With her flawless American accent in TV’s Bates Motel and such movies as Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, Olivia Cooke’s quickly made her name for herself on the other side of the Atlantic, but in reality, she’s one of the UK’s finest upcoming actors.
In 2016, her ascent continued when she secured a co-starring role in Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel. The movie gives Cooke’s character, Art3mis, a greatly expanded range of stuff to do – almost as much as its protagonist, Tye Sheridan’s Parzival.
It’s an eye-popping, slick and fast CGI thrill-ride, and once again, Cooke’s superb – whether she’s riding an Akira motorcycle as an elf-eyed avatar in the online virtual world of Oasis, or staying one step ahead of Ben Mendelsohn’s villain in a dystopian, near-future reality of 2045.
Ahead of Ready Player One‘s UK cinema release, we caught up with Olivia Cooke on the phone for a chat about getting the part, working for Spielberg, and the opportunities for working class actors in the US versus merry old England.
Congratulations on the film. It must have been great for you, as well, because you get to be in a big Hollywood movie, but with all the comfort of Birmingham.
It was shot in London and Birmingham. I know, I thought, being in a Spielberg movie, “Okay, what amazing foreign location are we gonna be in?” In the end, we were a few hours south of Manchester. So yeah!
I get the impression with Spielberg that, although he’s been making films for a long time, he seems quite boyish in his outlook.
He really is. Even though I was 22 when I made the film, he really brings out your inner child. Lena Waithe, who’s in the film, she says that Steven’s a giant that doesn’t make you feel small. However much of a genius he is, he cuts through your nervousness with his own neuroses and his own nervousness for the film. He’s incredibly kind and generous, and he wants to live every single moment, in the thick of the moment, with you.
So what was the process of getting the role like? Did you have to audition?
Oh, Steven just rang up and was like, “I want to work with you. Whatever capacity you want, Olivia!” No, I had to audition, and I auditioned with Ellen Lewis, the casting director in New York. I got a call saying Steven wants to fly me out to Los Angeles to do some chemistry reads with a few boys, so we did that. Then he said he wanted to have me in New York to do the same thing with other boys, and there were other ladies as well. A couple of days later, I got a call to come into the office to read the script for the first time. Then Ellen Lewis came in again and said, “We want you to read the script, because it’s looking really good for you. We want to make sure you like it.”
A few days later, I got a call when I was in my apartment in New York doing laundry to say I got the role. I was gonna be in a Steven Spielberg movie.
Wow. Were you familiar with the book? Because one of the wise changes, I thought, was that your character gets more to do in the movie.
I wasn’t. I wasn’t aware of the book until I started auditioning for the film, and then I read book once I nabbed the role – because I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Then I started seeing it everywhere; walking past cafes and people were reading it with a cup of coffee. I didn’t realise how big it was. But yeah, the character in the film has a bit of a different trajectory than the character in the book.
There’s clearly a lot of motion capture in this film; was that the most challenging aspect of it?
I think that was it. I’d never done anything like that before, so we had two weeks’ rehearsal prior to the shoot. We had a chance to become acclimatised to motion capture and that kind of performance. What was wonderful about it was that it was liberating – you’re in this white box with 150 sensors and cameras around; you’re wearing these funny suits and you have this head camera on with four cameras attached to capture your facial expressions. But you were just forced to live in your imagination and forget all that; because there were no sets or camera angles, you could just do these long sequences without stopping. It was actually really wonderful; uninhibited in a wonderful way.
So had you seen any storyboards or pre-viz stuff to give you an idea of the kinds of environments your character was in?
Yeah, there were pre-visuals, and then… we were the first film to do this: we had these Oculus headsets that we could put on and walk around the stage in to get our whereabouts and what the sets looked like. At one point, we’re in this club called The Distracted Globe, and we could see where the bar was, where the jump-off platform was to the anti-gravity dance floor. But then we had to go into our white box again and use our imaginations for those visual references. So that was really cool! It was different.
Do you think the film reflects the modern world in some ways? Especially social media, where you create a character for yourself; you become a more heightened, extreme version of yourself online?
I do, yeah. We filmed this in 2016 where I thought that this reality was a long way away, but in the couple of years that have gone on since we shot, it’s like we’re being propelled towards that reality at a fast rate. We’re definitely in a virtual world, it’s just on our phones instead of in front of our eyes in a virtual reality headset. We’re constantly looking down; for people who use social media, it is a bit of a curated life at the moment, where people get more joy, more endorphins from posting a picture and getting likes than we do having a real-life conversation!
Yeah, yeah. I wonder if you thought that social media turns everybody into actors in a certain way.
It does! Yes. That’s interesting. It does a little bit. Because you’re constantly doubting your gut reaction, or suppressing it, and trying to seem like the best version of yourself when sometimes that’s not really true to who you are innately. Or you’re trying to be someone else entirely, or be a representation of someone you admire instead of focusing on your id.
Yeah, absolutely. Conversely, the old-fashioned, Hollywood idea of a star seems to be on the wane. A lot of the stars we have now are expected to be accessible and more like us. If you think of someone like Jennifer Lawrence, for example. There’s an interesting reversal there.
I think that’s just her personality. I think she is just lovely and approachable – quite forthright, and not so much of an actor in her personal life. But I think that whole entitlement [aspect of being a star], I don’t subscribe to. My job is an actor, but I want to be able to go down the street and get a pint of milk without being bothered.
You’ve created a great career for yourself in America, so do you feel there are more opportunities for you as an actor over there, or is it more a case that over here you’re expected to go via theatre, then TV, and then movies last?
You know what? I don’t really know, because this is the only trajectory that I’ve really had. I auditioned for drama school [RADA], didn’t get in. I don’t know if that was because I had a very thick northern accent or not [chuckles] but then I started working in America, where these preconceived notions of having a working class accent aren’t understood. They just go off being right for the character and right for the job. So having that trajectory, those little bits of success in America, I’ve been able to come to England and I’ve been a lead in an ITV production of Vanity Fair playing Betty Sharpe. I don’t know if that would’ve happened if I’d stayed here in England.
Yeah. Gary Oldman said something about there being fewer opportunities for working class-sounding actors in the UK.
Massively. I think England’s the only place in the world where you can walk into a room, open your mouth and people can immediately tell where you’re from, and then have preconceived ideas of what you’re like. What you are like as a person.
So in America, there isn’t that to the same extent.
No, there isn’t. No. I mean, I had to dilute my accent a little bit, I think, just because it was quite hard to hear – something they hadn’t tuned their ear to. But no, there wasn’t the understanding of class like there is here.
Do you find yourself gravitating towards more imaginative, visually interesting projects? Because even something like Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, which is still a drama, has a really great visual style.
It really starts with the story and the characters for me, but I’ve been lucky to work with really visual directors who are turned on by that cinematic presence. So I think it’s been luck in a way, with some of the directors I’ve worked with.
I was looking on IMDb, and you’ve been in something like four feature films in the past few years, as well as starring in Bates Motel and other TV stuff. So do you enjoy working at a fast pace, keeping busy?
I’ve been doing this for six years now, and I find I actually have a lot of time off. Maybe just because I don’t like having too much time to myself, in my own brain. I only did two projects last year. I finished a job in February, and I haven’t worked since. I don’t think I’m gonna work until June this year. So I think I’ve always managed to have those few months off in between big projects just to come back to centre. It just looks like a lot on paper! [Laughs]
Olivia Cooke, thank you very much!
Ready Player One is out in UK cinemas on the 29th March.