TORONTO — For Olivia Wilde, playing a gorgeous celebrity with a personal life mined for regular tabloid copy wasn’t necessarily much of a stretch. Trying to understand and embody another era of stardom, that was the real trick to playing Suzy Miller, the model and first wife of the late playboy race car driver James Hunt, in Rush.
“One thing that’s changed, and I’ve been thinking about it, is that everything that James Hunt was celebrated for was kind of what we criticize people for today,” Wilde said on Saturday in an interview with BuzzFeed. “Now we expect celebrities to be like politicians, we really criticize them for having any skeletons in their closet. Which, isn’t that the point? Didn’t we used to want people to be a little bit wild and crazy and unpredictable?”
Chris Hemsworth plays that crazy, unpredictable, womanizing, and reckless F1 star in the Ron Howard-directed movie, which screens on Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival. Known for his hard-partying ways — which are detailed at length in the film — Hunt fully embraced the debauchery of the 1970s, using his talent and considerable looks as the vehicle to drive his name into the spotlight and reap the subsequent rewards. The movie chronicles his rise to fame and the historic 1976 season of F1 racing, which saw him take on star Austrian racer Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) in a neck-and-neck battle for the championship. Along the way, he lost his wife, after just a year of marriage, to Richard Burton — who allegedly paid big money for the right to wed the much younger woman.
Wilde, 29, is quite candid in conversation, a straight shooter who has earned fans for not just her acting but snark-filled Twitter feed, as well; it’s a wellspring of refreshing honesty from a star actress, and especially impressive given her understanding of the hypercritical new media culture. Wilde fired away in conversation with BuzzFeed, about celebrity, Rush, and Twitter.
We don’t know see much about Suzy Miller’s backstory in this movie, so did you take a lot of liberties with the character, or did you try to stick to who she really was?
Olivia Wilde: She was up for grabs to a certain extent in terms of interpretation — I really wanted to make my own choices and turn her into what I thought was important for this story. She had to epitomize glamour and grace and had this regal air, as opposed to the kind of sexy girls you see James with the whole movie. She was just a different breed. And I wanted to show that, and that’s true to Suzy in real life. I didn’t study her mannerisms, her speech patterns in the way that the guys did Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
It’s interesting to see the way celebrity was back then. How do you think it’s changed?
OW: Now we want everyone to be really well-behaved Mormons. Not that I’m so wild and crazy, but I think when people get criticized for, I don’t know, having a screaming fight on set — no one should be rude to everyone, but when people are not these well-behaved robots, it’s points deducted, and I don’t think that’s fair. I think if they’re running for office, it might be, but they’re actors, they’re artists. When did people begin to expect artists to act this way?
I feel like sometimes politicians get off easier than actors in public opinion.
OW: It’s true! And I think the other difference is that the internet has transformed everything about celebrity. The things that are celebrated about, let’s say, a couple like James and Suzy, they just were celebrated for being these incredibly glamorous people and they had these great parties and they were so attractive all the time. There weren’t pictures of them taking out the trash or scooping dog shit. So it maintains the air of “they’re special.” That’s all changed.
And maybe it’s for the better, people will stop the deification of celebrities, they’ll understand that everyone is just a person, but the stalking, the pervasive stalking in celebrity culture and tabloid culture, that’s a thing that didn’t exist quite as much. I think it’s changed the way people approach the job now. Possibly it’s made people more paranoid and less fun. It was fun to research what it was like in the ’70s, especially in London — it’s a small place, and without the internet it’s even smaller, so you were really known by everyone, everywhere you went.
You live in New York; do you feel like you’re hunted every time you go out?
OW: Yeah. Yeah. In Brooklyn I don’t feel that way; I used to live in Brooklyn and my sister still lives there, and it’s probably where I’ll end up going back, because people don’t give a shit there. Either they don’t give a shit or they’re too cool, which I appreciate. People don’t bother me, people saying hello when they’re New Yorkers. New Yorkers saying hello is great. I think when it’s paparazzi, it drives me insane, and when it’s tourists who act like they’re at Disneyland and you are Minnie Mouse, in a big fuzzy Minnie Mouse head, and it’s their turn to come up and take a picture with you, that’s when I get really irritated.
Some people are better at that. I’m actually kind of an awkward person with strangers in that way. When someone grabs me to take a picture, I get a little stiff and weird. I have friends who are much more at ease about the whole thing. New Yorkers don’t care. And I actually had some paparazzi photographers follow me to the subway recently, and I loved it because a bunch of the people on the subway blocked them and helped me get out and get away from them.
You ever want to do something just batshit crazy, so they’d end up with some really strange pictures?
OW: I have thought about the fact that it’s a great opportunity to get coverage for performance art. If you really wanted to do something, I guess the way Joaquin Phoenix was doing his project for his film, you could just start acting crazy and they would cover it. You’d have guaranteed distribution. That’s what I keep hoping Amanda Bynes is doing. How great, if she came out and said, “You suckers. I have just done the most amazing performance art and you all bought into it and now I’ve made a film of it and I’m actually not insane.”
If she gets better, she can still say that.
OW: Someone should coach her to just pretend. The other thing that’s changed about the nature of celebrity, I was just reading this awesome novel named City of Ruins, and in it, they talk about how when they were making Cleopatra, the PR department of the studio constructed the romance of Dick and Liz, because it was good for the movie. They knew it was going to sink $20 million, they knew it’d be a bomb, so in order to make money to pay themselves back, they whored out — the studio was hiring paparazzi to follow them around to make money off of them. So I read that and was like, the whole studio system, in terms of making money off of actors’ personal lives, that’s a thing of the past and I’m glad it’s no longer.
