In the novel “Gone Girl,” Gillian Flynn lays bare the falseness of the “cool girl” myth in a way that could have been prompted by Olivia Wilde’s character in Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies”: “a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping,” an archetype born solely out of too many movies “written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them.” Wilde’s Kate, a woman eager to be the drunkest, stay out the longest, and eat the most disgustingly enormous sandwich fastest, would be the epitome of the cool girl right down to her creator if it weren’t for two things: The movie is entirely improvised, and Olivia Wilde really is, hand to God, a genuine cool girl.
Wilde is the kind of woman who will laughingly complain that the advent of Skype meetings has forced her to put on clothes at home and boast of the “amazing beer belly” she earned from playing a woman who works in a brewery. That she happens to be gorgeous is inconsequential except when it comes to her press coverage, because she has a way of turning seasoned journalists into gushing fan boys. Ask about this effect on the fifth estate, and she laughs. “I’ve been told the press has been very kind to me,” she says, “but all I see when I read it is ‘Why did I bring that up?’ ”
Which may be why she’s so thankful for Swanberg and “Drinking Buddies,” a movie that lets her drop the movie star act and just act. “I was intimidated by it because I have done a lot of work in disappointing things, but that’s not evidence of my talent,” Wilde says carefully. “This was going to be a test of talent, and I knew it was a do-or-die situation, that if I didn’t have the chops to listen, to work, to stay present, and to stay loose, the role would die and the movie wouldn’t work.”
For his part, Swanberg says that Kate “doesn’t exist until Olivia does it. There was no movie star pretense. I already found her really talented as an actor, so I wanted her to be in the movie anyway, but I wouldn’t have held it against her if there were all these movie star hoops we had to jump through.”
The basic plot of the improvised “Drinking Buddies”—brewery co-workers Kate and Luke fight a growing attraction while in relationships with other people—is an invitation to an eye roll, but Wilde and co-star Jake Johnson make it work, digging deep and going “balls out,” as Wilde puts it—right down to insulting each other.
“When he was doing impressions of me that were really nasty? That was him really making fun of me,” Wilde says. “When you have an argument and you’re shaking afterwards, that’s how we left work that day. That never happens when you’re shooting movies because you’re doing all this coverage and taking breaks, and now I want that for every acting experience. I want it to feel real.”
Working without a script, Wilde and Johnson would confer with Swanberg about what was needed in any given scene and then attack the objective from all directions. “Joe would say, ‘In this scene you both are working and you kinda want to have lunch and maybe you’re discussing love? See what happens. Oh, and there’s a party later; see if he wants to go,’ ” Wilde says. “And we’d make vastly different choices with the dialogue, and Joe would say, ‘That one sounds real. Let’s follow it through with the next scene.’ This is an actor’s wet dream!”
Adding to the verisimilitude is Wilde’s bold decision to make Kate as much like herself as possible. “Kate felt like where I could have ended up if things hadn’t worked out for me,” Wilde says, adding, as a verbal knock-on-wood, “and I’m very much aware that it’s just around the corner. She is the worst version of me. I respect her as another being I created, but she’s a bleeding heart.” Wilde then goes on to lay out the case that being a Caucasian 30-something in the First World is not a guarantee of personal happiness, saying, “A lot of people assume that women of a certain age who are not unattractive have no excuse for not having a perfect life. But you can have emotional baggage that is dragging you down like cement blocks tied to your feet.”
If Wilde has a penchant for talking like a civilian rather than an actor who has appeared on the covers of fashion magazines, blame her early exposure to the audition room as an assistant to casting director Mali Finn (an idea she says she stole from Catherine Keener). Wilde has seen the nerves and lucky breaks firsthand, and one gets the impression that she doesn’t take anything for granted. “I went through thousands of headshots a day,” she says, “and this is so depressing for readers of Backstage, but the people who went to Tisch, Juilliard, et cetera, were in the same fucking pile with those who didn’t. And that made me realize you can build your résumé as solidly as you want, but it comes down to what you do in that room. And even if you have a name, if you don’t have confidence you won’t make good choices.”
As for choices outside the audition room, Wilde says she’s hitting her stride there too. “I consider my education to be the first 10 years of my career,” she says. “I only now, to be honest, feel as if I’ve started working. I’ve had really great experiences, but in the last two years I have finally started making the choices that I want to make. I started being as discerning as I want and saying no way more than I’m saying yes.”
Though the part is little more than a splash of ’70s glamour amid the testosterone, grease, and oil, Wilde did say yes to playing top model Suzy in Ron Howard’s upcoming Formula One period drama “Rush”—though she is quick to point out that, while the film is filled with male nudity, “I didn’t have to take off one sock!” She was, however, covered in fabulous jewels that required a small fleet of armed guards to crowd around her. But in Wilde’s telling, the gems were less impressive than the beer belly she acquired from “Drinking Buddies.” Spoken like a genuine Cool Girl.