Since 2007, Olivia Wilde has had a lead role on House M.D., which has been a good career all by itself. But with three blockbuster films coming out in one year (Tron, Cowboys & Aliens, and now The Change-Up), she's really got the attention of Hollywood. The stunning actress sat down with Buzzine to talk about how she likes to shape her characters the way she wants them, being lucky enough to get the opportunity to work with incredible actors, and what she likes to do on a date...
Emmanuel Itier: Can you talk a little bit about being in these two very high-profile films [Cowboys & Aliens and The Change-Up] and how these opportunities come to you? How do you feel about it?
Olivia Wilde: I feel very lucky to be in two such different movies in one year. It's really kind of a luxury for an actor to have the opportunity to show such different types of characters. It's really fun. I actually left Cowboys & Aliens and went straight into The Change-Up, which was kind of a funny change of pace. And I remember walking around on this set of cowboys in this western town holding the script for The Change-Up and saying to everyone, “What do you think? This is the funniest script I've ever read in my entire life. Can I run right into another movie?” And everybody said that if a script makes you laugh that hard, you can't miss the opportunity. It doesn’t happen very often. So I actually was supposed to do another thing, pulled out of it, and went down to Atlanta because this script was just too good to miss. And it kept getting better. That was just the beginning. Then we started this awesome collaborative process of fleshing out these characters, in particular the women, and I really wanted to make, Sabrina -- my character in The Change-Up -- smarter, tougher, and funnier. And the guys were very supportive of that. I found it to be a very collaborative, great environment, so I had so much fun on both of these movies. And now, being able to show them to people is really special. I think a lot of people don't realize it's me in both movies because I look so different and act different, and that's obviously the goal for an actor, so I feel very lucky.
EI: What was it about the character of Sabrina that really resonated with you?
OW: The whole movie is, to me, about balance in your life. And Ryan [Reynolds] and Jason [Bateman] find themselves, in the beginning of the story, on opposite sides of a pretty extreme spectrum. You have the responsible guy who's got the kids and a lot of pressure on his back, and you've got the guy with no pressure who's just completely irresponsible and has nothing to do and sleeps on a futon. And they're envious of each other because they're fully in those extremes. Throughout the movie, they learn the grass is greener, and they have these insanely outrageous experiences. They end up learning to have a bit of both in their life -- to have a little bit of fun and responsibility. I found that Sabrina was an example of that from the beginning. I love that she had both in her life. She was a very smart lawyer – a very responsible professional at the same time as being kind of a wild woman. I think that balance is healthy, and it's something that I enjoyed bringing to the screen because I think, too often, our characters are one-dimensional and they don't really have that balance, and I knew that would make it funnier. Because if you assume that she was the more conservative lawyer on top of her game at work, you wouldn't expect her to sit down at the date and order Scotch and suggest getting a tattoo. So I liked surprising the audience in that way. If she was too wild and sassy from the beginning, she's not really a surprise and it's not really satisfying. So we spent a lot of time developing her. I was so grateful that they listened to any of my ideas because I was, out of the bunch, the least experienced in this type of film. But I do love to write, and I did bring some ideas. And a few major things that I brought to the table actually made it into the movie, and that was such a thrill for me. So I learned a lot and ended up creating a character that I'm proud of.
EI: We’ve seen a lot of change and growth in your career, and there have been a lot of changes in your life professionally and personally in the past year too. Are you surprised at all by the way things have turned? And how do you put the past year in perspective?
OW: I've been very, very lucky. This year has been outstanding, in terms of being able to have these opportunities -- all different types. The fact that I was able to have this huge opportunity with House and then Tron, and then several of my smaller projects…and then given the chance to do something completely new. I mean, for The Change-Up, [David] Dobkin hadn't seen me do anything like this, but he had a sense that I could do it, so I felt really lucky to have that chance. And it was a surprise and one of those opportunities that you don't see coming and changes your life in a certain way. And the same thing happened with Cowboys & Aliens. So at this point, I don't know what's going to happen next week because everything seems to change so quickly. I can just count my blessings and feel really lucky at this point, continue working really hard, and learn from all the people I'm working with because that's the most satisfying thing about all of this is that I've had the chance to experience these master classes in acting from people like Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Jason, Ryan, Leslie [Mann]…everybody. So it's been a good year.
EI: Has there ever been a time in your life where somebody else said, “I wish I were you,” or you said, “I wish I was you,” or something like that?
