Fly Girl: Olivia Thirlby

In a transient pop world of 15-second celebrity, Olivia Thirlby is for real. Like, for real for real. Luke Goodsell talks to the star of Juno and the new film The Wackness.

It takes talent to out-deadpan Ellen Page, and yet — there it was. “That’s gruesome,” smirks Juno’s pal, as the pregnant teen contemplates her spawn’s future fingernails. “Do you think the baby could all scratch your vag on the way out?”

The immortal line might have been grotesque had it not been delivered by Olivia Thirlby, the mousy-curled best friend with a penchant for Woody Allen and cuddly high school teachers who serves as Juno’s outré confidante.

In fact, the 22-year-old native New Yorker who describes herself as looking like a “hippy meets punk rocker meets your grandmother” could be your best friend — even if, on screen, she might just as soon break someone’s heart. In this month’s The Wackness, Thirlby plays Stephanie, tough-sweet New York homegirl to Josh Peck’s drug-dealing teen. It’s a nostalgic trip to summer-of-’94 Manhattan, soaked in old-school hip-hop, grunge-era fashion and atypical coming-of-age reflection. Mary-Kate Olsen co-stars as an ephemeral space kid. Sir Ben Kingsley smokes weed and ad-libs Notorious B.I.G. Uh-huh. To paraphrase the film: it’s the dopeness.

Russh got the “411” from Thirlby on the film, the fashion, and what it takes to stay grounded as a young actress in Hollywood.

You would have been quite young at the time The Wackness is set — do you remember much of New York in 1994?
I remember a little bit. I’m from a neighbourhood [the Lower East Side] that was very different in 1994 than it is now, and around that time was undergoing a lot of the changes. So, I do remember it the way it was, back in the day. I had a pretty good vibe for the city ’cause I’m born and raised there, and one of my favourite things about the movie is that it really is a New York story. It’s so New York-centric.

How has the city changed?
Well it’s sort of been gentrified. The area that I grew up in, and many, many areas of Manhattan, were wastelandish. They were dirty and empty and dangerous and populated by a mixture of crazy people and artists and homeless people; and the city has really changed in the last 10 or 15 years. Those very dangerous, sketchy neighborhoods have now become very nice, very quaint and populated neighborhoods.

Did you have to study up on your hip hop language for the film?
No, that came pretty natural, actually [laughs]. I think that what a lot of people would consider to be hip hop lingo is really just New York City lingo. It’s sort of just the way I grew up speaking.

Is it true you have the ability to recite A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It”?
[Laughs] I do. It’s always been one of my favourite songs and it was really exciting to see it end up on the soundtrack.

How did you enjoy wearing that 1994 fashion?
Well, most of the stuff that they wanted me to wear was spot on. We decided that we didn’t want to make Stephanie a girly girl, you know. We did try to throw in time-specific things such as shell top Adidas and baby doll dresses with t-shirts under them. And Josh’s haircut in is pretty hilarious — it’s that funny kinda ’90s slanted bowl cut.

What was the most challenging thing about making the film?
Well for me, I think it was probably overcoming the nervousness of having to do love scenes and having to be sort of scantily clad. So I did a lot of preparation for that to just sort of make sure my body was in shape, so I didn’t feel self-conscious about it or anything. There were certain areas of our bodies that Josh and I didn’t want to show.

What’s this secret pact that you and Josh made — was it that he agreed to show his ass and you wouldn’t?
[Laughs] Unfortunately our pact didn’t have anything to do with Josh’s ass, but hey, Josh’s ass — it’s pretty nice.

Did you hang out with Mary-Kate?
We had some time to get to know each other. She’s a lovely person. She’s very, very cool. I think she’s really great in the movie; I love what she did.

Do you ever get offered ‘dumb’ teen movies that you knock back?
Oh yeah, all the time. I’m just picky about my material. It’s nothing against any film, but acting is really special to me and I don’t wanna cheapen it by just doing something for a pay cheque. I try to pick things that I haven’t done before; not, you know, a cookie-cutter type of thing. I like to excite myself with things that are new and different and unique and that we’ve maybe not seen before.

Is that what attracted you to Juno?
Yeah, I mean Juno was a case in point. When I read Juno it was pretty clear that it was something very unique and very, very new.

Are you wary of becoming another young Hollywood casualty?
I’m definitely wary of it, ’cause it’s a scary world to be a part of. And I can see how easy it can be for some people to get caught up and to lose a sense of what’s real and where the ground is and where the sky is and all that. But I live a pretty exceedingly mundane sort of life. Most of my friends are people that I’ve known my whole life, and I don’t really see that happening to me.

Who do you most often get compared to as an actress?
On my best days [laughs] I get a lot of Parker Posey. I get a lot of Annette Bening. She’s one of my favourite actors.

Is there anyone you admire in terms of their career?
I’m a huge fan of Natalie Portman. I respect the films that she’s done, I respect the amount of work that she does — she’s a girl who’s selective with her material and she’s still come really far being that way.

September 2008

Originally published in RUSSH


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