OLIVIA COOKE WAS in the laundry when Steven Spielberg called. An actual launderette – she was living in New York City at the time, 21 years old, starring in the TV series Bates Motel. And her phone went off and the most famous director in the world – history? – was on the other end.
‘Hi Olivia, Steven here…’
“It’s just mad,” recalls Cooke. “You’re just doing the most normal stuff and then you get a call that could potentially change your life. It’s never the environment that you imagine it to be in. It’s so exciting and so surprising, but also quite mundane as well.”
Spielberg was calling to tell Cooke that she had landed a lead role in his giddy love letter to 1980s’ pop culture Ready Player One, a CGI extravaganza that would gross nearly $600m worldwide. The film came out in 2018, the same year Cooke won plaudits for her Becky Sharp in ITV’s much-ballyhooed adaptation of Vanity Fair. Roll out the red carpet? Not quite.
“My life didn’t really change,” says Cooke, cheerfully. “It helped me get other jobs and things but it was quite humbling in a way as well. You’re still out there, you’re still auditioning for things. Your life doesn’t suddenly change because you’ve been in a Steven Spielberg movie. You’ve still gotta prove yourself. To teach me that at a young age was probably quite good.”
She’s been proving herself ever since she caught the acting bug after school at Oldham Theatre Workshop north east of Manchester.
She later dropped out of sixth form to play Christopher Eccleston’s daughter in the 2012 drama Blackout, landed the Bates Motel role a year later, and has racked up a string of critically acclaimed films including Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), The Limehouse Golem (2016), and Thoroughbreds (2017), Oh, and that one with Steven what’s-his-face. Put colloquially, she’s been smashing it from day dot. Aged 26, there’s plenty of smashing still to come.
Short term, Cooke has two films out in consecutive months: October’s comic-thriller Pixie followed by December’s Sound of Metal. The former sees Cooke’s titular protagonist pursued by gun-toting priests across the Irish countryside; she describes it as “a fun bit of escapism. It’s a bit of a ride”, and if you haven’t yearned for some escapism these past months then congratulations on your new home on the moon.
Sound of Metal is a darker affair. Cooke plays Lou, the partner of Riz Ahmed’s tormented heavy metal drummer, a former drug addict in the process of losing his hearing. (Fewer gun-toting priests in this one, an omission generally to the detriment of any narrative but Sound of Metal pulls it off.) Both fantastic for different reasons, the two films serve as a perfect one-two demonstration of Cooke’s versatility and ever-increasing star wattage.
And make no mistake, Olivia Cooke is a star, although she certainly wouldn’t consider herself one. “I know my career’s successful and stuff, but I don’t hang around in those circles,” she says at one point. ‘Those circles’ being the glossy haired, gleaming toothed denizens of the Hollywood Hills. “I very much live in reality. Apart from my job, my life is very normal.”
An hour with Cooke passes very easily. She arrives at the Chalk Farm restaurant bang on schedule, and promptly mentions a recent weekend spent in Dorset “getting on it”. Then she orders some lunch. Not many interviewees tell you about the weekends they got on it, and it’s hard not to warm to the ones that do.
(I should stress that our interview occurs in late September, a period when hedonistic weekends in Dorset and indeed in-person interviews are actually still allowed. Perhaps they will be again by the time you read this. Perhaps Rishi will subsidise the booze: Save Some Cash, Get On The Lash or whatever slogan sounded cute to the focus groups. One can only hope.)
It’s hard not to warm to Cooke full stop. She’s sharp, funny, palpably in love with acting without ever being overly gloopy about it; I doubt she’s trekked to a silent retreat to converse with her inner muse or spent afternoons weeping over videos of newborn turtles or however else the quirkier members of her profession attempt to channel their latent Stephen Toast. (This isn’t intended as a jab at actors: every profession has its kooks. My editor, for instance, won’t write a single sentence until he’s lit three scented candles and sacrificed a goat to Odin.)
Her accent remains rooted in Oldham, despite the four years spent living in New York and her current North London address.
“There’s a massive heart to it,” says Cooke of Oldham. “I think it’s got quite an amazing cultural backdrop. Arts were very important.”
