It’s been a while since Olivia Thirlby was the girl from Juno who managed to keep a straight face while saying “Honest to blog?” Though that role — whip-smart, off-beat, fully developed even in her supporting capacity — would prove to be typical of Thirlby’s preferences as an actress, she’s done an excellent job of advancing beyond it. She’s managed to cover the full spectrum of the industry, holding her own against torrents of CGI in the big-budget studio project Dredd, and aging into a new golden era as indie cinema’s go-to gal for tender emoting. She provided last summer’s Stanford Prison Experiment with a moral conscience as social psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s wife Christina Maslach, and opened up a French marriage in last spring’s 5 To 7. The only through line connecting these varied roles? An omnivorous hunger for life and its rich diversity of experiences. Speaking with her, it’s easy to get the impression she sincerely finds the simple of act of going through life endlessly fascinating. She vocally appreciates the opportunity to live for a living.
Thirlby’s got her head on straight; she thinks carefully before, during, and after she says anything. She’s just as deliberate when discussing her her newest project, the romantic drama Between Us which recently played the Tribeca Film Festival, as she is when speaking about the hazards of marriage, her life as a bisexual woman committed to a man, and her distaste for horror movies. She chatted with us about all that and more during the Tribeca Film Festival this week, and still had time to give her thoughts on the possibility of an impending apocalypse.
Between Us is an intense movie, and not always in a pleasant way. What do you think attracts people to these sorts of romantic stores, even though they’re painful? And by that same tack, what attracted you to it?
One thing I’ve noticed is how different people’s reactions are to the film, and that’s one of the things I really like about it. Reactions are as varied as the individuals themselves and the relationships they’ve had. Anybody who’s ever had a long-term relationship is going to be able to identify with this film. A lot of people do find it dark and depressing; I really don’t. It ended up being more raw and uncomfortable than I realized it’d be when I read the script. When I read the script, it seemed just honest and quirky, a lot of truth to it. But people watch it and they’re kind of upset by it, which has been a really huge surprise for me. I got that a little bit, when I saw it last night. Things are happening that people don’t want to acknowledge, and that’s also kind of what the movie’s about. This couple doesn’t want to acknowledge all the layers of what’s going on inside them, and how that affects the way they connect and relate to one another. I find the movie to be quite touching and really beautiful, and yes, it’s about that kind of twisted-gut feeling that you have when your relationship is maybe going off the rails, which is just the worst. But there’s so much truth in the dialogue.
What drew me to it? I had never read anything like this script before. I had never read a voice like [director] Rafael [Palacio Illingworth]’s, and I identified with a lot of the issues in the movie, as a married woman. My husband also worked on the film, which was an amazing extra part of the process.
In what capacity?
He’s a sound recordist, on set. We’ve worked together before, and this was a wonderful experience.
Has this production given you any new insights on relationships or marriage?
If anything, it just confirmed to me that these are issues everyone grapples with. Marriage is a funny beast. It kind of went out of style for a while, but now it’s back in style, a lot of young people are getting married.
What do you think the rationale for that is?
You know, I couldn’t say. But I will say that marriage is something you can only struggle with once you’re in it. And you sign this binding contract, so there’s not a lot of leeway to be open about the fact that you’re struggling in this situation. The contract of marriage often has nothing to do with the relationship itself, but someone once described it to me as an “archetype.” That the archetype has energy, and when you bring that energy into a relationship, it causes shifts and changes. Love is supposed to be about freedom, but we’ve moved so far away from that. With cultural norms now, love is about ownership, and a lack of freedom, fitting within this certain framework of “we do this, we’re this kind of couple, we mutually allow each other to do certain things and not others.” It’s so limiting. It’s really natural that people, despite how much they love their partner and genuinely want to be with them in a committed way, I think that when marriage comes into the picture, people start to understandably feel very trapped or constricted. Love and contracts shouldn’t go together, but in our culture, it’s come to be that they are.
Marriage is for tax purposes, when you get down to it, right?
I mean, marriages were always business contracts. That’s how they started, about land and consolidating power and uniting families. The contract was not about love, it was about a business, and sometimes the partners in a marriage wouldn’t actually choose each other. And so of course they pursued love and affection outside the marriage. And at some point, that shifted, and now we have this totally impractical ideal of a lifelong pair, and that your mate is not only your contracted tax partner, but your family structure, your financial structure, your emotional support, your sexual support, your passion, your stability, your everything. Not to say that that’s not possible to have, it’s just the kind of thing that’s very difficult to live up to, and people feel often that they failed when they don’t have that.
How does a person still find the space to be happy in the face of these stifling impositions of marriage?
At its essence, I think it’s a question of communication, and I think that’s something the film does really well. We see this couple, Henry and Diane, and in a lot of senses, they have a really open and honest line of communication. But where they get stuck is their honesty with themselves, and that’s really what I understood watching the film last night. My character Diane, as honest as she is with her partner, she’s not always honest with herself. She keeps having to learn the price you pay for not being totally honest with yourself about how you feel the hard way. And I think communication between two people is only as effective as communication with the self. You can’t have effective communication without an internal consciousness.
Do you think Henry and Diane belong together, that they make a good couple?
Now that’s interesting: Those are two different questions. Whether two people belong together, that doesn’t mean they make for a good couple.
Wouldn’t you think people belong together because they make a good couple?
