Olivia Cooke on Why 'Sound of Metal' Was an "Actor's Dream"
Sound of Metal provided Olivia Cooke the opportunity to shoot in sequence, which is quite rare for actors nowadays. Since Cooke was able to experience her character's journey in real time, she didn’t have to make the tough choices that actors often face when shooting the end of an arc at the very start of production.
In Darius Marder’s film, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime, Cooke plays Lou, the lead singer of a heavy metal duo called Blackgammon, which also includes Riz Ahmed’s Ruben on drums. The pair of musicians are also romantically involved until Ruben’s sudden onset of deafness forces them to go their separate ways during the movie’s second act.
Heat Vision breakdown
“We shot the three different acts in order. So it was an actor’s dream, really, when you get to shoot in a way that’s linear,” Cooke tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So there was physical distance and time between Riz and I before we saw each other again for the last act. So it was really interesting to kind of have to relearn how to be with each other — like Ruben and Lou, in a way.”
Since Ahmed’s character goes to a treatment center during the second act of the film and a significant amount of time passes, Cooke completely changed Lou’s appearance to illustrate the passage of time, as well as her own transformation.
“That was all Darius. He wanted me to look very different in both stages of Lou’s life. He wanted the character to feel as alien to Ruben as possible when he sees her again,” Cook explains. “I didn’t really want to cut all my hair off because I keep doing that for roles. But then Darius was like, ‘You have to, Olivia. It’s for the film.’ So then I was like, ‘Fuck’s sake, okay.’”
In a recent conversation with THR, Cooke also discusses her run-in with Tom Cruise on the Ready Player One set, her upcoming Irish gangster comedy, Pixie, and the lack of creepiness on the Bates Motel set.
So, first things first, Lou’s impressive singing in the first and third acts consisted of your vocals, right?
(Laughs.) Yeah, god.
Have you and Riz prepared for the possibility that people will want you to take Blackgammon on the road or into the studio? I was certainly impressed.
Thank you. If that was actually the case, I would be absolutely mortified. I don’t think there’s anything in the world that could make me do that again. (Laughs.)
So when you shot the film, you weren’t privy to the amazing sound design that the audience would eventually hear and experience along with Ruben (Ahmed). Did you gain a whole new perspective on the film once you finally saw it and heard things from Ruben’s point of view?
Absolutely. We had an amazing sound recorder/sound engineer, Nicolas (Becker), who would always walk around the set and our environment, just picking up random noises. Riz told a story about how he’d put the mics onto his chest; he’d even get Riz to blink and just record that. It’s incredible because you get this amazing subterranean sound. It makes the film have this really different, claustrophobic quality that I definitely wasn’t privy to nor could I really imagine what that would sound like.
Would the director (Darius Marder) say things on set like, “Okay, this is where it gets muffled for Ruben,” so that everybody was on the same page?
Not particularly for me. Darius really wanted us to have our own worlds and our own experiences going on when we were doing the film. And so him and Riz would definitely have a private dialogue and I wouldn’t know about it, and the same, vice versa. So I was just coming at this through Lou’s perspective, really, which I think was probably a bit more truthful for the performance.
Sound of Metal explores the absolute worst fear of most musicians: losing one’s hearing. Along similar lines, what do you think the greatest fear is for an actor?
God, there are so many irrational fears. I mean, being physically maimed, losing your voice, permanently… There are different ways to go around it now, but I just think the worst fear is anything that hinders your instrument, which is a whole plethora of things for an actor.
Since you communicate so much with your eyes, vision would probably be a big one, and the same goes for short-term memory. Of course, earwigs can still be used.
Oh god, yeah. Alzheimer’s, dementia, losing the ability to remember dialogue, names and the whole script. Also losing your own personal memories that help you connect to the role. Gosh, I hadn’t thought about that. Ahh!
What have I done!?
At the beginning of the film as Lou and Ruben are driving to the next gig, the movie cuts between random thoughts, questions and anecdotes involving Meat Loaf, Jeff Goldblum, flossing and tattoo ink. Were you given some room to play there?
Yeah, that was just Darius being like, “You know, we’ve got X amount of footage of you guys traveling, and just chatting shit, which we did.” (Laughs.) I was very surprised that it made it into the cut. But yeah, that was just us riffing, being silly and probably being overtired.
So there’s probably some even stranger topics on the cutting room floor.
Yeah, I’m sure things got a little bit weird. Maybe that was just the tamest of what we said and that was all Darius could really put into the film. (Laughs.) You cringe when you hear it back as well. You’re like, “Oh god, Olivia, was that the best you could come up with?”
Well, I thought it effectively conveyed the passage of time. Plus, back in the day when we could go on road trips, random conversation is the only conversation.
(Laughs.) I know. Road trips, what are those?
I’ve only read about them in ancient texts.
When it comes to more permanent road trips, actors are nomadic by nature, but do you think you would take to that Airstream life a la Ruben and Lou?
No, I don’t think so. I think I could do it for a brief period. I could have a very nomadic three weeks, but then I would crave four walls, a roof, central heating and a bath. I would like to think that I can live my life in a way that is quite minimalistic, but certain luxuries would then be missed terribly.
