At this point, talk of “brave” performances seems to be an awards-season cliché. But Olivia Wilde is an actress who fully merits that descriptor—her performance in Meadowland as a woman undone, struggling to cope with the unexpected loss of her young son, is not only brave but also outright fearless.
Wilde loved the role so much she took on double duty as producer on the drama, presenting her with the logistical challenges of indie production to match her emotional ones.”Every actor should at some point in their lives produce and/or direct because it certainly fuels your resolve on set as an actor to do the best job you can. Because you’re suddenly very aware of what a miracle it is to get a movie done,” she says.
The result speaks for itself; acclaimed DP Reed Morano’s directorial debut, which garnered her a Best Cinematography nom at the Indie Sprits, features some of the finest performances of the year. Below, Wilde discusses the aspects of the script that compelled her, the excitement in working with fledgling artists, and what she takes away from this familial tragedy being a new mother herself.
How did you first hear about the project and why did you want to take on the difficult lead role in the film?
I got the script from my agent, called him immediately and said, “What is this? I want this. I love this character. I love this script. What’s going on with it?” And he said, “Reed Morano is directing it.” Being a well-known DP–one of the only female DPs, a DP with such distinct style that she has a following even before becoming a director–people knew she had a voice and an eye that was very exciting.
I went into this meeting knowing that it was competitive, and maybe it made me a little more determined in my approach, but it all happened very organically because once I sat down with Reed, she and I connected immediately. What was supposed to be a 45-minute sit-down turned into three-plus hours at the Bowery Hotel in New York. We agreed on how the approach to this character should be and how we didn’t over-judge this character, though she was doing unsympathetic things.
I asked Reed if I could read for her because I knew that she was going to be pulled in other directions, casting-wise. There were a lot of actresses who had done this type of film before who were obviously being considered before me. I said, “Listen, I get that, but I just want to show you my take on this.” So now we joke that I kidnapped her for the role because I forced her to come to my house. It was something that I had never experienced before–maybe only with Spike Jonze–that even in an audition setting, they show you a different side of your own performance that you didn’t realize existed. They are able to pull another interpretation out of you in a very short period of time, even not on the actual set, so it was exciting, and that’s how it all started.
The script is filled with beautiful imagery but is otherwise fairly minimalistic, in an interesting way. What was it that spoke to you?
What struck me was the unpredictable nature of the script. I found it to feel almost like a thriller, reading it. I didn’t know what this character was going to do because I found her to be capable of almost anything. She’s slipping into madness in a way that made her very dangerous. And the way I think about it is that she lives in that very dangerous realm of depression when people lose the instincts for self-preservation, and I think that only happens with extreme pain.
So I found it to be unpredictable in its nature, and I thought that was impressive for a story that had been told in different ways before. I liked that it was more an exploration of grief and pain and what we’re capable of when we’re lost within it. I loved the character of Sarah in so many ways, but I loved that she was not written to be likable or sympathetic. She was, in many ways, cold and responding to grief in a sort of inappropriate and anti-social way, and I thought that was an interesting sort of gender flip, because typically, women are expected to grieve in a more nurturing way. I like that this story was focusing on a couple that seemed to be grieving in opposite ways. And Phil, the husband, was taking on the more feminine role.
Meadowland is Reed Morano’s directorial debut and Chris Rossi’s first screenplay credit. Is there something about working with newer or developing artists that’s exciting, or brings an added energy to the process?
I enjoy when people show up to work really excited and grateful to be there, and when you’re working with new artists, there tends to be an inherent enthusiasm for the process, which is absolutely necessary when you’re pulling together a film of this size. You need everyone to share that new appreciation for every moment we actually have to make the film. That can happen with a veteran–I’ve also now worked with Martin Scorsese, who has made dozens of films and still somehow maintains that enthusiasm. I think it’s the goal for us never to become jaded. But yes, I find that working with new artists, you do get this energy that comes from a place of gratitude.
You had your first child just prior to filming. How did that impact the experience for you?
It made it a lot more intense. I found myself going home at the end of the night and feeling incredibly grateful to be alive, and to have my son, and for him to be alive. People have asked me after every single screening how I could possibly work on this film while having a new child and did I go home depressed every day? But of course, it’s the opposite. I went home so elated because I had recognized my good fortune. Sometimes it takes the exploration of darkness to recognize light. I find that it’s important for people to engage in the more difficult stories to be able to recognize the positive parts of life.
