A couple of weeks ago, I was dispatched to the picturesque region known as Missoula, Montana, for a couple of days to see and interview the primaries of a little film opening this week called COWBOYS & ALIENS. Weirdly enough, all four of the people we got to meet with were all folks I had interviewed before, but there was something just a little more fun about the setting and the movie. I don't traditionally do junket interviews outside of Chicago (this was only my second), and I don't do roundtables at all any longer, but I've been beyond eager to see COWBOYS & ALIENS since director Jon Favreau teased a little footage at last year's San Diego Comic-Con. Plus, seeing the film a week earlier than its premiere in San Diego this past Saturday meant I could free up my time to do something else at Comic-Con.
Needless to say, the trip was relaxing and the company was exceptional. Oh, and the movie is great too. The first of the four interviews I'm going to post is with the busiest woman in show business, Olivia Wilde, whom I had just met a couple months ago on the set of an indie she made with Eric Bana called BLACKBIRD. At both meetings, I was immediately struck by Wilde's poise, intelligence, clear sense of her craft, and inner geek. And, in a certain light, I can see how some people might find her drop-dead gorgeous.
In the film, she plays the mysterious Ella, who seems to know more about the identity and history of Daniel Craig's character than he does. We had a great time picking her brain about COWBOYS & ALIENS and her career path in general. Keep in mind that not all of the questions are mine, but I think you'll enjoy our conversation with Olivia Wilde…
Olivia Wilde: Hello!
[Everyone says Hello.]
Question: You had said that when you were working on TRON you found Joan of Arc to be a great archetype to use as a template. Did you find anything that was a hook for Ella like that?
OW: Interestingly enough, I sort of 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 great cause definitely held over from TRON into COWBOYS & ALIENS, and maybe I am attracted to those characters. But 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, 19th century women, whether they were prospectors, ranch hands, cowgirls, madams. It was very tough to be anyone in the Old West, but particularly women, and I loved that Ella, the character in COWBOYS & ALIENS, was unusual in that she was none of those things really from all of the classic kind of western films.
She was a gun-slinging woman who was very mysterious, because she’s wearing this prairie dress, she has no corset, she sort of doesn’t fit the look already and 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. So, I loved that she was an unusual character in this genre and I loved that she would be creating a new type of female character for this genre that young women could look up to, because 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 that I identified with, so I hoped that--and I still hope--that Ella can be that for young women. We kept that in mind while we were shooting, and that’s also something I thought about during TRON. So maybe that’s just my process: Joan of Arc, badass women.
Question: In addition to martyrs and that sort of tone that you go for or that you reach back to, is it you that seeks out mysterious or secretive characters, or do they come to you?
OW: 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 it more interesting and layered that what you are saying is not always what you are thinking, and sometimes the secret is bigger than others. Both for TRON and COWBOYS, she's holding a big secret. I don’t know, I must seek them out in some way, although I feel very lucky that Jon Favreau came to me with this project and it was sort of a coup, because there were many highly qualified actresses who wanted this role and wanted to be a part of this project. So it came to me in a strange way, and I was really, really thrilled that it did, because I ended up feeling I was born to play this role, and it's certainly my favorite role I’ve every played.
Question: Can you talk about the strange way that it came to you?
OW: Well the script landed very mysteriously on my doorstep at midnight, and I looked outside and I though “COWBOYS & ALIENS?” And I read it in an hour and a half, and it had a letter with 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 of these people who I really respected, and I read it and 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, and there’s this very sort of shocking and interesting climactic moment.
So I was fascinated and then I met with Jon, and he had seen me in a movie that was not very successful, but that his children really liked called YEAR ONE with Jack Black, and they had been playing it incessantly in their hotel room in Hawaii, and he kept seeing it and in the background he would notice there was a strange Princess of Sodom, that was me. And he sort of found something intriguing about me I suppose, and that’s what got me in the room. So you never know in films what will lead to what, but I feel that it was all meant to be, and it brought me here and in the end I think I was the right person for the job I hope and I worked very hard.
Capone: Without ruining anything, when you got the script you did not know the turn that your character was going to take?
Capone: So when you got to that point, what did you do?
OW: I was like, “What? She what? Huh? Okay, good!” [Laughs] That’s without giving anything away, it was a little bit scary for a moment. I was like “No, she can’t… oh… Oh that’s good.” But I thought “How cool.” It’s great, she sort of saunters into the film in a very unassuming way. She’s trying to fade into the background, because she doesn’t want to draw any attention to herself. She’s got a very specific mission and in that very classic western way she is the person in the shadows who then steps into the light and is ready to throw down. But then she becomes much more active in the story, and I loved how humble she was about the whole thing. I think she’s a very zen-like character. I really like her.
