Olivia Wilde is quickly becoming one of genre films’ biggest stars. Well, to be fair, her star is rapidly rising across genres. The beautiful actress first came to Cowboys & Aliens director Jon Favreau’s attention in an unusual manner, however. Favreau noticed that his son had repeatedly rented the movie Year One in their hotel room while they were vacationing in Hawaii, so he sat down to discover the appeal of the film for his boy. He soon realized that said appeal could be neatly summed up into two words — Olivia and Wilde.
(Of course, Ms. Wilde came to the world’s attention in a far larger way when she was cast as Quorra in Disney’s highly ambitious endeavor TRON: Legacy.)
When Favreau examined more of her work, he found that Wilde possessed both the enigmatic quality and classical beauty he was looking for in the actress who would portray the simultaneously tough and ethereal Ella Swenson in Cowboys & Aliens.
We had the pleasure to sit down with Wilde with a small group of reporters at the beautiful Paws Up ranch in Missoula, Montana, to talk about redefining the female character in a Western, some dream characters she would like to play, and the certifiably insane stunts she performed for this film.
When Wilde was working on Tron she used Joan of Arc as the template for her character, Quorra. When we asked the actress if she had found a similar hook for Ella, she replied that one role actually carried through to the other.
“Interestingly enough, I kept Joan of Arc a little bit and used her for Ella as well. The idea of a martyr, of a warrior being willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater cause definitely held over from ‘Tron’ into ‘Cowboys and Aliens.’ Maybe I’m attracted to those characters. It was really fun doing research for this, because not only did I have ideas like that for her, but I got to do a lot of research about women of the Old West, nineteenth century women, whether they were prospectors, ranch hands, cowgirls, madams.
It was very tough to be anyone in the Old West, but particularly [so for] women. I loved that Ella, the character in ‘Cowboys and Aliens,’ was unusual in that she was none of those things from all those classic Western films. She was a gun-slinging woman who was very mysterious, because she’s wearing this prairie dress — she has no corset, she doesn’t fit the look already. She’s wearing this gun — why is she wearing a gun? Why is she alone? She can ride with the men just as good or better, and she’s holding this big secret. I loved that she was an unusual character in the genre, and I love that she would be creating a new type of female character for the genre that young women could look up to. We kept that in mind while we were shooting. That’s also something I thought about during ‘Tron.’ Maybe that’s just my process: Joan of Arc, badass woman.”
Wilde’s more recent roles have had a mysterious or secretive quality to them, other than being Queens of badassdom. When asked if that is something that finds her, she replied that she finds hidden depths in each of her roles.
“I think every great character has a great secret; I think that’s the trick to creating a great character in a film. I always try to pick one secret that the person is holding. I think it makes more interesting and layered that what you’re saying is not always what you’re thinking. Sometimes a secret is bigger than others. Both for ‘Tron’ and ‘Cowboys,’ she’s holding a big secret. I must seek them out some way, although I feel very lucky that Jon Favreau came to me with this project. It came to me in a strange way, and I was really thrilled that it did.
The actress explained that:
“The script landed very mysteriously on my doorstep at midnight. I looked outside, and I thought, ‘Cowboys and Aliens?’ I read it in an hour and a half. It had a letter in it that described who was involved, and I thought, ‘Wow, we’ve got the perfect storm of genius involved.’ We’ve got Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Jon Favreau, Bob Orci, Alex Kurtzman, all these people who I really respected. I read it and I found it so unpredictable and so interesting. The movie takes this turn at a certain point, and my character in particular takes a big turn. There’s this very shocking and interesting climactic moment.”
One would not necessarily imagine that a fairly unsuccessful film, Year One, would open the door of entry into one of this summer’s biggest and most unique blockbusters. Yet, the seeming kismet that brought Wilde to Cowboys ultimately served the actress perfectly.
“I ended up feeling I was born to play this role, and it’s certainly my favorite role I’ve ever played.”
The opportunity to be a part of a Western in a time when they are quite rare was a significant draw for many of the cast-members, as well as Favreau himself. Says Wilde:
“We were talking about this earlier, but when I came up as an actress, I loved Westerns growing up and I mourned the end of the genre. I thought, ‘How weird, I’ll never get to do that; that’s something that’s in the past. I might get to do an Elizabethan drama — we still make those, but we don’t do Westerns.’ That’s always something I wanted to do. I’m really happy that they decided to start making them again. I hope this inspires other people to do it.”
Often when there’s a high-profile female character in a Western, there is a significant romantic element. Cowboys steps away from falling into that paradigm almost entirely. Wilde spoke to the choice the filmmakers made to disclude the typical “B” romance storyline (though there are romantic flavors in the film).
“Nothing about this movie is typical, and it would have been too typical to have it be about the romance. Even when Ella first meets Jake in that bar, it’s a seduction scene of sorts, but she’s not looking to seduce him to bring him into her bed; she’s trying to glean information from him. He is the secret she’s been looking for, and she’s desperate to get inside his memory. She knows that she’s going to have to keep him there, and she can’t believe her luck that he landed right there. She’s been searching through the West, through these towns to find some clue as to where these aliens are. She finds Jake, and he’s wearing this bracelet (laughing) or blaster; he hates when I call it a bracelet.”
