Olivia Wilde Received Some Of Her Best Hollywood Wisdom From Tilda Swinton

Wilde talks "Meadowland," Viola Davis' Emmys speech and industry sexism.

Olivia Wilde has worked with Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Jon Favreau -- names that would appeal to anyone in Hollywood with an ounce of sense. You'll notice they have one thing in common beyond great films: penises. Where are the women in Wilde's moviemaking life? Few and far between, as it turns out. Her new film, "Meadowland," in which she and Luke Wilson play a couple reeling from the loss of their child, is one of the few times a woman has steered a project with which Wilde is involved. That includes one season on "The O.C." and five on "House." She's optimistic about the attention being paid to equality in Hollywood, however, partly thanks to her collaboration with Reed Morano, who shot and directed "Meadowland." Morano also shot five episodes of Wilde's forthcoming '70s-set rock 'n' roll series "Vinyl," which premieres on HBO in January and is written by "Sopranos" and "Wolf of Wall Street" scribe Terence Winter.

The Huffington Post sat down with Wilde for a deep dive on her experiences as a woman in the industry. Along the way, she's been fortunate enough to receive some key advice from Tilda Swinton, so things can't be all bad, right?

Tell me, just how wild is "Vinyl"? The trailers look wild.

Yeah, it’s got the Terry Winter brilliance all over it. It’s very unusual. I’ve never seen anything on television like it because it’s at once extremely intense and sexy and emotional and hilarious. I think that’s a Scorsese trademark. Think of “Goodfellas” -- you cried, you laughed, you wanted to throw up. There are all these intense emotions connected to it and I think that is the same as “Vinyl” in many ways. Bobby Cannavale is just brilliant and people will be so thrilled to see Ray Romano in this role because he’s wonderful. 

Did you happen to see the essay written in the New York Post about how women supposedly can't understand "Goodfellas"?

I did not see that. That would have made me so mad. That’s like saying you can’t understand "Goodfellas" if you’re not a gangster who has killed people and lived in New York during this time. That’s ridiculous. Women will love “Vinyl.” It’s got some great female characters and we’ve had our share of great female directors this season.

It's probably fair to assume you've worked with a disappointingly few number of female directors. What was helpful about having one around on "Meadowland" in particular?

Well, it’s interesting because every relationship with a director is influenced by the project itself and that character you’re playing. Specifically for this film, it really enhanced the experience to have another mother making the film with me. I think Luke, as well, would say that he’s not a parent, so having the perspective of a parent informed him. For me, it made it a much more intense relationship than I’ve had with any director because we put the film together, so it had been a project we’d worked on together for years by the time we shot it. It’s hard to make a generalization about female characters using “Meadowland” as an example because it was very specific to this intense story, but there was this confidence from her that felt to me like a very woman-to-woman, confident sisterhood, as opposed to what can be a more patronizing relationship from some male directors who are so conscious of their power over you that they can sometimes underestimate your intelligence, strength or bravery. But again, is that a female-to-female thing or is that a Reed Morano thing? It’s really tricky to tell.

Olivia Wilde stars in "Meadowland."
Olivia Wilde stars in "Meadowland."

Do you think the goal is to work toward an equal footing for female entertainers or to carve out a distinct space for them?

The important movement that’s happening now is an awareness of the lack of women working in the industry, not to mention the lack of roles for women in certain films. Just as Viola Davis said in her speech at the Emmys, it’s about creating opportunities. You can’t win an Emmy if you don’t have the role. She said it so well because it’s not about saying, “OK, let’s give more attention and more money and more emphasis to the underserved communities of filmmakers.” It’s about, “Let’s not let the gender of a director sway the decision of a potential financier or executive at a studio. Let’s make it so it’s an even playing field at the start so that then it’s up to the director -- male or female -- to take it to that next level.” It was extremely difficult to get financing for "Meadowland," and I think the fact that Reed knocked it out of the park and created something beautiful will perhaps encourage other financiers to give other first-time female directors a shot.

How much of that difficulty was about having two women at the center, and how much of it was because it's a tiny independent movie with a heavy subject?

I think it’s a combination, but I will say that Reed was not a spring chicken on the scene. She has shot Oscar-nominated films and worked with all of these incredible directors. There’s no reason not to invest in someone who’s had that much experience, so I was shocked at how hard it was to get financing based on her résumé. I can’t say for sure, but I think the fact that she is a young woman may have had something to do with it. As a female producer or a female director taking around a script for a female-centric drama, that is not the prize package people are looking for. They don’t see dollar signs and yet there’s a huge audience asking for that material. It’s interesting -- this has happened through the generations with different types of art. There was a reason George Eliot [Mary Ann Evans] had to pretend to be a man. Eventually it will become an even playing field so that we won’t question who directed it, a man or a woman? It will just be, “How good is the director?” I’m optimistic about it. 

The narratives surrounding diverse achievements always amaze me. The "women are funny!" talk after "Bridesmaids" reached such a critical mass, like it was a foreign concept. And just this summer, the media narrative around "Straight Outta Compton" was, "Oh, look, a movie with black protagonists tops the box office!" How much of this stuff is the result of studios' decisions, and how much is the way the media discuss issues?

