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.”