It’s hard for Olivia Wilde to make a graceful exit from her Brooklyn home, because her son, Otis, who turns two in April, is going through an emotional phase. “We’ll be playing and he’ll be fine, then the second he knows I’m leaving he’s screaming, ‘Momma!’ as if I’m getting on the Titanic and will never come back,” says the actress with a laugh. “He is so dramatic. Maybe it’s because he’s the child of two actors.”
Thankfully, Wilde has managed to extricate herself, and is currently settled into a corner table at Walter’s restaurant in Fort Greene, near to the home she shares with her fiancé of three years, the actor and comedian Jason Sudeikis. Whether or not that fiancé title changes to husband isn’t a cause of great concern. Having both been married before, they’re not in any rush, says Wilde, her green eyes animated. And besides, “we are seriously connected. Before you have a child, marriage is the ultimate commitment and promise to one another, and then once you have a child, it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re committed and promised already.’”
“I didn’t know breastfeeding was controversial; that the media are sexualizing it is shocking”
Otis has become – thanks to casual, intimate snapshots that Wilde has posted on social media of him stood naked or breastfeeding (from a US Glamour shoot) – an unlikely source of controversy and tabloid fodder. “In a way, it has allowed for a kind of comprehensive picture of what opinion is, what people love and hate,” she says diplomatically. But she in no way approves of the outrage, nor will she be toning anything down. “I didn’t know breastfeeding was controversial; the fact that the media are sexualizing it is shocking.”
Holding her opinions strongly is not something Wilde (a stage name she chose as a teenager, in homage to Oscar Wilde) has ever shied away from. Much has been made over the years of her beauty – she is gorgeous and lithe, almost otherworldly – but when spending time with her, as she leaps from telling a joke to conversing about Haitian politics, it’s immediately apparent that her keen intelligence is her greatest asset.
Now, she is on the precipice of something. The 31-year-old is soon to appear in one of the most highly anticipated TV series of the year, Vinyl, a chronicle of the music business in ’70s New York (and all the associated sex, drugs and rock’n’roll) produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger. Wilde jumped at the opportunity to work with the veteran director.
“Scorsese is like a new film student who’s got his first chance at making a movie, every single time,” she says. “He sees the opportunity to make a movie as this luxury, this joy, this gift, and that rubs off on everyone.”
She plays Devon Finestra, a bored wife and mother who longs for her younger years as a model and habituée of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. The fashion, as you would expect, is storytelling in and of itself. In the pilot episode, filmed just a few weeks after Wilde gave birth, she is seen wearing an array of gorgeous kaftans around her character’s suburban home. Later on in the series, Finestra undergoes a transformation; she is no longer a hippie, but instead costumed in slinky vintage Ossie Clark and Halston.
“Scorsese sees the opportunity to make a movie as this joy, this gift, and that rubs off on everyone”
If dramatic presence has passed down from his performer parents to Otis (named after Otis Redding), perhaps Wilde’s natural inquisitiveness and a tendency towards being outspoken originates from her parents, who were both journalists – her mother was a producer for US news show 60 Minutes. After a childhood in Washington D.C. and boarding school at the Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, Wilde worked in casting then broke into acting, with parts on TV shows like The O.C. and House with Hugh Laurie (“The most kind, professional and hilarious human being”). There were roles in indie films, too, including Her and Drinking Buddies (which she also executive produced), and most recently the drama Meadowland – another producer credit – in which she plays a mother dealing with the disappearance of a child.
Meadowland was an entirely different experience, and not one without its challenges. As a producer, Wilde sought out financiers for the film. “Many people said, ‘Come to us when the project is real.’ I answered: ‘The project is real: we have a director, we have an actor, we have a script, it’s real.’ And they said, ‘No – when you get the guy attached.’ Like we were just girls with a little project.”
Sexism is unfortunately alive and well in Hollywood, says Wilde. “It’s institutional. It’s not conscious. People don’t realize what they’re saying, because you hear it from both men and women. But there’s this sense that a project is incomplete if there’s no male participation.”
But she does see a change on the horizon. “People are now saying, ‘Listen, you need to hire women, specifically because they are women,’ and although that’s uncomfortable, it’s how things change,” she says. “When I was younger, it felt like the main point was that I was one of the attractive actresses, and I felt totally minimized by it, everyone does. But I think it’s worn off, in a good way; I’m happy to have grown out of the place where that is the main point made about me.”
“Sexism is institutional. There’s a sense that a project is incomplete if there’s no male participation”
Indeed, beauty is way down the list of appealing things about Wilde. As well as being a strong feminist, she is part-owner of a secret bar in Fairfax, LA; has volunteered in Haiti for over six years; and has optioned a novel – she won’t reveal which – that will put her in the driving seat, producing and directing.
At last, the actress believes the perception of the young ingénue is changing. She cites Juno Temple, a Vinyl co-star, as an example. “She has always been a total individual; she’s never tried to look or behave like anyone else.” She also loves Lena Dunham and Emma Watson for their talent and political passions, and calls Jennifer Lawrence “a great example of brainy, feisty beauty”.
“The media always chooses one element of you to assign as your identity plaque: ‘She’s the mom, she’s political, she’s the one who is really pretty.’ But,” says the actress emphatically, “we are all of those things.” She certainly is.
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