OW: Of course. I think all of us have had that experience where the grass is greener and you wish you had the other person's life. The really amazing thing about acting is that I get to experience all different kinds of lives. I now have been a doctor and a cowgirl and a computer programmer, so I get to experience all these different lifestyles. A really valuable part of the experience of acting is getting to develop all these different skill sets and really throw yourself into different identities. At this point, I realize that, in my own life, I have won the life lottery. I am an incredibly lucky person, and I try to keep that all in perspective and remember that. So any time I start being envious of someone else's life, I remember I have it pretty good myself.
EI: Along those same lines, people are always coveting the life of a movie star. What do you think are the drawbacks? Like you said, it’s not always greener on the other side…?
OW: First of all, I can never describe myself as a movie star. I don't know when that happens, but it's certainly not me. But I think you sign a sort of unwritten contract when you become a public figure, when you become an actor, that you're sacrificing a certain amount of privacy, and parts of your life change. But the opportunity to tell stories to a massive audience is really incredible, and this job just couldn't be more satisfying. So any drawbacks, I think, are worth it if you really enjoy the work, and I hope to be doing this until I do. So hopefully that's a long time from now, and anything that becomes an obstacle in life is only an opportunity to learn. And it's the same in any profession, I think.
EI: As difficult as it is, I’m sure, to pretend to be attracted to Ryan Reynolds, what was the challenge, or what did you feel like it was important to create, or what was there to establish a real, potentially deeper chemistry between these two characters? Is it just that she needs that physical thing to counterbalance the intellectual side of the rest of her life?
OW: The funny thing is Sabrina is initially attracted to Dave -- she likes Jason Bateman's character, and she loves that he's this brilliant lawyer. She loves his awkwardness -- all of that is a real turn-on for her. And she identifies with him in certain ways. So when she meets Ryan's character, she's actually getting to have that same personality in this different shell, so it feels familiar to her and she's attracted to his personality more than his looks. When she sits down at that date, she's expecting him to be just another dude who thinks he's going to be able to date her because he's good looking, and she's very tough with him. She sends back the Chardonnay and asks for a Scotch because she just wants a drink after a long day of work. And she's not expecting much from this guy, even if he's really pretty. Then he opens his mouth, and he's funny and he's smart, and that's what makes Sabrina fall in love with him. And that's certainly the way I think it is for many of us women. There are a lot of pretty guys out there, but there are very few that are smart and funny enough for us.
EI: How was working with David Dobkin? How much freedom were you given, from an improv standpoint?
OW: Gosh, it was great. Dobkin loves to push the boundaries, and he knew that we were pulling no punches on this movie. He knew we were making this a hard R, and as far as we were willing to go was as far as we were going to push it. So we would often keep the cameras rolling and just see what happened, and that's where a lot of the great moments were born. I really appreciated Dobkin's collaborative spirit. He was very open and very encouraging of me since I was new to this type of film. He was very encouraging for me to go all out. I knew by watching Wedding Crashers and seeing what he had done, particularly with Isla's character, that he respected and encouraged funny women. They weren't just there to hold up the walls, which happens way too often in these comedies. The boys are funny and the girls are there to do nothing, and it's not the way he operates. So that's the reason I wanted to do the movie, because I knew this was an opportunity to play in a really good environment with smart people. And he was really encouraging of me in terms of making Sabrina smarter and making her really have a purpose beyond everything she did. And certainly, even in her wildest moments, she's in the midst of this feminine manifesto and she's not just stripping down to entice him. It's about something much deeper. So I love Dobkin's intelligence and his respect for women, and I think that's why you see these funny female characters in these movies.
EI: There’s a long tradition in Hollywood of making body-switching movies, all the way back to Freaky Friday and lots of comedies in the ‘80s. What was it about this script in particular that you liked and that stood out from all the rest of those films?
OW: I loved how outrageous and funny it was. I loved this idea of taking a concept that the audience is familiar enough with that they understand the logic or they accept it, and then you can have fun. It's just a launching pad for ridiculous, fun situations. So I really appreciated that they were going to make a hard R body-swap comedy, and that it was going to involve two fantastic actors who the audience really wants to see playing these different kinds of environments. And I love that, when you do a body swap comedy, the reason it's so funny is because the stakes are always high. It's always outrageous and terrifying, and I think it's something everyone can really relate to as well. As we were speaking about before, “Have you ever wanted to be someone else?” Well, if you actually found yourself in that situation, what could you handle? What if you had to walk into another life like Ryan did? I knew that they were pushing it. It wasn't like they were just going to show a day in the life. It was really much more extreme than that. And I love that I could tell that they weren't afraid to push the boundaries, and that's what I'm all about. So it's very hard to shock me. And when I read the script, I found myself kind of gasping in shock and really excited. And I also very rarely laugh out loud at scripts, and I was just howling, so it was just well-written. And I loved that they were taking this opportunity to take a concept that people understood and blow it out of the water.
