Really proving to be a safe bet in Hollywood, Olivia Wilde is turning up in a host of films, all so different to the last – showing off her ability to adapt to several different projects and genres. In her latest flick, Ron Howard’s Rush – she plays Suzy Miller – the formidable wife of playboy James Hunt, and we had the opportunity to discuss the role with her.
The film – which depicts the intense rivalry between Formula 1 racers Niki Lauda and James Rush – sees Wilde trying out her English accent, and we discussed that with the actress. She also tells which of the two conflicting personalities between the racers she’d be more attracted to, whether she has ever met the real life Suzy Miller – and discusses her working relationship with fiancé Jason Sudeikis.
How did you get involved in Rush?
When I heard Ron was making the film, I went to meet with him at his office in LA. We knew each other a bit from Cowboys & Aliens, which he produced. I thought the film sounded incredible. I didn’t know of the actual people – I didn’t know of James or Nikki – but I know that the story just sounded like and emotional, beautiful love story, He described the role of Suzy to me and I thought that she sounded incredible. I mean, here was James Hunt’s match, and that’s what we wanted to create. So once I was on board we just worked on that – on making her the most formidable opponent for James other than Nikki. Ron was just a wonderful director of course and wanted so much so much to put energy and focus into the female characters as well, which is not typical – I think other directors would have taken on this same project and just focused on the boys and on the racing. But Peter [Morgan] and Ron really cared a lot about making it clear that these guys were going through a lot in their personal lives as they were fighting each other.
Good work on the British accent, by the way…
Oh god, thank-you! My dad’s British, so I had no excuse not to at least give it a good try.
Can you still do it?
I won’t do it right now! [Laughs] Chris was also, of course, doing an accent, so we had a dialect coach. I think because we were both working on it and focussing on it that we kind of inspired each other to do a better job at it, you know. It was just so fun to inhabit this world – like not only to be British, but to be British in the 70s, and these particular people. It was just a lot of fun – it didn’t feel like work, it felt like just a lot of fun.
So off-set, were you and Chris speaking in British accents to keep up the momentum, or were you going back into your usual habits?
I tried to keep the rhythms of it, just so I didn’t completely lose it. It helped that no-one was American around, because that I think would have pulled me out of it. Even Chris being Australian was still vaguely English or foreign enough that I was able to kind of stay in the rhythms of it. But no, I didn’t commit to it 100% all the time, in the way that Hugh Laurie did when we were doing House. I just tried to stay somewhat close to it. But my proudest moment was one day on set when I spoke to Ron in an American accent and one of the crew members said, “Wait a minute, you’re American?” It helped that none of the actors was American, but of course Ron being American sometimes pulled me back to the way I actually speak. But it does help that I grew up with it constantly in the house.
Are you a big fan of Ron Howard’s movies? Obviously we all grew up with them – what would have been the ones that stood out for you?
Well, Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon. That film – the combination of Peter Morgan and Ron Howard
was just electrifying, I thought, because their two skill sets just married together perfectly. Ron is full of heart ; he’s just such an emotional person, and he cares so much about humanity, and he brings humanity to every character. Peter is just so sharp and brilliant; his dialogue is just wickedly biting and intelligent and it’s just a joy to say his words. It had been one of my dreams to work with both of them, never thinking that I’d actually get to do it at the same time. It was great. Ron had been a producer on Cowboys & Aliens, so I got to know him a tiny bit, but through this experience it made me not only want to work with him again as an actor, but also to be a director like him someday. I followed him around set like a shadow, observing the way that he works on set, which is very unusual I think.
James Hunt is portrayed as this ultimate daredevil roller-coaster playboy who’s still at the top of his game. This feels like the product of a bygone age, and everyone seems to works so much harder now, and are much more disciplined. Is there anyone you know in Hollywood who can still go out, go crazy, pop the champagne cork and then still knock it out of the park the next day?
God, I don’t know. I think you’re right, I think it’s a different time. I think the best line of Ron’s to describe this time period was: “It’s when sex was safe and driving was dangerous.” I think that now people are much more concerned of course because of social media and everything else involved with it that they can’t relax quite as much. It’s very different to be an actor now, even than it was 10 years ago. So I don’t know if anyone’s quite as wild or uninhibited – maybe they are and I’m not privy to it. Maybe there’s parties going on behind closed doors that I’m not invited to! It’s interesting, because although James Hunt was such a wild man, I think he also was quite disciplined and worked very hard. I thought that was interesting. Chris was telling me about that when we were shooting the film, about the preparation that Hunt would do before every race, and how he would get so nervous that he would vomit, and he would psych himself up for it because it did mean so much to him. I think the reason he had to burn off steam in the way that he did and was steeped in alcohol at all times was because he cared so much about it. I don’t know if you can maintain that now, just because it’s frowned upon. I think it was celebrated then. Part of the reason he was such a star was because he would saunter on to the racetrack with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a spliff. Now it would just be seen as disrespectful.
Were you a Formula 1 fan before you made Rush?
