Olivia Thirlby plays a young New York artist who comes to Los Angeles to complete her experimental film in Nobody Walks. Soon after her arrival, personal connections begin to veer away from professional terrain and everyone is forced to confront the new landscape that emerges in her wake. The ensemble drama, which opens in theaters on October 19th, also stars John Krasinski and Rosemarie DeWitt.
During my roundtable interview with Thirlby, she discussed her character, what drew her to the script by Lena Dunham and director Ry Russo-Young, how sexual energy and sexual expression are big themes of the film, and why one of the film’s strengths is that it doesn’t offer the audience any clear cut notions on who’s right or who’s wrong. Thirlby, who shot Nobody Walks immediately after the action-packed Dredd 3D, also revealed how her appearance changed for the role of Martine, why she enjoyed playing a bad-ass in Dredd, and why she’s a big fan of Girls. Hit the jump to read more.
Olivia Thirlby: I knew Lena and Ry before reading the script, and I had been hearing about this project that they had been collaborating on for a couple of years, so I knew of it. Then, when I read it, I was totally blown away. I thought that the ensemble nature of this drama was fascinating. All the characters were really dimensional and well developed. I appreciate a film that doesn’t tell you how to feel about the events that are happening. I feel like this film is a window into showing dynamics that exist between people, between all of us, that are actually too subtle to even talk about sometimes. The film shows those dynamics and I liked that.
Do you feel like the characters were acting way more instinctually than you would normally expect people in a film to act?
Thirlby: Certainly. Sexual energy and sexual expression are definitely big themes of this film and also of Martine, her character, and also of her art. If you look at that bug film, she even says that she was basically trying to make something not sexual. But, to me, that film is really sexual. You watch it and there’s something sensual about it. And, I think for people, sexual impulses are hard to control. It’s just part of being a human and this film presents people who are not controlling their sexual impulses properly.
The film is also brave in that it puts it out there that ‘no’ generally means at least ‘maybe’ or probably ‘yes’ as opposed to the typical ‘no means no.’ There isn’t a single moment where you start out with ‘no’ and it ends with ‘no.’
Thirlby: A lot of that has to do with Martine. She’s a young woman and she is very comfortable with sex and sexuality. It’s not a compartmentalized part of who she is. It’s part and parcel of everything that she is and does. She’s very confident, but it doesn’t take that much for her to feel less surefooted and for her to get a little bit off center and a little bit thrown maybe, and I think that’s what that’s about. It’s about this notion that society, the world at large, wants her to compartmentalize sex much more than she can. Sex and friendship are supposed to be different, and sex and work are supposed to be different, but for her I don’t think it’s really that simple, and that’s where she runs into trouble.
Thirlby: Certainly not. No, I don’t think that she’s the bad guy at all. She definitely makes a big mistake, but her mistake is born from naiveté and lack of experience rather than from any kind of malicious guile. She’s not old enough to look back on her life and think what has caused drama in the past and what can she do to avoid those same kind of scenarios. As I was saying, she’s comfortable with sex and she’s comfortable with the notion of having sex with her friends, and I think that’s a modern reality and that a lot of young people – a lot of people in general, not just young people – have sex with their friends and they’re still friends. That’s something that Martine is really comfortable with and she just does not have the experience to pick up on these very obvious red flags and why not to do that with this one particular person. Peter, John Krasinski’s character, makes definitely the most questionable decisions in the film because he takes something his wife says, which is “Don’t embarrass me,” and he takes a lot of liberty with that statement. He can’t control his lust and he decides to twist her words and give himself permission to have an affair. I think that’s a little bit worse than what Martine does.
Do you think Peter is the bad guy because he should have known better?
Thirlby: No, actually I don’t. I don’t think that either. I think one of the strengths of this film is that it does not present you with any clear cut notions about who did the right thing and who did the wrong thing.
Martine seems to have a pattern of betrayal though because it’s set up early on in your backstory for her. Is she someone with bad judgment or does she not have any boundaries at all in terms of what’s okay and acceptable and what’s not?
Thirlby: It’s not touched upon that much in the film, but we did talk about it. I don’t feel that way about her. I think that what happened with her former boyfriend and the lawsuit had more to do with him being a crazy asshole than it had to do with her misleading him in any way. She did not mislead him about the nature of the photographs that she was taking ever, and he just changed his mind about how he felt about them after the fact. Clearly, they were not meant to be anyway because they were not very good at communicating with each other. But, I don’t think it was meant to show that she’s a conniving, backstabbing girl who keeps doing this. It meant to show that she’s a force in the world and people react to her no matter what. It’s more about the fact that her art career has begun with a splash and people know who she is and she’s very young, but she already has a lot of attention in the art world and it’s a lot about that, too.
Thirlby: In a way, she is a victim, but I’m hesitant to make Martine a victim at all because I think she’s a stronger character than that. But yes, in the sense that she’s very powerful in that regard and everyone is attracted to her, and I don’t think she understands what that means or what it does. She hasn’t developed the strength to use her power for good, so it still gets out of control and taints things. But Martine is very young and I feel in ten years she’s going to be the strongest, most capable, intelligent and mature woman.
How was it for you to play a character that has that kind of power but doesn’t know exactly where to put it?
