Look Past the Beauty, if You Can
July 22, 2011
A CLONE army of starlets marches through Hollywood casting offices every day — all beautiful, all talented, all interchangeable. Pick one, any one. But every so often a young actress rolls into town and drops jaws. Keep your eye on that one, studio executives say. That one is different.
Olivia Wilde, 27, is one of those women.
The green-eyed bombshell arrived in the movie capital in 2002, strangely enough, to work in a casting agency, your basic head-shot processing plant. Her parents, two prominent Washington journalists with all sorts of Beltway and celebrity connections, helped arrange it. The goal, according to her mother, Leslie Cockburn, a producer for “60 Minutes,” was to squelch Ms. Wilde’s interest in acting by exposing her to a particularly hardhearted corner of the dream factory, where hundreds of résumés are casually tossed aside.
“They thought I would take one look at the cattiness and people from Yale and Juilliard begging for jobs and hightail it out of town,” Ms. Wilde said recently over lunch at a tucked-away little cafe on Sunset Boulevard.
As Thirteen (in lab coat) on “House.” Credit: Paul Drinkwater/Fox
But Ms. Wilde was almost immediately cast herself, popping up in shows like “The OC” on Fox and landing a continuing supporting role on that network’s hit series “House” as a self-destructive doctor. Her first big movie part, a Joan of Arc-like cyber warrior, came last year in “Tron: Legacy.” Now she has seven films in stages of completion, starting with “Cowboys & Aliens,” an atypical action extravaganza that arrives on Friday from Universal Pictures, and continuing one week later with Universal’s ultra-crude comedy “The Change-Up.”
“Olivia reminds me a lot of Angelina Jolie — a fiercely intelligent, drop-dead gorgeous woman who knows what she wants to do and goes after it,” said Donna Langley, Universal’s co-chairwoman.
Despite her success in landing ensemble movies Ms. Wilde is still waiting for that one breakout leading part, either a dramatic role that gets her noticed by critics or one that makes her the face of the film. Like what “Letters to Juliet” did for Amanda Seyfried or Emma Stone’s ride with “Easy A.” Her looks could prove a liability; when you are the kind of actress who lands the No. 1 spot on Maxim magazine’s Hot 100 list, it’s very easy to be pigeonholed as cinematic eye candy. It took Charlize Theron’s turn as a greasy-haired, yellow-toothed serial killer in “Monster” for people to take her seriously.
And just because Ms. Wilde is working a lot these days doesn’t mean her film career won’t ultimately fizzle as fast as it started. At this point she’s still just a string of bad movies away from being Kate Hudson.
Ms. Wilde has also chosen a difficult balancing act, at least for a starlet: She has ideas, and she expects directors and writers to listen to them, at a time when up-and-coming actresses of her ilk are still expected to be seen and not heard. When they do speak up, especially publicly, studios often deem them “difficult” and they wither. See: Heigl, Katherine, or Fox, Megan.
“Trying to fight this industry’s tendency to celebrate the physical is a waste of time,” Ms. Wilde said. “So I’m happy to play that game. But I am also thirsty for input. I’m not a dunce whose only skill is knowing how to take a photograph, you know? And at the end of the day I think it makes me slightly less replaceable.”
When she was cast in “Cowboys & Aliens” as a gunslinger with a big secret, the writers of “Tron: Legacy,” Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, called the new film’s writers with a warning: Ms. Wilde will want to discuss her character’s psychological makeup aggressively. “It wasn’t a negative, but rather saying that she’s a dream, somebody who is collaborative and can talk intelligently about the story,” Mr. Horowitz said.
In “The Change-Up,” which stars Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds as opposites who swap bodies “Freaky Friday” style, Ms. Wilde, who plays a vixen legal assistant, spoke up with an idea about adding a scene where her character gets a tattoo in, um, an extremely delicate spot. It’s in the finished movie (although her parents may want to close their eyes during it).
“What makes Olivia’s input different is that she’s not a squeaky wheel who rolls onto the set and has this pushiness that demolishes the whole thing,” Mr. Bateman said. “She has a self-deprecating sense of humor about herself, and she’s generous with ideas, even if they don’t directly benefit her.”
In person Ms. Wilde is warm and chatty, with perfect posture. An aura of self-confidence surrounds her, tempered slightly by a tendency to bite her lower lip. She arrived at lunch early, seemingly without makeup, and immediately started talking about her dog, Paco, a rescued cross-breed that has appeared in Old Navy commercials. After being trained by the retailer to perform in ads, Paco now enjoys wearing clothes, she said with a laugh.
