Olivia Wilde has a busy schedule, taking a hiatus from House to shoot Cowboys & Aliens on the heels of mega-hit Tron. She also has comedy The Change-Up coming out next week, with several other upcoming projects in the works. Ms. Wilde sat down with Buzzine to talk about the daring stunt she did; working with Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Sam Rockwell; her ambition to create her own projects; and how she likes to change the scripts...
Emmanuel Itier: What is being in a western like?
Olivia Wilde: Being a woman in a western is amazing. It’s sort of a rite of passage as an American actor to be in a Western. It’s a very special feeling. I really have always loved them, but the problem is I never had a female character to identify with in a western, so I always wanted to be Steve McQueen. I wanted to be Clint Eastwood. I wanted to learn the Clint Eastwood stance…but I never had a female character I really wanted to be, which is not to discount the performances of actresses in these films. But for me personally, there wasn’t a female hero in a western that I identified with. I loved the character of Ella when I read the script because I thought that’s what we can do here. We can create that female iconic hero in a western where she’s going to be gun-slinging and riding horses, and just kind of restrained and contained as the best western heroes. That’s the thing you learn from Clint Eastwood -- sort of the economy of movement and language. It’s all very subtle. I learned quite a bit about that on this movie also because I think that’s Daniel Craig’s real specialty. He does so little, and he’s so powerful. Similarly with Harrison Ford -- he communicates so much without doing anything, and he really broke my heart when I saw this movie. The emotional arc of his character really moved me, even though he wasn’t being overly flamboyant in his acting. They both taught me a lot about acting. It was just a thrill to be with them and to finally be playing the female hero in a western.
EI: Did you ask Jon Favreau about Ella’s true form?
OW: I can’t talk about that because it’s a spoiler. We’ll keep it between us. We all know. Jon and I did create Ella together, though, as well as the writers, Bob [Orci] and Alex [Kurtzman]. I am always very involved in the writing process for movies, whether they like it or not. [Laughs] I show up knocking on the writers’ doors and saying, “Hello, I have ideas,” and they usually like it. Well, they’ve always liked it so far because I never tried to change the structure of the film. I’m never fighting for more lines or a better ending. It’s always about taking care of my characters, because often, female characters are a little bit disregarded. It can happen that the focus is on the male hero, and the woman can become a little bit of just a reaction to that male hero. It’s no fault of the writers. It just seems to happen when they’re dealing with the very complex story. So I, with Tron, was very active in the writing process and sat with them for weeks creating that character and fighting for her, and the same thing happened with Cowboys & Aliens. In fact, when I was cast in Cowboys & Aliens, the writers got a call from the Tron writers saying, "You better get ready for some long meetings." They were happy about it. They said, “We love that you love the script so much that you want to get into it.” I was doing research. I was spending hours at the Autry Museum in LA, which is a great resource for American western historical things -- documents, photos, videos... I just enjoyed the process, and particularly for this one because Jon was so fun to create with. He loved Ella, and he really wanted Ella to stay strong and smart. So we protected her together, and I think we’re both happy with the way she turned out.
EI: What do you like best about acting?
OW: I suppose I like that creation period -- the research and the creation of the character. No matter what you are handed on the page, there is always more you can do to flush it out. I like working with the writers on creating their back story. I like creating the physical character. I love working with wardrobe, makeup, and hair to create this person. It can be a huge difference when you’re working with these people, many of whom are experts who can give you a lot of information. Mary Zophres designed these costumes. She’d done True Grit right before us, so she had all this wealth of knowledge of western culture, so she really helped me in creating Ella. We decided she would not wear a corset because she’s not typical. It’s strange that she’s not wearing a corset. She’s got this prairie dress, but she’s very simple, stripped-down. The hair -- she’s not wearing ringlets or anything like that. She has her hair down and wild, which is a tip off that there’s something odd about her. She doesn’t fit in to society. She’s wearing a gun belt, which is also unusual – who is she hiding from or who is she after? So the physical creation really interests me as well. I usually like to transform completely, like in Tron, but this one, Jon was adamant that it looked like me. He liked the idea of very little makeup, so I didn’t even have eye makeup on. I just had a lot of dirt on my face [laughs], but it was interesting because, as we got closer to it, I feel like I really understood who she was. But I think that creation period is my favorite thing about acting, and doing enough homework so that when you’re there on set with these other brilliant actors, you can just exist in that space, you can just react. Because people like Daniel Craig and Sam Rockwell, Harrison Ford, Paul Dano, all these people -- they’re so good. Because I knew Ella when I got there, I could just react to them and have fun.