Was everything shot in a real Airstream? You didn’t build a set with fly-away walls?
No, that was a real Airstream. So you’ve got the DP, the boom operator and Darius, who would sometimes be in there himself. Then, you’ve got Riz and I. It’s a metal tin can, basically, and we shot it in Boston, during July/August. So it was an oven.
Did you return weeks or months later after the second act finished shooting, or did you do all your work at the same time?
We shot the three different acts in order. So it was the first part, which is Ruben and Lou. And then there's the second part when Ruben goes to the treatment center. And then the third part, I came back and we were in Antwerp for Paris. So it was an actor’s dream, really, when you get to shoot in a way that’s linear. So there was physical distance and time between Riz and I before we saw each other again for the last act. So it was really interesting to kind of have to relearn how to be with each other — like Ruben and Lou, in a way.
To reflect the passage of time and the stabler environment she’s living in, Lou has a drastically different look in the third act. Did you change your own look while Riz was filming the second act, or was it all character-motivated?
That was all Darius. He wanted me to look very different in both stages of Lou’s life. He wanted the character to feel as alien to Ruben as possible, when he sees her again. I didn’t really want to cut all my hair off because I keep doing that for roles. It had also just gotten to a length where I was like, “All right, maybe I’ll stop messing now.” (Laughs.) But then Darius was like, “You have to, Olivia. It’s for the film.” So then I was like, “Fuck’s sake, okay.” (Laughs.)
Are you eager to bring back the bleached eyebrows anytime soon?
I loved the bleached eyebrows! That was decided over a breakfast that Darius and I had, where I was looking through my Pinterest. I saw a picture of a model with bleached eyebrows and was like, “Well, that could be cool because I’ve got quite big eyes.” It was literally just a face and eyes with no real other discernible features, but I think it works. It has this feral look to it.
According to the Internet, the cast was limited to two takes per scene due to scheduling and minimal resources. Do you like working under that kind of pressure, or would you prefer to have the David Fincher experience?
No, I kind of like dealing with the pressure. I think you have to just go off of instinct, a bit of id and not really overthink it too much. And then afterwards, you can’t really lament what you’ve done because you’ve got the excuse of, “Well, I was only given two takes.” (Laughs.) So it’s out of your hands a little bit. As long as you prepare as much as possible beforehand, then it’s really just what you bring to the table. So I really like working with that, and I think if I did 60 takes, god, I don’t know. I’ve never worked with a director that has done that, to be fair, so I don’t know how I would react.
[The following question contains spoilers for Sound of Metal.]
In the end, Ruben makes the right decision for both their sakes, and based on their last conversation, Lou already knows that it’s the right call. The writing was on the wall. Do you think she would’ve let pity prevent her from making that decision herself, at least for a while?
I think there are many reasons why people stay in relationships, and I think a lot of us have the tendency to stay in a relationship for a bit too long. Ultimately, I think that conclusion would’ve happened eventually. As well as them recognizing that it was over, it’s also a moment of appreciation. They say to each other that they’ve saved each other’s lives and I think that’s a really beautiful way to mark a relationship that is no longer good for either of them. But I thought it was a really beautiful breakup even though he had done all these things in order to get to her again. Yeah, I think they let each other go in a very tender way.
[This concludes the spoiler discussion for Sound of Metal.]
So you had a rather traumatic experience while shooting Ready Player One. Thus, on all your projects since that movie, do you make sure you’re prepared just in case Tom Cruise decides to randomly stop by the set?
(Laughs.) I was like, “Oh my god, what are you going to say?” (Laughs.) Yeah, I’m just constantly looking over my shoulder, checking the call sheet and checking in with the first AD, like, “Have you heard anything?” Yeah, it was mad. Luckily, I think that was a one-off experience by just being on that set. (Laughs.)
Are you curious about Ernest Cline’s new book, Ready Player Two, especially since Hollywood really seems to like making sequels?
(Laughs.) I haven’t read the new book yet. I don’t think I’d be in the sequel just because if it goes directly after the first one, then I’ll be bloody 40 by the time it comes out. (Laughs.) But yeah, I’m curious to read it.
I was first introduced to you via Bates Motel, and I was so glad that Emma made it out alive. As strange as it sounds, part of what kept me watching was that very real fear of something bad happening to your character.
(Laughs.) Oh god.
Was it a guessing game until the end, or did showrunner Kerry Ehrin tell you that Emma was in the clear well in advance?
Yeah, Kerry just told me that I was in the clear. Maybe towards the end of the second series or early into the third, she told me that I was going to survive. which was good for me. But it was one of those shows where you can’t really be sure who’s going to get the chop.
Your film career really took off towards the later seasons of that show. Obviously, Bates had priority, but did your movie opportunities ever overlap or complicate matters?
