Most auteurs prefer their starlets to be seen and not heard, but as any good writer or filmmaker knows, your actors only elevate the material on screen. With Olivia Wilde, Vinyl creators Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Terence Winter and Rich Cohen found a lynch-pin collaborator, who infused more blood and guts into her character Devon— a 1970s free spirit femme and wife to rock label czar Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale)—than possibly imagined.
After playing all sides in an array of genres including TRON: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens, Rush and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Devon was a role that harnessed Wilde’s entire core, exposing the shades, hues and warts of a tortured spouse who has outgrown her time. Even though Vinyl didn’t meet HBO’s expectations with the network bailing on a second season after severing ties with Winter on the series, we can’t forget the breathless on-screen chemistry between Wilde and Cannavale; a a counter-culture Taylor and Burton.
In directing the pilot for Vinyl, Scorsese yearned for Devon to be something more than just the unhappy housewife to an unhinged, cocaine-addled music exec. “Marty doesn’t see his females as accessories to men,” said Wilde. “I found him to be an incredible feminist, treating his male and female characters equally.”
When Devon cops Richie after a guitar playing, drunken bender in their den at the end of the pilot, Wilde thought, “I think there’s more there.” So, she pitched Scorsese something that wasn’t in the script on the day of the shoot. “I drank whiskey and spat in Bobby [Cannavale]’s face,” says Wilde, “Marty walked up to me after and said, ‘Now, she’s somebody.’”
Wilde forged a shorthand with Scorsese during an audition for The Wolf of Wall Street. She was up for the role of Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife—another domestic damsel who endures a monstrous alpha male better-half—a part that went to Margot Robbie. It was during Wilde’s screen test that she found, “Marty and I had good sense of communication. It was so thrilling to see how he works. He’s so clear about what he’s looking for and open to what you present, which is rare [in a director]. And he’s someone who is really observing and listening to the actor.” As such, it comes as no surprise to hear that Wilde didn’t have to read for the role of Devon. She was already a shoo-in.
Wilde’s Devon on Vinyl is essentially the Factory girl that left Andy Warhol’s building. A promising fashionista photographer entrenched in the ’70s Gotham party scene, she’s an amalgamation of British Invasion songwriter-performer Marianne Faithfull and Factory gal Edie Sedgwick in regards to her art.
“She has this love for photography and an understanding of musicians, and is sensitive to the artist’s way,” says Wilde, who also likens Devon to photographer Annie Leibovitz. “Women today can only exist in an independent way because of the social revolution promoted by [women like] Devon. They found themselves to be part of the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, thus facing the consumerism of the 1970s, whereby they had to figure out a balance between living independently and the life of a mother.”
In some ways, Devon was the ‘what-if’ spin on Sedgwick, who was estranged from Warhol’s circle and met a tragic fate at 28. What if Sedgwick accepted Bob Dylan’s invitation to move up to Woodstock, NY for a better career and life, leaving her debaucherous one at the Factory behind? Devon’s move to Greenwich, CT with Richie is a partial dramatization of that fantasy.
“For Devon, I wanted there to be a strong sense of where she came from. She was an artist who was energized by chaos and an experimental sense of adventure; someone who never fit in the norm of society. I knew from early on that there had to be a reason behind her shift; why Richie and her moved to Greenwich. There was a traumatic event that changed the course of her life, to make that sacrifice in episode six where she’s pregnant with their first child and she loses it and their best friend in a car crash.”
In Cannavale, Wilde found a fellow actor who could emotionally flip on a dime, and tap into an icy rage; something she could draw from. “He’s creative, loose and eager to play. That comes from his years working in the theater,” says Wilde.
Both actors were adamant that their connection onscreen had to be sublimely passionate. They could light each other’s fires, and yet were capable of destroying each other. While Richie battles a world that’s falling apart around him through coke and booze (his depreciating record label, not to mention he’s a suspect in a radio kingpin’s murder), Devon battles the mediocrity of suburbia and contends with her crazed man. Wilde credits Winter’s choice in making Richie a different type of guy from Tony Soprano: “Richie can’t bring himself to cheat on Devon, and that’s something that separates him from other antiheroes. Richie and Devon’s conflict is different.”
The scene where Devon and Richie meet each other at the Velvet Underground for the first time, and make love in the bathroom, was a crucial moment for the actors in regards to establishing their footing with the duo’s intensity.
“No pun, it was the big bang scene when the two of them collide,” explains Wilde. “Bobby had a lot of patience in this scene, performing it with no self-consciousness or nervousness. We maintained a real awareness of what we were trying to tell in that moment.”
When most marriages fall apart, quite often the reasons for their unwinding were already there before they even realized it. Wilde and Cannavale wanted to play the reality of that. One flashback early on in the series showed Devon and Richie fighting soon after they arrived in Greenwich. He wanted another child; she yearned to work. Rather than play the scene in shouts, the actors expressed their intention to play the drama in a flirty, pillow talk type of way.
“It was one of the conversations early on in a marriage, where as a couple they didn’t realize the truth the other was saying. It’s when you don’t hear what your spouse is telling you, when you’re distracted by the haziness and newness of love,” says the actress.
Looking back on that scene, Wilde adds, “Bobby was in touch with that and understood it with these characters, and we were able to create this beautiful scene.”