EI: It seems it’s a very good year for you, Olivia, because you have eight projects, and you have like eight movies coming out and filming...
OW: It’s not eight. No, it’s about six, is it? Okay, better.
EI: But which kinds of movies do you want to be remembered for? What do you want to be? Because you have drama, you have comedy, you have been in House, you have been in a lot of different types of projects...
OW: I would love it to be a combination, but when I think of the actresses I look up to, I think of people like Sigourney [Weaver] and Meryl Streep, who have done comedy and drama their entire careers, and theater. I can’t wait to go back to the theater. It’s something I want to do next year. But it was really inspiring for me, as a young actress, to know that you didn’t have to pick a genre. You could traverse the landscape. You could try everything, and I have been trying everything. In the past year, I’ve done this, I’ve done Change-Up, which is totally different... And I love comedy. I really have the most fun with comedy. I’ve done some little independent films and thrillers, and another sci-fi movie that comes out in the fall -- all sorts of things, all sorts of characters. I don’t see a reason to choose, so I don’t know. Hopefully I’ll be remembered as someone who can do everything, I think, as opposed to picking one movie.
EI: Was House the biggest step for you?
OW: I think it was a huge step for me, yes, and I owe a tremendous amount to them, not only because that show introduced me to the international community, but also because they’ve been very gracious about letting me continue my film career. They allowed me out of the show to do Cowboys & Aliens, and they could have easily said no, so in a way, I owe all of this to the producers of House.
EI: You did a movie with Stefan Ruzowitzky. Can you comment really shortly on this?
OW: That movie, which is called Blackbird, is a thriller with Eric Bana, Sissy Spacek, Charlie Hunnam, and a bunch of really interesting people. It was thrilling to work with Stefan, who had created this brilliant movie, The Counterfeiters, which we all loved. I really had an amazing time on that film, although it was physically pretty difficult. We had been in Montreal in the winter, outside Montreal out in the wilderness, which was interesting. I like working in the elements, apparently, because I’ve done that here with Cowboys, with that movie, and few others, but I hope that movie comes out so people can see it. It was interesting.
EI: Do you like the horse-riding and all the gun-toting?
OW: I love it. I grew up riding horses. Maybe one of the reasons Jon hired me -- I’m not sure -- but I was very comfortable with the horses. I learned western riding for this movie, though. I grew up riding English because my dad is Irish. I went back and forth to Ireland.
EI: What’s the difference?
OW: The difference is the saddle, the bridle, the way you ride. Your relationship with the horse is a bit different. Just different technique, but the point was that I was comfortable with them, and I loved the horses. I got very good at western riding for this, and it was also unusual because we were working with antique saddles, which are a bit bigger and a little clunkier, so it was a challenge with the saddle bags and everything else. But I wanted to get comfortable enough with the horse – I think we all did – so you’d have that great iconic western thing where the cowboys looked so comfortable that they almost have a telepathic relationship to the horse and they don’t even seem to notice when they’re riding. They can mount them from any sides, just slip on and slip off. I think that cavalier attitude towards riding is one of the great things about cowboys, so we all tried to achieve that. Everybody got very good. Sam Rockwell had never been on a horse. Imagine, he’s never been on a horse, and Harrison and I are both riding for a long time, and Daniel was learning and obviously brilliant because he’s Daniel, and we were galloping across this desert -- galloping, not waiting for anyone, so Sam had to keep up, and it was challenging for him, but be was so brave.
EI: He walks funny a little bit some days...
