While it’s great that Olivia Wilde is getting such big supporting roles as of late, it’s only a matter of time before she becomes a headliner. Remarkably beautiful, talented and smart, she’s the full package and it won’t be very long until writers start scripting their female characters with her in mind. But until then, we get to see her as an asskicking cowgirl in Cowboys & Aliens.
During my trip to Missoula, Montana, I and a small group of other journalists had the chance to sit down with the actress to discuss her part in the upcoming Jon Favreau film. Check out the interview below in which Wilde discusses doing her own stunts, playing mysterious characters, and why Daniel Craig didn’t like people calling his blaster a bracelet.
You said when you were working on Tron you found Joan of Arc to be your template. For this, did you find anything that was a hook for Ella like that?
Interestingly enough, I kept Joan of Arc a little bit and used her for Ella as well. The idea of a martyr, of a warrior being willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater cause definitely held over from Tron into Cowboys & Aliens. Maybe I’m attracted to those characters. It was really fun doing research for this, because not only did I have ideas like that for her, but I got to do a lot of research about women of the Old West, nineteenth century women, whether they were prospectors, ranch hands, cowgirls, madams. It was very tough to be anyone in the Old West, but particularly women. I loved that Ella, the character in Cowboys & Aliens, was unusual in that she was none of those things from all those classic western films. She was a gun-slinging woman who was very mysterious, because she’s wearing this prairie dress — she has no corset, she doesn’t fit the look already. She’s wearing this gun — why is she wearing a gun? Why is she alone? She can ride with the men just as good or better, and she’s holding this big secret. I loved that she was an unusual character in the genre, and I love that she would be creating a new type of female character for the genre that young women could look up to. Certainly when I was growing up and watching Westerns I identified with the men — I wanted to be Steve McQueen. I didn’t have any women I identified with. I hoped — and I still hope — that Ella can be that for young women. We kept that in mind while we were shooting. That’s also something I thought about during ‘Tron.’ Maybe that’s just my process: Joan of Arc, badass woman.
In addition to martyrs and that tone that you go for, is it you that seeks out mysterious or secretive characters? Do they come to you?
They come to me. I think every great character has a great secret; I think that’s the trick to creating a great character in a film. I always try to pick one secret that the person is holding. I think it makes more interesting and layered that what you’re saying is not always what you’re thinking. Sometimes a secret is bigger than others. Both for Tron and Cowboys, she’s holding a big secret. I must seek them out some way, although I feel very lucky that Jon Favreau came to me with this project. It was a coup because there were many highly qualified actresses who wanted this role, wanted to be a part of this project. It came to me in a strange way, and I was really thrilled that it did. I ended up feeling I was born to play this role, and it’s certainly my favorite role I’ve ever played.
Can you talk about the strange way it came to you?
The script landed very mysteriously on my doorstep at midnight. I looked outside, and I thought, Cowboys & Aliens? I read it in an hour and a half. It had a letter in it that described who was involved, and I thought, “Wow, we’ve got the perfect storm of genius involved.” We’ve got Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Jon Favreau, Bob Orci, Alex Kurtzman, all these people who I really respected. I read it and I found it so unpredictable and so interesting. The movie takes this turn at a certain point, and my character in particular takes a big turn. There’s this very shocking and interesting climactic moment. I was fascinated, and then I met with Jon, and he had seen me in a movie that was not very successful that his children really liked called Year One with Jack Black. They had been playing it incessantly in their hotel room in Hawaii. He kept seeing it and in the background he would notice there was a strange princess of Sodom — that was me. He found something intriguing about me, I suppose, and that’s what got me in the room. You never know with films, what will lead to what. I feel that it was all meant to be and it brought me here. In the end I think I was the right person for the job, I hope. I worked very hard.
When you got the script, you did not know the turn that your character had?
When you got to that point, what did you do?
I was like, “What? She what? Oh, okay, good.” Without giving anything away, it was a little bit scary for a moment. I was like, “No, she can’t — oh. That’s good.” I thought, “How cool.” It’s great she saunters into the film in a very unassuming way. She’s trying to fit into the background because she doesn’t want to draw any attention to herself; she’s got a very specific mission. In that very classic Western way, she’s the person in the shadows who then steps into the light and is ready to throw down. Then she becomes much more active in the story. I loved how humble she was about the whole thing. I think she’s a very Zen-like character; I really like her.
I think when there’s a high-profile female character in a Western, there usually ends up being a romance. You absolutely step away from that to the point that the only reason you kiss once is purely to clear your mind.
Yeah, a very specific purpose — I think there’s a fly in my eye. That’s the thing about having junkets in a field. Nothing about this movie is typical, and it would have been too typical to have it be about the romance. Even when Ella first meets Jake in that bar, it’s a seduction scene of sorts, but she’s not looking to seduce him to bring him into her bed; she’s trying to glean information from him. He is the secret she’s been looking for, and she’s desperate to get inside his memory. She knows that she’s going to have to keep him there, and she can’t believe her luck that he landed right there. She’s been searching through the West, through these towns to find some clue as to where these aliens are. She finds Jake, and he’s wearing this bracelet — or blaster; he hates when I call it a bracelet.
