Starring in Reed Morano’s directorial debut “Meadowland” would be daunting enough for any actor. — the film centers on a young couple (played by Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson) who are reeling from the sudden disappearance of their young son — but one particularly challenging for an actor who happens to be a parent. Or, in the case of Wilde, one who became a parent just weeks before she started filming her part in the drama, which she also produced.
In the film, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Wilde is forced to grapple with a series of heavy emotions as her Sarah falls deeper into a mix of depression, regret, pain and ultimately hope. For Wilde, it was a part she felt compelled to play even before she became a mother just four months before they started shooting, but one that she felt even more passionately about when she gave birth to her baby Otis. The energy and passion that pushed her to the part seems to have ruled on set, too, with DP-turned-director Morano also using her own experiences to craft an experience that Wilde calls “mind-blowing.”
Wilde recently sat down with Indiewire to talk about the unique demands of such a personal film, what it’s like to shoot in Times Square at night (not once, but twice) and why she feels an obligation to create good things, both on screen and off.
It was masochistic insanity. It’s interesting, because when I signed onto the project, I was not yet a mother and did not have any immediate plans to become one, but still felt so passionate about telling this story, so moved by this script, and so excited by Reed’s vision for it. She and I now laugh, because during our first meeting for it, I said, “I know I’m not a mother, but I really love my dog, and I think I can understand what this woman is going through because my dog and I have been partners for 13 years and if I lost him, it would be the same.”
And she was very sweet about saying, “sure, yeah, gosh, that’s real love.” But after I became a mom, she was like, “I was going to say, I’m sure you could have pulled it off, but it’s probably the best type of research you could have done for the role, to make a baby.” It’s good practice, I have to say. My son is one and he’s not that different from a puppy.
How old was he when you started filming?
I had just had him, so he was about four months.
So he’s at his most vulnerable, and you have to do this during the day and then come home. Were there some things that were just hard to shake?
Yeah, absolutely. Although I think Reed and I both felt like we went home and hugged our children tighter and hugged them more, and it gave us a really deep appreciation for them. In a way, confronting your worst fears can be a therapeutic way to work through them. One of the scariest realizations of becoming a new mother is that you’re responsible for their mortality and that you hold more responsibility than you ever have. That can be paralyzing for new parents — men and women. But for a mother, it’s this very strange feeling of being separated from something that was, until recently, a part of your body. You have to let it grow outside of you, but you feel an immense sense of guilt every time you’re not with this little person.
I knew that by creating this film that I was so passionate about, I was going to a better mother for it, I was going to be a happier person, a more fulfilled person. I really felt that we were making an important piece of work that should be something that Otis has a chance to see one day. I was proud. I wanted him to proud of me, and I was proud to make it.
And sure, I used him as inspiration for almost everything in the movie. It was this really intense investigation into my own feelings about him very early on, so that brought me closer to him than I may have been otherwise. Because in the beginning, you’re very focused on keeping them alive and everything is about bodily functions. You’re making them eat, you’re making them sleep, you’re keeping them clean, you’re keeping them healthy. And every day becomes boiled down to these very clear necessities for the child. You don’t have a lot of time to explore the philosophy of motherhood and what do you feel and existential emotions about this and that. I think having to do that at an early age really allowed me to spend my time with him in a very present way and in a very mindful way.
Whenever I wasn’t working, I was with him 100% of the time. That was very intense and really wonderful. Now, I just feel that I started our life together as mother and son from a really mindful place. It may have also prevented me from struggling with things that I know a lot of mothers deal with, in terms of post-partum, of questioning their own identity and worth as an individual. I felt so fulfilled as an artist at the same time that I was becoming a mother, and it made me very happy. Even though we were making such a sad film, I was so fulfilled creatively that I was a happy person when I was with him. I never resented him.
And you actually did some work before “Meadowland,” correct?
I shot the “Vinyl” pilot even before “Meadowland.” I shot the “Vinyl” pilot when he was like six weeks old. I mean, that was a lot less work.
