In the last year, any number of events have led more and more readers to 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian classic first published back in 1949. I would imagine it already feels like a different read than it did just after the presidential election, or six months ago, or even last week. As one of the stars of its Broadway adaptation, Olivia Wilde finds herself re-experiencing the book and its parallels to our changing world on a nightly basis. You know her from TV shows like House and movies like Drinking Buddies, but in her first Broadway show, she almost plays two roles: a dutiful worker in the Ministry of Truth, and a passionate revolutionary plotting to overturn Big Brother. Her ability to switch between stark and tender, cog and individual, is just one way that the production simulates for its audience a total distrust in what is deemed reality—and an urgency to establish truth. I was eager to know what it’s like to perform such a prescient work that resonates in new ways every day, so I spoke to Olivia on the phone about how the production has evolved, the famously extreme audience reactions, and art’s relationship to activism.
TAVI GEVINSON: What made you want to do this play?
OLIVIA WILDE: I’d been wanting to do a play for a long time. I hadn’t been on stage since—oh god—I keep trying to remember what year it was. It was definitely like 8 to 10 years ago. I did an off-Broadway show at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row with an awesome company called the Epic Theater Center. It was another political thriller and it was my first time doing a play professionally! I was really, really inspired by it. It was the hardest job I had ever done, even just a two-month run. It was intense but I loved it and I wanted to find something else. Over the years, every play that I read—either I would audition for it and not get it, or it would not be the one that I felt I could really put in the passion that you really need in order to enjoy a long run on stage. I was upstate shooting a film in February; it was this passion project, and we were shooting really long hours, and I get an email saying, “Hey, they’re bringing 1984 to New York and putting it up on Broadway,” and I don’t think I finished the end of the email—it’s one of those decisions you know immediately, where you’re like, “Yup, that’s for me. That’s what I want. That’s the one!” Now, at the time I was supposed to work on another film, and I asked if we could pull out so I could do this play, and everybody’s like, “Well, first of all, you have to audition to get the part in the play.” [Laughs] I was so sure, so sure. I was like, “No, no, no. I know I’ll be doing this play.” Because I knew this book so well, and I knew I wanted to help tell this story and I think this is what I had been looking for. Since the election, I had just found that my daily routine of work and life just wasn’t matching up to my internal turmoil about what was happening politically and I wanted my daily life to actually reflect what I was feeling. I didn’t want to have to compartmentalize so much. As artists we’re supposed to be able to do our art, to discuss these issues, and I didn’t feel like my work was allowing me to do that even though that I was super happy to be working again (I had just had my kid). I was like, What is the project that’s going to let me really unpack all this emotion about what’s happening politically? So, boom! I sent an email and was really forthcoming, I was like, “Yup! That’s what I want to do.” So I ended up auditioning, and [Laughs] I’m sure you’ve had this experience at this point, but you know when you put yourself on tape, and it’s already weird because you’re putting yourself on tape for a play, and it feels doubly weird because how can you possibly show what you want to do on stage, on tape? But I was in this weird hotel in the middle of nowhere upstate, in the middle of the snow, and just filmed myself doing like 15 pages of sides. When you really want something and you really love something, it’s not even hard to prepare it, like it doesn’t even feel like a drag to work on the material because you’re just so excited! I swear I memorized the sides in a few hours. I was so excited and I sent off the tape. It took me forever to figure out how to send a fucking file because I have no idea how to do anything technological, but then I sent it off to London. The directors are these two awesome guys who had this creative team from when they had originated this show in Nottingham in 2013, and they brought their creative team here, so it was these young, hungry, English people. Everybody involved was just so interesting and passionate and excited.
What was your relationship to the book before you learned about the play?
I had read the book, like most people, in 8th grade. I remember loving the book and I sort of paired it in my mind with other Orwell books like Animal Farm, and I probably got them confused over the years in my references. I also paired it with my memory with Fahrenheit 451 and that whole category of dystopian literature that we feed to young people all kind of at the same time, at their most convenient, formative years. I remember being really impacted by the idea that you would get arrested for talking in your sleep because I was a big sleeptalker and I was like, “Oh, no! That’s how I’m going to go down!”
I honestly didn’t really connect to the idea of the love story. It didn’t jump at me. But when I read it again as a grown up in preparation for my audition for this, I was so moved by the love story! I was like “Oh my god! This is a totally different book than I remember it being!” Then we started rehearsing and spent the first two weeks just unpacking all the contents of the book, and mulling them over, which was so much fun! It was like your favorite class in school. You just spend all this time talking about literature, and politics, and ideas. It then revealed to us so many layers that I hadn’t picked up on my second or third time reading the book and even still, I read it now to kind of continue my search for meaning as we perform this thing and I still find layers! I’m like “Oh my god! That’s the same person as that guy and time is all spaces and everything is happening in one second!” It’s all still complex because it’s just that well written.
At one point, your character, Julia, is talking about how experiencing joy and autonomy just in your feelings, like being in love, is a way of killing Big Brother. Then later, O’Brien, played by Reed Birney, totally turns that around and makes it seem selfish and not political. Lately, people have been debating the usefulness of protests; if it’s just emotional catharsis or if it actually changes legislation. I wonder how doing the show and rereading it has changed the way you’ve been thinking about different forms of political resistance?