‘Bracelet’ sounds a little too girly.
Right, or ‘jewelry.’
‘Blaster’ sounds good.
Exactly. I love that scene, and we worked on it for a long time in pre-production. We really had fun in the writing process, which was very collaborative, which was thrilling for me to sit with these people and collaborate. We sat there going over that scene and taking out more and more dialogue, because we thought, “No, it’s all going to be in the looks.” There’s nothing like looking into Daniel Craig’s eyes, which is pretty amazing. I think this scene ends up being so charged because not much is said. She’s not just trying to sleep with him, and he’s not trying to sleep with her. They both have their missions, and she knows what she needs to do to make him stay. Smash him on the head.
It’s interesting that you put it in those terms, because she does mimic no female characters or archetypal female characters in Westerns. She also mirrors The Man with No Name. She is as silent as Jake and as mysterious. Do you think that’ll play into what you were saying earlier about hoping it becomes a role model?
I hope so, yeah. I think it proves that those roles can be women, that it doesn’t have to fit into the usual mold. I think that something like Bond is a good example. We think of Bond being a man, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a woman. I think someone just has to do it. Maybe that’s what Angelina did with Salt; maybe it’ll happen with the future. It takes someone actually taking a risk and creating that character that’s usually inhabited by men to prove that it can be a woman as well.
In this film, you’re shooting with James Bond and Indiana Jones and Han Solo. Are you actively looking for something where it’s a character you could play in a variety of films and there be some gentleman actor sitting with us talking about how they really helped refine your journey and it wasn’t conventional romance and they added a lot to the arc of your heroic character?
Absolutely I’m looking for that. I think so. We’re making our way; we’re making great strides in this business in terms of having female characters take on those roles. Hopefully in the future it will be the other way around, or at least a little more even playing field.
You’re also getting a reputation as being the possible next big science fiction leading lady.
You’ve punched Daniel in the nuts; you’ve been in Cowboys & Aliens and massive role in Tron. Are there any other parts you want to see in science fiction specifically that you would like to tackle?
Oh, gosh. I grew up as a Trekkie, which is really funny. I think Star Trek, they were always great female roles, but there’s no reason the captain shouldn’t be a woman. I think we could do Captain Kirk as a woman. I’m really glad they’re doing Alien again, because Alien had a huge effect on me as an actor and Sigourney is someone I look up to very much. I think that’s really cool, that that’s happening. Hopefully that’ll continue to happen. I think there’s some great sci-fi films in the works that have some really interesting female roles. It takes people really taking risks and understanding that the public will go see a movie starring a woman. There’s this strange idea that the public won’t go see female-driven movies, that they won’t pay as much money for it. I don’t think that’s true; I think they will, and I think Sigourney proved that. Similarly in comedy, Kristen Wiig has just proven that. We’re moving forward, and hopefully I’ll get to do more sci-fi roles and take on more of the burden on my shoulders in terms of playing the lead as opposed to the wise, helpful female sidekick.
Can you talk about some of the practical action and effects? You said that doing the scene on the horseback ride, getting lassoed, was —
Wild. Wow. That moment was crazy, and we did it about 12 times. The great thing about this movie was we really were working with practical sets. The only blue screen was really the aliens, which was the secondary element. Really, it’s about the Western world. We’re actually riding, galloping across these deserts into canyons, and shooting guns in these dusty towns — dealing with the elements, which was the challenge of actually working out in the open. We’d be in the middle of a scene and a hurricane would be approaching or a mini-tornado or lightning. We had a lightning meter on set that was always going off, and we’d be deciding how close we could push it to extreme danger or flash floods. That made it exciting. That was part of what made westerns so interesting as a genre when they were born: It was people taking cameras outside, and they were pioneers, really. They were taking a huge risk, and they were learning about new ways to position the cameras, to capture action, if you think of a movie like Stagecoach and what they were able to shoot there. I thought it was really exciting that we were out there taking a risk, taking these big cameras out into the middle of nowhere and a bunch of horses and guns and hoping it all worked out.
My favorite sound was riding, galloping on a horse next to Daniel in between two cranes, and I had my feet out of the stirrups and my hands very loosely on the reigns because I had a bungee cord attached to my back that at one point, unbeknownst to me, would be yanked back, and I’d be pulled 40 feet into the air as if I had been lassoed by an alien. It was wild because they were originally going to be doing it with a stunt double, then I looked at it and I thought, “That looks really fun. Can I try it?” I always make friends with the stunt team; I always think they are the coolest people on set. Tommy Harper, who was our stunt coordinator, went to Favreau and said, “I think she can do it.” They rigged me up, and everybody’s sitting there biting their nails like, “Oh my god, what are we doing?” I did it, and then I did it 11 more times. It was so wild because once I was up there, I had to stay up there waiting for them to reset. I was floating 40 feet above this set, and I could see for miles: I could see the mountains and the canyons and the desert, and then our little film crew down there. I thought, “How wild that we’re out here doing this.” Then they’d bring me down and we’d do it all over again. It was really a thrill to be trusted by this team to do those things.
