Some young actors go for the brass ring immediately after getting a hit. Others just care about the material and doing good work. It may not always please their agent, but it creates a staying-true-to-your-sensibilities career path that’s filled with a palpable authenticity. Outside of “Dredd,” talented 29-year-old Olivia Thirlby has hardly ever starred in big-budget studio films. She burst onto the screen with magnetic charisma in David Gordon Green’s “Snow Angels,” and before that, she had a small but memorable role in Paul Greengrass’ “United 93.” She also turned heads with an unforgettable role in Jason Reitman’s “Juno,” as the perfect object of affection in Sundance hit “The Wackness,” as one half of a crumbling relationship in “Red Knot,” and with quiet presence and sexual power in Ry Russo-Young’s deeply underrated “Nobody Walks.” Not all of these films are particularly big hits, but they are gems that will flower with time.
Her latest film is the Tribeca indie “Between Us,” a drama about the struggles of long-term relationships, zeroing in on that period when couplehood begins to spin its wheels and idle too long. The film floats the uncomfortable but very real idea that some relationships are just incapable of that turnkey moment that allows it to evolve, grow and sustain itself. And Thirlby plays the female half of a young 20-something couple together for six years, struggling to justify why they should continue together, but stuck in the comfort of routine. It’s a challenging, raw and honest film, and Thirlby anchors it with an unflinching performance.
With the picture premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, we caught up with with the actress for the latest installment in our “The Movies That Changed My Life” feature series, where she discussed everything from Disney flicks to Stanley Kubrick.
The first movie you ever saw.
Technically it wasn’t the first movie I ever saw, but I remember watching the “Back To The Future” trilogy at a very young age. I was being shepherded through this experience by my longtime babysitter, Lise, who took it upon herself to expose me to these important pieces of cinema glory. I loved every second of the movies, even though I couldn’t follow what was happening. And Lise, angel that she is, patiently pressed pause every 30 minutes or so to explain the plot points to me. And they continually blew my young mind.
The first moviegoing film experience you can remember.
The first film I ever remember seeing in the theater is Disney‘s “Beauty And The Beast.” I was with my mother and we arrived slightly late. I vividly remember trying to take our seats in the dark, which I was having a hard time doing because I was already enthralled by the screen.
The best moviegoing film experience you ever had.
My favorite filmmaker is Terrence Malick and his films are best on the big screen (although they’re incredible on any screen). Every time I’ve been to see his work in the theater, I walk out of there changed. I feel tingly and numb at the same time, I see light and shadows in a new way. I feel my own life force. I feel connectedness. These sensations are invaluable to me. He gifts us with windows into ourselves.
The first film you saw that you realized, you too could be a filmmaker.
I was first exposed to independent film when Sunshine Cinemas re-opened on East Houston Street. I could be wrong, but I think I saw “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “Y Tu Mamá También” in the same week. I had never seen movies like this before and they made a huge impression on me. Possibly that all indie film was about sex. Or possibly it was something deeper, something harder to identify. Yes, I was entertained by these moves, they made me laugh and cry, but they also made me feel something else. Something indescribable. They made me buzz. They made me feel excited about being alive.
The first movie you became obsessed with.
Does “My Little Pony” count? If we don’t include childhood infatuation, I would have to say “Bad Education” by Pedro Almodóvar. Why? It was the most beautiful and most twisted thing I had ever seen.
The movie that always makes you cry or is emotional comfort food.
I have a couple that serve different purposes. I never get tired of watching “The Princess Bride”: the humor and nostalgia, the jokes I have repeated hundreds of times, the fantasy mixed with the absurdity, the way the heroes ride off into the sunset having known redemption or companionship or true love. This is what I put on when I’m sick in bed or feeling sad or too tired to watch anything else. Or when I just feel like being happy and content.
I also have a soft spot for “Finding Nemo.” Every time I watch it, I go on the whole journey. I love the setting, the vastness and beauty of an animated ocean. And the message has always been a potent one to me — that to really love someone means to enable them to their own freedom.
The movie that always freaks you out/makes you scared.
I don’t like horror films so I’m thinking slightly outside the box on this one. And who doesn’t have a happily morbid obsession with “Eyes Wide Shut”? When it’s on, I want to turn it off, but I can’t. It strikes a chord of deep disturbance in me, that keeps vibrating for days.
The movie you love that no one would expect you to love.
I loved last year’s “Tomorrowland.” Its heroes were two fascinating young women under the age of 20. It had no classical antagonist. It had George Clooney. It was a brave movie, calling out the fear-based structures of news media in an unflinching way. And most importantly, it held the notion of hope and human goodness at its core. Not surprisingly, it didn’t do too well in the box office.
The movie that defined your coming-of-age/high school experience.
“Can’t Hardly Wait.” I saw it just before I got to high school and so naturally I assumed that high school would be that way. High school was not that way. But the point is that I never gave up hope that I would end up at that party. And also, it began what would become a lifelong obsession with Lauren Ambrose.
The movie that defined your childhood.
I’m grateful to be able to say Monty Python‘s “[Monty Python And] The Holy Grail.” To this day I can (and do) quote the whole movie. The full extent to which this movie has informed my life is probably still unknown to me.
But there’s another one, too. Anyone who knows me knows I have a special thing for “Mary Poppins” (the Julie Andrews version). I watched this movie endlessly as a child. It was my favorite and I knew it inside out. ‘Poppins’ was the first exposure I had to magic, and to bending the so-called rules of reality and of society in the name of joy and for the sake of experience. And these lessons, especially in hindsight, became an integral part of who I am.
“Between Us” screens tonight and this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival.