Olivia Wilde
Photo by Stefanie Keenan

Olivia Wilde: “It lights you up”

Short Profile

Name: Olivia Jane Cockburn
DOB: 10 March 1984
Place of birth: New York City, New York, United States
Occupation: Actor, film director

Olivia Wilde's new film, Don't Worry, Darling, is in theaters on 22 September 2022.

Ms. Wilde, when was the last time you felt a sense of complete freedom in your job?

Well, for me directing has been liberating in a way that is very profound because as an actor, you are very dependent. You're dependent on people choosing you and people projecting a certain kind of definition onto you of a character of what you are. I think it's quite an enormous responsibility to hold all of those projections. With being director, there's a sense of agency. I think the first time that I called action on my own set of my first film, I felt a thrill of independence for the first time. My value on a set was entirely based on my ideas and if I had an instinct to change a scene, I could do that. I think spending 20 years as an actress allowed me to really understand the value of having that type of independence.

After so many years spent as an actor, did you have to reinvent yourself to become a director?

I never went to film school, so the films I acted in were my proxy film school; some of them were pure cautionary tales that taught me what never to do, and some of them taught me some really valuable lessons of what I should strive for. I think one of the great things about the film industry is that it's one that allows for evolution, for switching roles… It’s unusual to work within a field that allows you to be an actor, a director, a writer, a producer. It's quite a luxury to be able to tell stories in so many different ways within one kind of profession. If you are interested enough, you can try your hand at all these different crafts. And I feel lucky that I've been able to do that. I think the process of reinvention is essential in any life. I think we have to continue to evolve.

“I grew up with the sense of immense possibility that you can continue to discover yourself.”

How did you discover the importance of evolution for yourself? Was it always something you strived for?

I think it's in my DNA, actually. My mother is someone who has been a journalist, a politician, an author, a filmmaker, so I grew up with the sense of immense possibility that you can continue to discover yourself. So often our society seems to set up a structure of life that you're meant to adhere to, particularly for women: figure out what you want to do, start your career, find a mate, have children, continue career, depend on someone to take care of you and die. This is a mentality of the 1950s, which came out of a post-Depression era and a cold war mindset, the idea of the nuclear family, and of women having limited roles within society…

And your family taught you differently?

I'm very lucky that I grew up with a very liberated feminist mother and father. So I think some of it happens because you have the will to create that, and to make changes in your life. And some of it happens to you, and it's about kind of responding to that, allowing those changes to be lessons as opposed to derailing you from some plan that you had for yourself. I think also, you know, when we talk about defying expectations and surviving through challenges and never, ever giving up, I mean, the Irish people, have this  strength. We've gone through so much, we've survived so much, and now we won't give it up easily. We won't give up anything easily! I think the toughest side of me, which helps me get through so much of life is deeply connected to my Irish roots.

Do you have a recipe that you turn to for overcoming any kind of hurdles or obstacles?

For me, I think it's about seeing challenges as opportunities to overcome expectations, to reinvent the system itself. When it comes to filmmaking, I think for women the obstacles in our way are just because of ignorance, people not having the experience of having worked for women in positions of power or not having the faith that women will be able to make high grossing films. And it's just about educating people. I have found that it's been a real thrill to kind of grab the bull by the horn, so to speak, and to embrace the challenges and to enjoy surpassing people's expectations and surprising people. Don't get discouraged by it.

Are you also interested in creating characters who reflect that same ferocity?

Well, my new film Don’t Worry, Darling, the story is really one of the great hero tales that it is about a revolutionary, someone who is willing to sacrifice her deepest, closest love, everything in her life that gives her happiness, because she cannot survive knowing about injustice and that people are getting hurt. So she has to sacrifice her own safety and sacrifice everything she loves. I think it is profound as a question that we can ask ourselves. The story was timely and it was speaking to me in a way that just demanded to be made.

“Any movie that actually gets made is a miracle, but this one was particularly difficult to make. But I think anything worth doing will be incredibly challenging.”

Even if it meant shooting during a global pandemic?

It was not an easy film to make. I was just reading about the Webb Telescope, and how many failures they had, and how they just kept going back and perfecting the telescope, the mirrors, the camera, everything. And I thought, “We have to remove the expectation that things will be without great challenges.” Like, if you want to travel to space, you have to give up your home, your protective cell. Are you actually willing to sacrifice or give up your comfort bubble and face the chaos that is waiting out there? So I knew that as a director, it was my responsibility to keep people on the path, despite challenges that ranged from the typical filmmaking challenges like budget, to others like a global pandemic. Any movie that actually gets made is a miracle, but this one was particularly difficult to make. But I think anything worth doing will be incredibly challenging.

I guess that’s why they say if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

It's only when we give up the safety of comfort that we will actually break new ground. That’s where the most interesting art always comes from! David Bowie said something like, “Swim out creatively. Swim out just past the point where your feet touch the ground, that’s when you're getting somewhere.” And I think that's it. You have to be a little bit challenged, scared, intimidated. It lights you up in a way, it's activating. Sometimes it's humbling, having to accept that not everything is going to work, that there is an inevitable unknown, especially when it comes to the entertainment industry. We don't know what will work. It is always a gamble and that is why you just have to continue staying authentic to yourself.