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June 15, 2011 - Rick Chatenever
The second thing you notice about Olivia Wilde is how smart she is.
(What’s the first thing? Look at her picture and take your pick.)
Best known for starring with Jeff Bridges and Garrett Hedlund in “Tron: Legacy,” the screen actress’ name recognition will take an exponential jump in about six weeks with the release of “Cowboys & Aliens,” the summer’s most anticipated blockbuster in which she co-stars with Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig.
But first she’ll drop by the Maui Film Festival to accept its Shining Star Award in a Celestial Cinema presentation at 8 Thursday, preceding the screening of “Sun City Picture House.”
“It’s a short documentary I produced with Maria Bello,” said the 27-year-old Irish-American filmmaker during a recent phone interview. Wilde’s film chronicles the building of a movie theater in a tent city following Haiti’s apocalyptic 2010 earthquake.
The actress had been involved with building schools and other aid projects in Haiti long before the catastrophic earthquake.
“For years, I have been trying to find a way of talking about the experience of the country. It’s difficult, but also joyful and life-affirming” she said of the film’s story about a young Haitian man and his mission to build a theater, and rejuvenate crushed spirits in the process.
Wilde has long been involved in projects of this sort, as a board member of Artists for Peace and Justice and the ACLU of Southern California. The daughter (and granddaughter and niece) of internationally acclaimed journalists, her vision is far more vast than the usual Hollywood version when it comes to “the big picture.”
“Sometimes it seems frivolous and superficial, what we do in Hollywood,” said the actress who’s got a bunch of major releases — including “The Change Up” with Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman; “In Time” with Justin Timberlake; “Butter” with Jennifer Garner, Hugh Jackman and Ty Burrell; “Blackbird” with Eric Bana; and “Welcome to People” with Chris Pine — scheduled to hit screens in coming months.
“But I don’t have this deep insecurity about being in the business. I go down to Haiti every three months; I sleep in a tent behind a cholera clinic. I used to think I should be a doctor and really be able to help.” But on her last visit, after screening “Kung Fu Panda” in the theater they had built, she says, “I saw how powerful its effect was on the children. It really made me value filmmaking.”
Her parents, Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, are both celebrated journalists and documentary filmmakers, which helps explain her interest in the world and her determination to make it better. She’s just taking a different path in that direction. (She also picked a different name, influenced by great Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde.)
“From the age of 3, I was prancing around saying, ‘I’m going to be an actor.’ My parents were always very supportive of my decision. Our household valued independent thinking, truth seeking in general.”
While her antenna is always out for the hypocrisy and contradictions of celebrity activism — flying to environmental events in private jets, for instance — she says, “I think the Hollywood community is intensely supportive” of causes she shares. “It’s like a supportive family wanting to move mountains, to change the world for the better. I don’t think Hollywood in general is having an adverse effect on society. It can have such reach, so there’s an enormous responsibility to make beautiful stories.”
Noting changes in the ways films are actually made and distributed, she points out, “Lots of people are taking advantage of new technology to make films available to more people. It’s democratizing the industry.”
But she finds herself right in the middle of the industry the old-fashioned way at the moment. With so many films ready to break, she says, “It seems like they’re all coming out at once, as though they’re stuck in the pipeline.”
From the high-concept, special- effects action of “Cowboys and Aliens,” directed by “Iron Man’s” Jon Favreau with Steven Spielberg and Ryan Kavanaugh among the executive producers, to the quirky comedy of “The Change Up” and the wry satire of “Butter,” Olivia says, “I’ve tried to choose diverse roles in the past year. It’s been such a luxurious development —I’ve been able to say no more than I’m saying yes.”
With all those big studio credits in her filmography, she’s now got the option of looking at stretchier roles in indie productions. And, as you could have guessed, she does want to direct … and does have a project in the works.
“I’ve needed to use all the lessons I’ve learned from all these great directors. It’s a comedy … I’m using all my favors,” she laughs.
She’s excited about the prospect of talking about her career in the Maui Film Festival tribute. (Ironically, her “Tron” co-star Hedlund is a fellow honoree and will receive the Rising Star Award in a Celestial Cinema tribute Friday.)
“I love film festivals.” She says she would be happy “if I could spend my life going from film festival to another.”
The Maui festival is unique, she adds, “because it values films … and also values the environment. Telluride has always been my favorite, but I have the feeling Maui will knock it out of the way.”
While the Shining Star award acknowledges that she is still in the upward arc of her career, she has already shared the screen with a disproportionate number of legends.
“Everyone I’ve worked with is an icon of mine.” On the set, she says, “I immediately glom onto them and ask them to tell me all their secrets.”
Working with Oscar-winner Bridges in “Tron: Legacy” was a high point. She said she learned the value of preparation, and how that translates into being relaxed on the set.
“It’s an experience I’ve taken with me.” When filming began on “Cowboys & Aliens,” she overcame the intimidation factor with the thought, “If I could be cool with Jeff, I can be cool with Harrison.”
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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Olivia Wilde will receive Shining Star Award at 8 p.m.Thursday at the Celestial Cinema.