Indie Darling Olivia Thirlby On Life, Relationships, ‘Between Us,’ And The Apocalypse

Getty Image

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.