Still, I think there’s this incredible gift that your body gives you when you have a baby, that you’re flooded with creative inspiration. You are suddenly so present. I had so many ideas and I felt so bold with my creative juices. I think every woman, whether you’re an artist or not, after you give birth, should find some sort of creative outlet, whether it’s writing or dancing or singing. Even if no one ever sees this, I think your body and brain do something right after you give birth where they flood you with creativity and creative inspiration.
It sparks something in you. You’re overflowing. I would encourage every woman after they give birth to take an hour for themselves everyday to do something creative, even if it’s nothing that anyone will ever see. I think it’s important.
So you’re already bursting with all this feminine energy, and then you get to go on set and work alongside Reed. What was that experience like for you?
She has been open about the fact that in pre-production, while I was pregnant and then having Otis, she had cancer and fought cancer and went into remission only a month before we started shooting. So we had this sense of responsibility towards each other and toward this project that pulled us through these insane life adventures of opposite types. You know, I was confronting life in this very extreme way and she was confronting death. And we were able to channel all of that energy into this project together.
With all of that in mind, by the time we got to set, we were just rearing to go. We were on fire, and every scene was so thrilling because of that. Our relationship was very intense. And the amazing thing is that she not only directed the film but DP-ed and operated it.
How did she juggle directing and actually shooting the film?
She was often no more than a foot away from me, which allowed her to direct me in a very intimate way and allowed us to improvise together. I’ve never had that experience where the person holding the camera is with me in the scene almost as another character responding to what I’m doing and inspiring me with what she’s doing, where I think, “Oh, she’s lingering on my hand. What am I doing with my hand? What’s going on here?” It was a dance that I’ve never experienced, and it was really thrilling.
She obviously can’t always DP and operate every movie because it was an insane amount of work for her to do. The only person who really does it is [Steven] Soderbergh. The opportunity to work with someone doing that is really rare, and I think that’s what contributed to some of the greatest moments in everyone’s performances. She was as dedicated to the performances as we were. There was no sense of separation between director and actor. She was really channeling each of our stories. I’ve never seen that before.
I think that’s why she’s such a brilliant director, and I’m so looking forward to the rest of the stuff she makes.
There is a sequence in the film — and it’s also the centerpiece of the trailer — where your character wanders around Times Square and the subway by herself. How did you film that?
It was really funny. Luckily, we went to Times Square at like 1 a.m. We went on two separate occasions. The first time, it was 1 a.m., and we were planning on just shooting me walking under a scaffolding on a sidewalk and then turning a corner and not using Times Square because we just figured it would be too hectic. This is something that happens only when the director is operating the camera. Reed was behind me with Kevin, our focus-puller, and he was walking alongside her as she followed me down the street in this yellow hoodie. When we got to Times Square, she just whispered, “Keep going.”
And I kept going, and the rest of our production was back blocks away and they had no idea what we were doing. And she just said, “Keep going, keep going.” And I kept going farther and farther into Times Square. I think it was like a 12 minute shot in the end. It was probably more, I’m probably underestimating it, but it was an insanely long shot that any director would be thrilled to have captured because it was just seamless and gorgeous. We wish we could have put the whole shot in the film. [laughs] Maybe in the French version we’ll do the whole shot.
Did people start to recognize you?
It was very intense to shoot because I was wearing this hoodie and kind of shielding my face because people were obviously looking over at a camera and thinking that anyone with a camera is something interesting happening, and maybe recognizing me, and starting to follow us and yell. It was interesting, though, because what that did to my posture is very similar to what the character was feeling in terms of wanting to be invisible. She is kind of hollowed out by grief and is kind of caved in physically and feels quite invisible. In that moment, I wanted so much to be invisible and felt so — hunted is the wrong word, but there’s this feeling of fear of your surroundings. So in a way, my reality informed the character in that moment.
