Wilde west: Olivia Wilde is one of Hollywood's hottest properties
She learned to horseride during childhood summers in Ireland and is now using those skills as a strong woman in a Western —an experience she is relishing, Olivia Wilde tells Will Lawrence
The star of last year's mega-money sci-fi hit Tron: Legacy and the forthcoming Daniel Craig blockbuster Cowboys + Aliens, Olivia Wilde is one of Hollywood's hottest properties, and yet the 27-year-old star says that she feels a closer connection to Ireland than she does to the US.
"Ireland is such a big part of who I am," the actress tells me. Her father, journalist Andrew Cockburn, was raised in Youghal, Co Cork. "Not only as an actor but as a human being. I am very aware of my Irish blood." She laughs, "I really believe that, not only in my capacity for alcohol, but also being able to sense certain values, I think these elements come from my Irish blood."
Indeed, for all the celebrity garnered by her high-profile movies and her starring turn opposite Hugh Laurie in hit American TV show House -- where she plays an inscrutable young woman who sufferers from Huntington's disease and a propensity to self-destruct -- Wilde remains a warm and open interviewee with a hearty laugh and a spirited demeanour. She's a classic car fan, too, owning a 1958 Chevy Biscayne, and, like many Irish folk, she adores horses.
Her love for the country, and for its equine passion, was fostered in her youth -- her parents, who eventually settled in New York, would return to Ireland in the summers.
"We grew up going to a little village called Ardmore," she recalls. "It is on the coast quite near Youghal, about an hour or so out of Cork.
"I went to acting school in Dublin, too, but I haven't been back to Ireland in a few years. It is something I am really looking forward to doing this summer because I miss it so much."
With dual-citizenship, and a family home in the country, Wilde trained for a while at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin and when choosing a stage name she opted for her favourite writer Oscar Wilde. "I came and trained as an actor every summer in Ireland," she continues, "and my sister and I worked in a stable, so that's where riding became such a part of my childhood."
She says that riding gave her courage. "When you are teaching a kid to ride a horse you are teaching them about conquering their fears, about having respect for animals and it is very humbling, too, to work with horses because you are acknowledging how much more powerful this animal is than you.
"You realise that if you can learn how to behave around a horse you can develop a sense of self-control over your fear. Horses can smell fear. Also my parents used to say that you are not a real rider until you have fallen off a hundred times. You fall off and scramble to get back on the horse and that's a good life lesson."
Her riding skills proved a boon when shooting her latest movie, the blockbusting Cowboys + Aliens, which starts as a straight-up Western film before transforming into an Earth-based sci-fi adventure at the end of the first act. With 007 (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) for co-stars, Wilde is in the company of some fairly august adventurers.
"When it came to doing a cowboy movie, I am very appreciative of all that training I'd done with horses over the years," she says, "although in Ireland I had ridden English-style, but in this movie I had to learn how to ride Western, which is vastly different. But I am really happy to know how to do it now. It is a great skill to have, which is what is so cool about making movies. You develop these skills."
Wilde's new film also gives the actress the chance to expand those talents, taking on the rare role of a strong woman of the West.
"I have always been such a fan of genre movies, although as a woman I struggle to find female characters in a lot of Western films that I relate to, really strong female characters. In sci-fi, I can find more women to relate to, just think of Sigourney in Alien.
"That said, Westerns have had such an effect on my taste in movies, and my favourite genre is the gangster movie and really they all are Westerns. I realised that a lot of the elements in the films that I loved came from the Western."
In her Western, directed by Iron Man head honcho Jon Favreau, Wilde plays Ella, a rough-and-tumble cowgirl with a decent gun arm and a strange and startling secret. "I think the film's great," she says, "and Jon did such an amazing job keeping this entire story in his head with these two giant genres, weaving them together so elegantly. And I hope that what we have created in this movie is a female character in a Western that other young girls out there will be inspired by."
If not, then those young girls could perhaps draw inspiration from one of the many characters Wilde is bringing to cinemas once Cowboys + Aliens is off screens. She'll soon be seen in the likes of the comedy film The Change-Up with Ryan Reynolds, the sci-fi thriller In Time with Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, and the bleak and brutal thriller Blackbird, with Eric Bana. She is also hoping to make a movie set in Ireland. "That's exciting," she coos, "but it's too early to say anything about it yet, I'm just enjoying doing all this work."
Indeed, if the truth be told, work is proving a welcome distraction for Wilde, who has suffered a difficult time personally, filing for divorce from her husband of eight years, Italian-American filmmaker and socialite Tao Ruspoli, in March of this year. She filed papers at a Los Angeles Superior Court on March 3, citing irreconcilable differences.
Wilde and Ruspoli eloped in 2003 when Wilde was just 19, got engaged at the Burning Man festival in Black Rock, Nevada, and married in a bus on Venice Beach, California.
The couple enjoyed a happy relationship until they started to drift apart. They mutually agreed to separate earlier this year and have no children.
"Even though it didn't work, there is nothing I regret about any of it," Wilde says in the July edition of American Marie Claire. "We're friends; his family is my family. You always have a choice to feel angry and not be friends, but I can't handle the idea of walking into a room and seeing someone I have bad blood with. I can't keep any negative relationship with anyone."
Wilde has been linked with a number of suitors -- including fellow A-listers Bradley Cooper and Justin Timberlake -- but while she says that she is taking the plunge into dating, it isn't easy. "I'm trying to be adult, entering the shark pool of dating," continues the actress in that interview, "but I'm hopeless at it."
That seems unlikely, given her stunning looks, innate charm and bright mind, fostered by parents that both work in the media. Her mother, Leslie, is an American journalist, and a producer on TV news magazine 60 Minutes. Wilde grew up surrounded by high-profile names, and Barack Obama once called her mobile to thank her for the support she lent during his campaign: "I was professional on the phone, then I hung up and started squealing like a school girl." But the phone wasn't off. "I had a friend at the campaign office and they said that they could all hear me -- that's embarrassing."
The actress, however, has overcome her mortification. She is plucky, after all, an attribute she ascribes to her Irish blood, and to her determined mother. "My mother taught me a lot about being a woman," she says, "like how you can be sexy and beautiful and yet still be the smartest person in the room." Olivia Wilde, it appears, is the living proof.
Cowboys + Aliens is in cinemas next Friday
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