Olivia Cooke is something of a chameleon. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; after all, the 27-year-old actress has collected accolades for performances as Emma Decody on Bates Motel, Becky Sharpe in Amazon’s 2018 Vanity Fair miniseries, and Ready Player One’s mysterious love interest Art3mis. Still, it isn’t until halfway through our conversation that I realize Cooke also plays the lead in one of my favorite movies—2017’s Thoroughbred. In the film, she co-starred alongside the late Anton Yelchin and a pre-Queen’s Gambit Anya Taylor-Joy.
In my defense, we are mostly discussing her two newest projects: Little Fish, a drama she executive produced about a young couple (played by Cooke and Jack O’Connell) fighting to hold their marriage together as the husband succumbs to a widespread memory-loss virus; and Pixie, a wildcat crime caper involving a road trip through the Irish countryside, a murderous priest (played by Alec Baldwin), and a pitch-perfect retro soundtrack. The two films are as different from Thoroughbred as they are from each other—which is to say, extremely—yet Cooke doesn’t miss a beat, selling the heartrending melancholy of Little Fish just as convincingly as she does the mischievous, slippery energy of the charming title character in Pixie.
In real life, Cooke’s personality is more Pixie than Little Fish. Granted, she’s not the stepdaughter of an illustrious Irish crime boss (that I know of, anyway), but she’s sharp-tongued, quick to curse, and so easy to talk to that within five minutes, it feels like you’ve known her for years. Having recently moved back to London from New York (just in time for the onslaught of a global pandemic), Cooke's been spending her time like so many of us: reading, catching up on TV, and daydreaming about what she’ll do the second it’s safe enough for all of us to rejoin society. Read on for Cooke’s thoughts on dry January, her love for Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and her road-trip dreams.
Little Fish was a passion project for you, right? I remember seeing that you read the short story it was based on several years ago.
Yeah, it was brought to me with the option to pitch for the rights to it to Aja Gabel, the author. I read it and loved it. I thought it was just so melancholic and beautiful, and it felt like such a pure form of heartbreak, in a way, because their love is taken from them. It's not because they fell out of love with each other. It's because [sighs] they’re in a global pandemic. [Laughs] Fuck’s sake. We shot it in March 2019, but it was a process. There were two directors attached to it before, and they dropped out. I was like, "Oh, this is what it's like to make a film and be behind the scenes." It's not just like, "Oh, you get offered the job, then three months later you’re on the set." This was a long time coming. A lot of wondering, "Oh, is this ever going to happen?" And then being like, "Okay, we need to make this movie in three months because this is the only time we've got in this specific location until the tax break changes." It was a really fulfilling experience, and I'm happy with the way it turned out, but what is weird about being on something from the genesis is that it's just never ever what you expect it to be. I mean, I'm really chuffed that it even got made because getting a movie made—especially an independent film—is just impossible.
Was this the first time that you've been with a project from day one like this?
In a producer role, yeah. I've been attached to things where they’ve let me give a few notes or let me have cast approval, but you know they're only doing it just because they want to seemingly keep you involved. You give one opinion that isn't to their taste, and they're just like, "Well, what do you mean? Why is that? We think it's good. The producer and the director really like it." So I'm just like, "Why did you ask!" But, no, this was really fulfilling and difficult. When I was on set, it was confusing to know whether to be the producer or the actor or both. I found it hard to be in two modes. And maybe that's just me being like, "Oh God, I'm the actress. I don't wanna be authoritarian as well." But maybe it's just something I've got to get used to in just being a bit more assertive or not being afraid to speak up if I think something's a bit naff.
How did you like being in the driver’s seat for once in terms of watching the creative evolution of a project?
I think it's more stressful because you're also kind of trying to manage the emotions of other people, especially if you have an idea that they don't like or you have a critique that you're worried might offend someone. But I'm also a massive people-pleaser and hate upsetting anyone. And there are various things that go through an actor's head when you get a note. Usually, it's like, "Oh my god, they hate me. They think I'm crap." And so, in response to me giving notes, I don't want them to feel what I feel when I get notes—that I hate them and I think they’re crap, which isn't the case. It's just like, "Oh, let's try this." Even when it came to the edit, when I would give notes, I felt mortified. But you have to remember that that's just part of the process.
Having said all that, do you think you want to do more producing in the future?
Yeah, definitely. But I wouldn't want to be in it; I don't think. If I were in it, it would be a tiny little cameo. But I don't think I can multitask in that way. I'd rather just focus solely on one or the other.
You know, I have to ask about this: you shot a film about a pandemic a couple of years ago, at a time when there was no imagining what was on the horizon, and then there was a real pandemic.
No, this felt like science fiction. It was like, "Oh my god, can you imagine?" And then we were like, "Okay, let's get this film out to Netflix because everyone's at home, everyone's in a global pandemic," but I was like, "Fucking no! Everyone's living it; no one wants to watch it!" And now it's at the point where you have to put the movie out anyway, and we're still in it. So it's just like, "Oh god. Might as well." It's a different pandemic, I guess. It's just ridiculous. If I'd have known what I know now, I would have done a better performance because now we've all lived through it. So now I have some fucking experience. But we just never even thought this would be a possibility this soon. Maybe in 20, 50 years’ time, but I never thought it was going to be in the next few months.
When did you shoot Pixie? I'm assuming that you shot by one before the pandemic as well?
Yeah, I shot that the summer of 2019, after Little Fish. We were just having fun in Ireland. We were running around, going to clubs, and rolling up on set a little bit hungover. Essentially, being a 25-year-old and not really thinking about anything other than your immediate future, and just having a really nice rapport and trying to do a good job.
I think that's part of why Pixie is so fun to watch. It's sort of what we all wish we were able to do, except maybe without stealing a million dollars’ worth of MDMA from a priest drug boss. I think we all need that right now.
