Olivia Thirlby: Her Brightest Hour

She’s got a brand new pixie crop, an L.A. zip code and a slew of heavy-hitting blockbusters about to hit. Olivia Thirlby prepares for her inevitable close-up

Features // India Nicholas // 11/04/11
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By Coliena Rentmeester

Olivia Thirlby

By Coliena Rentmeester

Olivia Thirlby

By Coliena Rentmeester

Olivia Thirlby

By Coliena Rentmeester

Olivia Thirlby

By Coliena Rentmeester

Olivia Thirlby

Right now, Olivia Thirlby's name might only ring a bicycle bell before it strikes a gong. Those quick to consult IMDB or Google Images will quickly have their memory triggered: her electric white smile and smoky features are actually very familiar. For most, Thirlby is a supporting character in their favorite recent coming of age films. She’s Ellen Page's shoulder to lean on in Juno, the wheelchair-bound method actress in New York, I Love You, and the sweet natured sister of Natalie Portman in No Strings Attached. But Thirlby's days as runner-up indie darling are numbered: this holiday season will mark the release of her first big budget action film, the sci-fi thriller The Darkest Hour.

A New Yorker to her core, Olivia’s first role after graduating from art-centric Friends Seminary was a bit part in the sobering 9/11 drama United 93. Her unique look and scene-stealing one-liners were immediately noticed, and within a year, she had landed her breakout role in Juno, a part she says she is perhaps the most grateful for.

“That movie had such a big effect on people,” Olivia says. “I'm so proud to have been a part of a project that started so many conversations.”

Olivia officially found her niche in a series of intellectual stoner comedies where she served as either witty comic relief or love interest: as the piercingly cool Stephanie in the 1990s love story, The Wackness, and, later, in a reoccurring role as Jason Schwartzman's estranged girlfriend Suzanne on HBO's Bored to Death. What drew her to these very specific kinds of parts?

“Art imitates life,” Olivia says matter-of-factly. “The reason why you see people smoking pot or teenage girls getting pregnant is because that's really happening. The audience of those movies is reflected in the film.”

After all, she knows how to play an ex-girlfriend in New York City because she's certainly been that herself.

Which is why her newest role is perhaps her most dramatic; unsurprisingly, Olivia has never been under an alien attack of invisible invaders. “Filming [The Darkest Hour] was the biggest acting challenge I've ever had to face. To sell that character in such high stakes the entire movie was so hard. The whole thing is life or death, and reacting to things that aren't even there.” She explains, “During filming, the aliens are red Xs on stationary c-stands. You have to allow yourself to get carried away by your own imagination. Because that's all you have, literally! It's vastly more difficult than acting a well written dramatic scene because I can't relate to what this character is going through at all!”

Olivia might not be able to relate to an alien invasion, but filming in Moscow definitely left its mark. The film was shot on location over a three month period—just enough time to acclimate herself to the cultural nuances of the country. One that is, in Olivia's opinion, “the most dynamically different country than America in the world.” A lot of it comes with age.

“There was so much time in this country's existence that you could physically see the history in front of you. You could see old European architecture from the 12th and 13th century next to sharp Soviet architecture next to brand new contemporary buildings. It's a crazy confusing city to walk around. You're not sure what time you're in.”

But, reiterating her youth, Olivia voice raises a few octaves when she speaks of her co-stars, clearly enthralled by her co-chairs on the court of young Hollywood royalty. “Emile [Hirsch] is the hardest working actor I've ever seen.” And Rachel Taylor? “That girl is like my sister. She's got serious acting chops.” The group of them bonded over the idiosyncrasies of Russian culture halfway around the world from their homes. “American culture is so over the top,” Olivia says thoughtfully. “It's so demonstrative and not very subtle in humor. I think Russia is a study on subtly. The way they communicate, the way the make art. It's all so confusing because it's so delicate.” Ironically, The Darkest Hour is anything but that.

This kind of unrefined anti-understated acting has turned into a full-fledged experimental phase for Olivia. Immediately after wrapping The Darkest Hour in Moscow, she hopped a plane headed south to Johannesburg to film the upcoming futuristic action flick, Dredd.

“I always dreamt of being the girl who wears a leather body suit and shoots guns, and this was my first opportunity to do so. They even let me be a blond! It was a whole lot of firsts for me.”

Actors are often exhausted traveling from one faraway location to the next, missing their families and the comforts of home. And sure, Olivia missed her parents and her girlfriends, but her underlying interest in exploration continued to keep her curious. “South Africa was like another world. It's somewhere where you can see zebras grazing in the wild, monkeys hanging on top of your car. For a girl from New York City, that was the coolest.”

Despite the lengthy shooting schedule, after another four months abroad, Olivia still didn't settle down! “Immediately after Africa, I went and filmed two more movies back to back, so it was really four or five right in a row. When I was finished filming them all, I took a big vacation.” Where did she go? “Actually, I went back to Capetown. I met a boy...” she trails off. “You know? I probably shouldn't have told you that.” Reality hits for this sophisticated, world-traveled move star in the making; the actress is, after all, still just a girl and still getting her foothold in the midst of probing media attention.

Thirlby recently made her big move to Hollywood, leaving her family and friends back east in New York City. Only a few weeks in to her new, warmer life, one can already see the effect the sunshine is having on her. She's living in her own house, a first, where she spends afternoons lounging with her friends, relaxing before the intense press junket for The Darkest Hour really kicks off. And after that dies down, she'll start promotion for Dredd, then for Paul Weitz's as-yet-untitled project starring Julianna Moore and Robert De Niro, and then for No Body Walks, which she stars in alongside John Krasinski.

Is Olivia ready for the amount of attention she's about to garner as leads in the slew of films about to be released? Let's ask her again in a couple of months; our guess is that her smile will be as brilliant and bright as ever.

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Originally published in December 2011-January 2012

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