Being Flynn (opening in theaters on March 2nd), adapted from Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, tells the story of Nick (Paul Dano), a young writer who misses the loving nature of his late mother (Julianne Moore) and hasn’t seen his father, Jonathan (Robert DeNiro), a self-proclaimed “master storyteller,” in 18 years. When Jonathan impulsively reaches out to Nick, the young man finds himself overwhelmed and ends up taking a job at a homeless shelter, where he works alongside a young woman named Denise (Olivia Thirlby), with whom he attempts to sustain a romance.
At the film’s press day, actress Olivia Thirlby spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about why she fought for this role, the lack of pressure in playing a fictional character in a real-life story, spending time volunteering in a homeless shelter for research, and how open director/screenwriter Paul Weitz was to fostering a collaborative environment on set. She also talked about how her desire to be an action heroine attracted her to Dredd (starring Karl Urban as the title character), how much fun she had kicking ass and learning how to handle weapons, and how incredibly dynamic and complex her role is. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
OLIVIA THIRLBY: I got the script and I read it and I was like, “Holy cow!” I made a bunch of tapes because I was in South Africa, at the time. And then, I got off the plane from South Africa and went into my screen test for this part. I wanted it very badly. I fought for it.
When you read this script, what were your first impressions of the story and character?
THIRLBY: I just loved it. The script was so beautifully constructed. It was not a totally typical script where everything was in perfect scenes, all spelled out and linear. This story was told in a non-linear way. What this script really did was evoke a feeling. Anytime you read a script that almost seems to come to life on the page, and you know that so much of the work is already done because the director has got a vision, if that’s in place, then the project has a really good chance to come out well.
And, I loved the character. She was so flippant and independent, but interesting. She was alive already, on the page, and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, if I could just alter myself to be like that, that would be perfect.” A lot of the way she is, is covering up for a painful past. She’s definitely had a lot of trauma and loss, and she’s part of a dark and gritty world. But, this film is about people on paths to themselves, and she’s a little bit further along on that path than Nick (Paul Dano) is. She’s reached a place where she’s got her thing going. She knows what she needs to stay sane and stay alive, and she’s strong enough that she’s told herself that nothing is going to come before those things. If anything gets in the way of that, it’s out. She won’t have it.
Does it take pressure off of you to play a fictional character in a real-life story?
THIRLBY: It does, actually. She’s an amalgam of many different people from Nick’s life, and also a necessary part of a compelling narrative film. But, I think I was lucky that I was not playing a real person because it definitely takes the pressure off. There’s no one that makes you feel, “What are they going to think of me portraying them?” That pressure of having to face the person who you’re pretending to be on screen is gone.
THIRLBY: I think that Paul [Weitz] and Nick worked really closely, in coming up with the script, and I believe Nick supports it and the constructed of the character and her place in the story fully.
Did you spend much time in homeless shelters to get an idea for the kind of work these people do?
THIRLBY: Yeah, I spent some time at the Bowery Mission in New York, and it wasn’t my first time volunteering, but it was very informative for the character. I’m not really a method actor, so it was unusual for me to go do the thing that my character does, but it informed everything about her, and what kind of life this person would have to make the choice to work in a shelter like that and really dedicate their life to that world. It’s an interesting world to choose.
All the stories are so varied. The people that run these places often started out as guests, and there are people who just come in for food and beds. They’ve all got really interesting stories, and a lot of them involve addiction and other kinds of hardships. Getting the opportunity to serve someone food, and then ask them about their day, was really interesting. You might give some money or food to a homeless person on the street, but you rarely engage them in conversation. People actually try to avoid that, in most cases. When you throw yourself into that world and say, “What did you do yesterday?,” it’s usually not what you would expect.
THIRLBY: Absolutely! Another interesting thing is that people come in to eat at the shelter that don’t look that bad off. Those are some really interesting stories, too. You realize that there are a lot of people that you see, all around you, that look like they’ve got enough to feed themselves, but they don’t. That’s enlightening, as well. But, the Bowery Mission is in a very gentrified neighborhood of downtown Manhattan that’s practically next door to this fancy museum and nightclubs, and right across the street from fancy boutiques and restaurants.