Calling herself a “world-class nerd,” Ms. Wilde bemoaned a meeting later in the afternoon at the slick Los Angeles branch of the Soho House chain of private clubs. ”One of the things that takes you by surprise is that there is zero sense of entitlement,” said Katie Jacobs, a “House” executive producer. “She considers herself as somebody who always has her foot in her mouth.”
Ms. Wilde, who attended the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., was raised to be inquisitive and have opinions. Her mother is an investigative journalist known for covering United States military scandals for “60 Minutes,” PBS and ABC News. Ms. Cockburn also directed the acclaimed 2009 documentary “American Casino,” which looked at how the financial meltdown impacted the working class.
Andrew Cockburn, her father, is also a journalist and the author of books like “Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy.” Together, the Cockburns helped produce the 1997 movie “The Peacemaker,” starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman in a tale about stolen nuclear weapons. The film was based on a book the couple wrote, “One Point Safe.”
(In a nod to her father’s Irish heritage, Ms. Wilde looked to Oscar Wilde for a stage name.)
The Cockburn home in Washington was a hotbed for intellectuals and celebrities. The writer Christopher Hitchens, a family friend, sometimes baby-sat. Ms. Wilde remembers listening in on a conversation at the dinner table between the diplomat Richard Holbrooke and Mick Jagger. “They finally noticed me and sent me to bed,” she said with a laugh. “I wish I could remember what the discussion was about.”
Ms. Wilde’s parents also infused her with a sense of social responsibility. She tries to use her growing celebrity to direct attention to charities like Power Up Gambia, which works to bring solar power to clinics in rural Africa. Much of Ms. Wilde’s free time these days is devoted to Artists for Peace and Justice, which focuses on education and health programs in Haiti. On one trip there she worked at a morgue.
But even as a child Ms. Wilde was a bit of a ham. “Olivia religiously watched reruns of ‘I Love Lucy’ to study Lucille Ball’s technique,” Ms. Cockburn said, noting that her daughter also made elaborate home movies.
Because she was such a fan of slapstick humor — Ms. Wilde lists the “Police Academy” movies as childhood favorites — her parents took her to a taping of “Saturday Night Live” when she was 10, and they attended the after-party. Chris Farley noticed her and challenged her to a brownie-eating contest. “He won, but I gave him a run for his money,” Ms. Wilde said.
“The Change-Up,” directed by David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”), definitely has its slapstick moments, but her role in “Cowboys & Aliens,” which co-stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, is serious and brooding. Ms. Wilde’s parade of films following those two are also diverse: in the indie comedy “Butter,” she plays a competitor at a butter-carving competition; “Blackbird,” a crime drama, finds her as a desperate fugitive; in the science-fiction thriller “In Time,” about people who stop aging at 25, she plays Justin Timberlake’s mother.
Picking the widest variety of roles is partly a way for Ms. Wilde to show that she’s more than just a pretty face. To emulate the careers of Sigourney Weaver or Katharine Hepburn, two actresses Ms. Wilde said she sees as role models, she will need to win over critics. So far that crowd has been quiet on her acting, instead commenting mostly on her babe-dom. (One notable exception: Roger Ebert described her performance in “Tron: Legacy” as “fragrant,” noting that she was able to “plausibly project human emotions in an environment devoid of organic life.”)
But role diversity also reflects her wanderlust. She’s one of those people who casually peppers a conversation with sentences like “I was in Brazil, learning how to free-dive from some spear fisherman.”
That tendency to leap before she looks is evident in her personal life too. When Ms. Wilde was 19 she was engaged to Tao Ruspoli, a filmmaker and son of an Italian prince (for real), at the anything-goes Burning Man festival in Nevada. A few weeks later she married him on an old school bus, where he was living. She filed for divorce in March.
“It was a great eight years, but it was time for both of us to move on,” she said. At the least she came away with entertaining stories about visiting his family in Italy, like the time she arrived at a “casual” dinner to find trumpet players and people on stilts dropping flower petals. “I was like, where am I?” she said. A similar feeling came over her on the New Mexico set of “Cowboys & Aliens,” which was directed by Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”). “I was coated in dust for four months straight,” she said. Not that she complained to Mr. Favreau, who said he was surprised to find her asking for harder and harder stunts.
He pointed to a scene in which Ms. Wilde’s character, on a horse galloping across the desert, is yanked from the saddle by a flying alien. The plan was to use a stunt double for part of the sequence, augmented by a computerized “digital double” in postproduction. All Mr. Favreau expected Ms. Wilde to do was ride a mechanical horse for a couple of close-ups of her face.
But Ms. Wilde ended up performing the complicated stunt herself, being pulled off a speeding horse by a wire attached to a crane. “Frankly, she put our stunt riders in a tough spot,” Mr. Favreau said. “Here was our ingénue, doing all of the scary stuff and making it look easy.”