Everything in the film business is based on foreign sales. We tend to think domestically when we think about how the film industry is doing, based on what we can see in our own media. We can say, “Oh, these actors that we think of as the most successful actors in the world aren’t actually.” We don’t think, in this country, of Steven Seagal being a really valuable movie star, but a lot of the world does. You have to take into account that independent film is financed by foreign sales, so part of the moment that needs to happen is that foreign sales companies and international financiers need to understand this massive movement that’s saying, “We love films starring women, the world loves films starring women and directed by women and produced by women, so don’t be afraid to invest in those projects.” We can criticize studio heads, but if we continue to support films directed by all types of people and starring all types of people, that’s what makes the change. If you look at what’s happening in the world of television, no studio anywhere in the world could ever say that a television show starring a black woman isn’t going to do well.

When discrimination is overt, sometimes we can fix it using legislation. We can work toward equal pay and LGBT rights, for example, in concrete ways, as tough as those battles can be. But institutionalized sexism is different because there's sometimes no bill to pass to avoid it. Have you encountered overt sexism?

You know, because it is institutionalized, I think all women have encountered overt sexism routinely, and yet we aren’t shocked by it enough to draw attention to it because it’s something that is institutionalized. It’s something we’ve dealt with -- in any industry, by the way, certainly not just in the film industry -- but I applaud those who have started to say, "No, that’s bullshit, pay me just as much as my co-star got paid." The expectation for women to just let it slide and just understand "this is how it goes" is waning. I have encountered outright, overt sexism over and over and over again within this business, and yet it took me years to get to the point where I realized I didn’t have to put up with it. I think that’s what happens in any cultural revolution.

It's the frog-in-the-boiling-water analogy. You can pop out of the pot and say, "Nope, don’t need to do this." Now, it's raising this new generation of women who are told, "You don’t have to put up with this, you can play any sport you want, you can have any job you want, you don’t need to play with Barbies that look like that.” I believe there has been a shift in the way we raise women from the beginning, and early-childhood education for both men and women is what’s going to change that institutionalized sexism. Even movies like the animated film “Brave” -- I thought, “That’s fantastic. That’s going to start those young women off with a different definition.”

Right. Nothing will change until we can talk to our kids about it.

Yes! That’s what I mean. It has to start at that early, early level. My son yesterday picked out a little baby-doll toy, and my first reaction, that I didn’t voice, when I first saw that he was holding it and kissing it and loving it, was like, “Oh, it’s so funny he picked out a little baby.” Then I thought, “Don’t laugh. It’s not funny. Let him do it!” And he’s walking around, kissing it, loving it, taking care of it and I was like, “Wow, it starts this early. He’s 1!” Our reaction to him now is how he’s going to react to the world, so we have to change the way we talk to kids and then change the way we create art. If the demand is there, the good art will be distributed and seen.

Looking back after so many years of auditions and roles, did the double doozy of your age and your gender make you more vulnerable than a male co-star would have been on, say, “The O.C.”?

That’s interesting. I think young male actors have a hard time fitting into an expectation of what a man is, too. They have their own challenge. Like, what’s a hunk? So I never thought about it being harder than the young men I was working with at the time. I was a casting assistant, so I was painfully aware of how competitive this business is for young women from a very early stage. I started on the other side of the desk seeing 10,000 headshots of girls who looked remarkably similar going for the same role, and I think the important lesson I learned from that is you have to value your individuality and invest in what makes you unique because then you are not replaceable. I’m grateful I came into it with that perspective. For instance, every young actress, I guarantee, has 18 different types of push-up bras in their drawer because you might get an audition request from a casting director saying, “OK, this is the voluptuous, sexy character," and then you’re stuffing your bra, thinking, "Will they love me? Am I voluptuous enough?” With those auditions in the very beginning, I’ve questioned, "Has it gotten better or do I just not realize it now because I’m at a higher level, so perhaps I’m more protected from those conversations?"

I do remember, very early on, I was like 20 years old and I met Tilda Swinton at a Golden Globes party. I was beyond thrilled. I was on “House.” Or was I on “House” yet? I don’t even know. I don’t know why or how I got into this party. But she was sitting with Catherine Keener, who is one of my all-time idols, and I went up and just prostrated myself before them. Tilda was so gracious with me and said, “I do not envy you being a young actress forced to be the ingénue. You must feel so much pressure.” And I thought, “Wow. We’re accustomed to thinking that aging actresses are so envious of the young ingénues and that being an aging actress is so sad.” Bullshit. She made it very clear to me at that moment how liberating getting older is because you are no longer trying so hard to be everything to everyone. I just remember that moment and suddenly being very excited to evolve and grow old in this business, and she’s absolutely right: I am so much happier now being too old for those ingénue roles. I like playing people who have some fucking history and who’ve been through some shit. The complexity of life as you get older, I think, becomes a lot more interesting to watch, which isn’t to say there aren’t fascinating young characters and brilliant actresses playing them. I remember one of my first auditions, the casting director looked at me and said, "You’ll be all right, you’ve got a pie face." I was like, "Is that good?! You said it like it was a good thing, but if I were to guess that’s a bad thing."

Maybe she meant that pie is cute? Just trying to help you out here.

Pie’s not cute! I think of pie as crusty, round and flat. Anyway, that’s just a little snippet of the experience of being a young actress.

"Meadowland" opens in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 16. It expands to additional cities and premieres via VOD on Oct. 23. This interview has been edited and condensed.


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