Rush - Olivia Wilde interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
OLIVIA Wilde talks about some of the challenges of playing Suzy Miller in Ron Howard’s Rush and why the film itself is much more than just about racing – but a love story as well.
She also discusses why she feels Howard will make her a better director, why she has a fasincation for classic cars and the ’70s and why the decision not to cast Russell Crowe as Richard Burton in the film benefited her.
Q. How was playing Suzy Miller in Rush?
Olivia Wilde: Wonderful! Suzy was and still is a fabulous woman. But she was James’s match and that’s what I really enjoyed about her. She was this formidable opponent for him, just as Niki [Lauda] was. She really kept him on his toes. And that’s what I loved so much about the scene where they meet… she’s not merely charmed by his good looks. It takes his wit and charm and kind of romantic flair to get her. And so I thought that was very interesting. She was more of a challenge than the other women in his life. And the fact that she decided to marry him really is what hooked me. She didn’t just take him on as a boyfriend, as a fun time. She committed to him and really thought that they had a shot. And I believe that’s because they were actually very much in love.
Q. Did you get to meet her?
Olivia Wilde: I didn’t get to meet her. Ron [Howard] and I spoke about it, along with Peter [Morgan], and we wanted Suzy to be her own character in the film. We didn’t want it to be an impression. And of course many people don’t actually know what Suzy sounds like or behaves like. But we really wanted the freedom to create who she was. And Alexandra [Maria Lara, Marlene Knaus] was the same. It was the idea of allowing the character to be born organically, on-set, with Peter’s words instead of trying to do an impression, whereas the boys were listening to actual recordings of the real men and very much being held to real speech patterns and behaviour.
Q. So, what’s different about Suzy? Why treat her in a different way?
Olivia Wilde: Well, I think she wasn’t as familiar to larger audiences. Many people know what James Hunt and Niki Lauda sound like and look like. They were beholden to that, whereas it wasn’t the same for the women. Some people are familiar with Suzy but not many. So, there was a bit more freedom.
Q. Can you remember any of your early conversations with Ron or Peter about the way they could see her?
Olivia Wilde: Sure, yeah. Ron really wanted Suzy to help represent the glamour of the period. It’s such an important part of the film that this was a time when sex was safe and driving was dangerous. Ron really wanted Suzy to represent that part of the time period, which was the part of the ‘70s we all love to kind of emulate now. And I think that’s why by having Gucci create the look for Suzy and really milking her glamour… that was the idea to have her represent that part of the time period and to show that she was just as much of a celebrity as James, but in a different way. Really, we wanted Suzy to be someone of substance, that she wasn’t just this model fling of James’. She was someone that he fell madly in love with, that had a huge effect on him when she left him… it was very heart-breaking for him and the fact that she left him for [Richard] Burton became quite humiliating to him. So, she was a smart woman and we wanted to make sure that came across.
Q. When Russell Crowe was going to do Burton did you ever read with him?
Olivia Wilde: I never read with him. I’ve worked with Russell before. So I was excited by the idea of it. But I, of course, lucked out because the scenes that were going to be between Burton and Hunt then came between Suzy and Hunt. That last scene in the restaurant was supposed to be Burton’s scene, so I was kind of thrilled when Peter shifted it over to me. I was like: “Yes thank you! I’ll take it!”
Q. Do you think that Suzy gets a slightly raw deal in the script in that the onus for the marriage failure seems to be placed on her and the relationship with Burton?
Olivia Wilde: That’s interesting. I think it’s pretty clear that she was pushed to the point of leaving him. She tried. She was supportive through his depression, his alcoholism, his infidelity, his drug addiction. I love the line in the last scene where she says: “If it had been just one of these things, then maybe it would have worked – but all of them!” How was she supposed to put up with it all? So, I think most audiences would sympathise with Suzy wanting somebody who treated her with a bit more respect.
Q. Have you met her subsequently?
Olivia Wilde: I still haven’t met her. She hasn’t seen the film. Fingers crossed.
Q. If you couldn’t speak to the real Suzy, where did you go for any research that you did?
Olivia Wilde: She’s a bit of an enigma. I learned the most about her from the biography of James Hunt and friends of theirs speaking about their relationship and what it was like to be around them. And because this was a film about James and Niki, and not about James and Suzy, I just tried to service that story with my interpretation of Suzy. If this was a biopic about Suzy, I would have done a tremendous amount of research in another direction. But her part in this story was to show his attempt at trying a normal life, his attempt at sharing the spotlight, which of course just didn’t work! He sucked up too much energy and was too much of a tornado himself.
Q. Apparently, you own some classic cars?
Olivia Wilde: Yeah, well now I live in New York so I don’t own them anymore because it’s impossible to keep them in New York if you don’t have millions of dollars to garage them. But they are a passion of mine. I’ve never known a huge amount about Formula One, so race cars have never been my bag really. But I love classic cars. I love ‘50s and ’60s Chevys. So, this was fun for me because the time period and the love affair with cars is something that I understand – the idea of the car being a work of art itself is something that I understand. And I got to sit in one of the Formula One cars, which I loved. I didn’t move. I didn’t need to move. But I was amazed by how dangerous they are. I mean, you’re just sitting on a tank of gas! It’s madness.
Q. Have you been to any Formula One things subsequently?
Olivia Wilde: Not yet. But now that they’re trying to bring them back to America in Austin, I’m hoping that I’ll get to see one of those races. Of course, it’s different to what it was in the ‘70s but still I hope I get to see one.
