Olivia Wilde is fired up. It’s the eve of the first Democratic debate and the actress-humanitarian, whose hypnotic azure eyes and cut-glass cheekbones seem even more pronounced in person, can’t help but chortle as she recalls the four-minute introduction she gave to Hillary Clinton at a campaign event back in June. But given Trump’s subsequent media blitzkrieg coupled with Ben Carson’s bizarre Holocaust fixation, the start of summer seems like a distant memory.
And yet Wilde’s readiness for Hillary has only increased. In recent months, her splendidly uninhibited Twitter feed has called Hills’ email scandal “a waste of newsprint” and trolled Trump with a photo of a Donald piñata, saying it’s “full of bologna meat.” Perhaps this level of bluntness is to be expected of Wilde, the daughter of two acclaimed journalists whose childhood babysitter happened to be the late, great Christopher Hitchens.
“She’s an incredibly skilled debater and her intelligence and experience speaks for itself,” Wilde says of Hillary. “That’s the thing about Hillary—when people stop scheming to take her down with bullshit, her actual résumé speaks for itself. Everything that’s happened so far in this election has just been ridiculous for the Republican Party, of course, and so illuminating in its transparency, and people are getting inspired by Bernie [Sanders] and inspired by Hillary, and that’s a great thing. People are engaged.”
The 31-year-old is frustrated by the most common attacks against Hillary—that she’s “not warm enough” and “too hawkish”—claiming that these are gendered criticisms rooted in chauvinism.
“It’s pure sexism,” she says. “This bullshit about her not seeming ‘warm’ enough is pure misogyny. It’s ridiculous. I think she’s one of the loveliest, most personable politicians I’ve ever met—much warmer than other politicians, in fact. That’s pure sexism.”
Wilde’s fiancé Jason Sudeikis is no stranger to politics either, having portrayed former presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the 2012 election season. Back in August 2013, Wilde learned she was pregnant with their baby—and the news came right before she was to inhabit the role of Sarah, a grieving mother struggling to get over the disappearance of her young child, in filmmaker Reed Morano’s indie drama Meadowland.
“We were in pre-production and had a rough start date with potential cast members when I found out I was pregnant, so we had to push it a year,” Wilde recalls. “I was so moved when Reed had no second thoughts about waiting for me. She was supportive of it, and even saw it as this great way to prepare for the role. It’s mind-blowing that a director would hold her directorial debut for an actor.”
Morano is an exemplary DP who’s shot films like Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings, and The Skeleton Twins, and in 2013, became the youngest of 14 women (out of 345) to be members of the American Society of Cinematographers.
And Meadowland’s Sarah is a role unlike any Wilde’s played before—that of a suicidal New York mother who, after her son disappears at a rest stop, struggles to navigate the different stages of grief, from engaging in self-destructive behavior (strange sex, cutting), to distancing herself from her husband (Luke Wilson), to forming a bond with a look-alike outcast boy at the school where she teaches, played by Ty Simpkins.
They shot the film on location in New York less than four months after Wilde gave birth to her son, Otis (named after Otis Redding), and she says Morano was right—that having Otis allowed her to form a much stronger connection to the character than she could have made otherwise.
“For me, personally, having Otis allowed me to fathom the enormity of a mother’s love, and the awareness that it is the most significant part of a mother’s life,” she says. “Throughout shooting, I thought, ‘I don’t know how she’s surviving or getting up in the morning, because I don’t think I could,’ and that allowed me to have a deep respect and admiration for her.” “It was incredibly intense,” she continues. “Otis would visit me sometimes at lunch and I would hold him and just feel so lucky to have him in my life. It made me a more present and mindful parent. Parenting can be really overwhelming at times, and there are moments where you feel easily distracted, or take it for granted that your children are with you. Oh, I wish I could just nap! But making this film pushed those instincts away from me. I’d drop my phone, lock it away, and be with him completely.” She laughs. “I realize I’m sounding paranoid and overprotective,” she says, chuckling. “Thankfully, I didn’t get into that headspace. And now I realize that it definitely could have gone there.”