Thirlby: I think it’s something that I can identify with. Sometimes in my life I feel like a bit of a sorceress who can’t totally control all their power. I’m a Libra, so… Libra women are pretty magical.
Can you give some examples of that in your life?
Thirlby: No, I meant that in a very kind of metaphorical way. But it’s something that maybe a lot of young women can identify with because we get very mixed messages from society about our sexuality and whether we should use it or shouldn’t use it — such unbelievable messages that it’s hard to imagine any women get through their teens and twenties okay. We’re told that we should be ashamed of our sexual power, of using our sexual power, and to experience our sexuality. But, we’re also told that in order for people to like us, we have to be hot and sexual. It’s a mixed world and I think that’s something that Ry and Lena set out to do, to make a movie about being a young woman and being a young artist and how to deal with your sexuality.
Was there anything in your personal life that you could draw on to inform the character?
Thirlby: I identify with being 22 and emerging from a situation and going “Oh boy, I really could have handled that better.” I think that that’s what happens with Martine. In terms of Martine, that’s something that I identify with, just realizing that you still have a lot to learn about certain things.
Thirlby: A couple of scenes were really challenging, both of them with John Krasinski. There’s one scene where he confronts me and we have a bit of an explosive argument towards the end of the film. That scene was difficult just because any time you raise the stakes and bring the level of drama up and up, sometimes it’s hard not to yell and use your voice, but that’s not really acting. Obviously, the higher drama scenes require more planning and better execution than some other scenes might. And then, the scene where we have our first kiss was also a challenging scene because it kind of comes out of nowhere. My character was supposed to be having a little bit of an emotional meltdown in that scene, too. It’s actually a very natural transition by going from a place of being very vulnerable and emotional to latching onto somebody and letting yourself fall into that physical comfort. It all happens without words, so it was very important for us to block it all out perfectly and make sure that it was making sense and tracking.
In terms of the scene with the actors, have you ever had a moment like that with a director where no matter what they say you just can’t understand what they’re trying to get at?
Thirlby: No, for the most part I’ve been really lucky and have worked with directors who I work well with who know what they want, and hopefully what they want isn’t so far off base that I can’t figure it out.
There are scenes in the film that suggest that LA is clearly the best place for parents and kids to party and get stoned together. Would you agree with that or is there another city out there that’s better?
Thirlby: I don’t know. I have no idea, but I think it’s great to party with your parents. It’s something that I’ve started to do, and nothing helps me bond with my parents honestly like hanging out with them and all my friends all together. It’s a great bonding experience. My parents are also awesome, so I can do that.
Are you a fan of Girls? Do you watch it?
Thirlby: I’m a huge fan of all things Lena Dunham. I think that she’s a genius and I could just listen to her talk forever.
Thirlby: Yeah, absolutely. Initially, I was going to be on Girls and it actually did not work out timing-wise. I was filming something and so I was unavailable. I think the world of Lena and we’ve known each other since we were five years old. I would love nothing more than to collaborate with her again.
In Dredd, you’re more of an innocent and the newbie learning the ropes, which is very different from your character in Nobody Walks. For that role, was there any part of that character that you could identify with?
Thirlby: There’s so much with my character in Dredd that I identify with. She’s my favorite character I think I’ve ever played. She’s the most dynamic and fascinating woman that I could even imagine playing, so I love her. What I love about her is that her sensitivity is her greatest strength. So, the thing that makes her unworthy on paper is the thing that distinguishes her and makes her extraordinary in real life. It’s not like I can identify with something really specifically, but I just find that to be very truthful about the human condition. I feel like it’s always about embracing what it is that you think is wrong with you. It’s often times your greatest ‘flaw’ which actually forays into what is also your greatest strength.
Was your hair short already or did you have it cut specifically for this film?
Thirlby: My hair had been dyed blonde for Dredd. After Dredd, I was really fried because of the blonde hair dye, and so I cut it into a bob with bangs and that’s how it was during Being Flynn. For Martine, we felt like that little French bob was just way too cute for her and she would be a bit more androgynous, but more modern. So, the only place to go was off. Shorter.
Was it to give her a more artistic look?
Thirlby: I had really short hair already, but it wasn’t right so the only thing we could do to it was just make it even shorter.
What do you have coming up next?
Thirlby: Well Dredd is out right now and I actually don’t have any other films coming out that have been shot. There are a couple things that I’m attached to that don’t have start dates, so fingers crossed.
Thirlby: Yes. Mystery White Boy was tragically deferred this summer, but I’m sure that it will get back on its feet. Hopefully, the Red Knot will be at an obscure film festival near you at some point. I don’t know that there’s anything else that I can talk about.
What about The Movie?
Thirlby: The Movie is a shot-on-home-video kind of movie that my dear friend, Luke Eberl, wrote and directed. I and a whole group of our friends have all collaborated on that movie. But, I don’t know anything about it because Luke did this thing — it’s actually really fascinating — where I’m only in one scene, and he didn’t tell anybody what the movie was about. The only person that knows what The Movie is about is himself and the lead actor, and nobody else has any idea what the movie is about or how their scenes fit into context. We’re still trying to raise financing to finish it.