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Olivia Wilde does not put on airs. When she breezes into Walter’s in Fort Greene, Brooklyn — an unassuming café near where she lives with her partner, Jason Sudeikis, and their son, Otis, who will be two in April — with her faraway eyes, exquisite cheekbones, and the rest of her fabulousness, she also brings a welcoming gaze that says simply, Okay, let’s talk! As Hugh Laurie — with whom Wilde starred on the hit Fox drama House, M.D., as the troubled doctor nicknamed Thirteen, in 81 episodes from 2007 to 2012 — says, “Olivia is so much better and cleverer and funnier than she needs to be. She has all the equipment that a diva would require to be able to get away with murder — in fact, she might’ve killed people, I don’t know — but she shows up ready for business. She is brutally observant.”
And Wilde has a lot to observe this day, as she’s wrapping up the shooting of Vinyl — the sure-to-be-landmark Martin Scorsese–helmed HBO series about the record industry in the 1970s that will premiere in February — and tomorrow marks the release of Meadowland, her drama with Luke Wilson about a couple grieving over their disappeared son, which has been her cinematic labor of love for several years. (As of this writing, the small indie film enjoys a rare 100 percent approval rating on Rottentomatoes.com’s critical Tomatometer.)
This winning streak didn’t come quickly or easily to Wilde, to say the least — perhaps one big reason that she eschews the aura of celebrity. Another likely attitude adjuster: She hails from an illustrious Anglo-Irish-American clan of public intellectuals. Her father, Andrew Cockburn, and uncles Patrick and Alexander all achieved prominence as leftish journalists, and her mother, Leslie, is a writer, documentarian, and 60 Minutes producer; visitors to the Cockburn home in Washington, DC, included everyone from Mick Jagger to preeminent polemicist Christopher Hitchens (Wilde’s sometime babysitter back in the day). “I’m the least interesting person at the dinner table,” Wilde says, “and I’m really good with that.”
Wilde (the stage name honors Oscar) attended Phillips Academy and then deferred her enrollment at Bard College three times as she took a stab at acting. Her first success set a frustrating precedent: The 2003 FOX drama Skin was a Jerry Bruckheimer production starring Ron Silver as a porn king, with Wilde as his star-crossed daughter — what could go wrong? Everything. The show was killed after six episodes. “One day all these people were bowing down to me and throwing free clothes at me and telling me I was the best thing since sliced bread, and the next day…all of that disappeared,” Wilde recalled later. “That was great for an 18-year-old to learn, and I will never again take the bull seriously.”
Wilde recovered nicely with an acclaimed stint on The O.C., but she threw that over when Nick Cassavetes gave her a plum role in Alpha Dog, starring Justin Timberlake. But that film, and then some two dozen others that Wilde committed to, failed to take her to the next level: not the Harold Ramis comedy starring Jack Black (2009’s Year One); not the Paul Haggis thriller with Russell Crowe and Liam Neeson (2010’s The Next Three Days); and not the Jon Favreau action extravaganza starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig (2011’s Cowboys & Aliens). She hastens to say, though, that “I’ve had the greatest luck because of all the lessons learned!” She has fond memories, for example, of sharing earbuds with Jeff Bridges on the set of 2010’s Tron: Legacy, listening to lectures by New Age philosopher Alan Watts. (“We also listened to this Chögyam Trungpa book about chaos being good news — The Myth of Freedom,” The Dude reminisces. “Olivia was a delight not just to be around but to play with, and to work with.”) Apart from the singular success of House M.D., it all amounted more or less to a decade in the wilderness for Wilde, now 31, whose career started to gain traction only when she started producing her own projects — Meadowland and, before that, Drinking Buddies (2013), directed by Joe Swanberg, which has become something of a cult film among Brooklyn-centric millennials.
Cue Vinyl — the two-hour pilot episode of which looks and feels like a full-on Scorsese feature. Wilde plays Devon Finestra, a onetime scenester around Andy Warhol’s pop art Factory (think Nico, or Edie Sedgwick with more survival skills) in a story created by Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and produced by Mick Jagger. (“It’s been a joy to watch Olivia work,” Jagger says. “It’s so great that the little girl I met in Washington years ago has grown into this accomplished artist!”) Devon is making a go of it as a suburban mom in Connecticut while her husband, Richie (Bobby Cannavale), tries to unload his faltering independent record label without losing his shirt. They’re both determinedly on the wagon — that is, until Richie comes home one night waving around a bottle of bourbon. Enraged, Devon spits a mouthful of it in his face. “Man, that was her, you know?” Cannavale says. “I wasn’t expecting it; Marty wasn’t expecting it. She took something and just made it something else — and that’s a testament to her intelligence.”
Wilde is also employing her intelligence to produce a series on Comedy Central (details still under wraps). She exults that Vinyl “gives me the confidence to not feel like any of the decisions I’m making about work are from a desperate place — it’s all from an interested place.” It’s not like she hasn’t earned it.
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