I knew nothing about about it, so I kind of represent a lot of Americans who know nothing about it. But it’s a good example of appreciating the film despite that, and the story being just as exciting even if you don’t know anything about Formula 1 – or if you don’t know anything about these two characters. I mean, that’s what’s so great about the film – that you can learn about their story without any knowledge of them before. And I think the racing itself, while it’s beautifully shot in the film and I think is an important part of it, is just a way to represent the tension and excitement of this era – and of these two very different types of people, who I think represent the different … well, I think James represents kind of the old way or the 70s optimism coming out of the sexual revolution, of a kind of wild time in society, people being quite liberated; and Nikki I think represents the 80s. Of course socially still they were quite wild times, but in terms of like politically speaking, in terms of the world getting into a much more conservative place I think those two styles butting up against each other. But the film can be seen through so many different perspectives – purely as a love story, purely as a sports film, or as a metaphor for political shifts – it’s that well made.
If you were around at the time and you met both Nikki Lauda and James Hunt, which personality do you think you’d be more attracted to of the two?
Oh, James. I think Nikki was very undiplomatic and insensitive; I think he was probably a tough person to hang out with. I would have admired him – I mean, I still do – but James would have been more fun. I mean, that’s who you’d wanna hang out with. But I think he probably would have driven me mad in the way that he drove Suzy mad. But she tried – that’s what I think is very romantic. She didn’t just date him, she married him, and she was a wise woman. She didn’t marry him for money or fame, she had that. It was about believing him when he said that he wanted to change his ways, that he was in love. And I think that he was – it was a very romantic, optimistic gesture for the both of them to commit to each other. I believe that they were very much in love, and I think that Ron and Peter did a great job of showing that – that the heartbreak over their separation did affect him greatly.
You said before that Suzy was a formidable opponent to James. Was that something that really attracted you to the role, that she wasn’t just a kind of side project in his life?
That was very important to me, that she wouldn’t just be a pushover – and that when he crossed the line over and over and over again, that she was done. I loved Peter’s line at the end, when we’re sitting in the restaurant and I say, if it had just been one infidelity, or jut the drugs, or just the booze, or just the lying, you know, maybe it would have worked. But everything at once – how could she possibly put up with that? And then here comes Richard Burton, who treats her like a queen.
Have you ever met her?
I still haven’t met her. She lives in Ibiza – I don’t get to Ibiza enough, you know? Or ever! But I’m looking forward to meeting her, and I know she hasn’t seen the film yet, so I’m anxious to see. But Ron was very clear that I wasn’t to do an impression of Suzy – that wasn’t the idea, because of course at first I just wanted every bit of footage of her, everything I could, I wanted to go and live with her and see if I could mimic her. If it were a biopic about Suzy Miller – Suzy Burton now – I would do that, but because this was just an element of the James story, I needed to service that story in a way that was necessary to tell what we wanted to tell. So it was important to have the freedom to interpret her at that time in that way that we needed to. So in no way am I trying to be a perfect replica of the real Suzy. Which was different than, of course, what the boys were going through, having to really study speech patterns and mannerisms of real people – which I think they did a brilliant job at, both of them.
How are you choosing your film roles? They’re all very diverse and different from each other – Drinking Buddies, and Third Person, and then this, and Her…
The ultimate success for an actor is the ability to be picky, and to say no more than you say yes. So in the last two years, maybe year-and-a-half, I’ve had the opportunity to do that, which has been an amazing luxury. So having the chance to only work with directors who I really find interesting has been fantastic. And now it’s just about working with those people, it’s not about the size of the role or about how much money the film might make – it’s about what I’ll learn from those people. So whether it’s Ron Howard, Paul Haggis, Spike Jonze, you know, having the chance in the past couple of years just to observe them has been extraordinary. And then something like Drinking Buddies, which is an entirely different process, has been fulfilling – more than I ever could have imagined.
Do you have a wish-list of directors you’d like to work with?
Oh yeah, yeah – everyone from Pedro Almodovar to Woody Allen to Lynn Ramsay to Mike Leigh. I’m kind of all over the place, but I mean, so many different people, so many – Paul Thomas Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow… Lots of people.
Now you’re engaged to Jason Sudeikis, as two big Hollywood starsy ou seem to be escaping relatively easily and not being hounded by the press…. Is that the case?
Oh no, we are. Spend one afternoon with us! I think I’ve learned from having the chance to work with so many of the greats, I’ve had the chance to observe how they deal with it, and it seems that the only way to survive is just to continue living your life and not sacrifice any of it because someone happens to be stalking you with a camera. You know, it is a weird society we live in, but I am not willing to change the way that I behave because of it. And it’s fleeting. There are people who become very paranoid and they lose their freedom and that makes me sad. I don’t think it’s worth it. But it is an odd time to be an actor or performer, because of the internet. It’s very different than if you’d been doing this in the 70s. You know, James and Suzy might not have seemed so glamorous if you were seeing them take out the trash every morning. But because we only saw them being glamorous and beautiful then it created a different picture.
Are you planning to ever work together?
I would love to work with Jason. I wanted to work with him before we were together, so yeah, yeah. I mean, he’s a really sharp and brilliant writer as well, so we’re trying to figure out what the best thing to do together will be.