Relocating to the West Coast was never a temptation. “There have been various people who have been like, ‘come LA.’ I’ve done a film there so I’ve stayed for extended periods of time. It’s just not… You feel like you’re in a hamster wheel. Or you’re a goldfish. It’s really exciting when you’re there because you feel like you’re in Spain so you’re like, ‘Ooh, I’m on holiday!’, but then you’re going around having all these meetings and having the same conversations over and over.
“I just end up missing my mates and missing banter and missing taking the piss out of people. And having the piss taken out of myself. It’s just all very serious over there. I can’t quite tell if people are being genuine or not.”
Mates are what got Cooke into the acting game in the first place. It doesn’t run in the family: her mum’s a sales representative, and her dad’s an ex-policeman. But she made a solid group of friends at the theatre workshop, and never looked back – socially or professionally. “We all lived in London together. We’re still all best mates.”
There must be something special about theatre workshops, certainly regional theatre workshops: in a previous square mile cover story, Nottingham actor Joe Dempsie described his as a “unique place”, the lack of fees ensuring a range of kids from different backgrounds and creating “this really special atmosphere and alchemy.”
Cooke is similarly effusive about the inclusivity of Oldham: “It wasn’t really about the acting. It was basically learning how to be a social, responsible, good human being who was mindful and cared about different people. If it wasn’t for that, and knowing how safe a space acting and actors and creatives can be, I don’t know if I would’ve gone into it.”
The traditional next stop is drama school, but she had an agent and work was coming in. However the old ways die hard. “I’d been told by a producer that I needed to get my formal training and have all these techniques behind me. And all my friends were applying to drama school or were at drama school so I thought this is the route to take. And then I didn’t get in!”
Was this one of those blessings in disguise? “Oh God, yeah! I think I would’ve probably gone, and then I would have missed out on a lot of stuff that took me to where my career is at today. I wouldn’t have been able to do Bates Motel, that put me on the map in America. I wouldn’t have been able to do Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”
We discuss the similarities between drama school and university. She asks if I went, and whether magazines were always the plan. Definitely not – there was plenty of bumming around post-graduation. This doesn’t surprise her. “I feel like every person who comes out of uni – they’re just like, ‘I’m unemployed, I’ve not been prepared for the real world whatsoever!’”
The same is true of drama school, right? Absolutely, she says. “My two best mates went to the same drama school in Oxford, went to the same year. I went to their showcase. And it’s so funny watching the agents turn the page – they’ve got a booklet of headshots for the year – and who they turn the page to. They might not be the best in the class, but if they’re a classically beautiful man or woman, all the books are suddenly flipping to their page. It’s a bit disheartening because it’s not really based that much on talent.
“They’ve done three years of training, they’ve all been best friends, and suddenly there’s this really competitive atmosphere in the year. Yeah, it’s really cutthroat. As an audience member as well, seeing my best friends on stage and seeing if they were getting responses from agents was just brutal.”
Many of her friends are working actors, moving from job to job. It can be a tough existence, never more so than this year. “They still have the tenacity to carry on and the spirit to not be downtrodden by it. I just don’t know if I would have been able to do that.
“I really admire it. I wouldn’t have had the stomach for it. I would have given up a long time ago.”
As a teenager, what would success have been for her? The question elicits a long pause. “Working in theatre, I think. Working in theatre, maybe the odd telly job. I never thought in a million years that I’d be doing films – and films meant a different thing back then as well. Films were more highly rated and TV wasn’t like the TV that it is today. So yeah, I just thought the odd bits and bobs, mainly theatre, and if I could make a living just doing theatre I’d be so happy. Still yet to do theatre, though.”
There’s a much shorter pause when I ask whether it was an easy decision to drop out of sixth form to film Blackout. “Yeah. I had a teacher – I won’t say who or what – but they said ‘sitting your A Levels is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Your career can wait. That’ll come and go as you please.’ I was like, ‘I think it’s the other way round, actually. I can sit my A Levels whenever.’”
Whenever hasn’t yet come round: Cooke remains stranded on GCSEs. The teacher may despair but she seems to be coping… “Yeah, they’ve never asked; a director’s never asked to see what I got for my A Levels. So it’s not too bad.”
Presumably an alternative career was never considered? “No. Never. Never crossed my mind. And I suppose that’s just because I started working at 18. And I was bolshy and didn’t have forethought really, then. Because it just all started to pan out for me.
