When Indiewire sat down with Olivia Wilde at the TCA Winter Press Tour, the first thing she did was admit that in comparison to the independent films she’s also been starring in lately, "There are productions like this, that are so supported by such strong-willed creative people that there’s a sense of safety. A sense of creative freedom that we have the ability to break all the rules and do things that aren’t usually done on television — and take storytelling to another place because we have this incredible team of producers."
She was speaking in reference to "Vinyl," the HBO drama that digs into the ’70s rock music scene on an epic scale, which is what you’d expect from a show with executive producers like Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger and "Boardwalk Empire" showrunner Terence Winter.
When Wilde was first offered the role of Devon, the suburban wife of Richie (Bobby Cannavale) with her own rock and roll past, she was definitely interested, but also had some questions about what exactly she was signing up for, given that Devon — especially in the pilot — didn’t play a huge role. Below, she reveals just what went into making the experience of playing Devon "a dream situation" and why she’s been researching this show since she was 10 years old. An edited transcript follows.
I was reading about the production — they rebuilt an entire rock club from scratch?
We recreated the West Village from 1973, which is, of course, entirely different [now]. Often, we would shoot in Harlem to show the West Village because you had to show that New York at that time was different. It was gritty. It was considerably darker because the street lamps were at a lower wattage. The buildings had a layer of soot on them. It was a completely different environment than how we imagine New York City today and how we imagine the ’70s in general.
The cool thing about the show is that it shows the ’70s in a very different light than recent films have — any films other than Scorsese’s films, really. If you think of "American Hustle" and "Boogie Nights," you think of the ’70s as very bright and colorful. This world of "Vinyl" takes place in the part of the ’70s and the environment of downtown New York which was gritty. It was intense. It was dangerous.
Tell me about how "Vinyl" came into your life. What brought you to it?
I knew Scorsese was working on a pilot for HBO with Mick Jagger and I knew that sounded like the coolest thing in the world. I heard that Bobby Cannavale was working on it and I was like, "Oh, that’s genius, because he’s brilliant and one of the best working." I felt it was clearly going to be my favorite show to watch. They came and asked if I wanted to be a part of it, and I was massively pregnant at the time. I thought, "When are they shooting it? Because yes, yes I want to do it, but when are they shooting it and what’s the role?" Turns out they were gonna shoot it the moment I gave birth, which was perfect, and we made that work.
The question of who Devon would be within this world was important to me. I was not prepared to go in and play just a suburban housewife who was forgotten and long suffering. I didn’t think I was right for that role. I made that clear to HBO and everyone on the team, and I was so delighted with their response, which was, "Just wait. This woman is incredible." And I was so happy that they stayed true to their word and Terry Winter has been so collaborative as we’ve built this character together. Bobby as a partner is such a supporter of actresses and female characters being as dynamic as possible. So I feel it is the dream situation for an actress and for me in particular because I get to be so creatively satisfied and to maintain a certain collaborative involvement.
Looking forward, what else did they tell you about your character? What journey did you have a sense of going on?
I knew the world that Richie and Devon had built together was about to fall apart. And I knew where they had come from and I knew, from working very closely with Marty in building Devon’s history as part of the Factory, of part of the downtown New York City scene, living at the Chelsea Hotel, the world that surrounded all those artists. I knew her basic history and the potential for her weaknesses to dismantle what they had built out here in Greenwich, Connecticut. I knew that she had issues with substance abuse. I knew that she was a wild woman. It was as though we had built this house of cards and the pilot is the last card going on top, so you know something very dramatic is about to happen. We spoke about things that may happen in the future.
But it wasn’t until we shot the season, a year after I’d shot the pilot, that I got to see exactly what Devon was gonna go through, and it surpassed all my hopes and dreams — which doesn’t happen often [laughs]. It’s not often that you get the script for the season and you are like, "Yes! It’s even better than I’d hoped."
One question I love asking actors who play married couples is what goes into building that relationship? Did you know Bobby beforehand?
I didn’t know him very well. We’d met a couple times casually, I was just such a huge fan of his that I always felt he could play anyone and that he was so strong and versatile. I was thrilled when I knew we would be playing husband and wife because he’s such a generous actor. He comes from the theater. He focuses on how to create the best scene, not the best scene for himself. He’s given me so many great ideas in the scenes we’ve done together. He’s really brilliant at unlocking the most interesting parts of every scene.
In terms of creating the marriage, we made an agreement early on that we would take care of Devon and Richie and their passion for each other and their love for each. We truly believed there was a deep, deep connection between these two. No matter how vicious their fights became, as their marriage fell apart, their love was undeniable. I think that we made that agreement at the beginning that was our base and we could just go nuts from that point. It takes a really thoughtful scene partner to consider that with you and not just be thinking of their own journey. Particularly when that scene partner is the focus of the show and going through such an insane journey. Bobby, to his credit, was very focused on this marriage, this relationship and what it meant to the show as a whole, and we worked really hard on making them not only realistic, but compelling in their intensity.
Another huge aspect of the show is the music. I imagine as the show goes on you start engaging more with that side of the world.
What did you know about that period of music beforehand?
I luckily have been doing research for this show since I was like 10 years old. I’ve loved that era of music for as long as I can remember. I was that kid who in my childhood bedroom, I didn’t have pictures of New Kids on The Block. I had pictures of Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Mick Jagger. I have been fascinated by this world and particularly the world of downtown New York at that time; the factory, the artists working at that time, the Chelsea Hotel. Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe. The world at that time had a lot of darkness and a liberated sense of what was possible for the art world and for the music world. So that time always fascinated me. It was just past the innocence and the optimism of the ’60s. There is a little bit more intensity and darkness. And I think great art often comes from times of difficulty. Often, in times of war, you see the greatest art. So this world, for me, the research for it, the books, the music, the movies. It was all such a joy to revisit and to dive into.
I’m very curious to know what Mick Jagger’s impact on the show is, from your perspective.
He’s very involved. I think his instincts are incredibly sharp. His taste is unmatched in many ways when it comes to this world. His involvement has not only inspired everybody on the show to make something truly authentic, but also inspired us to think outside the box because that’s what he did as an artist and the reason he reached such great heights as an artist and individually. They were an English rock band who were writing blues songs. He’s always been creative in that way and risky in that way. So an icon like Mick Jagger changes the way everyone else is working.
Same goes for Marty. Everyone is bringing their best to work every single day and inspired by his creative taste and the kind of professionalism he calls for and established from the pilot onward.
"Vinyl" airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO.