sundance 2020

Olivia Wilde: Richard Jewell Controversy Changed the Way She Looks at Roles

Photo: Getty

Olivia Wilde wants us all to get the hell off our phones. At Sundance on Friday afternoon, Wilde premiered a new short film, “Wake Up,” starring Margaret Qualley dancing around New York in a fever-dream state and a hospital gown, trying to catch the attention of the hundreds of people streaming past her, all of whom are staring trancelike into their phones. Wilde’s message, as underscored hauntingly by Perfume Genius“Otherside,” is clear: We’re all phoneheads who need to disconnect from our screens, reconnect with our inner Margaret Qualleys, and Gumby dance along the High Line.

“Wake Up” is now available to stream on HP’s website; the brand sponsored the film in a somewhat paradoxical attempt (which Wilde acknowledges) to encourage people to use their phones, just not too much. After the screening, I caught up with Wilde for a quick chat about the short, how Booksmart has changed her life, her thoughts on the upcoming Oscars’ extremely male-centric Best Picture and Best Director lineups, and how the recent Richard Jewell controversy is making her rethink her approach to roles.

That was cool!
Thank you! I know the irony of making something telling people to throw their phones in the river while they’re probably watching it on their phones. I had a dream about having an event to force people into a room to watch a short. Nobody does that! [Laughs.] 

Where’d the idea for this come from? Is tech addiction a personal thing that you’re thinking about a lot?
It started with a challenge from HP who asked the Lab at Anonymous Content to help them question the role of technology in society today. That was the big question. I love lofty questions as starting points for creative inspiration. It’s the school nerd in me: “Ah! An assignment!” But how great to be allowed to make a visual poem pulling apart that question.

And Margaret was my ultimate partner in this. She was so immediately aware of the purpose and the tone of the piece. I wanted to make it visual and not very verbal. When talking about humanity, we must talk about non-verbal communication, and that’s the thing that gets completely lost when we’re walking around with our headphones on at all times — we miss those subtle human cues. You’re sitting on the subway, you’re so numb, you’re so isolated. You don’t respond to the subtle cues that typically connect us with a stranger. And she told the story with her body in a way that allowed me to make it nonverbal. I’m so blown away by her.

Was her dancing improvised?
Yes. I told her when we were exploring the idea, “I don’t want to hire a choreographer because I know you’re a dancer, and I know you’re a choreographer, and I want you to take this on.” And she did. I’d give her cues, like, “I just want primal.” And she found primal. She actually herniated a disc in her neck doing that scene! Poor thing. But she was better the next day because she’s young. And the youth can do that. They heal so quickly!

Perfume Genius shows up twice on Booksmart’s soundtrack and now here. Are you guys friends?
I know him now only through using his music so many times. I’d been a big fan, and my music supervisor on Booksmart works with Perfume Genius as well — he manages the band. They have a new record coming out in May and it’s un-fucking-real.

You’ve heard it?
I’ve heard it and it’s on another level. It’s so varied. There’s a song that sounds like Roy Orbison, and then there’s like, generational anthems. But I do find so much inspiration in music and I do come from music videos, and music for me is a way to plug into a story. I’m writing a script right now, and I have a playlist to help me emotionally plug in. But Perfume Genius specifically is so cinematic and emotional. I loved “Otherside” when it came out and I thought, That deserves something! It’s so bare and so discordant and so emotional and big.

I loved Booksmart so much that I saw it three times. How do you see its legacy unfolding in the past year or so since its release? How has it changed your life?
It’s amazing, because it’s taken on a life of its own so separate from me, which is what I dreamed of. I thought, The ideal situation is this becomes something people share with each other and remember their deepest relationships and best friendships that help them survive adolescence; they think even in adulthood about those relationships, and how they see others, and how they feel seen. I had a dream that people would take ownership of it and they did. This grassroots movement has spread the word about it; people are still discovering it. Today Darren Aronofsky tweeted about it and I nearly passed away.

What did he say?
He was like, top-five film of the year. I was like, I can’t breathe. He’s one of my great, great, great idols. It’s crazy how it continues to go so far beyond what the studio would consider a “targeted audience” of young females. It runs the gamut: older men, older women. That’s my favorite thing about it. It’s wonderful to see that it’s taken on its own life. I just want to watch it and be really proud of it.