I agree. It's a bit of candy, and it's a bit of popcorn. You’re taken out of your world and your immediate woes for a bit, and you have some lighthearted comedy, and hopefully, it’ll make people laugh. It’s nice not to analyze too much and to just have a bit of escapism. Especially with the year that we've had, there’s something quite nice and comforting about that. It reminded me of The Full Monty in that it felt like a throwback to the early '90s, late '80s British cinema. I didn't realize it was gonna be like that at all, I was kind of just in my own world doing my own thing, so then when I watched it, I was like, "Oh, it really does have a look and a feel to it." I think the character of Pixie just makes it really fun to be along on that ride with her, too. She's manipulative, and she's conniving. It’s a juicy character.
Yeah, but you're rooting for her, too, which is fun. It's rare enough to find characters like that at all, and even more so for female characters.
Oh, I know, and men get to play them all the time. I think that's what drew me to the character. I was like, "Oh my god, I can be mischievous and not that nice and selfish but still have fun and be funny and be sort of like an anti-heroine."
You shot both of these before the pandemic. What have you been doing over the past year?
I've been writing a lot—nothing that I’d ever want to share, but just mainly to fucking feel less anxious. I drunkenly bought an electric piano last year that I've barely touched, thinking I was going to be a maestro by the end of this year. What else have I been doing? I'm doing dry January at the moment because I feel like what I did the most last year was drink. I didn't think I was a heavy drinker, but the last few weeks, I felt so shit. I had massive headaches and felt nauseous. I'm like, "I’ve either got a brain tumor or like I'm having withdrawals."
Do you have a morning routine? How has that routine changed in the past year?
I wake up later now than I would like to. I feel like such a sloth, but I’m knackered in the morning, and it takes me a while to stir—especially if I’m not working. God, I’ve become so lazy. I’ll get up, scroll through the news, feel traumatized, get up, potter to the kitchen, make myself scrambled eggs on sourdough or porridge, make a cup of tea, probably scroll some more, eat my breakfast in the living room whilst watching the news—more traumatization—then force myself to exercise or clean my flat. I wish it wasn’t the case, but exercise feels like I’m shoveling serotonin and dopamine directly into my brain. It’s just a pain in the arse to force myself to do it. I can be slobbish and put it off for a few days or a week if I’m working, but then I really start to feel the effects of that mentally. Sometimes I'll do a half-hour to 45-minute blast, either following a video from Madfit on YouTube or a guided yoga class on Glo. Or, if I’m not in the mood to be told what to do, I’ll make it up as I go along listening to the radio.
What else do you do besides exercise for self-care?
Baths with Epsom salts, listening to a podcast, or reading a book. I do an occasional face mask, if I remember. I'll apply the 111Skin Rose Gold Brightening Facial Treatment Masks if I’m feeling fancy.
What’s your full skincare routine like?
I start off putting rosehip oil all over my face and neck and giving myself a nice massage. I use hands at first, and then I have that Sarah Chapman device that you roll across your face. I bought it two years ago and completely forgot I had it until I found it in the back of my drawer the other day. I then cleanse with CeraVe, the normal to oily one. Then I either apply the 111Skin Hyaluronic Acid Aqua Booster ($135) if I’m feeling a bit dry or just go straight to CeraVe’s facial moisturizer with SPF25—the only SPF I’ve found to date to not make me break out. Then before bed, I’ll double cleanse with CeraVe, apply Votary’s Clarifying Facial Oil ($102) by patting it onto the hot spots, then slather myself with rosehip oil or a heavier moisturizer if I’m feeling a bit dryer in the winter.
You talked about reading in the bath. Do you feel like you read differently when you're considering projects versus when you read for fun?
Absolutely. I think when you're reading for you, a lot of times it’s like, "Would I as Olivia Cooke be able to fit into this world, or would I be able to execute this well, or does it need another actor to play it entirely?" You are thinking in a way where it's all coming from the prism of you. When I read for fun, it's a whole plethora of different worlds. I’m partway through Girl Woman Other, the Bernadine Evaristo book, which is beautiful and so well-written. Have you read that one?
No, I haven't read that one. That one's on my list for sure.
Oh my god. If you want to be transported to London, this one is really good for that. I read Just Kids right at the start of the pandemic when I just moved to London, and it made me so sick for New York. I was such a cliché, looking out my window in London and just, like, crying. God, I don’t know what else I ingested last year. Everything feels like a whirl. I read The Secret History.
Oh my gosh, that's one of my favorites.
Is it! I thought it was brilliant. I ingested that one with a fever. And it feels so timeless, as well. She never really talks too much about politics outside of what's going on, and there's not really any mention of brands of cars or technology or anything like that, so it just feels steeped in history.
What about TV? What have you been watching?
Because it satisfied that bit of wanderlust that I had, I just finished A Long Way Up on Apple TV with Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, and they basically motorbike from the bottom of South America, all the way through Central America, through Mexico, and up to Los Angeles all on electric motorcycle prototypes from Harley Davidson. And I mean, god, they must have gotten paid a fucking shitload. They’re having this amazing adventure riding up in these gorgeous landscapes—through Honduras, through the Andes, through the salt lakes, the Amazon forest. I mean, clearly just having this amazing time.
Have you ever been on a road trip before?
I have! Last year there was a lovely little window in Britain where we could travel to Europe and stuff, so I went to Sicily and traveled around there for a week. It was it was lovely. It was amazing. It felt like a tiny little bit of normality for a short period, right before people went back to school and university, and then everyone got sick again.
When it’s safe to travel again, I definitely recommend a cross-country road trip in the U.S.
Yeah, I’ve been dying to do that—dying to just travel through Wyoming, and Montana, and other places that I haven't been.