July 2011

A Foot in Two Worlds

For actress Olivia Wilde to fuel her philanthropic passions, succeeding in Hollywood is a means to an end
by LESLIE GORNSTEIN / photographs by RUVEN AFANADOR / styling by HAYLEY ATKIN / produced by KIM POLLOCK

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On a recent Thursday, Olivia Wilde reported for duty at a morgue. Actresses and morgues generally see very little of each other, but this particular morgue is in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, where Wilde likes to visit every few months to distribute food, rebuild infrastructure—whatever needs doing. For the next hour, she bundled unrefrigerated corpses into body bags, singing with the locals and honoring their tradition of celebrating life while surrounded by death.

Then her agent called. “I was crouched outside this cholera clinic, sitting on a cinder block with my phone,” recalls Wilde, who volunteers with Haitians through the nonprofit Artists for Peace and Justice, “[about] to help hand out rice at a refugee camp and figure out how our students can build more classrooms. It was hard for me to be on the ball during that call, but I had to remember that acting is actually my job. Whenever I want to say, ‘F--k Hollywood,’ I have to remember that the reason I am even useful in Haiti is because I have a job here.”

Since 2009, the 27-year-old has balanced two lives with aplomb, going from a tent with no computer access to a Saturday Night Live after-party, from her role as Remy Hadley on the medical drama House to a Haitian hilltop that needs a new school. And that juggling act is about to get even tougher, as Wilde’s leonine beauty and rare savvy carnality conspire to launch her into a higher Hollywood stratum. It’s the kind of quality stardom all actors dream of, but it leaves little time for second homes in third worlds.

“She’s gonna blow up,” says David Dobkin, who directed Wilde alongside Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds in next month’s

The Change-Up. “She doesn’t just fulfill a role. She’s smart. She’s cutting-edge. She is her own thing. I feel like I’m looking at another Faye Dunaway, breaking big.”

For the record, Wilde does plan to return to a fifth season of House, making the doctors hot under the stethoscope as the enigmatic, sexually restless “Dr. Thirteen.” But the actress has also spent the last three years quietly cultivating her film chops. She has six unreleased films in the can, three of which— the sci-fi shoot-’em-up Cowboys & Aliens, the futuristic thriller In Time and the requisite romcom, The Change-Up—are aimed squarely at the mass market and are set to bow before the year is out. So if the average fanboy isn’t familiar with Wilde via her glowin-the-dark catsuit in Tron: Legacy, he’ll know her but good by the time America sits down for Thanksgiving dinner.

“Someone who’s that attractive and talented and smart? Sky’s the limit for her, because that just doesn’t come around that often,” says Cowboys & Aliens director Jon Favreau.

Wilde has always had brains. Her journalist par­­ents, who trekked the globe for CBS, ABC and National Geo­graphic, let young Olivia horn in on political conversations... She can rattle off news bits like a Christiane Amanpour sans trench coat.

For any Hollywood beauty, earning such a level of admiration isn’t easy. Wilde has always had brains. Her journalist parents, who trekked the globe for CBS, ABC, National Geographic and Vanity Fair, often let young Olivia horn in on political conversations at the family home in Washington, D.C.She can rattle off news bits like a Christiane Amanpour sans trench coat. (There are a billion people who have too much to eat and a billion who have too little. I know this because of Olivia Wilde.)

Still, when Wilde debuted as a TV actor, her brand was decidedly less august. Her inaugural scene, courtesy of a short-lived Fox series called Skin, featured the then 19-year-old in a white tank top, diving into a pool to retrieve a set of car keys.

After that came a recurring role as Mischa Barton’s lover on The O.C.; a thankless girlfriend gig on the drama The Black Donnellys; and, finally, the Emmy-laden House. Her Thirteen is sharp and complex, a talented healer struggling with a fatal diagnosis of her own. But when Wilde joined House, viewers seemed determined to ignore her depth. Her 2008 lesbian makeout scene tantalizes YouTube to this day.

“Oh, the joys of the Internet,” Wilde sighs. “Nothing ever dies.” But she is fiercely determined to enrich her work beyond the nuances of girl-on-girl action. Time allowing, she will always seek to contribute to her film characters before the cameras roll—a process she calls “un-peeling.” She plunged herself into Old West research before arriving on the set of Cowboys & Aliens and says she created her character—a mysterious traveler named Ella—with Favreau.

“I was shocked to see there weren’t many strong female characters in western cinema tradition,” she notes. Inserting oneself into the writing is a dangerous habit for actors, especially for women, who tend to get slapped with the “difficult” label whenever they champion more than one idea at a time.

Directors say Wilde has an uncanny knack for exactly that kind of development. She added her own comic moments to her law-associate role in The Change-Up, and Dobkin says they come at key points in the plot. (Alas, he won’t say any more—spoilers and all that.)

“I’ve had experiences where people don’t know how to create without drawing outside the lines,” Dobkin says. “But she has a way of not ever being outside the lines. She knows what the movie is, you know? She knows not to abandon the film.”

Wilde’s knack for story shaping has spilled over into nonfiction. For the documentary short Sun City Picture House, about a Haitian movie theater built after the earthquake in only four days, Wilde served—along with her friend and fellow Artists for Peace and Justice volunteer Maria Bello—as exec producer, honing the narrative through notes to the director.

“I don’t throw my weight around, because I don’t think I have the weight to throw around yet,” Wilde says. “I meekly and politely ask if I can throw in my two cents, and I have been so lucky that they’ve brought me into the writing process. I’m always wandering around on set going, ‘Where are the writers?’”

Regardless of any Hollywood ascendance, Wilde’s travels will always return her to Haiti, a place she fell in love with as a child when her mom did a piece there. Another documentary is in the offing, about a Haitian youth baseball team, and again she is coproducing. “I’ve come into my own in a way,” she muses. “It’s a sort of thrilling confidence. You have to enjoy the unknown. You have to relish it.”