No, I was contracted to Bates Motel, so I wouldn’t have taken anything that would’ve shot in the midst of when that was shooting. The only tricky thing was when I shaved my head for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. [Co-creator] Carlton (Cuse) said that I couldn’t, so we tried a bald cap and my head looked ridiculous. I had so much hair and I looked like an onion. So I was like, “Fuck it, let’s just shave it off,” and then Carlton was like, “Okay, fine, but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has to pay for some wigs,” which they did. So that was it. That was the only drama, really. (Laughs.) It was a drama of wigs so I was quite lucky. We only shot, really, for four months out of the year, and it was usually around November to February. So it wasn’t too tricky.
Was Bates a creepy set at times? I’m sure the fans of the Psycho franchise want to hear that it was, but you’d be surprised by the number of haunted set stories I’ve been told.
No, not very creepy at all. Because we knew each other and we knew the crew so well by the end, there weren’t any spooky vibes going on. It was cold, though, especially the night shoots. We would shoot on the actual motel set in Vancouver during the winter. So maybe that added to some suspenseful moments, just our bodies juddering from how freezing it was. (Laughs.) But apart from that, not really.
When I learned the nature of Rachel in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I started to worry that Hollywood was typecasting you in roles that were relatively similar to Emma from Bates. While that ultimately did not happen, was typecasting ever a real concern for you?
I’ve tried to take roles that deviate from the next. So it was just a coincidence that I played one character who had cystic fibrosis (Emma) and another one (Rachel) who had a terminal illness. But they were just great roles, so I didn’t really care all that much. You’ve also got to put your pride and your ego aside in how you want to be perceived in the industry. If the role, the script and the director are great, then god, who cares? People have short memories.
One of my favorite movies of the last decade is Thoroughbreds. What’s your impression of that film now that you’re a few years removed from it?
Oh, it was such a rich experience. We only had four weeks to shoot it, and when you have a film that the whole crew and the whole cast rally behind, you can kind of do anything in a short amount of time. You can actually have an experience where it doesn’t feel like anything is rushed. Working with Anya (Taylor-Joy) was great. We had a really amazing rapport when it came to the two characters, how we both approached them and how each of our performances reacted off of each other. I think we were all just really excited because it was Cory’s (Finley) first movie, and he’d written it as a play and adapted it in such a short amount of time. He was such a natural and so talented; it was annoying. He was 27 and just having someone like that helm the ship in a way, it was all really inspiring.
Cory is the master of walking the tonal tightrope, something he proved yet again with his latest film, Bad Education. I have no idea how he does it.
(Laughs.) Yeah, he is. And he’s got an odd sense of humor, which I really like. It’s really refreshing to see that when we’re so used to one thing, one movie, one TV show being popular, and then there being so many repeats of that one thing afterwards.
I’m a fan of Will Eubank’s The Signal, which was your second movie. Does that feel like another lifetime ago?
God, yeah. Yeah, it does. I think I was 19 when I did that in New Mexico, and I was just a deer in the headlights. I had never felt so far away from home. I didn’t completely understand what we were doing or what the film was about when we were shooting it. I only really got the gist of it when I saw it. (Laughs.) But yeah, god, I was a baby.
How was your experience on Chase Palmer’s Naked Singularity?
That was a really fun experience. It’s a heist thriller set in New York with John Boyega, Bill Skarsgård and Ed Skrein. Ed and John and I were all laughing and being like, “Oh my god, we’re all playing Americans on this movie set in New York. This all makes no sense.” But yeah, it was great fun.
Is it rare for you to link up with that many English actors on an American set?
Usually, I’m the only one in the cast. And then, [the American actors] are usually taking the piss out of me, being like, “You’re stealing our jobs.” And I’m like, “I’m not trying to.” (Laughs.) But Naked Singularity was uniquely special just because we were like, “Oh god, if this was 30 years ago, or 20 years ago maybe, we wouldn’t be here at all.” So that felt really, really special.
You also played the eponymous lead character in Paramount’s Pixie, which hasn’t made its way to the States yet, understandably.
Yeah, it’s a gangster comedy set in the west of Ireland. It’s about a woman who is on the run with a massive bag of MDMA, trying to avenge her mother. It’s silly, and it has this wicked Irish humor to it. I think it’s a lovely bit of escapism.
Since actors are often taught not to judge their characters, did you have a tough time wrapping your head around Pixie’s duplicitous ways?
Not really. Oftentimes, we see male characters doing the same things and we still root for them anyway. I probably celebrated and relished her manipulative, duplicitous side more than I should have. I wanted to show a more mischievous, unapologetic side [compared to previous roles]. I’ve played kind-hearted people, but I’ve also played sociopaths and murderers. So it was nice to paint with a different color.
Earlier this year, I interviewed another English actor who mentioned that the Irish accent was more difficult than most Americans might think. Did you have a similar experience with the Irish accent?
God, yeah. Plus, there’s the pressure of knowing that you will be put out to pasture by the Irish if you butcher it. I do the same when I hear an actor do a bad Mancunian accent. You also don’t want to be general. You want to hit vowel sounds and glottalizations that are specific to different areas in Ireland. There are so many different accents in the U.K. and Ireland, which is mental considering how small of an island it is and how we are all relatively on top of each other. Yet, an accent here — whether it’s because of culture or class — is a source of such pride and identity, so you have to treat it as such.
Sound of Metal is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
by Pamela McClintock
by Aaron Couch