After a long spate of supporting performances in films such as "Juno," "The Darkest Hour," "Being Flynn," and most recently "Dredd," the talented but under-utilized Olivia Thirlby is finally getting leading roles in which she can truly shine, starting with this week's "Nobody Walks" (read our review here). Playing an artist/film director who nobody seems to be able to resist, the actress displays an inner magnetism that should get her cast in more projects to come. (On the wish list: potentially portraying Carole King in "Girls Like Us.")
"It's so mysterious that you even know about that one!" she teased when The Playlist asked about her recent audition. "I'm actually not comfortable talking about parts before they become real. I don't want to jinx it."
Thirlby admitted that she's "pretty picky" about the parts she goes after, but her selectivity isn't about the size of the role or the genre of the film. "I want something I haven't seen or done before," she said. "Something different, something challenging, something fun. I'm open to anything. I go where the material is, and I feel like I'm looking for really strong directors. That's the key ingredient. There are some directors I would move the sun and earth for, or stop the rotation of the planets, just to work with them."
On that wish list: Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino. "And now that they know that, they'll hire me!" she laughed. "They'll go, 'Oh, I only wasn't hiring Olivia because I didn't know that she wanted to work with me. Now that I know, I will cast her in all my films. Not just one, but all!'"
She doesn't feel she's "compiled enough empirical field evidence" to differentiate between male and female directors just yet, since "Nobody Walks" from Ry Russo-Young was one of the first of the latter for her. "I can say I love working with women," Thirlby said. "Film is a man's world, and I really appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with women, especially young women. It's really exciting to be a young woman and be in a position where the director cares about your point of view."
Being in sync with Russo-Young (as well as the film's co-writer, Lena Dunham, whom Thirlby has known since kindergarten), helped the actress find the core of her contentious "Nobody Walks" character, Martine, who gets involved with a slew of suitors, including a married man (played by John Krasinski) with whom she's working and at whose house she's staying.
"I love her," Thirlby said of Martine. "I think she definitely makes a big mistake, which is kind of tragic, but really, I think her mistake was to be too naive and inexperienced to pick up on all the red flags that go up. It's interesting that people blame her, that they find her culpable [for the affair], when it's more ambiguous than that. If you really want to break down what happens, John's character Peter is the one who makes more questionable choices. His wife says, 'Don't embarrass me,' and he twists that to give himself permission to succumb to his lusty urges. Martine, she's used to the notion of just having sex with friends and still being just friends afterwards, so she's too naive to pick up on the fact that this man is having a slightly illicit affair and is falling in love with her and no longer has control over his urges. He can't even control himself in front of his family. And once she sees that, she tries to pull back, but it's too late."
Thirlby said it's "much more interesting" to play flawed characters like Martine who make "bad decisions [in] complicated situations." "There's nothing interesting about doing the right thing and being perfect all the time!" she laughed.
Will she get to play someone as interesting as Martine in her next project? The actress said she hasn't been in contact — yet — with Amy Berg, the new director of the upcoming Jeff Buckley biopic "Mystery White Boy" in which she has a role. "That one might be on hold, I don't know," Thirlby said. "Maybe they don't want to compete [with Penn Badgley's take on Jeff Buckley in "Greetings From Tim Buckley"], because Penn is a total genius. I'm sure he kills it. I've seen him sing around the campfire and everything, and I definitely cannot sing as well as him."
That kind of self-deprecation is what helps Thirlby cushion the blow if she doesn't get what she wants, be it a role (e.g. Carole King) or a film that connects with audiences (see "Dredd"). "You can't get too hung up on disappointments," she said about the box-office of the sci-fi remake. That said, she still holds out hope that "Dredd" might get a sequel, because "it would be a total dream to revisit that again, especially if was less like revisiting and more like expanding."
"Dredd" appealed to her because she had always dreamed of being able to play "a really badass butt-kicking kind of chick," she said. "I don't think I'm the world's most die-hard sci-fi fan, but I definitely grew up watching 'Star Trek' religiously — all of them: the original, 'Next Generation,' 'Deep Space Nine,' 'Voyager.' I think sci-fi has an important place in the cinema world. Fantasy is a big part of why films actually exist."
However, no sci-fi made the list when The Playlist asked Thirlby to pick five of her favorite performances of all time, the ones that inspired her to become an actress. "I had this totally impossible dream of being an actress," she said. "Trust me, just because I'm lucky enough to be doing this doesn't make any of this less of a pipe dream. And nothing gets my juices flowing like a really great performance. To see someone on stage, I get really excited."
Olivia Thirlby's Five Favorite Performances:
1. Gena Rowlands, the film "A Woman Under the Influence."
"That's the most inspiring of all time," Thirlby said, "because when I watch that film, I find it incomprehensible that I'm watching a performance at all, that it's not a real person."
2. Mark Rylance, the play "Jerusalem."
"I saw this about a year-and-a-half ago," Thirlby said, "and it reinvigorated my love of acting. I felt like I had just been exposed to all the possibilities, the infinite possibilities of making choices."
3. Carey Mulligan, the film "Shame."
"I saw 'Shame' about six months ago," Thirlby said. "And I was really inspired by Carey's performance, because she was so fearless. She's inspired me to try to find a role that I could be as fearless as she was, but I don't know if I'll ever be as good as she is. Plus, I love standards, jazz standards, and I'd love to sing one."
4. Christopher Plummer, the play "King Lear."
"I saw a production of this when I was a teenager," Thirlby said, "and it was really epic. It made me to go the Lincoln Center library and rent to watch every production they've ever done. The Lincoln Center library is very hoity-toity — you almost have to have a doctor's note to get in, from someone saying it's okay for you to go in and watch a specific thing. So I had my Shakespeare teacher write me a note, because those tapes don't exist anywhere else."
5. Kevin Kline, the play "Much Ado About Nothing."
"Kevin Kline is one of the best actors of all time," Thirlby said. "And he definitely knows how to do Shakespeare. And I feel like this play played a really crucial, pivotal part in my becoming an actor. It was just magical."