The first thing you notice about Olivia Wilde is her eyes. A deep sapphire blue, overhung with lashes so thick and dark they don’t just frame, they loom, threatening to shut the eyes down at a moment’s notice. The second thing you notice is the voice. The aural equivalent of barbecue sauce; smoky, rich, with a hint of sweet, it pours out and keeps coming in swirls that curl around the points she is making. And those points come thick and fast.
No vapid actor/model, Wilde was raised by journalist parents who exposed her at an early age to liberal politics and taught her the value of a questioning mind. She regularly came close to being kicked out of her boarding school, Phillips Academy Andover, but says she loved the experience.
“I find that boarding school is really great for letting young people take themselves seriously as independent, young adults,” says Wilde. “It’s important when you’re young and start putting together who you’re going to be for the rest of your life to have some time to mess up and practice a bit.”
Considering her background, it may come as a surprise that Wilde didn’t follow in the footsteps of Mom and Dad and choose a headier career. But, she got bitten by the acting bug very early on. By age seven, acting was her goal. All else was a means to justify that end. As a cerebral person, she admits to planning out all her steps in advance to become an actor. “I remember seeing Saturday Night Live for the first time,” reflects Wilde. “I realized that what they were doing on stage was a profession and they were getting paid!” — again her eyes take center stage — “They just looked like they were having so much fun.”
It was, therefore, comedy that first and foremost caught her interest. Comedic minds like Gilda Radner got her to believe life was about having fun and making people laugh. When the opportunity arose for her to star in a big screen comedy, she bit. “My path sort of deviated, but the destination never did,” says Wilde. Year One, in which Wilde plays opposite Jack Black, is a biblical era comedy directed by Harold Ramis of Ghostbusters fame. She describes the experience as “a blast… so full of creativity, spontaneity and happiness.”
All of which is a far cry from her role in 2006’s Alpha Dog, in which she played opposite Bruce Willis, Justin Timberlake and Emile Hirsch. The movie is a dramatization of the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, the teenage drug dealer who kidnapped and ultimately murdered the younger brother of a client with a drug debt.
“It was a hard film to make,” says Wilde. “It was a difficult experience for all of us. We didn’t make these characters seem likable and it was really difficult to play unlikable.”
Likeable may not be a prerequisite, but the quality of the roles she gets offered are. “I base every decision about work on the script,” says Wilde. Because she comes from writers and is a writer herself, if it’s not there in the script she doesn’t believe it’ll be there in the end product. “That is why I go back and forth between television and film. You never know where the good role is going to land and unfortunately there aren’t that many fantastic, intelligent roles for women in film. They’re often left to television.”
Television is where Wilde has found a home as the character known simply as “Thirteen” on FOX’s monster hit House. She also got a generation of young men hot under the waistband in The O.C., as Alex Kelly, when she engaged in tonsil hockey with co-star Mischa Barton. Any men entertaining fantasies of Wilde as a hot-blooded nymphomaniac with bisexual proclivities are going to be disappointed to find out she is married — very happily.
“We eloped. I was 18; he was 26. I never wanted to make a decision on my relationship status based on my career. Even though I knew it would be easier to climb the ranks of Hollywood by dating someone famous, I thought what a terrible way. Why would you do that? Why would you want to be known for being so-and-so’s girlfriend? I was aware people would think it would be a terrible idea strategically for my career; it was one of the reasons I kept it a secret for so long. But I always thought it helped me, sort of staying out of that whole silly young Hollywood dating world.
With director husband Tao Ruspoli, she made the movie. Fix, which recently opened at the Slamdance Film Festival. She also just wrapped a public service announcement for a documentary by filmmaker David Berstein, called 18 in ‘08, a nonpartisan look at young people voting for the first time. The movie is a project about which Wilde is heatedly passionate.
“We were just doing a PSA to encourage young people to register [to vote],” says Wilde. “What I found canvassing in Iowa and Louisiana for Senator Obama is that a lot of people aren’t even registered. It’s kind of mystifying for a lot of [younger] people. So making it as simple as possible is an easy thing for us to do.” Wilde is equally forthright about her support for Obama.
“People are ready to be a part of this democracy and take advantage of their own power as citizens. For me it comes down to who’s going to be the best candidate. Obama supports policies that I also do and I think it’s amazing how many women have come out in support of him over Hillary based on issues that affect them directly.”
When asked if she plans on stopping for a breath any time soon, she replies, “Honestly, when I’m dead. The great thing about Hollywood — as
much as people may try to deny this — is that if you have a good idea and you have the will to make it happen, you can.”
We have no reason to doubt her.