Opening in theaters on December 9th is the new film ‘Empire of Light’ from Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (‘American Beauty,’ ‘Skyfall’).

Set in an English coastal cinema in the early 1980’s called the Empire, Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is a theater manager dealing with unwanted sexual advances from her boss Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), and her own mental health issues.

When a younger man named Stephen (Micheal Ward) begins working at the theater, Hilary and he start a relationship that will eventually change both of their lives forever.

In addition to Oscar-winners Olivia Colman and Colin Firth, and Michael Ward, the cast also includes Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Crystal Clarke, and Tanya Moodie.

Moviefone recently had the pleasure of speaking with Olivia Colman and director Sam Mendes about their work on ‘Empire of Light,’ how Mendes drew from his own childhood for the screenplay, Coleman’s approach to her character, Hilary’s relationship with Stephen, and creating the set on location.

Director Sam Mendes and Olivia Colman from 'Empire of the Light.'

Director Sam Mendes and Olivia Colman from 'Empire of the Light.'

You can read the full interview below or click on the video player above to watch our interviews with Coleman, Mendes, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Michael Ward, and Tanya Moodie.

Moviefone: To begin with, Sam, can you talk about writing the screenplay, setting it in the 1980’s, and the themes you wanted to explore with this project?

Sam Mendes: Well, I wanted to explore primarily mental illness with this character of Hillary, that's based loosely on my own mother. Growing up in that time in the early 80's with somebody who was struggling with her mental health and fighting not to be pulled down into the darkness the whole time.

At the same time, my teenage years in the early 80's, were a time of great excitement musically and in movies. On the other hand, it was a time of great social upheaval, very high unemployment in the UK, racial tension riots and what have you. So for me it's trying to find those two. There's an internal struggle going on in her and there's an external struggle in the world, and eventually they collide.

MF: Olivia, can you talk about your approach to playing Hillary and what were some of the aspects of the character you were excited to explore on screen?

Olivia Colman: I was excited about all of it apart from the sex scenes, which I was terrified of but they turned out well and everyone made them comfortable. But I didn't want to let Sam down. He put a lot of trust in me to play someone that was very personal to him.

I had Sam every step of the way to help me, so I knew I could ask him anything. I knew he would always be honest and I could say, “So when someone's coming off Lithium, what's that like?” I had Sam to describe every moment of it to me. It made my job very easy and I was excited to give it a crack really.

Olivia Colman in 'Empire of Light.'

Olivia Colman in 'Empire of Light.' Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

MF: Can you also talk about the relationship between Hillary and Stephen, why they connect with each other and how that friendship changes both of their lives?

OC: I think they see each other in a way that, well, he sees her, which no one does. He sees beyond the fact that she's much older than him and he's quite impressed with her academic background. I think because he's clearly an academic young man, it's quite obvious that she sees a dazzling, beautiful, vibrant young creature come into her world.

Everyone's looking at him because he's so beautiful and she's thrilled that they react to each other. It's genuine love. It's something that is never going to last obviously, but there is something beautiful between them and it sort of transcends age and color. It doesn't matter to them. I think that's what was lovely about it.

MF: Finally, Sam, can you talk about the challenges of finding the right location for this film and transforming the Dreamland Margate Cinema in Kent into the Empire theater?

SM: I mean there's something about the English countryside, particularly the English coastline, especially in winter, that has a grandness to it. Bleak slate, gray skies, and I grew up in and around that coastline. For me, I wanted to find somewhere that had that sense of emptiness and beauty, but at the same time, it needed to have a cinema that just looked straight out to sea. It was based on a cinema I remember from my childhood that was in Brighton, but that's long since gone.

Then we found this amazing giant art deco palace sitting on the coastline in Margate, which is on the North coast of Kent actually. So, it's where J. M. W. Turner painted his great paintings, and where T.S. Eliot wrote “The Waste Land.“ It’s a place of real melancholy and strangeness, but beautiful as well.

There was the cinema and that gave us everything. I sort of moved in for a week and rewrote the script so that it fitted the environment, and it fit the location because I'd imagined a different kind of town, but I felt this was better. So, really we made it for and around this one seaside town and it gave us a lot.

Olivia Colman and Sam Mendes on set of the film 'Empire of the Light.'

(L to R) Olivia Colman and Sam Mendes on set of the film 'Empire of the Light.' Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.