“I’d done two jobs and maybe been out of work for two months – and my mum was like, ‘so what Olivia, you’re just going to sit on your arse and wait for a job to come in? Ninety nine percent of actors are out of work, 99% of the time!’ She was like, ‘you need a Plan B.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t want a Plan B!’ And then I got a job so it was fine.”
And the jobs kept on coming. Blackout at 18, Ready Player One at 21, Vanity Fair at 24. It probably doesn’t say much for my character, but I find it incredibly impressive how little Cooke was affected by such precocious success. She’s totally uninterested by fame: the less of it she has, the better. “I think a lot of people have seen me in one film and then don’t really recognise that the film they have just watched is me as well. I’m happy about that. I’m happy that I have this anonymity when I walk down the street.”
Her mate Sam Diss is head of content at Mundial, a football magazine that you really should check out if you haven’t already. “All my friends who are lads, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, Mundial! He does Mundial! The birthday parties that we’ve been to, he’s like a little local celebrity.”
More so than you? “Oh God, no one gives a shit about me!”
Anyway, this is Cooke on celebrity, or “all the other faff” as she refers to it. “It’s a perk if you don’t have to sell your soul. But also I can’t be arsed, really. I can’t be arsed to go into a room and feel insecure or feel like I’m not good enough or not famous enough, when none of that stuff really fucking matters. All that matters is you do good work and you’re proud of it. It’s already such a competitive industry, why would I then opt to be in a room where I’m made to feel that I’m not good enough or I’m not wearing the right clothes or the nicest dress?
“Don’t get me wrong, sometimes those events are really fun if you get to take your best mate and you have a free night. The fashion shows that I’ve been to where I’ve been able to take a guest – and you’re like, what’s the catch? Oh, just me sitting and watching a fashion show? Fine! And then having a week in Paris all expenses paid for. That’s mental! That’s so much fun. We’re just like, why the fuck are we here? But apart from that, I just don’t find it enjoyable, all the celeb stuff.”
In a way, she’s sort of an anti-influencer: somebody who relies on their talent rather than their public profile. Until recently, she didn’t even have Instagram. She only created an account during lockdown “because I was lonely and single at the time and thought I could slide into someone’s DMs. I used it as a dating app, very unsuccessfully. Didn’t really understand how it worked.” Even now, she limits herself to 15 minutes per day. “I’ll go in, get my news, see what Jacinda Ardern’s doing, see what Bernie’s saying – I got a bit of the Presidential last night.”
She’s referring to the first Presidential debate, the one in which Donald Trump managed to alienate even the cult of Fox News with his constant interruptions and insults – essentially transposing his Twitter feed to the debate stage. “It’s so infuriating,” sighs Cooke. “Watching Trump behave like an absolute fucking toddler. Talk about fragile masculinity. Jesus.
“It’s just scary because when America sneezes Britain catches a cold. The outcome of the US election will heavily, heavily influence our politics. It already has done.”
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By the time you read these words, the election will be done and Trump – surely – consigned to history as a one-term President. Covid, however – that other unavoidable subject of late 2020 – can’t be voted out by a landslide on 3 November. (We’re really tempting fate here.)
The conversation turns to lockdowns: as mentioned, this interview occurs before the three tiers, right at the end of that July-October public exhalation, three months that didn’t feel so crazy at the time but now seem like a combination of the last days of Rome and England’s 2018 World Cup run.
Cooke coped OK in lockdown. “Weirdly, because I’m usually so nihilistic about everything and anxious about a lot of things, I weirdly wasn’t that bad. I think it was because it was a general anxiety that everyone was feeling. Of course, there were some days that were really, really tough, but it was collective: you could talk to your mum, you could talk to your best mates, and they were all going through the same thing, so there was some comfort in that.”
I tell her that during lockdown, questions such as “how are you holding up?” became much more common among my male friends; it wasn’t that we didn’t care before, more that we were now conscious to show that we did.
“That’s amazing!” Cooke says, sounding genuinely made up.
“I think with a lot of my guy friends, all they have to do is say that I’m struggling, and if they’re saying that to a guy, that guy friend won’t be like, ‘oh mate, we’re not talking about that’. They’ll be like, ‘what’s going on?’