But the most incredible thing is Reed was, while operating the camera, pushing people who were running at us to see we were doing away with one arm while operating with her other arm. I wish I had a video of just this moment of us walking briskly through Times Square.
So then we went back a separate time to get a shot of Sarah hallucinating that she’s seeing her son in this crowd. Because the reason she goes to Times Square is she figures, if you’re going to randomly see someone, that’s the place where the most people on Earth come together. So we went back to shoot it, and this time it was 8 p.m. Many more people were in Times Square, and at that point, it was uncontrollable. The crowds were incredibly intense.
There’s a shot that we actually used in the film where I’m looking around and I look really kind of overwhelmed and scared, which was actually a moment of me looking at this crowd that had formed around us. We called it the zombie apocalypse. I actually ended up kind of running away. I was like, “I need to duck out, I need a minute.”
But that kind of experience only comes when you have a film that’s small enough that you are shooting in that guerilla style and you haven’t shut down Times Square and fill it with a bunch of extras. So even though it was challenging and at times kind of scary and intense, it informed the scenes and it made them better. I loved the freedom that comes with having no money. We stole those shots on the subway. If we had gotten caught, they would have taken our cameras. That added to the level of intensity and commitment from the very small crew as well. So I really enjoyed all of those experiences. I think you get better performances.
But only Reed could shoot something like that. It was mind-blowing.
You also produced this film, and you’ve been wearing your producer hat more and more. How do you juggle these roles and what appeals to you about it?
After working as an actress for quite a long time, I had a pretty good sense of what is necessary to get something made and also a sense of the demand out there for great stories — documentaries, narratives, good comedies, dramas, television shows, films. I felt I had a good sense of what content people were looking for and what was necessary to get it made. I think that once you have an awareness of how something works, you’re interested in playing with that format and taking a little bit more control of it. It’s like, okay I get it now.
I get that there’s this opportunity to make interesting content. Why not do it? And there’s also this sense of that famous quote, “Why isn’t somebody doing something about this? And then you realize that you are someone.”
You’re also very active in humanitarian causes. Do you find that helpful for your craft?
I find it to be necessary to maintaining sanity. I think not being involved and not staying aware of things would be like going through life wearing an eye patch or earmuffs. It’s not comfortable for me to cut off from my responsibility to the world or my role as a citizen. I think that because we have the right to speak out in this country, we should enjoy that right and exercise it.
Especially as someone with a platform, I take my voice seriously. I have seen the effect of speaking up for something. I’ve seen that we can change things. Whether it’s supporting a proposition in California that can change prison reform or making a film about cholera that can change the way that the U.N. operates, I have seen that it is effective to speak up. And once you see that effectiveness, I think you’re inspired to do more of it. That’s why in terms of communicating that to young people, I always say, “You may feel hopeless and like you have no effect on things when you speak up, but let’s show you how that’s not true, let’s show you how you can change things in a major way.”
It sounds like you have the same attitude towards activism that you do towards producing: These are the stories I want to see, so why not do them?
That’s so true. And so I think what I have to give my parents credit for is making me feel like I was someone who had the ability to do things, like to put my mind to something and do it. That is what I would like to instill in everyone, certainly in my own children, that you are capable of that. Because I think insecurity is what stops people from speaking up. It’s not necessarily apathy.
What does your ideal line-up of projects look like, in terms of balancing all your passions?
I mean, nothing ever works out the way you plan it. I love my job on “Vinyl.” I really enjoy television when it’s good television. So a combination of all of these different formats, of “Vinyl,” producing great content that I’m not in but being able to see that through and support other artists, producing films that I am in, directing something. I think the great thing about our industry is that it’s one of the only industries where you are given the opportunity to try on every hat. That is something that not enough people take advantage of. But if you do, it informs your ability in each of those roles. I think producing has made me a better actor. Directing a short made me a better actor. And I think directors who then study acting become better directors.
It’s obvious, but I think there’s no reason to stay in your place once you’ve learned something. Why not try it out?
“Meadowland” opens in select theaters Friday, October 16.