That’s part of where we get tripped up. People think, “We’re a good couple, so we must belong together.” In reality, what makes you a good couple may not also support the notion you should be together forever. Being together forever isn’t a measure of the success or failure of a relationship, either. Another thing I love about the film is that I don’t think it’s really clear about where these people are supposed to go. A lot of people would see it and say, “Obviously they’re back together and they bought the apartment and they stay together,” but others see the exact opposite. I think it’s very uncertain. The original title of the film was The Force, and I think that means the force that brings you together can also pull you apart, the same force. Its an energy, a frequency, that thing we’re exchanging with one another all the time. They clearly have a lot of love and their life works together, but they know they’re dissatisfied and doing this model that’s been set up for them. It was established before they were born and they’re entering into it without fully understanding it, but knowing it doesn’t totally feel romantic to them.
So you place a lot of importance on independently figuring out what’s important to you, and to your relationship in specific?
I think that that’s true, and also of everything. I think the whole world is in a period of examining the structures that we have in place, and seeing if they even work for us anymore. The unknown can be scary, and we have all these structures and accept them because it’s easier than thinking about what we’d have if they weren’t there. But it’s an interesting theme, that’s just happening, this re-examination. Social structures, all things we take for granted, economic structures and political structures too.
If we’re talking about rules imposed on the individual by society: You’re openly bisexual, and married to a man. Do you feel that that aspect of your identity has been at all minimized in the eyes of others by your marriage?
It’s sad, I think people need to stop thinking they know what’s best for other people. That’s what’s at the heart of it. The notion that you can control someone else is an illusion. If you’re trying to control another person, that means you need to take that finger pointing outwards and turn it on yourself. Any time you’re telling someone that their truth is incorrect, you’re not operating in the reality of the situation.
There are some very heated argument scenes between you and your costar Ben Feldman. Did you draw on memories from your past to get into that mindset, or access experiences you’ve had to help form this performance?
It kinda depends on the day. There are some times when I try to access my own reaction to things, but that can be really draining and exhausting, and the nature of doing that is thought-based. It puts you in your intellect, which is not the best place to act from. When you’re thinking, “How would I react to this?” or you’re going back to that moment, it becomes a very mental process. I find that that gets in the way of a creative flow. What works better for me is just to feel it, tap into the frequency of what the director is going for. Everything’s frequency, you can get information from it by attuning yourself to it. The entire spectrum of experience is available to us in this soup we’re all existing in. That’s the notion I play with when I work, and it’s not always effective, sometimes you can’t dissolve into the soup, as it were, but it feels more authentic that way.
You have a very eclectic array of roles on your resumé. What is it that you look for in a role, and do you prefer indies over larger productions?
I think that my resumé is as eclectic as it is because that’s what’s come my way. It hasn’t always been a conscious decision. I haven’t said, “Oh, I did an indie, now I want to do a big comedy.” When I began my career, I knew I wanted to do everything that I could. It must’ve been that initial notion that was my guiding intention, and that’s what came to pass. I really enjoy mixing it up. I’ve done a lot of indie film because that’s been what comes to me. They’re the roles I have access to. I’ve loved all of them, the action films, the comedies, my time on stage. I’ve loved it all. I’m open to what comes to me, I’ve tried to find something about the character that resonates with whatever my personal narrative is at that time in my life.
I feel like I’ve been gifted these roles very often that resonate with my personal narrative at that time in my life, so that I can superimpose my journey on the movie. That becomes a very therapeutic journey, in a way. I’ve gotten to access and work through some of my own issues in the guise of telling someone else’s story. That’s a really powerful process.
Does that make the in-the-moment acting more intensely emotional?
It can heighten that, but it also gives you perspective. It draws me out of my own personal experience and helps me understand the universality of what the issue may be. It gives me an opportunity to tell someone else’s story and that creates empathy for the characters. It’s a beautiful perspective to attain. It’s personal, but putting it out into the world gives you this globalized perspective. Our perceived separations don’t exist, we’re all connected. To me, that’s the truth.
What sorts of movies do you like?
I’m drawn to a wide variety of movies, but I don’t like horror films. That’s the only thing I won’t watch.
I have no problem with gore, I love Game Of Thrones. But I think images are powerful. I find fearsome images to be gratuitous. Because it’s not about the gore and violence for me; I can watch war films, though I don’t enjoy them. I watched The Revenant, I thought it was a masterpiece. I’ve been watching Daredevil on Netflix, which is just brutal, lots of fighting and blood. I’m too sensitive to images of fear for the sake of fear. That’s just me. The other kind of film I refuse to watch is any kind of apocalypse movie. I think it’s strange that we keep wanting to see our world get destroyed over and over again. I wonder if it’s some effort at catharsis, at making ourselves feel like we are going to be okay in the end.
I get the appeal, I think; during the apocalypse, you don’t have to worry about bills or work or errands. There’s an element of escapism to it, yeah, in the way life’s simple.
To me, and this is my philosophy, but I think science also supports the fact that our thinking determines our reality. It creates our world, and the way we observe things affects the things we’re observing. I don’t think it’s okay to give up yet, the world isn’t over until it’s over. There’s a lot to be afraid of, you know?
Yeah, like, it’s hard to talk about the apocalypse without bringing up the election.
Oh, god, I don’t want to get going talking about that.