Toronto: Olivia Cooke Talks Indie 'Katie Says Goodbye,' Transition to Tentpoles With 'Ready Player One' (Q&A)

The 'Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl' breakout actress is in Toronto with a drama from director Wayne Roberts.

Olivia Cooke is no stranger to the film festival stage.

The actress's feature film breakout performance came in the Sundance standout Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, in which she played Rachel, the eponymous "dying girl." Now, she returns to the festivals with Katie Says Goodbye, playing the titular Katie.

Wayne Roberts' directorial debut takes place in a desert community, where a young woman dreams of fleeing for San Francisco, earning money for her move through waitressing at a truck stop diner and sex work. Christopher Abbott, Mary Steenburgen and Jim Belushi also star as characters that populate Katie's small town, who both help and hinder her planned escape.

Ahead of Katie Says Goodbye's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Cooke spoke to The Hollywood Reporter from England, where she currently is filming Steven Spielberg's upcoming adaptation of Ready Player One, her first big foray into the world of tentpole filmmaking.

The actress talks to THR about misconceptions about female roles, filming in the desert, her love of indie filmmaking and Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge.

What drew you to Katie as a character?

I loved how hopeful and honest and pure she was even though she comes from a life of great hardship. She comes from a town where you are born there, then you die there. Despite all of these terrible things that happen to her, she remains so hell-bent on being hopeful and positive. It was something I was drawn to because I think I am such an eternal pessimist. (Laughs.) I wanted to make her as fleshed out as I could because I think the challenge was that in someone who is hopeful is bringing layers to a person that can be one-dimensional.

How did Katie stand-out in comparison to the other parts that you are given to read?

I think sometimes Hollywood's perception of a strong female character is someone with a glossy mane, and she does high-kicks and can fight like a man and is really witty and sarcastic. And those are really fun to play when you get the chance, but there is something so strong innately about Katie that can be conveyed just with a look. She just wants to get out of her small town and start a career, and how she got the resolve to do so is left up for the audience to decide.

Did you have an apprehension starring in a film that portrays sex work onscreen?

Of course. I was really worried that it would be portrayed as passive. As soon as a woman engages in sex — which has completely changed now with amazing female filmmakers and creatives who are redefining a "modern woman" — but within this small-town setting, as soon as you are open about sex or engage in sex that isn't monogamous, you are then condemned. When you have something like this in a film, it is always going to upset people, but it's integral to the story. 

With Katie Says Goodbye the sex work feels like it is portrayed in a very empathetic way.

I think sometimes when you see sex on film, the character is portrayed as someone who has loose morals, which Katie doesn't. She has never learned shame from sex because she has seen her mother have many different boyfriends. So sex has never been a taboo subject, it has always been more of a transaction. I think she sees it — and it may be naive but I think it's very pure — as she is making the men happy and she is getting companionship and is being able to find her dream, moving to San Francisco.

How was the on-set experience with director Wayne Roberts? 

It was the best collaboration of my entire career. He completely trusted me and I, in turn, completely trusted him. It was a marriage with a push and pull and sometimes we were completely in sync. It was super-low budget and it was a shithole where we were filming. The entire cast and makeup, hair and wardrobe were sharing one tiny trailer and had one bathroom between us all, but we were all so infatuated with Wayne and what we were making that it was just such a happy time. It was like a little commune.

How is the transition from a set like that into a larger film like Ready Player One?

It's very different. You are just mind-blown by what is created and the sets that you are on. Everything is so large. I had been spoiled with what I had done in the indie world because it has usually been just me and the director for a lot of the films. Now this is a huge cast and it's a lot of waiting around. I am used to doing a two-month shoot where every day I am completely living in it, but with this there is a lot of jumping in and out so it has definitely taught me how to endure and to focus. You switch off easy when you do a massive film, like you just go in your trailer and start watching [I'mAlan Partridge or something. 

It is completely more nerve-wracking, as well, doing a massive-budgeted movie. You are working with these massive actors that you have only seen in the movies and you only want to see in movies because you can be such an idiot when you meet them in real life. 

When you are taking Katie Says Goodbye through the film festival circuit, starting with TIFF, what are you hoping these audiences take away from the movie?

I just hope that everyone hooks into the story and the performances. So much of our culture these days is about what explosion and laser-beam performances can we watch next, and this movie is so grounded and small. So, I just hope people get back to basics and see relationships unfold onscreen again. I hope audiences can shed that visual stimulation with these huge blockbusters and relax into this world that is very small.

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