And in case you were wondering, yes, Wilde and Sudeikis do in fact play the Kanye West and Jay Z tune “Otis” for their little Otis.
“He is a fan!” says Wilde. “He listens to a lot of Otis Redding, too. But he’s a big Kanye fan.”
Meadowland filmed for 22 days, with Wilde playing double-duty as a producer, and the toughest day for her was when she had to shoot a complex scene at a dingy gas station bathroom in New Jersey where her character gains cathartic pleasure out of slashing her arm with a straight razor. As she commits the act, Morano’s camera lingers on Wilde’s face as it moans in ecstasy.
“That’s never been a part of my life,” she says of cutting, “ but I knew someone who did, and she described it to me as a release of pressure that had been building up to an unbearable point. She said it was as if she was letting the pressure out by cutting, and it felt so good to have that release.
There’s something almost erotic about that scene, and people find it very disturbing because they don’t want to think there would be anything erotic or satisfying about self-harm, and yet that was the truth that we found.”
And Wilde, though riveting in the film, was incredibly nervous to see her soul-baring performance on the big screen when Meadowland premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
“I sat through that Tribeca screening in a cold sweat, shaking. I had a bottle of whiskey, I’m not gonna lie,” she says, laughing. “Jason and I had a bottle of whiskey under our chairs—I think it was Jack Daniels.”
Wilde’s film career began on the set of the coming-of-age comedy The Girl Next Door. She was working as a casting assistant on the film when one of the casting directors decided to put her in the movie as a coquettish high schooler. The gig got her a SAG card, and subsequent roles on the TV shows The O.C. and House followed, as well as gigs in a string of mostly forgettable indies. In most of these early roles, Wilde was cast either as eye candy or a one-dimensional love interest, though she views it all as a means to an end.
“I don’t think you can skip steps to find your identity as an artist—you have to learn it through experience,” she says. “Some people are really lucky with their first project and are really smart about it and only go up from there, but that wasn’t my experience.” She pauses. “If I were a chef, it would make me a better chef to have started as a short order cook in a diner serving up sausages and eggs, because you develop all sorts of skills. And it makes you finally appreciate when you’re working in your kitchen with fine dining. You think, wow, these knives are really sharp.”
The years 2010 and 2011 were supposed to be huge for Wilde, with the actress booking a series of high-profile projects, but most of them sounded better on paper. There was Paul Haggis’s The Next Three Days, opposite Russell Crowe; Cowboys & Aliens with Daniel Craig; and In Time, alongside Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. They all fizzled.
But Wilde found a renewed sense of purpose in the indie world, turning in impressive performances in films like the largely improvised Drinking Buddies, the underrated racing drama Rush, and a small-but-memorable role in Spike Jonze’s brilliant Her.
“I do agree that in the last few years I’ve hit my stride, and for me, that comes from operating from a place of inspiration versus desperation,” she says matter-of-factly. “I find the material you get as you get older is better. Now, the scripts I’m reading are about women who’ve been through something. Early on, you’re just the girlfriend, or the pretty girl, or the mean girl.”
“When you stop needing it, you’re gonna get better stuff, and be making better stuff,” she adds. “It’s like relationships: love somebody more than you need them. When you’re not looking for someone, someone great will come into your life.”
It sounds like she’s describing herself, I say, and meeting Sudeikis after splitting from her first husband. “Yeah!” she exclaims. “When you’re really happy and confident on your own, then you’re actually ready for a relationship.”
One role that is very hotly anticipated is her leading one in Vinyl, Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming 70s-era HBO series about the rise and fall of a record company. Wilde is Devon Finestra, the wife of label head Richie, played by Bobby Cannavale.
“I can promise you it’s really good,” she says, absolutely beaming. “Scorsese has a childlike enthusiasm for filmmaking and his energy is limitless, and it inspired me to have the same uncorrupted love for storytelling.”