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“I got this really incredible and very fast, intense education in indie filmmaking and the production of a film that is not a very commercial one,” says Olivia Wilde in reference to the making of Meadowland — Reed Morano‘s indie about a grieving mother that Wilde produced and stars in — as we sit down to record an episode of the Awards Chatter podcast. The project presented more than its fair share of challenges but Wilde insists, “I really enjoy fighting for something I believe in.”
The 31-year-old gets a lot of attention for her beauty and style — deservedly, no doubt — but not enough for her smarts, passion and class, which were on full display throughout this conversation, as they were in several others we’ve had over the last few years as she has focused on being her “best self” onscreen and off to great effect.
(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes with Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Benicio Del Toro and others — on iTunes.)
Wilde — born in New York, raised in Washington D.C. and trained in the theater in Ireland, where she has many relatives — knew from an early age that she wanted to be an actress. She says of her family members, many of whom are journalists (some quite famous), “They’re all storytellers, and I was just finding my own way of becoming a storyteller.” It was with her parents’ blessing that she first headed out to Los Angeles at 16 to intern in a casting office, and at the encouragement of two acting instructors that she returned to work there for a full year before college to figure out whether a life in L.A. and a career in the entertainment industry was something she wished to pursue.
The experience could have turned her off from a business that often is fickle and heartbreaking, but instead it left her “inspired.” As she recalls, “I realized what you needed, in order to succeed in such a competitive business, was to really harness your individuality and invest in your uniqueness and to really work hard.” After she participated in a few auditions, opportunities quickly arose — “for better or worse,” she says with a laugh. “I, at the time, had no idea that it was rare to get cast in a pilot, for the pilot to get picked up and then for it to actually go to series,” but that was precisely what she experienced with Skin, a Jerry Bruckheimer show on Fox. (See here.)
The show was canceled after only a few episodes, but the experience taught Wilde a lot. She’d been “put into the machine” of publicity, made to conform to market-tested looks and then sent out before a massive audience on a broadcast network. “But once we were canceled,” she says, “the phone stopped ringing immediately.” It was a crucial reminder that trying to please others was no more a guarantee of success than staying true to herself. “That was a very important part of the whole development.”
Not long after, she was back on the air, in a recurring guest role, as part of a TV show that worked — indeed, that was “a cultural phenomenon,” as she notes — The O.C. But while the high-profile gig offered her a sense of security, it wasn’t creatively fulfilling. That desire was satisfied on the weekends when she went to work on an indie film called Alpha Dog. “Once I was on the set of Alpha Dog with these incredible actors and an amazing director,” she says, “I felt that high that actors get.” And, she adds, “I knew, the second I felt it, that I had to leave The O.C. and chase that feeling.” In short, “It was another step along the way of figuring out what kind of a career was actually true to myself.”
Wilde acted in a few other indie films before accepting an opportunity to return to TV in Paul Haggis‘ The Black Donnellys. That experience brought her back to New York, where, following the show’s cancelation, she appeared in an off-Broadway show in which she played three characters — not for the paycheck, to be sure, but for the chance to act. Eventually, short on money, she accepted an offer to return to L.A. to shoot a few episodes of the TV show House — and ended up staying on the hit show for four years “playing a character who was defined by her intelligence and wit.”
“House was a gift,” Wilde says as she looks back on that period in her life. “It was such a fun run and I owe my career, in many ways, to those producers.” Why? “It put me on the radar for directors who probably never would have known who I was,” she says — and the producers were very accommodating when she began getting offers to star, on the side, in big films like Tron: Legacy opposite Jeff Bridges (“I’m really proud of that character,” an “isomorphic algorithm”) and for Jon Favreau in Cowboys & Aliens (“one of the most fun experiences of my life” even though it ended up bombing).
Between those two blockbusters, which came with a “corporate burden” that limited her creativity, she also shot an indie, Butter, in which she played a tattooed, goth stripper in middle America. “I was so thrilled to be back in that world,” she says, and around that time she sought advice from veteran actresses Carrie Fisher (“I was so inspired by her general attitude towards the machine”) and Julie Christie (“I was inspired by her very honest assessment of her own career”), after which she had a much better sense of her next steps. “I felt, after House, that I was ready for a shift. They were very kind to let me out of House early so that I could pursue that. And then it all kind of happened organically.”
In 2013, Wilde had a breakout year to remember: she played small parts in two big films — Ron Howard‘s Rush and Spike Jonze‘s Her, the latter of which was nominated for the best picture Oscar — and a big part in one small film, mumblecore icon Joe Swanberg‘s micro-budget Drinking Buddies. That film, which revolves around Chicago beer brewers, served as “a major turning point for me personally,” she says. Her ability to hold her own on a project that offered no script and demanded complete improvisation — something that terrified her at first, but that turned out to be “a really inspiring and fun process” — changed her concept of her own limitations. “It gave me a certain amount of confidence,” she says of the project, on which she also served as an executive producer. “It was totally thrilling.”