Capone: When there is a high-profile female character in a western, she usually ends up being a romantic interest, and Ella absolutely steps away from that to the point where the only reason you [and Daniel Craig] even kiss once is purely to clear his mind.
OW: Right, it’s for a very specific purpose. Yeah, 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 into bringing him into her bed; she’s trying to glean information from him. He is the secret she has been looking for, and she is desperate to get inside his memory and she knows that she is 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, and she finds Jake, and he’s wearing this bracelet or “blaster.” [Craig] hates when I call it a bracelet.
Question: Blaster sounds butch.
OW: [Laughs] Exactly! I just love that scene, and we worked on it for a long time in preproduction. We really had fun in the writing process, which was very collaborative, which was kind of thrilling for me to sit with these people and collaborate. But 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,” and there’s nothing like looking into Daniel Craig’s eyes. It was pretty amazing and I think that this scene ends up being so charged, because not much is said, and 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, which is smack him on the head.
Question: It’s interesting that you put it in those terms, because she does sort of mimic no female characters or the archetypal female characters in westerns, and she also mirrors kind of “The Man with No Name.”
Question: She is as silent as Jake and as mysterious. Do you think that that will play into what you were saying earlier about hoping it becomes a role model?
OW: I hope so, yeah. I think it proves that those roles can be women, that it doesn’t have to fit into the usual molds. I think that something like Bond is a good example. We think of Bond as being a man, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a woman. I think someone just has to do it and I think maybe that’s what Angelina [Jolie] did with SALT. Maybe it will happen in the future, but 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.
Question: In this film you are shooting with James Bond, you are shooting with Indiana Jones, and Han Solo, which is a great combo pack, I mean are you actively looking for something where it’s a character you could play in a variety of films, and there be some gentlemen actors sitting with us talking about how they really refine your journey, and it wasn’t just a conventional romance and they added a lot to the arch of your heroic character?
OW: Absolutely, I’m looking for that.
Question: Okay, well played. Good.
OW: I think so. I think we are making our way. I think we are making great strides in this business in terms of having female characters take on those roles, and I think yeah hopefully in the future it will be the other way around or at least a more even playing field.
Question: But you are also kind of getting this amazing reputation as being the possible next big science-fiction leading lady.
OW: That’s nice.
Question: You’ve been in COWBOYS & ALIENS and had a massive role in TRON. Are there any parts that you want to see in science fiction specifically that you would like to tackle?
OW: Oh, gosh. I grew up as a trekkie which is really funny, I think STAR TREK there are always great female roles, but I think there’s no reason the captain shouldn’t be a woman. I think we could do Captain Kirk as a woman. [Laughs] I’m really glad they are doing ALIEN again, because ALIEN had a huge effect on me as an actress, and Sigourney is someone I look up to very much, so I think that’s really cool that that’s happening and hopefully that will continue to happen.
I think there are some great sci-fi films in the works that have some really interesting female roles. I think 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 wont go see female-driven movies, that they wont pay as much money for it. I don’t think that’s true, I think they will and I think Sigourney proved that and I think similarly in comedy, Kristen Wiig has just proven that. So I feel like we are moving forward, and hopefully I’ll get to do more sci-fi roles and kind of take on more of the burden on my shoulders in terms of playing the lead as opposed to just the wise, helpful female sidekick.
Question: Can you talk about some of the practical action and effects, like doing the scene on horseback and getting lassoed.
OW: Yes, it was wild. Wow, that moment was crazy and we did it about 12 times. The great thing about this movie is we really were working with practical sets. The only blue screens were really [in scenes involving] the aliens, which as you know since you’ve seen the movie, it’s the secondary element. Really, it’s about the western world and we were actually riding, galloping across these deserts into canyons and shooting guns in these dusty towns, dealing with the elements, which is 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 would be deciding how close we could push it to extreme danger. Or flash floods.
And that's 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 or taking these big cameras out into the middle of nowhere with a bunch of horses and guns and just kind of hoping it all worked out. [Laughs]
My favorite sound was 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 would be pulled 40 feet into the air as though I had been lassoed by an alien. It was wild, because they were originally going to do it with a stunt double, and I sort of looked at it and I thought “That looks really fun. Can I try it?” I always make friends with the stunt team, they are always the coolest people on set. And Tommy Harper, who was our stunt coordinator, went to Favreau and said, “I think she can do it.”
