“My brain hasn’t really processed it. I actually can’t believe it,” said Olivia Thirlby, via phone, early in the morning of Oscar Sunday. The 21-year-old actress, in Los Angeles, was eating breakfast (“I’m sorry for the crunching”) and about to embark upon the daylong process of readying herself for the red carpet to end all red carpets at the Kodak Theatre for Hollywood’s glitziest, puffed-up night. Ms. Thirlby portrayed Leah, Ellen Page’s braid-wearing best friend in this year’s little-movie-that-could, Juno—a film that not only surpassed expectations at the box office, but was the one bright spot in a lineup of Best Picture nominees that skewed dark and heavy.
Juno’s cast seems to unabashedly love one another. At the Independent Spirit awards on Saturday, Juno walked off with Best Feature, Best Female Lead for star Ellen Page and Best First Screenplay for newcomer Diablo Cody, and the assembled cast and crew seemed almost revoltingly adorable and well adjusted. “Can I just say for the record that I’m in love with Allison Janney,” Ms. Thirlby said. (Well, sure!) “[Director] Jason Reitman is just insanely talented, and as a human being, he’s the most righteous and honest and pure person I’ve ever met,” she said, before gushing in similar fashion about the sweetness of Jennifer Garner, the awesomeness of J. K. Simmons, the incredible down-to-earth- and super fun-ness of Ellen Page and Michael Cera. “And Bateman is Bateman,” she said, tone giving the full implication of what that means. (Read: really, really good.)
This time last year, the cast of Juno was only about a week or two into shooting. “We knew it was a good movie,” Ms. Thirlby said. “But we certainly didn’t know that everyone in the country would connect to it in such a way. When you look at the movie and how much money it has made … No one anticipated that. I was at a dinner where I heard [Fox Searchlight president] Peter Rice and Jason Reitman talking about how they agreed to make the movie under the circumstances that they knew it would make no money.” She laughed. Juno has gone on to earn more than $130 million, far more than any of the other Best Picture nominees.
The film, of course, didn’t win Best Picture (though Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar), but Ms. Thirlby seemed at ease hours after her breakfast on Sunday, twirling in a black Vera Wang gown under the floodlights, hair slicked back with the best of them. The young actress, long-limbed, long-haired and doe-eyed, has four movies slated to come out this year, and seems posed on the brink of major It Girl status. There’s been the fashion spreads (eight pages of pretty spring dresses in this month’s Glamour magazine!), and the press-day interviews, but Ms. Thirlby said that the publicity aspect of moviemaking is still not something she’s comfortable with (though she said she finally is getting comfortable in high heels). “It’s really difficult to put yourself out there,” she said. “There are people who are really good at it … and then there is everyone else. It requires confidence and a certain kind of skill set.” Not everyone, she said, is a smoothie like George Clooney or hyper-articulate like Daniel Day-Lewis. “I guess I’m still struggling with it. It’s nerve-wracking. It requires someone to be truly at peace with themselves. But I guess it’s getting easier. It doesn’t feel as intimidating as it used to be.” Photo shoots, she said, remained tough. “It’s difficult when people see a picture of you. It’s you but not you. And people are able to make all sorts of conclusions about you and what kind of person you are.”
MS. THIRLBY, A native New Yorker, grew up in the East Village and attended Friends Seminary in Gramercy. She started into the world of acting at age 16, with a quick dip into commercials. “I wasn’t very good,” she said. “I never booked anything. I did one for Mervins, a department store on the West Coast, so I never even got to see it.” Her parents still live in the East Village, whereas she has migrated to the West Village, after a stint in Chinatown. “I loved it down there,” she said. “It’s got so many things going on, so many different cultures. That’s how I remember the East Village being in my childhood.” She has no plans to move to Los Angeles, though she said she could imagine being bicoastal. “I used to absolutely loathe L.A.,” she said. “But I’ve come around. Now I really enjoy it, and have great friends there. But the driving culture was so contrary to everything I know. Also? I don’t drive! I have to learn. I’ve had my learner’s permit since I was 18 and it’s about to expire.”
One of Ms. Thirlby’s first major film roles is finally making its way to theaters, Snow Angels (in theaters March 7), from writer-director David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls, Undertow). The movie is a quiet and moving account of a small town dealing with a tragic accident, and co-stars Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Amy Sedaris. Ms. Thirlby plays a young high-school girl (kooky, and glasses-wearing) and bona fide love object for one of the young male characters. “I had a blast on that movie,” Ms. Thirlby said. “It was kind of a starting point for me. … That was my first taste of everything … and I was just so massively excited to be there. The opportunity to work with David Gordon Green … I mean, to work with him was incredible.”