I think Olivia Thirlby is going to be a major actress of her generation. Like everyone else, I first noticed the rising young actress in Juno, where she played the spirited best friend of Ellen Page’s smart-aleck main character, and though I rarely interview actors – I just don’t know what questions to ask – I jumped at the chance to talk to Ms. Thirlby when she came to Seattle for the SIFF showing of The Wackness. She turned out to be very self-possessed, very serious about her craft and career, and a consummate professional. A very brief snippet of my interview with her ran in the P-I a few weeks ago. Now the complete interview is up at GreenCine.
The first film listed in your resume is United 93. Was that actually your film debut?
No, my first job was this obscure film called The Secret.
That’s coming out on DVD.
Yeah, don’t rush to get it. [Laughs] That was my first job. I got it in 2005 when I was 18, and it was really an amazing experience and a very challenging role, but I’m a little green. I did a film called Margaret after that, which actually hasn’t been released yet; it’s still being worked through, I think in the editing room, and then United 93 was my third job. Juno was my most recent project when it came out, and I had about four other films in the can that hadn’t come out yet.
Was Snow Angels made after Juno?
No, a whole year before. I filmed Snow Angels in February of 2006 and Juno in February of 2007. The thing with indie films is that it’s a long, long process. For Snow Angels it took two solid years between when the movie was shot and when the movie was picked up and released.
Snow Angels is a far more intense film about damaged people than either Juno or The Wackness. I was very impressed with the scenes featuring you and Michael Angarano because scenes of teenagers trying to get to know each other are so often phony on screen and your scenes together felt honest.
There’s a sense of awkwardness that was intimate rather than self-consciousness as the characters tried to find ways to open up and talk to each other, which is hard enough as an adult let alone for an adolescent dealing with those feelings for the first time. You don’t see that on the screen often, certainly not done so well.
I think that’s hugely in part because the script was so well written. David Gordon Green, who directed, adapted the script from the novel. Most of the things that we say are things that he wrote but he we did spend a fair amount of time rehearsing. We did a lot of rehearsing without the script, before we knew the lines, so we were familiar with the scene, but when you take the scripted things away, that’s when the naturalness comes out, and we kept a lot of that in. I think that sometimes a huge flaw with dialogue in films and why it sometimes feels unreal is that it’s set in a very unrealistic format, which is I speak and then you speak, and then I speak and then you speak, and we speak in full sentences, and we speak in complete thoughts, and we take turns, and that’s just not how people usually have a conversation. There are interjections, there are utterances, there are giggles, especially when you’re really connecting with somebody. You don’t have to be talking about something serious, you don’t have to be talking about something at all – you can just be spending time together. When we were filming the movie, what we tried to do was keep everything very easy. Michael and I would often finish out the day feeling like, “Wait, did we even shoot anything today?” Because the way that we interacted with each other and spoke was the same when the camera was rolling or not rolling. It was almost as though the camera was hidden and it was like taking a peak into what we were just doing when we were hanging out. I was also working with David, who is a very naturalist director. I’m glad to hear that it feels natural.
You also have a great chemistry with Josh Peck in The Wackness, but when you play scenes with Ben Kingsley, the chemistry is completely different. It’s not necessarily antagonistic, but there is a stiffness or a formality in your relations, as well as an affection. So how do you develop that tension between yourselves?
I think that Dr. Squires is such an unusual character in that he’s so pathetic and childlike in so many ways. Sir Ben and I discussed it a lot, because our relationship is hinted at. It’s not quite a father-daughter relationship that we’ve got going on, and I do call him Dr. Squires sometimes, but we decided that he had been married to Stephanie’s mother since she was twelve or thirteen years old and he had been a pretty formative figure in her young life and had taken care of her. He might not really be a father figure, but she loves him very dearly. At the same time, I think she pities him a little bit. I don’t think she really takes him seriously. But that’s also Stephanie. I don’t think she takes anything seriously.
I sense that Dr. Squires is very protective of Stephanie.
Yes, and I think that she’s protective of him, too. It’s kind of like they look out for each other very much. He says he doesn’t want Josh dating her because she’ll break his heart, but I think he’s a little protective of her too, he doesn’t want to know what his little girl is doing. [Laughs] Well, actually that’s not really true. There was a scene that got cut where he asks her for drugs, so it’s not like he doesn’t know. [Laughs] He’s really stoned and he comes to her and says, “The dog ate my weed. Do you have any?”
Read the complete review on GreenCine here.
One last note which did not make it into my published piece. As the interview ended and she headed out for a lunch break, she turned back to me and said, “Thank you for asking such intelligent questions.” “Surely you get your share of smart questions,” I responded. She replied, quite plainly, “No.”