So they rigged me up, and everybody is sitting there biting their nails like, “Oh my God, what are we doing?” I did it and then I did it 11 more times, and it was so wild, because once I was up there I had to stay up there waiting for them to reset. So I was floating 40 feet above this set and I could see for miles. I could see the mountains and the canyons and the deserts and then our little film crew down there, and I thought, “How wild that we are out here doing this.” Then they would bring me down, and we would do it all over again. It was really a thrill to be trusted by this team to do those things.
Question: Not to imply vanity or anything like that, but at the same time you are human. I mean day two, day five, day 14, day 19 of wearing the same goddamn dress and no makeup and being vaguely filthy, did that start to wear a little bit?
OW: It was so much better than a rubber suit.
OW: I would rather wear a little cotton prairie dress than that suit any day. It was kind of wild not to be wearing a lot of makeup too and to have my hair just kind of down and simple I though was kind cool too. It also sets Ella apart from the classic western female, and I had a lot of fun with that just kind of being very bare. I look like me more in this movie than I do in any other, which was sort of interesting. But it was also a challenge riding the horse in the big skirt with the gun. I had this giant bruise on 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. So I sort of limped along and held my head up high, but it was really cool to learn how to do all of those things.
And I loved 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 is amazing and she knows a lot about westerns and she was very true to the actual, historical, accurate clothing, and I think that’s a really good look for everyone. I think the guys have never looked better, I loved those vests. I thought the watches and the vests and the pants and the chaps, definitely the chaps, but I really appreciated not having to wear a corset, which was sort of unusual and sort of inaccurate, which was great for Ella. And you all know the secret to Ella, but she didn’t bother with the corset; she’s not really concerned with that, and I thought, “How great that our producers aren’t concerned with adding and voluptuousness to me. They would allow me just to look like little old me,” and it was great. It was much easier to wear than anything I’ve worn in the past.
Question: As a movie-style follow up though, were you disappointed when, after TRON, angled bangs did not take off?
OW: What do you mean? Yes they have! I have them!
OW: It was kind of 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 in some hairstyles. You know Kanye [West borrowed the look]; that was wild, I was like “Whoa.” Black Eyed Peas. TRON has always had that effect on people--look at Daft Punk. It resonates with pop culture, and so I think its kind of cool, I wonder if that will happen with westerns. I think that the western look sort of comes back into fashion every once in a while. It sort of is right now and it’s kind of perfect timing for us. A little fringe never hurts. I think it’s a good look and its something sort of 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, because when I came up as an actress I sort of thought… I loved westerns growing up and I mourned the end of the genre and I thought “Wow, how weird that I will never get to do that. That’s something that is in the past. I might get to do an Elizabethan drama, we still make those, but we don’t do westerns,” and that’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m really happy that they decided to start making them again, and I hope this inspires other people to do it.
Question: Though you didn’t go into it in the film, did you guys spend time talking about the backstory of the secret?
OW: Yes, oh yes, pages and pages, I do. I always do that for my characters, particularly the ones that have these mysterious pasts 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 have been and what you have been through, so I do have a clear idea of what happened to Ella and her family, and I would really love the opportunity to do a sequel for this movie, because we all worked so hard on these characters that I think there’s a lot of story there to explore and I know that our creative team has gotten excited about that idea too, and Spielberg has some cool ideas for it. So we’ll see; it’s up to the people.
Question: Since you have acted in kind of every medium, some actors talk about different skill sets for being on stage, for being on television, or being on the screen. I was hoping you could talk about that in the context as well of the fact that, like in a high school drama department, you don’t learn to ride horses or get pulled off of a horse on a bungee cord.
OW: I know, worthless training. [Laughs]
Question: Did you have any experience that helped you do those things, or did you just strap in and do it?
OW: I was lucky, I’ve been riding my whole life. That was the real lucky thing. That’s probably how I got the part. I think that life is the best training for these types of movies and being fearless. I think if you are a good actor it means that you have been observing humanity pretty closely your whole life, and I think being through more experiences helps you better depict different types of experiences.
The interesting this is that my recent education in green screen through TRON and a little bit with COWBOYS, certainly the stuff at the end of the movie we were shooting inside a Universal soundstage with some blue screen. I used my theater training for that, because when you are staring at a piece of pink tape, and its supposed to be an alien ship, you can really create anything you want for your imagination to take off to achieve any emotional state. You can project whatever you need to. It’s almost better than having something built there for you, and the great thing is if there is a scene with three actors, each after can have something completely different in mind, and I find that to be very close to my theater training. So, 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. It was good experience and good training.