Even if you can’t quite place Olivia Wilde when you first see her, you still get the feeling that she’s someone you really should recognize. Perhaps that’s why a tourist recently stepped in off a busy Soho street to snap a picture of the actress, quietly tucked in a corner of the Mercer Hotel lobby drinking green tea.
The 23-year-old, currently in New York preparing for a new play, possesses the throaty voice and wide, teal-eyed charisma of Hollywood in the days of yore. She was clad in a black, long-sleeved shirt and dark jeans tucked into boots, with chunky gold jewelry (a heavy cuff bracelet inscribed with words from a Pablo Neruda poem; a thick wedding band on her left hand; and, on her right, a gold ring embossed with her husband’s royal-family crest—more on that later). When she’s recognized, she says, it’s usually from one of two roles in which her looks are wildly different. There was her welcomed appearance on the second season of The O.C. as Alex, a sassy, tough-talking blond bisexual who helped Mischa Barton’s character explore her sapphic side (yes, they made out; yes, it was super-hot), and more recently her role as Jenny Reilly on the Paul Haggis–helmed The Black Donnellys (just last week yanked off the air, and whose fate hangs precariously in the balance).
“When people saw The Black Donnellys, they didn’t know it was the same girl from The O.C.,” she said. “I’m a natural blonde, but I feel like a brunette. I feel like people treat me now how I should be treated. People used to be shocked, when I was blond, that I wasn’t stupid. I used to get these comments that I swear people thought were compliments. Like, ‘Oh! You’re smart!’—like they couldn’t believe it.”
BORN OLIVIA JANE COCKBURN IN NEW YORK CITY in 1984, she’s the daughter of lefty journalists Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, and the granddaughter of lefty journalist and novelist Claud Cockburn (who wrote Beat the Devil under the name James Helvick). “I have journalism everywhere—mother, father, aunts, uncle and grandparents,” she said. “I think I have a strong journalistic streak in me—I’m really critical and analytical. It’s funny, because my husband is Italian, and Italians have this tendency to exaggerate all the time. Like ‘Oh, there were thousands of people there.’ Because of my upbringing, I’m like, ‘Really? A thousand? Did you count them? Can I get some proof on that?’”
Her husband, Tao Ruspoli, is a photographer and documentary filmmaker. One of his films, Just Say Know, is about his famous family; his father, Prince Dado Ruspoli, was an eccentric aristocrat credited with inspiring Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and his mother, Debra Berger, was the star of Marcel Carné’s Marvelous Visit. Ms. Wilde met him when a family friend, journalist Duncan Campbell (a longtime companion of Julie Christie), introduced them at a party. Six months later, they eloped (Ms. Wilde was 18) and were married in a ceremony that consisted of just two friends and a justice of the peace. “We’re from completely different worlds, but we have the same mission: to bring film and art together with some sort of political activism,” she said.
Ms. Wilde had the day off from rehearsing her first play, Beauty on the Vine, beginning in previews on April 24 at the Clurman on Theatre Row. The play is a political thriller of sorts, a modern-day fable about what happens after a young right-wing radio star is brutally murdered. When the young woman’s husband and father investigate, they discover women who have surgically transformed themselves into looking like their murdered idol.
Ms. Wilde plays three different characters; “I read the script and thought that these three roles are better than anything I’ve read in my entire career,” she said. “My agent said they wanted me to do it, and I thought, ‘How could they know I can do it?’ … When I got it, it felt more exhilarating than anything I have ever done.
“All the money I’m making from the play I’m trying to spend on theater tickets,” she added. “I’m putting it back into the system. None of it is allowed to be spent on shoes.” Holding true to her word, she’d recently seen Vanessa Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking (“I was literally elevated”). She said that she knew she wanted to be an actress by the age of 2 (“first I wanted to be Einstein—then an actress”). Her mother, who attended Yale at the same time that Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep were at the Drama School, introduced her daughter to their work. When it comes to career longevity, it’s those women she now looks up to, citing Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener and Robin Wright Penn as other examples. “From a very early age, I made my decisions based on careers that I admire,” she said. “The one thing that all the actresses I love have in common is that they have diversity in their careers.”
After attending the tony Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Ms. Wilde moved to Dublin to study acting (her father’s family is Irish, and she has dual citizenship and a family residence there). She changed her name when she moved from behind the camera, working as a casting assistant. (“It’s a great way to learn the business,” she said. “It’s like a mail room at a large agency where you learn all the secrets.”) In the Cockburn family, pen names were a tradition; her uncle wrote as Alexander Blake, while her grandfather was forced to change his name after getting blacklisted for having an underground anti-fascist newsletter.
“My mother thought it was a good idea for me as well, so I could have my own identity outside of my family. She suggested I pick something Irish and something that I’d always be inspired by,” said Ms. Wilde. “At the time, I was doing The Importance of Being Earnest—I was playing Gwendolyn, and I was so in love with it. Oscar Wilde is someone who I respect for so many reasons—a revolutionary, a comedian and a profound thinker. I had all these reasons—but what I didn’t foresee is that people would think of it as a sexy adjective. So now it’s got a pornographic quality I never considered.” Not to mention, an Observer reporter added, a punny quality irresistible to headline writers. “Oh, I know,” she laughed. “Born to Be Wilde! Girls Gone Wilde! I really didn’t think it through.”
ASIDE FROM THE PLAY, her future projects include a very worthy endeavor with the Culture Project, interviewing subjects from Doctors Without Borders’ 10 most underreported stories and hopefully turning her work into a play in 2008, with all of the proceeds going to the humanitarian-aid group. Eve Ensler (“my hero—my heroine!”) has been helping her develop questions and think about bringing it to the stage. “I think it’s the perfect marriage of my two sides,” she said. “Doing these interviews and creating a play out of it could not be more perfect or more satisfying to who I am and the influences I grew up with.”
On her wish list of directors (Martin Scorsese, Kimberly Peirce), she started to laugh when she told the story of recently meeting with another idol, Woody Allen. “I’d read all these interviews with Woody Allen, and all these articles about people who had auditioned for him. One great story of someone who did get cast was when Goldie Hawn met him and launched into this whole story about her travels. He actually stopped her and said, ‘Can you leave the room so I can talk?’ I thought, ‘God, that’s going to be me, because I talk so much!’ Then his casting agent told me that he keeps it short and that he doesn’t want a lot of conversation. So that’s all I had in my head: Don’t talk.”
She went up to the Upper East Side to meet the legend. “And he was so charming and very sweet, and when he asked what I was doing in New York, all I could think was not to talk. So I ended up giving one-word answers and some sort of inaudible squeaking sounds. It was awful—I think a few producers started chuckling. He was nice, though; I think he knew I was nervous.” She laughed and shook her head. “I’d love to do a movie with him—or 10! Maybe one day he’ll meet with me again.”
She’ll work on the play till June, and then isn’t sure what her next move will be. One thing for certain is that she’ll continually try new things. “It is the only way to achieve longevity in your career, which is the definition of success” she said. “When I’m still working when I’m 70, then I’ll know I’ve succeeded.”