“I love that scene, and we worked on it for a long time in pre-production. We really had fun in the writing process, which was very collaborative, which was thrilling for me to sit with these people and collaborate. We sat there going over that scene and taking out more and more dialogue, because we thought, ‘No, it’s all going to be in the looks.’ There’s nothing like looking into Daniel Craig’s eyes, which is pretty amazing. I think this scene ends up being so charged because not much is said. She’s not just trying to sleep with him, and he’s not trying to sleep with her. They both have their missions, and she knows what she needs to do to make him stay. Smash him on the head.”
Wilde’s role in the film follows the trajectory of many of the standard male characters in a Western. She mirrors Craig as the “silent stranger”/”the (woman) with no name.” In some ways her character is reworking what it is to be a female within the framework of a Western. As mentioned, this was a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers, who hope that with Ella, young girls may have found a Western star that they can admire.
“I think it proves that those roles can be women, that it doesn’t have to fit into the usual mold. I think that something like ‘Bond’ is a good example. We think of Bond being a man, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a woman. I think someone just has to do it. Maybe it’ll happen with the future. It takes someone actually taking a risk and creating that character that’s usually inhabited by men to prove that it can be a woman as well.”
The actress hopes that the recent trends in terms of the expansion of roles for, and portrayals of, women in film will continue to grow and evolve.
“I grew up as a Trekkie, which is really funny. I think ‘Star Trek,’ they were always great female roles, but there’s no reason the Captain shouldn’t be a woman. I think we could do Captain Kirk as a woman. I’m really glad they’re doing ‘Alien’ again, because ‘Alien’ had a huge effect on me as an actor and Sigourney is someone I look up to very much. I think that’s really cool, that that’s happening. Hopefully that’ll continue to happen.
I think there’s some great sci-fi films in the works that have some really interesting female roles. It takes people really taking risks and understanding that the public will go see a movie starring a woman. There’s this strange idea that the public won’t go see female-driven movies, that they won’t pay as much money for it. I don’t think that’s true; I think they will, and I think Sigourney proved that. Similarly in comedy, Kristen Wiig has just proven that. We’re moving forward, and hopefully I’ll get to do more sci-fi roles and take on more of the burden on my shoulders in terms of playing the lead as opposed to the wise, helpful female sidekick.”
One of the aspects of the Western that Cowboys & Aliens pays particular attention to is capturing the vivid feel of the landscape. Working on location brought an organic quality to the production, as well as some risks. As described by Wilde:
“The great thing about this movie was we really were working with practical sets. The only blue screen was really the aliens, which was the secondary element. Really, it’s about the Western world. We’re actually riding, galloping across these deserts into canyons, and shooting guns in these dusty towns — dealing with the elements, which was the challenge of actually working out in the open. We’d be in the middle of a scene and a hurricane would be approaching or a mini-tornado or lightning. We had a lightning meter on set that was always going off, and we’d be deciding how close we could push it to extreme danger or flash floods.
That made it exciting. That was part of what made Westerns so interesting as a genre when they were born: It was people taking cameras outside, and they were pioneers, really. They were taking a huge risk, and they were learning about new ways to position the cameras, to capture action, if you think of a movie like ‘Stagecoach’ and what they were able to shoot there. I thought it was really exciting that we were out there taking a risk, taking these big cameras out into the middle of nowhere and a bunch of horses and guns and hoping it all worked out.”
Take a look at the trailer below to get a sense of the action they were able to capture on location:
Wilde, who is a lifelong horsewoman (and apparently a bit of a thrill-seeker) chose to do one of the most intense stunts in the film herself and counts it as her most viscerally thrilling moment in the shooting of Cowboys & Aliens.
“My favorite sound was riding, galloping on a horse next to Daniel in between two cranes, and I had my feet out of the stirrups and my hands very loosely on the reigns because I had a bungee cord attached to my back that at one point, unbeknownst to me, would be yanked back, and I’d be pulled 40 feet into the air as if I had been lassoed by an alien.
It was wild because they were originally going to be doing it with a stunt double, then I looked at it and I thought, ‘That looks really fun. Can I try it?’ I always make friends with the stunt team; I always think they are the coolest people on set. Tommy Harper, who was our stunt coordinator, went to Favreau and said, ‘I think she can do it.’ They rigged me up, and everybody’s sitting there biting their nails like, ‘Oh my god, what are we doing?’ I did it, and then I did it 11 more times. It was so wild because once I was up there, I had to stay up there waiting for them to reset. I was floating 40 feet above this set, and I could see for miles: I could see the mountains and the canyons and the desert, and then our little film crew down there. I thought, ‘How wild that we’re out here doing this.’ Then they’d bring me down and we’d do it all over again. It was really a thrill to be trusted by this team to do those things.”
Ella, Wilde’s character, is a woman with a past (as we have indicated). When we asked the actress what kind of work she had done to construct the story of Ella’s secret history in her own imagination, she indicated that, not only had she done intense back-story work for this film, but she would also like nothing more than to explore Ella’s past and future in further iterations of the C&A Universe.
“I do have a clear idea of what happened to Ella and her family. I would really love the opportunity to do a sequel for this movie. We all worked so hard on these characters that I think there’s a lot of story there to explore. I know that our creative team has gotten excited about that idea, too. Spielberg has some cool ideas for it. We’ll see — it’s up to the people.”
The people will be able to cast their vote when Cowboys & Aliens opens this Friday, July 29th.
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