EI: You mentioned earlier that you wrote a couple of things for your character that got in the film. What were they? Also, are you looking to do that more in the future, such as collaborating with somebody on a future script or anything like that?
OW: I love the writing process. It's something that I'm interested in personally, and something that I always do on every movie. Writers get to know me very well, and it always serves me in the end because I feel I have a deeper understanding of the character, and sometimes they really like my ideas and they use them. But I don't swagger in with a bunch of big structural changes and demand things. I sort of meekly suggest, “What about this? Could we do that?” while understanding the structure of the film and not trying to change that. In this movie, an idea that I came to them with was the tattoo concept, and that was because we were trying to think of something outrageous that could happen on the date that would be at once fun and sexy, but a little too much for Dave. Or just something he would wake up and think, “Oh my God,” and something that the audience would enjoy. We had all sorts of ideas. They were going to run through a graveyard. They were going to go to a rave and see Mark Wahlberg. We had all these weird ideas, and we were just thinking of what could it be? And I thought the great thing about a tattoo is it creates something permanent that, after this wild experience is over, something will force them to remember. And I loved that they then came up with this idea of putting Jason's face on Ryan's back. That was all them. But the tattoo idea was something I brought to the table, and I was so excited when they liked it. It was this amazing feeling that helped me build confidence, and it's helped me in my own writing process. I wrote a script that I'm directing this summer. It's a short film that's a comedy, and I know I learned a tremendous amount from this experience.
EI: What was Sabrina like on the page when you originally got the script?
OW: She was already someone I really wanted to play. She was clearly smart and interesting, but she wasn't necessarily as wild as she ended up being. I think we kept pushing it further and further in pre-production stages as we were going through the script saying, “Can we make this a little bit funnier? Can we make this a little more intense?” And I really liked the idea of her really shocking the audience in a certain way. I wanted her to be unpredictable. So we all worked together to make her scenes at the office a little bit more of a misdirect. She's serious about her work, and she's very apt with the legal terminology. And she's clearly not the sort of sassy secretary slinking around the office. I think it was sort of ambiguous at first -- what her role was in the office. And I kept saying, “She's not Jason's secretary.” They were like, “We know.” I was like, “She is the associate.” They were like, “Okay.” So I said, “You have to hire another person to play the secretary so they know.” “Okay, Olivia.” That kind of stuff. Just really clarifying that she was this professional, and then having certain beats in the date to let you know that she's a pretty unique type of woman. The whole thing with the Scotch we added because I thought it would define her in a certain way for the audience. And then you see her start to actually have fun, and that was something that developed as we were working on the script. She really falls for this guy, and it becomes a little bit more heartbreaking because you realize, oh no, Sabrina. He's not real. He's not actually there. He's going to go back to his wife. And when you see the real Mitch, what are you going to think? What's great about the end of the movie is that the real Mitch is actually perfect for Sabrina. And you get this wonderful satisfying ending for them that they have each other. She's just wild enough for him, but she'll keep him in place, and I think it's a happy ending for Mitch and Sabrina both.
EI: What is your idea of a good time on a date?
OW: One that ends at dawn. I think creativity. Not being taken to a boring restaurant and a boring whatever. I think somebody who thinks it's going to be interesting -- an interesting location. I love that, in the script, he doesn't really know how to go on a date. He has no idea. So when they leave the restaurant and it's two o'clock and she's like, “What should we do now?” and the last thing he remembers from the dating world is raves, ao he's like, “We could go to a rave.” And she thinks he's hilarious. She thinks it's the funniest thing she's ever heard, but he's obviously serious. And you just see that he has no idea how to show her a good time, so she ends up taking him on this wild experience. But for me, it's some sort of creative idea and one that stays fun. I think one that has a sense of humor as well.
EI: Do you like to plan, or do you like to be surprised?
OW: I like to be surprised for sure.
Universal Pictures' 'The Change-Up' is released on August 5, 2011.