‘WHAT was on TV in Ireland every day at 6.30pm when we were kids?” Olivia Wilde asks in a state of almost giddy recall. I’m struggling to think of the answer but, thankfully, she jumps in. “I’ll sing you the theme tune.”
And then one of cinema’s biggest rising stars breaks into song. “You know we belong together/ You and I forever and ever/ No matter where you are/ You’re my guiding star.”
Eventually, I guess it’s Home and Away (I was a Neighbours man) and Wilde crackles with laughter. The 26-year-old’s trip down memory lane has led her to her childhood summers spent in Ardmore, Co Waterford, where her grandfather, the left-wing novelist and journalist Claud Cockburn, set up home after leaving the UK shortly after the Second World War.
Her father, the journalist Andrew Cockburn, left Ireland for Washington DC, where he has written on politics and produced documentaries with his wife, Olivia’s mother, Leslie. It’s fair to say that Wilde (she chose a stage name in honour of Oscar) has some serious credentials.
In addition, her husband of seven years, documentary maker Tao Ruspoli, is an Italian prince and it means that Wilde is technically a princess — but a princess whose formative years were spent on the Irish coast horse riding, fishing and jumping off the pier into the icy Irish Sea. And then there was the daily dash home to find out what was happening in Summer Bay. “We were obsessed with Home and Away,” she says. “I remember sprinting down the hill to our friends Katy and Sarah’s house, and my sister and I would run in the door to watch it.”
It’s a long way from watching Australian soaps to becoming a Hollywood princess, but it’s a journey Wilde has made in quick time. She played Mischa Barton’s lesbian love interest in the hit TV series The OC, and Dr Remy Hadley (better know as Thirteen) in the medical series House. Now she has moved to the big screen with three upcoming movies which will make her one of Hollywood’s hottest young actresses.
Early next year, she will appear alongside Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in Jon Favreau’s Western Cowboys and Aliens and opposite Russell Crowe in Paul Haggis’s The Next Three Days.
Before that, however, is the biggest role of them all, as the already iconic Quorra in Disney’s $200m cyber-epic Tron: Legacy, a sequel to the 1982 cult classic starring Jeff Bridges. “I could go on and on about her,” she says. “I really do like her.” And she has every reason to be happy. Quorra is the sort of strong, sexy, stylish character that must be every actress’s dream.
“We had a few different sources of inspiration for her,” Wilde says. “About six months before we began shooting, I was reading about Joan of Arc, specifically Mark Twain’s book Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which is amazing. I suddenly realised Joan of Arc is Quorra. I didn’t want her just to be typically sexy and strong. What I loved about Joan of Arc was that she was incredibly powerful but also very innocent and I thought that duality is really rare.”
Tron: Legacy isn’t just a regular film, but a coming together of fashion, design, music (Daft Punk recorded the soundtrack) and performance in a ground-breaking 3D movie. Even Wilde’s appearance today — grey woollen jumper with high shoulders, pin-striped trousers and leopard print heels — coupled with her hair pulled tightly back into a ponytail, gives a slightly futuristic feel. But it is more old-worldly thoughts that are never far away as we speak.
The spectre of Ireland always loomed for Wilde and her family. Born in New York, she was raised in Washington DC but each summer the family (she has a 17-year-old brother Charles, and a 31-year-old sister, Chloe) decamped to Ardmore.
“It was amazing,” Wilde says. “I feel like the luckiest child in the world because I got to grow up there. In summer is when you really grow up. During the year, I would go back to the States, and all year long really couldn’t wait to get back to Ardmore.
“People in Ardmore would say, ‘Oh isn’t living in America cool: you live in a big city, you get to be close to all these things we only see on TV’ — but I found Ireland much more inspiring as a kid, much more fun, and the people had such an amazing effect on me, and I credit a lot of my growth as a child and a lot of my happiness with the people I was surrounded by in Ireland.”