You’re human. Day two, day five, day 14, day 19 of wearing the same dress and no makeup and being vaguely filthy — does that start to wear a little bit?
So much better than a rubber suit. I would rather wear a little cotton prairie dress than that suit any day. It was wild not to be wearing a lot of makeup, too, and to have my hair just down and simple. I thought that was cool too. It also sets Ella apart from the classic Western female character and I had a lot of fun with that, being very bare. I look like me more in this movie than I do in any other, which was interesting. It was also a challenge, riding the horse in the big skirt with the gun. I had this giant bruise in my hip bone from the gun slamming against my hip, but I didn’t want to complain because no one else was complaining about bruises on their hips. I limped along and held my head up high.
It was really cool to learn to do all those things. I love the look of Ella: They didn’t put me in a corset, which was really nice of them. Mary Zophres was our costume designer. She does the Coen brothers movies; she did True Grit as well — she’s amazing. She knows a lot about Westerns, and she was very true to the actual historical accurate clothing. I think that’s a really good look for everyone: I think guys have never looked better, and I loved those vests. I thought the watches and the vests and the pants and the chaps — definitely the chaps. I really appreciated not having to wear a corset, which was unusual and inaccurate, which was great for Ella. It was like she didn’t bother with the corset; she’s not concerned with that. I thought, ‘How great that our producers aren’t concerned with adding any voluptuousness to me.’ They would allow me just to look like little me, and it was great. It was much easier to wear than anything I’ve worn in the past.
Were you disappointed when, after Tron, angled bangs did not take off?
What do you mean? Yes they have. I have them. It was wild to see how the Tron aesthetic did take off, though. We started seeing it in a lot of different places, on runways and certainly some hairstyles. Kanye — that was wild. I was like, “Whoa!” The Black Eyed Peas. Tron has always had that effect on people — look at Daft Punk. It resonates with pop culture. I think it’s cool. I wonder if that will happen with Westerns. I think that the Western look comes back into fashion every once in a while; it is right now, and it’s perfect timing for us. A little fringe never hurts. I think that it’s a good look, and it’s something uniquely American, which was certainly an exciting thing about this movie. It felt like a rite of passage for an American actor to play in a Western. We were talking about this earlier, but when I came up as an actress, I loved Westerns growing up and I mourned the end of the genre. I thought, ‘How weird, I’ll never get to do that; that’s something that’s in the past. I might get to do an Elizabethan drama — we still make those, but we don’t do Westerns.’ That’s always something I wanted to do. I’m really happy that they decided to start making them again. I hope this inspires other people to do it.
Did you guys spend time talking about the back story of your character?
Oh yes. Pages and pages and pages and pages. I do. I always do that for my characters, particularly the ones that have this mysterious past that are never really fleshed out in the script. In order to give a good performance, I think you have to be very sure of where you’ve been and what you’ve been through. I do have a clear idea of what happened to Ella and her family. I would really love the opportunity to do a sequel for this movie. We all worked so hard on these characters that I think there’s a lot of story there to explore. I know that our creative team has gotten excited about that idea, too. Spielberg has some cool ideas for it. We’ll see — it’s up to the people.
Since you’ve acted in every medium, some actors talk about different skill sets for being on stage or television or the screen. Can you talk about that in the context of the fact that high school drama department, you don’t learn to ride horses or get pulled off of a horse on a bungee cord.
Did you have any experience that helped you do those things, or did you strap in and do it?
I was lucky I’ve been riding my whole life. That was a real lucky thing; that’s probably how I got the part. Life is the best training for these types of movies, and being fearless, I think if you are a good actor, it means you’ve been observing humanity pretty closely your whole life. Being through more experiences helps you better depict different types of experiences. The interesting thing is that my recent education in green screen through Tron and a little bit with Cowboys certainly, at the end of the movie we were shooting inside a Universal soundstage with some blue screen. I used my theatre training for that, because when you’re staring at a piece of pink tape and it’s supposed to be an alien ship, you can really create anything you want for your imagination to take off and to achieve any emotional state. You can project whatever you need to. It’s almost better than having something built there for you. The great thing is, if there’s a scene with three actors, each actor can have something completely different in mind. I find that to be very close to my theatre training. It does all help in the end, even though doing ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ senior year of high school wouldn’t seem to be helpful doing Tron: Legacy or Cowboys & Aliens, it actually all comes together as good experience, good training.