Q. What about the 1970s as a period appealed to you?
Olivia Wilde: I think it goes back to that great about sex being safe and driving being dangerous. The idea that it was a time when people were still feeling very much liberated, particularly women being liberated in many different ways in all different businesses and in society and politics and as far as the sexual revolution. It was a good time to be a woman, finally! And I think, of course, fashion… in the ‘70s it appeals to me as a highlight of the time period. And it was just kind of a tumultuous and wild time with things changing rapidly. There had been a dangerous, terrible war. It interests me as a time period where people were discovering themselves and discovering what different nations would represent. And much like the ‘50s, when people in America at least were saying suddenly there was this thriving economy and people had appliances at home and lots of cars, and were celebrating that wealth, the ‘70s was this explosion of freedom, socially. And I think people breaking out of social norms and restrictions and I think that’s just very exciting.
Q. How did working on a film like Rush differ from some of the more special effects heavy films you’ve done like Tron?
Olivia Wilde: Well, there’s so much emphasis put on the writing and a script that is rock solid when you walk into it as opposed to being re-written at lunchtime. That was nice. And the quality of everyone involved. I’ve had a chance to work with some really amazing people in my career and on films that are more special effects driven, like Tron… specifically getting to work with Jeff Bridges and that whole special effects team was really extraordinary. But the emphasis was really put on the technical side of it there, whereas here special effects were used just to further the story. But everyone’s energy was put towards doing this story justice and the emotional part of it was such an important part of it for all of us. And that’s what I think people are really surprised by when they see the film – that it’s not just a racing film, that it’s a love story between James and Niki and, of course, between them and their respective wives. But it’s so emotional and there’s so much heart in it and I think that’s really the mark of a Ron Howard film.
Q. I read a quote that you said that working with Ron made you want to be a better director…
Olivia Wilde: Yeah…
Q. You’ve already directed a short film, so how close are you to directing a feature length film and what did you learn from Ron?
Olivia Wilde: I’m getting there. Ron is the most diplomatic director that I’ve worked with and just so good at delegating because he hires people he really respects. So, for instance, his collaboration with Peter Morgan is so effective because he respects him entirely and so when Peter comes on set and has an idea, Ron is completely happy. He welcomes it. He doesn’t bristle at losing some sort of authority or power on set. There’s none of that with Ron – no ego. And I think that’s why his films are so great. Also, with Anthony Dodd Mantle, our amazing cinematographer, who had lots of ideas that Ron accepted and welcomed. I just was amazed by watching that – just his calm demeanour and respect for everybody on-set. And just how closely he watches and listens. I would stand over his shoulders as he watched other actors working on the monitor, just to observe the way that he worked. He would always let people try it their way once or twice and then go in and give the most perfectly constructive note. So light-handed but kind of surgical, if that makes sense? So, I thought: “OK, that’s really good. I have to remember that.” It’s almost tweaking without a heavy hand, without you even noticing that it was Ron making it all work. And as an actor, I just felt very free to move and try things. His notes were always so helpful. And sometimes it would be the most simple things, sometimes it would be just to remember to listen – which, of course, is one of the most important things in acting but after you’ve done a take 19 times you can forget that you’ve never heard these words before [laughs]. So, down to the most simple note, he was just brilliant. So, I hope I can be anything like Ron as a director.
Q. Can you recall an example of one of those moments?
Olivia Wilde: Well, in the fight scene where it all kind of falls apart for James and Suzy, there was an opportunity for that to become very over the top and I think we did try that a few times, where it just became a screaming, rage-filled fit between the two of them. That’s the scene I call the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? scene where they’re just gin soaked and angry. But Ron kept it tight. He kept it small and controlled. And my favourite line is in that scene where he says: “Go on darling, I’m sure there’s some eye shadow that needs your vapid moosh to flog it.” [Gasps] It’s so heart-breaking and so sour! I’m sure I did a few takes of a really melodramatic response to that but Ron just kept bringing it in. I can’t remember a specific note but I know that he just kept reigning that scene in, which was smart, because the movie is emotional enough and it’s enough of a ride that if you had crying and screaming fits it would just all become too much.
Q. How would you describe your relationship with Chris? How was the chemistry between you on and off-set?
Olivia Wilde: What I really appreciate about Chris is how professional he is. He’s such a hard worker. I mean, just what he had to do to get this role is extraordinary. He won the role. He wasn’t even on the list. He made a tape of himself in his hotel room and I think lost 40lbs of muscle… something like that. But a huge amount to play James. His demeanour on set was incredibly calm and relaxed, but focused. And I really appreciated that. When you’re playing people who are very different to yourself and it’s quite a departure for both of you, and you’re doing accents, it takes a lot of focus and energy. So, it helps when the other person is, for lack of a better expression, bringing it, so that you feel you almost have permission to bring it yourself. So, if he had been slacking off, or not focusing as much, it wouldn’t have been as much fun to work. So, I had a great time. But I was just amazed at how hard that man works. Between his shooting schedule and his fitness schedule and being the most incredible family man, I just have so much respect for him.
Q. Would you say he’s the most handsome co-star you’ve ever had?
Olivia Wilde: That’s tough! I don’t want to make anyone angry or cry. It’s Sophie’s Choice. I couldn’t possibly…
Q. It hasn’t quite got the same kind of tragic dimensions…
Olivia Wilde: You never know… you boys are sensitive! [Laughs]
Q. What are your expectations for the film?
Olivia Wilde: I think what’s extraordinary about this film is that people think it’s for boys because it’s about racing but women respond so well to it and I think that’s going to be the surprise of the film. When female audiences see it and understand the love story of it, and of course men can appreciate a good love story as well, I think it will survive for a long time because it is one of the great stories of passion and rivalry and love. I mean, that last scene by the plane gives me chills to think about… the idea that they need each other – that that rivalry is what’s fuelling them both. I think that’s why it will resonate with audiences all over the world, even in America where Formula One is not a huge thing but, of course, we all have hearts. So, I think it will be a success everywhere.