“Everyone’s so nervous about the perception of themselves and admitting what they deem as weakness. But no one else is worried or will judge anyone for saying that about themselves. I think it’s really great that there’s now a dialogue that’s beginning to open. Showing vulnerability doesn’t mean a lack of masculinity.”
We’re both millennials, a generation that struggles with its mental health – justifiably, Cooke argues. “We got the internet at 14, 15, and we could then see what other people are saying about us. As teenagers, that’s a really odd thing to be aware of – we’re already so insecure and so fragile. And it is a really anxious time in terms of financial stability. We are not making as much as our parents are making. A lot of us don’t own homes. A lot of us are having to move back with our parents because we can’t afford to live in cities anymore.
“God, who wouldn’t feel anxious? Who wouldn’t have really terrible mental health – when we grew up constantly looking at the future and constantly looking at what’s next and not really living in the moment? Being told that if we worked and got a degree that we’d be set for life – and it’s just not happened for us.”
That’s Cooke encapsulated: she’s one of us, a person utterly devoid of ego, despite the talent that has put her on first name terms with Spielberg. He’s “gorgeous”, incidentally: “He’s just a very lovely, thoughtful, brilliant man who would come in on the day… He doesn’t really ‘shot list’, but he’ll come in and be like, ‘OK, what we’re going to do is…’ and then he’ll create this whole incredible sequence.”
She refers to how Spielberg improvises a scene set in the virtual OASIS of Ready Player One. “He knows where it’s going to come in in time for the real world, and how it’s going to cut back to the animation, but he’s also just making it up on the spot. And it just works in the film! I barely even have the imagination to imagine what I’m doing right now, but somehow he’s in both worlds simultaneously.”
In her formative years, Cooke worked with a slew of hefty names, including Bill Nighy, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Rylance, and Vera Farmiga. Did she receive any advice from her older peers? After a brief ponder – “Laurence Fishburne, did he give me advice? No, bless him, he was in a hazmat suit the whole time. He was hot!” – Cooke goes on to cite Jared Harris, her co-star in the 2014 horror film The Quiet Ones. There was a scene in a bathtub: “He caught me and said, ‘do not let them take advantage of you.’ It’s very obvious but to have that at 18, I thought that was really lovely of him to say. He didn’t really need to.”
Has the industry notably changed in the past couple of years? “I don’t know, man. You’d like to say, yeah. I remember when MeToo was happening various jokes were made: ‘Oop, can’t do that anymore, opp, can’t touch you here!’ It’s like, God. Be normal. I’m just a human being that happens to have different genitals. I’m yet to work on a set that is 50/50 and is diverse in race and gender. Hoping that can happen soon. But it’s still a boys’ club from my experience.”
There may yet be work to be done but the future surely belongs to the likes of Cooke. It will be a good future, one that values compassion, hard work, friendship – and a cracking anecdote. Let’s leave you with one more, pretty much the last thing she says to me as we wait for the bill. The initial question was get-out plans – does she have one yet, and what does it look like?
She starts to answer and then cuts herself off with an “actually, no. I thought maybe run like a local workshop – but then I’d have to get up and be really jolly for all these kids. I don’t know how I could do that. I don’t know if I’ve got the constitution to be jolly in front of kids all the time.”
Plus in your twenties you’d have to contend with the hangovers – which is presumably true of acting as well? “I remember my first wrap party when I was 18. I’d never experienced a free bar before. So I got every single cocktail on the menu. Wasn’t really aware about mixing spirits and stuff. All the sugar! And then I remember going to the bathroom – running to the bathroom – I had on these new wedges that I’d bought to look really nice for this wrap party. Going in, throwing up, projectile, into the bathroom, and then someone going, ‘Olivia, is that you?’”
Her saviour turned out to be her makeup artist, who’d somehow recognised Cooke by the sound of her throwing up. “She passed me some Airwaves underneath the stall. I was like, ‘Thank you! Please don’t tell anyone!’”
And with that she pays the bill and heads out into north London, an afternoon of interviews and a lifetime of films ahead of her, an absolute star in every sense of the word.
Pixie is in cinemas now. Sound of Metal will be released in cinemas on 11 December.