By Sean Axmaker
When Juno exploded into the pop culture in 2007, it catapulted a young actress named Olivia Thirlby from the indie world's best kept secret into an overnight success. Playing Juno's best friend, the sunny, supportive, eccentric cheerleader Leah, her performance was so natural that it was often overlooked in all the acclaim that met star Ellen Page. She's not being overlooked anymore. Her performances in the ensemble drama Snow Angels and the new coming-of-age dramedy The Wackness are enlivened by the same spunk and warm glow that made Juno crackle, but the dimensions are shaded in ways that dramatically differentiate these characters from the happy-go-lucky Leah.
What's interesting is that both of these films were shot before Juno had been released. Thirlby made her feature debut in a French-produced drama called The Secret, which is just now coming out on DVD, and was seen on the screen in a small role United 93, her third of a half-dozen indie features and her only film to be released before she landed Juno (though she had co-starred in the short-lived TV series Kidnapped). Which means that this young actress landed each role without any name recognition or public track record, but merely by the force of her auditions.
The lithe, lovely Olivia Thirlby recently made the rounds to promote The Wackness and accompanied the film to its screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, where we talked about the business of acting, the toil of auditions and the impact of Juno on her career. At the age 21, this screen veteran of only a few years is already an articulate professional savvy about both the business and art of her chosen profession.
How did Juno happen for you?
Juno was on the table for a few years. I read it for the first time, I think, when I was 18. It was actually one of the first scripts I ever read coming into this business. It was clearly very special. I was laughing out loud after the first page, and I loved it. It went through many different incarnations. I auditioned for Juno several times and then, when it was finally with Jason [Reitman] and they finally knew it was going to be Ellen playing Juno, I went to LA and I screen tested for Juno anyway, just kind of for kicks. While we were doing it, Jason said, "Why don't you test for Leah, too?" And so I did and it kind of worked perfectly. I had always hoped that I would be able to be part of the movie, whether it was playing Leah or even playing the character which eventually ended up being Su-Chin, the abortion protester. I always hoped that I would be able to find some little place to be a part of the movie and I'm really happy I did.
After you screen tested, did they put you together with Ellen Page to see how the chemistry worked?
Yeah. When she had the part and they were thinking about me, Jason and Ellen flew to New York and we did a little reading together. We were just sitting in a hotel room like this, reading the scenes. We worked through it a couple of times, and I'd say by the third time we ran through it, it was perfect. I mean, it was pretty much exactly the way that you see the scenes in the movie. And it just was natural and great and that's the end of it.
I've seen your original screen test on the DVD.
I probably shouldn't admit this, but I did get the DVD to watch the special features because I wanted to see all the deleted scenes. And I was kind of mortified to see that they put our screen tests on there.
I love watching screen tests.
I think it's fascinating to see how much the actor brings to the character from that first moment. Obviously there is some polishing and honing that goes on in rehearsals, and you're not playing against the actors in this screen test, but so much of the Leah we see in the finished movie is there in raw form. You had the inflections and the attitude right from the beginning.
I tried. It came pretty naturally to me. Jason Reitman said something about how when he hears teenage girls speaking, he can't understand anything, it just sounds like "buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh," just up and down in volume, so he said, "Make it as fast-paced and unintelligible as possible." So I did.
If you believe that Leah and Juno are best friends, that becomes their private language, and that's the way they communicate so nobody else really knows what they're talking about.
Yeah. And it's really true to life. Juno may be the extreme of the spectrum in terms of that kind of banter, but it's not dissimilar from the way that my best friend and I grew up talking. We didn't have quite so many catchphrases; when we were in high school, blogging didn't really exist yet, but we definitely shared a similar bond, a similar way of talking to each other that nobody else did.
I saw Juno at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival and the buzz was just getting started. It was one of the films to see. And I loved Jason Reitman's first film. I think Thank You For Smoking is so funny and so smart.
I love it, too. I was really excited when I learned that Jason was going to direct Juno because it's clear, especially in hindsight, that he was so perfect for it. And he has this amazing ability to capture a tone that is elevated, wacky and funny, but also so real and poignant, and I think that's what's so special about Juno. These characters are almost make-believe; they're so elevated that they and their world almost feel fake, but then they get put into these incredibly real, incredibly human situations and they react in incredibly human ways, and I think that's what pulls you down to earth into the Juno world, which is so out there.
Your biography notes that you trained at the American Globe Theatre in New York and that you took stage combat.
I studied at the American Globe Theatre in New York when I was in high school and I learned everything that I know from that place. I took that stage combat class as part of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art summer program in London, which I did when I was about 17. Stage combat is so fun and it's very difficult. It's kind of a choreographed dance. The idea is you're beating yourself up and just making it look like somebody else is doing it. That was a really fun part of the course. We also took sword fighting and all sorts of other cool things.
That's got to be a hard program to get in to.
Actually, no. It's non-audition based so it was kind of a joke in a lot of ways. People are shocked to hear me say that. The Royal Academy is one of the best acting schools in London and it is very hard to get into, but this particular summer program was an open general course and so, you know, I didn't learn very much but I had a great summer. [Laughs] I learned how to fake-punch people and there was one funny night when my friends and I were at the pub and we had all learned this fighting sequence in class, so two of my friends decided that they were going to go across the street and stage this very realistic, very brutal fight. So they went and started doing it and everyone else inside the pub really started freaking out and I think somebody even called the police. But, you know, we're drama kids, we're crazy - we like to do stuff like that.
I find that people who come to acting from athletics or dance or martial arts have a distinct command of their body that becomes a tool that they rely on as an actor or a performer. Have you found that to be the case for your training in stage combat and sword fighting?
Absolutely. That is definitely true. As an actor, you just make your job easier if you work on your voice, your speaking voice I mean, which I do, and there are amazing acting techniques which focus on the physical mastery of your body, like the Alexander technique or Suzuki, there are many different things. Unfortunately, as fun as stage combat was, it was a month-long course and I think it was one class a week, so it was beginning stage combat and it was great fun but I can't say I learned enough to really have carried that carried that on with me. It looks good on paper, you know what I mean? [Laughs] But that is definitely true about being an actor and keeping yourself in good physical condition. It makes your job easier.
Did you do stage work after that?
No, I've never done theater professionally. Not by choice, necessarily, but there hasn't been a lot of time. It's something that I'm definitely looking forward to doing as soon I get the opportunity, as soon as I can get cast in something and the timing works out. I grew up loving theater. I mean, if you're not a professional actor, then recreational theater is kind of the only thing that you have access to, so I did it in school and I did youth theater in New York and I did it at summer camp and I took classes. It was my hobby and my extracurricular activity and my passion.
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