There’s a fair number of people who make money off of it.
OW: Probably for Disney kids it exists.
If you get through that, you should get a medal.
OW: You should, you’re a survivor. You should get a Purple Heart.
On the plus side, being a celebrity means you can make political statements, on Twitter or otherwise, and they carry more weight.
OW: Yeah, which is not to say your voice is more important. When people are like, “Who are you? You’re just an actor, what do you know about anything?” Well, it’s not that I’m saying I know more, it’s that I learned this interesting tidbit of information, I have the ability to share it with a million of you. Do with it what you will, but I think it’s important. So I enjoy that part of the process because I see the result is helping people. I joined Twitter to raise money for this organization in Haiti; I had no idea what Twitter was. It was right after the earthquake in Haiti, and in 12 hours I raised 30 grand on Twitter. I was like, This is something good. And then I just started writing bullshit on Twitter ever since.
OW: It was fun doing the research for that too, hearing that it actually encourages distributors to buy riskier films. That right there is incentive enough to support VOD. We just have to get rid of this snobbiness. I get it, for certain films, you want people in the theater, but even as a filmmaker, it makes me kind of encouraged to know that there is a platform that’s good for small films that can actually be seen by more people. More people have seen Drinking Buddies than a lot of other movies that I’ve done. It’s a democratization of films.
Now, this movie is a bigger movie. Though it wasn’t hugely expensive, at $53 million.
OW: Small for Ron Howard. He really felt like we were making an indie indie, and I was like, “Ron, you should come on some of my sets, this is not indie — we have food here, Ron.” It was amazing what they were able to accomplish with such little money in terms of special effects, the racing. It’s expensive to create a period piece because it has to be so consistent and so intricate. The set design. Buying all that music, too, did you hear that soundtrack?
Visually, it was gorgeous. It looked like it was shot on Instagram, if you will.
OW: Ha! Now that’s how we see the world. Oh, what filter is that? Is that X-Pro 2? It’s changing the way we see movies, like, I do that on my phone. Racing, the sexiness of the colors, really adds to the kind of sexiness of the time period. I love those deep reds and blues, just making Hemsworth’s eyes look that crazy blue. It was good. Good. Not a bad thing.
And then there was your accent, but you had some help.
OW: My dad has a British accent, so it helped. I cheated. But it was also scary because you don’t want to get it wrong, and it’s specific to a type of British accent; Suzy was a much higher class than my dad’s accent. He’s also Anglo-Irish. I was trying not to copy him completely, because his is muddled with an Irish accent. It was still work, but it was fun. I like all accent work. I always did in theater and I want more opportunities to do it. What made this a little easier was shooting in London. The crew was all English, so I got to stay consistent, unless I was talking to Ron, who couldn’t be more American. Opie is American, it turns out.
What other accents would you like to do?
OW: Irish; I grew up being in Ireland a lot, we spent half our time there. I think it’s a beautiful accent. There’s some harder than others. One big dream of mine is to make an Irish film, and I’ve been kind of putting it together for years. I went to acting school there. The acting community, theater community, the entire artistic community there is fantastic; they’re very down to earth, there’s not a lot of bullshit about celebrities in terms of performance art. You can go to a play in Dublin and then go meet the actors after and there’s no red velvet rope, it’s not like that there. They have, I think, a really great attitude, and great actors come out of that environment. I’d like to make an Irish film with an Irish accent.
The Irish film board is looking to bring more production, that’s for sure.
OW: Yeah, it’s great, and they’re really encouraging people who make movies there — in order to get the tax incentive, you have to use Irish actors. And quite a few of them get the lead in big roles. There are a lot of accents that would be fun to tackle. I’d like to try Appalachian. They say it’s the closest to Shakespearean English. I’d like an accent that would force me to learn another language. Or a made-up one. It’d be cool to do a movie about an unknown land and you had to make up an accent.
Would there be subtitles or would people just have to figure it out?
OW: They’d have to just understand it from my amazing acting (laughs).
Do you want to direct?
OW: I do want to direct, though I don’t know if I want to direct the Irish film. Possibly. I directed the short that I wrote and it made it a little bit easier for it to be my first directing gig. Anything that went wrong — which it always will when you’re directing — I knew how to fix, because I knew the story so well. If we lost a location, I could say, OK, we can’t tell this story without that location. It would be an extra challenge to direct somebody else’s script. If I wrote the Irish film, I might want an Irish director to help me do it correctly there and really understand the landscape.
Also, I have quite a lot to learn about technology. I’m still not savvy enough with cameras. Having a great DP [director of photography] is helpful, but as an actor, I like working for directors who really understand the camera. Ron Howard is a great example of that collaboration between DP and director, he and Anthony [Dod Mantle] were so in sync, and there was no sense of ego. Ron trusts the people he hires and he delegates really well, so when Peter Morgan — who is such a great screenwriter — would come up and say, “I don’t like this, I think you should do it this way,” even a performance note, Ron was really open to that because he has such respect for them.
So that’s what I learned from this process: Hire the people that you respect enough that it truly becomes a collaboration and you, on set, are never without answers. But some directors don’t seem to embrace that. They think, Oh, I’ll just hire someone to hold the camera. Without that collaboration I think you end up with a shittier vibe on set.