Commanding the screen opposite Karl Urban (Star Trek), Thirlby proves she’s capable not only of holding her own in testosterone-fueled scenarios, but providing them with an emotional substance that gives the film as a whole greater meaning. The actress spoke with Celebuzz about her work in Dredd, and talked at length about finding the nuance and detail in the increasing variety of characters that she’s been able to play as her profile rises, and her talent develops.
Celebuzz: What was the initial appeal of this, and then what work did you have to do to make sure that she was a formidable companion to him because Dredd is sort of a monolith?
Olivia Thirlby: Well, it’s true that I am small and they put lifts in my shoes, but it still kept me a good solid foot shorter than Karl and Wood. But I approached Anderson as a role, not just as the chick in an action film. And that’s because really because Alex Garland wrote this amazing character who was a force to be reckoned with, and she was this amazingly strong, powerful woman who goes on a very complete journey and starts out in the one place and by the end of the film she seems almost to be a completely different person. So I can’t do anything about my height, as much as I maybe wish that I could. So instead, I think people’s power comes from something within them, moreso than it does from muscles and bones. And so that, I guess, was my goal with her.
CB: What did you do to get yourself acclimated to the idea that regardless of the fact that she may not be ideally suited for the job that she has, she clearly has gone through enough education and training that the challenges she faces are not unexpected?
OT: It’s definitely difficult for her. She was orphaned at a young age and I think that she probably witnessed a lot of injustice and crime in her young life, and has this very strong idealism about setting things right and being a force for good. So this very strong idealism is I think what she brings to the table and what can help make her feel not just like the comic relief, or a lot of female roles, not just in genre films, but in general, are like a little too good to be true. I read many roles for women that are hot enough to be models but also are motorcycle mechanics and also have PhD’s from Harvard. I’m not saying these people don’t exist, but I think the most interesting part of any character is what’s wrong with them, and I think that what’s wrong with Anderson is that despite everything that is going on inside of her, she is a bit tightly wound. And when we are trying that hard to prove yourself, you can never be yourself.
CB: She gets put through this meat grinder of a training program, but do you feel like she really wants to succeed in this, or has she just been brought up to expect that that’s what she should want?
OT: I think that if she didn’t want it so badly she probably wouldn’t be still there. I think it’s her lifelong dream and it comes from this strong ideology about good and bad and wanting to set things straight, and knowing that even in the worst slums there are good people that deserve better. And the reason why the odds are against her is because not only because she’s failed and she’s being given her very last chance, but because she can tell immediately that Dredd does not think she’s a worthy candidate. And he’s a very intimidating figure.
CB: Anderson is a character who is from the source material, but she doesn’t have the same iconic silhouette that Dredd does. How liberating and how challenging was it to create a character who in a very literal way is the human face of this movie?
OT: When I got into the comics and spent time with them, it was a relief to discover that Anderson doesn’t have quite as concretely solidified persona as Dredd does. And she does vary depending on who is writing her and drawing her, so it was liberating to find that unlike Karl who had these like gargantuan shoes that he had to fill perfectly, it was a little bit more unscripted, a little bit more up to me what I could do with the role, which was definitely liberating.
CB: What ultimately do you feel like this movie is about? Because it works beautifully from a visceral point of view, but what do you feel like is thematically underlying this adventure?
OT: I think at the end of the day the heart and soul of the film is the partnership between Dredd and Anderson that forms, and that has its ups and downs. There are times in the film when he hates her and as far as he’s concerned she’s failing, and there are times in the film when she does things that surprise him, and then there are times when they’re on equal ground and they’re partners. The special thing about Dredd and Anderson is that because of her abilities, she’s the only person probably who’s ever existed who knows what’s going on in Dredd’s mind, who knows actually what he feels, which is something that no one’s supposed to know. So he I think at first he really hates her for that, and in the end it becomes something that is a strength between them and I think what this movie is about is this totalitarian justice system that on paper it needs to function in black and white, but the idea that it’s not black and white. That there needs to be somebody who’s thinking, who’s not just ticking boxes, who’s not just doing what they’re told, who’s not just following rules. There needs to be somebody at some point who’s thinking critically, who’s making their own decision, who’s assessing the situation and actually doing what’s right, not just on paper but in the world. So I think that the heart of the movie lies there and I think that that’s what Anderson teaches Dredd.
CB: You talk about some female characters being too good to be true, but sadly there are too many female characters who are just not good enough for actresses to be able to really explore. How difficult is it to find or to create characters from the material that’s out there that you feel like really challenge you?
OT: Yeah. I mean, there’s so much out there, and when there’s sheer volume of stuff, only a percentage of it is going to be exceptional, and it’s certainly harder to find a really good strong material than it is to find weaker material. But it doesn’t mean it’s not out there. There are people like Alex Garland who when they sit down to craft a story, even if it’s a genre film, even if it’s from a comic book, they think deeply about the humanity behind those stories and they craft characters that have a place to start and a place to finish and have a journey in between, and have flaws and strengths and all those kinds of things. So it’s just a matter of hoping that the people that generate this material continue to do so and then hoping that at some point something finds its way into your hands.
CB: How much do you feel like genre material in particular has really given you some opportunities? Are you finding that now the be it in the process of adaptation of that material or just in the creation of it that there are being more well-rounded kinds of female characters?
OT: Well, I think actually the whole culture is trending towards interesting women and flawed women. With the existence of Tina Fey and Kristen Wigg and Lena Dunham and everyone in between, I’m excited to be witnessing what seems to be the culture at large beginning to care about the female point of view. It seems to be actually quite an exciting time for that. And if your question is just in terms of genre stuff, I can’t say that I read enough of it to be the authority on it, but I can say that [my] character is awesome, and not just because she wears leather and is blonde. It doesn’t come along every day and I feel really honored that it got to be me to play her.
Watch the trailer for Dredd 3D below. The film is being released on 2- and 3D Blu-ray Tuesday, January 8. Let us know what you think of Olivia and the film itself, in the comments section below!
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