Williams earned a degree in English at Cambridge University before studying drama at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. As a member of The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre she toured the US in Richard III starring Ian McKellen. A role in Jane Austen’s Emma brought her to the attention of Kevin Costner who chose her for his film The Postman in which she made her feature debut.
Best known to international audiences for her starring roles in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Wes Anderson’s definitive film Rushmore, Olivia Williams continues to demonstrate her versatility with a range of projects across film, television and theatre. She appeared in nineteen episodes of Fox’s Dollhouse, the television series from Avengers director Joss Whedon, and in The Heart of Me opposite Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Bettany, for which she was named Best Actress at the 2003 British Independent Film Awards. Williams appeared in the 2009 Oscar-nominated release An Education, which garnered a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble Cast, and Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer opposite Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, and Kim Cattrall.
For her work on The Ghost Writer, Williams won ‘Best Supporting Actress’ from the National Society of Film Critics, ‘British Supporting Actress of the Year’ at the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards, ‘Best Supporting Actress’ at the International Cinephile Society, and runner up for ‘Best Supporting Actress’ at the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Awards. That year also saw the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, with Andy Serkis and Ray Winstone.
On stage, Williams appeared with Tom Hollander at the Donmar Warehouse in John Osborne’s Hotel in Amsterdam (2003) and starred with Tom Hiddleston in The Changeling directed by Cheek By Jowl at The Barbican Theatre. Williams received excellent reviews for her performance as Kitty in The National Theatre’s 2008n production of Happy Now? And The Princess in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost. Recently Williams was in Neil LaBute’s In a Forest Dark and Deep in London’s West End opposite Matthew Fox.
On television, Williams starred in the Fox sci-fi drama Dollhouse (2009-2010) with Eliza Dushku and Harry Lennix. She previously starred in the title role of the BBC biographical drama Miss Austen Regrets with Hugh Bonnneville, based on the life and letters of Jane Austen, and in the title role in the BBC drama Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures (2004) and docudrama Krakatoa: The Last Days.
In 2011, Williams was in the Focus Features film Hanna directed by Joe Wright with Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana. More recently, Williams could be seen as Eleanor Roosevelt in the Focus Features film Hyde Park on Hudson directed by Roger Michell, reuniting her with Bill Murray, and the Universal Pictures film Anna Karenina directed by Joe Wright with Matthew MacFadyen and Jude Law.
In 2013 and 2014, Williams joined Ruairi Robinson’s Last Days On Mars, chosen for the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, starring opposite Live Schreiber, and in Legendary’s Seventh Son directed by Sergei Bodrov with Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges. She takes the lead in the Open Road Films feature Sabotage directed by David Ayer with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terrence Howard and Mireille Enos. She is currently filming with Bill Nighy in David Hare’s Worricker Trilogy and David Cronenberg in Maps to the Stars with Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack and Julianne Moore.
Williams has appeared in Sundance co-founder Paul Rachman’s Four Dogs Playing Poker, Peter Cattaneo’s Lucky Break, Born Romantic opposite Craig Ferguson and Adrian Lester, The Body, opposite Antonio Banderas, and starred alongside Tim Roth, Dougray Scott and Rupert Everett in To Kill a King; as Mrs Darling in PJ Hogan’s Peter Pan (2003), and in Tara Road, based on the Maeve Binchy bestseller. In addition, her voice was heard as ‘Victoria’ in the popular animated film Valiant. Williams also starred in Baillie Walsh’s Flashbacks of a Fool as Daniel Craig’s mother.