I’m curious how you feel about the lack of female nominees in this year’s Best Picture and Best Director races.
It’s really interesting. On the one hand I want to say, “Who cares about awards, it’s arbitrary to have competition in art. There’s no way to compare art, it’s silly.” But the thing is, within this industry, which is a business, awards open doors. And they’re very connected to how people are compensated. The larger question of pay inequality — if we’re striving for parity, the awards conversation is a part of that. Awards lead to bonuses, salary increases. And we know women across the industry and the world are paid so much less for their work. So I’m hesitant to say, “Fuck ‘em! Who gives a shit? Let’s make movies!” Because actually, the awards do affect opportunities and fairness for women. In a twisted way, they matter.

It’s hard, because you look at someone like Greta Gerwig — her film was nominated for Best Picture, so surely she deserved a Best Director nomination. How can you recognize a film for Best Picture and not award that director with the same recognition? And she deserves it. And so does Alma Har’el, and Lulu Wang, and Lorene Scafaria. It’s been an astonishing year for female directors. So I feel optimistic because of that fact, that we’ve seen so many great movies that are doing well at the box office, have 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Critically, women’s films did better this year than men’s films. It’s gotta mean that there’s progress. It’s complicated. You want to say, “Ugh, who cares,” but then you’re like, “Dammit, it matters! This is a movement.” We’re breaking ground. And all of these things contribute to that.

Did you personally feel snubbed at all?
No, I never expected any awards recognition. It was my first movie, so I was just psyched to get it distributed. I have friends whose first film maybe made it to a festival and they struggled beyond that point. For your first film, all you want is like, one person to see it. To fill a theater is like, “Hallelujah![Laughs.] To have it in thousands of theaters? That’s it. I’m thrilled. Awards on top of it isn’t anything I ever expected.

But to see Beanie get nominated for that Golden Globe was a really special moment. She is extraordinary. She departed so much from herself to play that character, and it’s so seamless you can’t even tell. In real life she’s the warmest, sweetest, most sympathetic woman. They’re like my little chickens and all I want is for them to get recognition. Kaitlyn is nominated for a BAFTA! But in terms of the movie and myself, I haven’t felt slighted in the least.

Is there a Booksmart group chat that carries on?
Yes. It’ll never die!

You decided to weigh in on the whole Richard Jewell controversy after it sort of blew up on Twitter. When and how do you make the decision to dip your toe into something like that and speak up, and when do you decide it’s not worth it?
I think the good thing about social media is the ability to speak for oneself. Specifically when you’re a public figure who has words put in your mouth, where there’s so much projection and assumption. I find it useful to say, “Hang on, actually. I’ll speak for myself.” I felt compelled to share my opinion and remind people that I neither directed nor wrote the movie. It’s an illuminating phenomenon to see the fury over this film was directed at an actress in a film made by men, starring men. How? What? [Laughs.] I come from a family of journalists, and I wanted to acknowledge the community of female journalists and express my deep respect for them.

So in that way, Twitter can be like, “I’d like the microphone, please.” But most of the time I use Instagram. I’m a visual thinker. But sometimes you’re like, “Excuse me. Time to speak for myself.” And then you’re like, “I don’t want to look at it again!”

Do you read your replies?
No! I think it’s a really slippery slope.

Has the whole thing changed the way you’re looking at roles moving forward?
Oh, interesting. Yeah, actually. I think when you’re playing a role, you want to be able to play complicated people who are very different from you. There’s that whole thing about women playing likeable characters, this feeling of, “You should play likeable characters, because otherwise people won’t like you.” And I bristle at that. We should play all types of nuanced, complex characters. But I think when you’re playing real people, there’s a responsibility towards their legacy. But unfortunately when you’re not writing or directing the film, you have very little control over that.

But yeah, I think it has affected me. I don’t know exactly how yet. But I did that movie to learn from Clint Eastwood, and I’ll take those lessons into directing forever.

Olivia Wilde on Choosing Roles After Richard Jewell