OW: He walked a little funny. [Laughs] “What are you guys doing about this? How do you make it comfortable?” He was asking other guys, “How does this work? How do you not crush yourself?” But he’s brilliant. God, I think he’s so good in this movie. I think Sam Rockwell is one of the best working actors. I’m so happy we got him in this movie, because that role wouldn’t have been as interesting without him. Oh, he’s so good.
EI: Can you remember the most physically challenging day on set?
OW: There were a few. I think the best moment for me was my big stunt that became the event of the shooting, where I was yanked from a galloping horse by a bungee cord and pulled 40 feet in the air. That was something I was not meant to do. It was going to be a stunt person. We first tried it, it was a mechanical horse, and then that looked so stupid. The mechanical horse was the one they used in Seabiscuit, so we thought it would look fast, but it looked really slow and I was like, “No, I will not. I don’t look cool enough.” So I said, “I can ride, I can do it myself.” The stunt guy said, “I’ve never pulled an actor off a movie animal, and I’ve never pulled an actor more than 10 feet, so I need to pull you 40 feet,” and I said, “Do it, do it.” He asked Jon, and Jon said, “If she wants to do it, just do it.” It was scary for a few reasons. Daniel was next to me, but I had to gallop through these two cranes with the harness and the bungee attached to my back, but I had to be very careful not to have my feet in the stirrups and not to be holding the reins too tightly, because once they yanked at the bungee, there was no way to control it. So if I’ve gotten any part of me stuck in the saddle, there was no way to stop me from ripping apart, so if my foot had been caught in the stirrup, it would have been pretty bad too -- that’s what everyone was really worried about. So I had to gallop without falling off but lightly perched on the saddle, and then at one point, they would yank me off and I have to dangle there for a few minutes while they reset everything, and it was an amazing, beautiful experience. I’m very happy I did it because now in the film, they could put the camera on my face when I’m yanked back, which they wouldn’t have been able to do with a stunt double. That was an exciting moment, and also for all of the stunt guys to really push themselves for the rest of the movie, because they said, “Oh, God, if Olivia did that, we have to do…” So they were suddenly doing all these flips off the horses and really showing off just to prove their weight.
EI: Can you tell us something about Ana de la Reguera?
OW: I love Ana de la Reguera just because of her name and because she’s so lovely and she’s so full of heart. We needed someone with that emotional weight or you wouldn’t have been heartbroken at the idea that she and Sam Rockwell wouldn’t be reunited. Doc and his wife needed to have this love, this bond that you wanted them to get back together. It was true with all the family members who were snatched. They needed to be so good that you would miss them, that you would find that it was worth this crazy journey to get them back. So that’s why Paul Dano, in that role, was so important, because he’s so good and you have to really like him or, in some way, detest him, but you have to miss him. Ana was really, really wonderful and beautiful, my god, and I was so happy that there was another woman on set a few days. Same with Abi Spencer, who was there for a few days, and I was so thrilled because I finally had some estrogen in the room.
EI: When you were teenager, which kind of movies did you go see, and which kind of movie were you dreaming of making?
OW: I’ve always loved old classic cinema. I’ve always loved Katherine Hepburn movies, Bette Davis movies, and Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall... These are women who really inspired me, but I have to say my favorite genre is gangster movies. Goodfellas is probably my favorite movie. I love Godfather I and II. It’s interesting because I also watched a lot of
westerns with my dad. Gangster movies are really just westerns set in the city, so you see those thematic connections throughout. I like modern movies as well. It’s reflected in the types of movies I choose, because here I am doing something classic, in a sense, mixed with sci-fi but classic, and then The Change-Up because I also like to go see movies like The Change-Up. I also have a really silly, sophomoric sense of humor too. It’s a combination.
EI: Do you have a favorite western?
OW: I love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Some people don’t consider it a classic western, but I love it, and they’re the two most beautiful men who ever lived, so I love it.
EI: Do you have any desire to write original material for yourself to act in?