It brought my interpretation of the character to another level because, although I had confidence that I could have played this character without having a child, and I think Luke Wilson did a tremendous job of playing a father without being an actual father, I found that it allowed me to understand the depths of her pain and loss, and I understood the instinct to dislodge oneself from society, and to feel like there’s nothing left for one within that society. I can imagine the isolation of that pain would be so powerful that even within the most crowded place in New York City, I’d feel completely alone, and I needed to be able to understand and empathize with her completely in order to play her.
It was not a character I could judge, and certainly that’s the goal, right? We should never judge our characters, even if you’re playing a horrendous villain. But sometimes it’s harder than others–even when there is the kidnapping of a child, I found myself empathizing with her completely. Having a child myself helped me be able to do that.
In spite of your gratitude, I have to imagine that there were times when you felt the huge weight of the sorrow that fills this story on a deep level. Is going to those dark places one of the hardest things to do as an actress?
It’s extremely hard because the further the departure from your own life, the more focus and relaxation is necessary, and the more risky it is because you are jumping off a cliff within yourself, and you have to do that with abandon. The point of doing it is not just this masochistic exercise; the point of doing it is that there are millions of people in the world experiencing extreme loss and pain and struggling every day, and it is our job as storytellers to reflect that side of humanity; We, being the fortunate ones who have the ability to do so, have a responsibility to do so. That’s what inspired me throughout.
Was there a most difficult scene to shoot, from an emotional standpoint?
There were so many, and they were hard for different reasons, but the scene by the side of the road, where I finally get the news of what’s happened to my kid, was logistically very difficult–emotionally, yes, kind of exhausting, but I also had to do the scene in a very short period of time because we had to lock down this massive road in Jersey that is actually a thoroughfare for 18-wheelers. We had about three minutes of traffic lockdown to get one take, so it wasn’t like I could spend a few minutes finding my moment.
I had to pull that car over, get out of the car, do the scene, get back in the car, and get the f*ck out of the way, because a massive truck was about to run us down. So that was challenging because that’s the kind of tricky moment for a film or television actor that you don’t find on stage. Those are the skills we master for the screen because it is necessary to be able to snap into character quite quickly when you’re dealing with the logistical challenges of the set. You are creating this in-sync world, and it may be completely shot out of sequence, but you have moments to capture what may be the emotional crux of the film. You have to be able to just get there regardless of the situation around you.
Being a producer on the film helped me with that challenge because I was intimately aware of what had gone into the logistics of getting us there, and so it allowed me to have a certain ownership over that challenge, so that I mastered it. I believe that is why every actor should at some point in their lives produce and/or direct because it certainly fuels your resolve on set as an actor to do the best job you can. Because you’re suddenly very aware of what a miracle it is to get a movie done.
Was the film shot in sequence? When were you shooting the scenes at the beginning of the film with the actor playing your child?
No, we started in the school and did about a week getting everything there. I think that’s when Luke Wilson arrived and started his work, and that’s when we moved to the scene with Jesse disappearing. I have to hand it to Luke. It was his first day of work. He had to lose his child on his first day of work and he was so game, so present. He brings a really focused, calm energy to set, and I found that tremendously helpful. He’s also a very generous actor. There was nothing demonstrative about his approach; It was all very honest. I really like working with comedians because they’re always on their toes. They’re boxers.
What can you tell us about your upcoming projects, Vinyl and Black Dog, Red Dog?
Vinyl is Terry Winter’s new HBO series, and Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese are producers. It’s great. I actually just watched the pilot this morning and it blew my mind. I’m still kind of high off of it. But it is a tremendous project. The cast is insane, incredible, and actually by a stroke of good fortune, Reed Morano was our DP on Vinyl. So I was able to leave the set of Meadowland and have my partner, because Reed and I really, truly became partners on that film. I was able to go to my new job and have her there, too, so we’re kind of going through post-production of Meadowland while working together on Vinyl, which was really fun. She’s such a good DP, but I wanted to talk about range–just the way she shot Meadowland with a very specific palate and style, and then Vinyl being a completely different world, 1973 New York, very gritty, about the music scene, which is a very different tone set by Scorsese, who directed the pilot.
Black Dog, Red Dog is James Franco’s production he put together based on different artists and students he had worked with. He asked me to come on board and it was a wonderful opportunity– a very New York moment–when someone says, “Can you come to the East Village and shoot?” “Yeah, man.” I come play an interesting character and improvise and have fun. I actually haven’t seen that project. Whereas Meadowland is my baby, there are other projects that you kind of jump into, offer your best self for a couple of days, and then you’re out.