With each passing sentence, she seems to remember something new, bursting into laughter at the thought of the local amusement park — “the summer activity” — buying penny sweets in the shop and the awkwardness of the town disco. I suspect that she must have been a big hit with the teenage boys in the Ardmore disco? “No,” she says emphatically. “They thought we were the weird American girls who showed up every summer and we didn’t quite fit in. I was desperate to fit in. Oh my God. That’s all I wanted.”
I suggest that perhaps she should return to the local bars to see the men who missed their chance. She seems to like the idea. “Hello boys, look at me now,” she blasts, imagining her triumphant return.
A classic beauty, Wilde is all high cheekbones and perfectly formed features, but there is a devilish glint in her eyes. It was her experiences in Waterford that persuaded her to spend a summer in Dublin at the Gaiety School of Acting where, she feels, she was able to learn free from the “bulls**t” she would have encountered elsewhere. “I didn’t feel any notion that the purpose of this work was for fame and recognition,” she says.
“It was also important to me to maintain a connection with my Irish roots and to spend as much time there as possible. The course I did specialised in Irish playwrights and I’ve always loved Beckett, Friel and O’Casey, and I wanted to spend time learning about these people from people who would understand them. To learn them in America would have been from a very different perspective.”
Growing up in a family of such high-achievers and with dinner-party guests such as
Christopher Hitchens and Mick Jagger, it might have been easy for a child to become intimidated by the dominating personalities around every corner, but Wilde feels it was an ideal environment to thrive.
“It was definitely free from any pressure to follow in the footsteps of the family and join the journalism train, but we were definitely encouraged to think big and to really believe in ourselves. I’m very lucky to have that. When I announced that I was going to be an actress at a young age, there was never any sense that it was a silly pipe dream. It was more that they said, ‘Great, but you’re going to have to work hard.'”
At 19, she eloped and married Ruspoli and, as the story goes, they lived on an old yellow school bus in Venice Beach. I wonder is the reality as magical as the tale that is told? “It’s magical, but not in the way that people imagine,” she says. “They imagine the hoopla over him being Italian and being royalty, and that would be the exciting part. In fact, the exciting part was the sheer romanticism and spontaneity of it. We were hippies living in Venice Beach in LA, living in a school bus, got married in the school bus, we were happy to stay living in the school bus. There was nothing traditional about it and there was no sense of settling, which is the death of relationships when you move to the next stage and see that as a settling. That’s the end. We never had that. I feel very lucky.”
She had admitted that even they are a little surprised that the marriage has lasted this long, but they remain an inseparable union (Ruspoli is accompanying her around Europe as she promotes Tron: Legacy). “It has been great,” she says of their married life. “It’s definitely an idiosyncrasy. Not many people my age are as committed or connected to somebody in the way that I am. It’s definitely wonderful to be part of a family that had that beautiful history of Italian aristocracy, meaning that they can trace their family tree back so far. There’s this beautiful family tree painted on the wall in the castle. It goes back 600 years in that same house. Amazing.”
I wonder how her parents felt about such an impulsive decision. “There was definitely a sense of ‘well that’s Olivia’, but my parents have always been very accepting of my spirit.”
Even as she discusses her marriage, the talk turns to Ardmore. “There was this pier we used to jump off at night. I remember being with a bunch of older kids and sprinting to the end of the pier and jumping off, and when I came up out of the water and looking up and everyone was gasping, because I had been inches from the concrete of the pier as I fell. I felt so thrilled by the whole thing but a little bit nervous and I looked up and my Dad had been watching from a cliff above.
“I realised that although I felt I was having this completely free, independent and wild experience, my Dad was watching, making sure I was OK. That’s the spirit they’ve had throughout my personal life and my career; really allowing me to be myself but always a watchful eye making sure I’m OK. And I think that was their attitude towards my marriage as well.”
And then our time is brought to a halt. Olivia Wilde is very much a woman in demand. Tomorrow’s worldwide star who will never forget her rural Irish past. And she also sings a mean Home and Away theme tune.
‘Tron: Legacy’ is showing in cinemas from Friday
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