Drinking Buddies paved the way for Meadowland by “making it harder to take something I didn’t believe in,” Wilde says. When her agent sent her Chris Rossi‘s script — a story about a “brave and dangerous” mother grieving in the wake of her young son’s disappearance — she found it to be “life-affirming” and wanted to fight for it. Despite her agent’s warning that the part was “very competitive,” she arranged a meeting with Morano — a veteran cinematographer (Frozen River) who would be making her directorial debut on the project — and, over the course of three hours, made the case for why she should be given the chance.
After being told the part was hers, Wilde decided to push her luck even further. Inspired by Jennifer Garner, who had both starred in and produced Butter, she asked to be a producer of Meadowland, too. Morano was totally on board — and put her right to work helping to secure locations, casting and financing.
Wilde says that what they encountered, in trying to raise money for the film, was incredibly disheartening. She and Morano repeatedly were told that, even with an established actress and eminently qualified filmmaker on board, financing would not come into place unless/until a “name” male actor signed on as well. “We kept hearing, ‘Once [you] have the guy, it’ll come together,’ ” she says — and it turned out to be the case. It only came together after Luke Wilson, who had starred in The Skeleton Twins, which Morano shot, joined the project.
“There exists, even if it is subconscious on many levels, a stigma against women as directors,” Wilde says. “The assumption is they will not work as hard, or that they will not be as easy to control — I think it’s truly the latter. There’s an assumption that young male filmmakers are easily manipulated and can be abused into following whatever the financier or the studio wants to happen. I know that’s changing, I know there’s a lot of goodwill behind this movement, but unfortunately institutionalized sexism is not something that’s going to just change because we say we really care about female filmmakers. It takes real work on behalf of society. We need to turn inward and say, ‘Why do we make these assumptions about women?'”
After financing finally was in place, the project almost fell apart for completely unrelated reasons. “My kid almost ruined it for me,” Wilde says with a laugh. She became pregnant by her fiance Jason Sudeikis — which she was “thrilled” about, of course. “But I thought, ‘Oh, my God. We have this tentative start-date and I can’t do it.’ I thought, ‘Can this role be done pregnant? [No.] It’s too dark. She can’t have lost a child and be grieving and be very pregnant. And how will I produce and star? I don’t know how I can do it.’ Maybe I could’ve pulled it off, I don’t know. But I called Reed.”
The conversation that Wilde dreaded proved to be anything but horrible: “She said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s great! That’s awesome! That’s the perfect preparation for this role — you couldn’t have done better research!’ And she agreed to hold the film. I mean, that’s kind of staggering. I said, ‘Listen, I will stay on as producer, we can hire another actress, we can keep the start-date, let’s do it.’ And she said, ‘No, no, no, no — no one else is Sarah. It can’t be done.’ ” Wilde adds, “I think it was at that point that we became real partners.”
As it turned out, Morano was right: Wilde, in her own view, was better equipped for the part after giving birth to her son, Otis, in April 2014. “I fell in love with the script as a person who wasn’t a parent,” she says. “But it just got so much deeper once I felt that for myself … It allowed me to truly grasp the depth of loss that [her character] felt.”
The film ultimately was shot on a budget of $2.3 million over 22 days, with Morano not only directing and serving as cinematographer but even operating the camera herself (as Steven Soderbergh, Cary Fukunaga and few others do). “In the end,” Wilde says, “we ended up with the producers who believed in the film, the money we needed to make it and the cast we could only dream of.” Her takeaway? “If you stay true to the basic core of your vision, you’ll end up with the film you want,” she says. “I felt such enormous pride every day that we had made it happen.”
Wilde next will be seen playing an ex-Factory Girl type artist on HBO’s highly-anticipated Vinyl, a series produced by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter — and, coincidentally, lensed by Morano — that’s set in 1973 New York. “Here I am again, going back to TV,” she says with a laugh. “And yet TV has changed.” Also, she reveals, she’ll soon be making her directorial debut — “I want to direct, so I’ve optioned some material that I’m going to develop and direct,” she says. And she looks forward to producing again, as well. “I really enjoyed the process so I’m putting together another project,” she says, adding, “I think actors should produce at least one time in their careers because once you’ve produced, you have a different attitude about a day of work — you’re aware of the Herculean effort that went into making it possible. It is a fucking miracle that any movie happens.”
Meadowland was released by Cinedigm on Oct. 16 and now is available for streaming on VOD. Awards voters are being asked to consider Wilde for best actress.
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