OW: Absolutely. That’s something I’ve started doing. It’s not for me to act in, but I’m directing my first short this summer. A short film is a great way to get your sea legs, so I’ve been working on that. It’s from a script I wrote. I’m also developing a longer feature -- a few of them. But that’s the great thing about being at this stage now, is I have the luxury of being really picky about what I choose to act in. I’m saying "no" more than I’m saying "yes," and I can start developing my own material particularly because I now work with so many great people that I can dip into that pool of genius and ask for their help. I’m learning from everyone, and I’m now saying, “Okay, how about we team up and work together on something?” I now have worked with enough actors that I can say, “Okay, you and I really work together. Let’s develop a comedy, or let’s develop drama.” So that’s exciting for me. I also produced a documentary that premiered at Tribeca this year, which is about building a movie theatre in a refugee camp in Haiti, because I spend a lot of my time in Haiti for our organization, which is called The Artists for Peace and Justice.
EI: With Paul Haggis?
OW: With Paul Haggis, yeah. So we’ve been doing that now since 2008. I go to Haiti every three months. We now run the only free secondary school in Haiti. It’s a big part of my life. This documentary, which is called Sun City Picture House, is tremendous, and I produced it with Maria Bello, who is also involved in Artists for Peace and Justice. We all like to go to Haiti together. So producing is something I also love, and documentary is something I really love. My mom is a documentarian, so it’s in my blood. But in terms of writing material for myself, I absolutely think it’s an important part of success in this business. There’s no point in complaining about the lack of roles. If you want it, make it happen.
EI: Would you put in a nutshell what you learned from Jon, who made a brilliant transition from acting to directing?
OW: I learned so much from Jon, exactly about that transition that he has made, and also just about being a director. I hope I can be a director like Jon Favreau, because he is so calm, patient, and thoughtful. He is also a master of tone. He keeps the consistent tone throughout the film. Even though we were shooting at a sequence and sometimes doing green screen work or anything like that, he reminds everyone where the audience is and where we need to take them. It is very difficult to do that. I also think he has elevated certain genres and he is able to keep things grounded in reality while also being in a fantasy world like, for instance, Iron Man. I think Iron Man directed by a different director wouldn’t be so interesting. He credits his successful casting. He casts Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man when nobody wanted that, but he thinks of it in an original way, and he’s very plugged into what works. He’s just really good. He also uses his acting training to communicate with the actors. So it’s like he speaks our language, and he’s so good at it. He uses his Meisner training. He really, in a very delicate way, brings you to the right place. I just thought he was masterful.
EI: Can you give an example of something -- how he pulled a performance scene out of you that you didn’t know you had in you?
OW: I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t know I had it in me, but it was an interesting moment. Daniel and I were doing a scene where we were walking through the caverns, these caves, and we’re supposed to be heading into an alien cave, and because we were running around with guns and cowboy hats, we were a bit silly and pulling some sort of comedy gag and running into the cave. Jon pulled us aside and said, “Cut, cut, cut,” and said, “I know you two are willing to sacrifice your lives to go ahead into this dangerous place to save these people, so in a way you’re like these first firefighters who ran into Tower 1 on September 11th…
EI: To change the mood...
OW: Oh my God, did it ever. But he was right. You must bring it all back to reality and give it that grounded sense. I thought the technique in acting, the ‘as if,’ to put it into perspective by using something you’re familiar with...I don’t know what it’s like to run into an alien cavern, but I know the weight of the bravery it would take for a firefighter to run into a burning building. So it was that direction that then helped keep this movie, which was a fun adventure film about cowboys and aliens, keeping the stakes high and keeping it grounded. Sometimes we didn’t know what he was talking about. He came up to me and Sam Rockwell and Daniel -- we were in the alien ship that’s upside down in the middle of the desert. We’re walking through this set, and at one point,
the characters break away from each other, and again I guess we were being silly, and he came up to us, he’s like, “Guys, all I’m going to say is this might be grandma’s last Thanksgiving, you know?” He walked away and we were like, “What? What does that mean? What is the meaning in that?” We were like, “Grandma’s going to die. What does it have to do with the aliens?” [Laughs] But Jon had so many techniques to get us where he wanted to get us, but most of the time, it really helps. [Laughs]
Universal Pictures' 'Cowboys & Aliens' is released on July 29, 2011.