You spend a day in the mission, in this weird little bubble, and then you step outside and you’re on the Bowery, which is a familiar place to me because I grew up right around there. Suddenly, the guys that are standing around and hanging out, outside the Bowery, become less invisible to you because you do tend to just gloss over what you don’t want to see on a city street. It was a trip, walking out of that place, all the times that I did it, and walking onto the street at night where there’s young, fashionable people going out, and you’ve come out of a soup kitchen that’s right there. You realize that these worlds are completely separate, but take up the same space. They completely co-exist, and it does really shift your perspective.
How was it to work with Paul Dano and develop the relationship between your characters?
THIRLBY: One good thing was that, in the film, our characters are just getting to know each other, so it wasn’t like we had to become best friends. But, I loved working with him. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, and seen all of his films and thought he was fantastic, but working with him was a whole other experience. I thought that he really was at the top of his game. Most of the time, I felt like I was jogging to keep up with him. It’s always a gift to work with someone who forces you to be at your best, and that’s what he would do. You can’t mess it up because you know he’s going to do really good. It elevates you to have such a talented scene partner. We also had a lot of fun. We’re both pretty easy-going people, and he’s very kind and charming.
THIRLBY: He was so open. He always fostered a very collaborative environment. I think he’s the kind of director who’s receptive to lots of different styles that actors work in, and he gives everyone what they need, specifically and individually. He always gave me what I needed. I really like new ideas and I like to change it up, on every take. He was always on-hand with ideas for me, whether they were really specific and direct, or abstract and ethereal. I would always say, “Give me something,” and he always had something for me.
What attracted you to doing Dredd?
THIRLBY: I’d always wanted to be an action heroine. That’s a chick dream, getting to wear a leather bodysuit and be blonde and kick ass. But, what really attracted me to Dredd was the script. It was fantastic! It was about people and characters, and not just about explosions and fighting. My character, specifically, was incredibly dynamic and very complex, and goes through a hell of a lot. She has a complete arc in the film, so that’s really what drew me to that.
Did actually getting to kick some ass live up to the dream of kicking some ass?
THIRLBY: Yeah, it was pretty fun, I have to say. I loved all the tactical stuff, learning how to handle weapons and not look like a spazz while you’re doing it, which I probably still did, a bit. I learned how to roundhouse kick and did a lot of boxing. It was great!
THIRLBY: Yeah, you have to practice. There were several afternoons spent, learning how to change a magazine without looking. If that’s something that your character can do, it’s something you want to be able to pull off. Also, it just looks bad-ass. Actually, the moment that I change my mag without looking didn’t make it into the film, I don’t think.
Had you been familiar with the comic or the original movie?
THIRLBY: I really wasn’t familiar with the Dredd comics. I’d heard of them, but I wasn’t familiar with them at all, before getting the part. But, doing the film has definitely made me a fan of that whole 2,000 AD Dredd world. It’s a very cool place.
THIRLBY: I guess it’s a mixture of both. It’s not pure intention. I don’t get to do every role I want. There are a lot of parts I didn’t get. I do try to choose carefully, but mostly I just try to choose what is interesting or exciting or different, and is something that I want to do. Sometimes I’ll read a great script with a good role, but I’ll think, “Yeah, it’s a great role, but I don’t really want to do this. The idea of throwing myself into this for three months doesn’t actually sound that exciting.” And then, there are some roles that come along, where they ignite a little spark inside you and make you go, “What’s that feeling? I want to foster that, and see what this could bring and create.” It’s a creative endeavor, I suppose. When I was starting out, I always wanted to be able to do everything – comedy and drama and action, and everything in between. Film is so diverse, and it’s fun to be able to take advantage of all of it. So, it’s partially intentional, but it’s also the luck of the draw and what comes your way, in the end.
Do you know what you’re going to be doing next?
THIRLBY: I actually am going to do a play that was written by Paul Weitz. I am so excited to do a play. It’s my favorite medium of performance and it’s been a couple years, so I’ve been starving for a play. Paul wrote this and showed it to me, and it’s so beautiful, not surprisingly. The role is fantastic, and I’m really excited that it’s coming together. I’m thrilled about the notion of having my eyes closed on stage [to play a blind woman]. I think that’s going to take some of the pressure off.