Sense.

Olivia in The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis. Photograph: Rex Features

Like most actresses working in Hollywood in the early 2000s, she had a seedy encounter with the now disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein. ‘Harvey tried to persuade me to swap a blow job for an Oscar,’ Olivia says matter-of-factly. ‘But he didn’t assault me. Maybe it was because in my heels I was as tall as him and built, as one boyfriend put it, like a rower. Maybe broad-shouldered brunettes with legal parents aren’t his thing. It was quickly clear he had attempted the very same verbatim proposition with every single actress I told. When he tried the same line for the second time a couple of years later he clearly had no recollection of the first.’

For years, she’d entertained her friends with anecdotes of how he’d chased her around a sofa in his dressing gown. ‘My coping mechanism is to turn the most traumatic experiences of my life into anecdotes, so I reported it in comedy form to anyone who would listen. I didn’t know and wasn’t aware of those who suffered sexual assault or rape until the New York Times article [exposing him] came out.’

How did she feel when he was sentenced to 23 years for rape and sexual assault? ‘I felt tremendous relief for the people who suffered at his hands. I cannot say that I suffered,’ she says.

Olivia with Monica Dolan in the upcoming BBC drama My Name is Leon. Photograph: BBC/Douglas Road Productions/Ben Gregory-Ring

Olivia is delightfully witty and straight-talking – and surviving cancer has made her even more so. ‘In situations where people would have once made me feel guilty or I would have backed off, I became completely uncompromising. I just had no time, it was like, “No, you can’t speak to me like that. I’m not putting up with this.” But I’ve also very much learned to live in the moment and do things that please me,’ she says.

And, happily, Olivia should now be pleasing us with her performances for years more to come.

Olivia is an ambassador for the charity Pancreatic Cancer UK and is supporting its new campaign Transform Lives: Prescribe, transformlives.pancreaticcancer.org.uk. My Name is Leon will air later this year on BBC One and iPlayer