Julia’s point is not dissimilar to how I would have described myself: as sort of an amateur activist. It’s not like I’m out there saying, “I personally want to give everything up and start the revolution.” I’m totally participating in this system that I denounce. I’m not stopping paying my taxes even though I don’t agree with much of what this government is doing. I remember after the election I asked Gloria Steinem, “What do we do?” and she said, “Don’t pay your taxes.” And I was like, “Well I’m not that hardcore.” [Laughs] I get scared to be a real revolutionary. Howard Zinn talked about just maintaining your optimism and the small rebellions of enjoying things every day; that is a part of the resistance because that is maintaining optimism for a better future. So I’ve been grappling with all these concepts. The interesting thing to me is every night when I watch Reed Birney give that speech at the end of the play, I totally find it compelling as an argument: is it purely selfish to be struggling to maintain these, you know, liberties, which are in the end for the self for personal enjoyment? Does it really benefit the society as a whole? I guess that’s up for debate. But I’ve been spending a lot of time wondering, am I actually part of the resistance? Or am I just someone protecting my selfish desires? O’Brien later says, “The individual is dead. The party will never fail. People will never look up from their phones [sic] enough to realize what is really happening.” But I think a lot of people today are aware of their individuality and the importance of questioning authority, of questioning information. You’re still a valuable member of the resistance, even if you’re participating in the exact system that is problematic. Orwell himself kind of grappled with his political affiliations and his own identity as a socialist, and struggled with what he believed in, and ended up in a kind of nihilistic place. He was writing 1984 as he was dying. That’s why it sort of carries a weight to it that I think comes from the perspective of somebody who has no real reason to keep fighting for a better world. I maintain my optimism much more than Orwell. Luckily. [Laughs]
I just feel proud that we would be a marker for how the general public wanted to discuss the most important basic issues of freedom and its duality and truth! I find it so astonishing that the basic problem with this administration, and I think a lot of people would agree, is just basic truth—identifying false information. It’s something so basic. The fact that Orwell really boils it down to that issue makes the book and now the play feel really relevant. Because we in the adaptation don’t really make it clear what connections we’re making between today’s world and the story of 1984, the material can be interpreted any way you want. It certainly, for years, has been interpreted by the right as confirmation bias of their own. There are a lot of really staunch Republicans who think Orwell was railing against the dangers of liberals and it’s fascinating because like Breitbart News gave us a great review which horrified me because I don’t want them to think this is confirming their bias and yet, I have to accept that that’s kind of the job of art—to ask questions and not always to answer them.
There’s been a lot of people coming to see the show that I vehemently disagree with and yet, I’m happy that the show is not just preaching to my choir. This is beyond the conversation that I routinely have even on something like Twitter. Most of the time you think we’re spreading information when we might just be agreeing, back and forth, and yet on stage, I go, Wow, we’re actually speaking to people I may never find myself in a conversation with because they’re coming from a completely different perspective. But maybe through this performance, we can get through to them—the basic questions are about truth and individuality and that surely we can agree on.
Have any lines or scenes resonated in a different way over the course of the run? Especially since it’s mirroring what we experience every day.
Yes! I remember the day of the [James] Comey hearing, I forget which Senator on the committee said, “Words matter.” And that night when we were performing the show, Winston has the line, “Words matter.” Julia believes words don’t matter; she’s just all about feelings and [the idea] that if you keep your internal thoughts your own, you will survive. She really believes that if we just bunker down and live our private lives, our happiness, our secret happiness, then we are resisting and we don’t need to worry about anything else. Which eventually leads to the fact that words matter and the truth matters, and we cannot just go on with these untruths and be okay with it. That night, his line “Words matter” just made me burst into tears ‘cause I was like, “Well, luckily the whole audience kind of is on the same page today.” What happens during the day really changes the weather in the room, so to speak.
Since the election, there’s been a lot written about the role celebrities play in politics, what is effective, and who should be an authority. I’m curious as to how you now view your role as both an activist and actress.
Well, you know, it’s funny. I feel like I was an activist even in my own heart before I was ever a celebrity, so one sort of supersedes the other. I feel that one feels much more fair to my own self-identification than the other. I don’t think of myself as a celebrity, but I think of myself as an activist. Being an activist drives a lot more of my decision-making than being a celebrity. It’s interesting because that conversation, obviously, has been happening for a long time; if you look at Hollywood history you can see how it’s been debated over the years and really, how celebrities or actors have been involved in politics forever! It’s always been that way. I think it’s because you have the opportunity to speak to larger groups of people at once. It’s just, the platform. You know, I have respect for people who say, “Hey, I just don’t think it’s my place, I don’t want to seem like I consider my voice to be more important, so I’m just going to step aside.” They should feel free to do that. But you know when someone accuses me on Twitter or wherever of being, “Oh, she’s just a celebrity. So don’t take this seriously,” that’s always been confusing to me because I’m still a thinking person, and I don’t consider my opinion to be more valid but I do try to share my information I have as long as I understand the source and as long as I believe it can actually help the conversation. But yeah, it’s an interesting thing. It always comes up in election years. It’s like, “Okay! Can a celebrity endorsement hurt or a help a candidate?” And it’s hard to tell! I’ve worked on both Obama campaigns and certainly, all the young actors working on his campaigns really helped get his message out during 2007/2008, and yet many would argue that for Hillary, either there wasn’t enough of that or the people who did support her, it wasn’t helpful. You know, there’s been lots of conversations about how she could have handled that differently. Maybe, I’m not sure, but I certainly was a big supporter of hers and I hope that my endorsement didn’t hurt. But I just see it as your ability to speak to a lot of people—you have a bigger soapbox.
Both of your parents are journalists. Your mom is running for Congress. What influence have they had on your activism?
They’ve always encouraged my siblings and I to ask questions. I mean, as journalists, that’s what they’re very, very good at, obviously. They ask the right questions. I think they just encouraged us to question our sources. Even as teenagers you’re like, “I heard that Jojo said…”—your topics are more myopic but it’s still relevant to you. The stakes seem really high and my parents always said to question your source. [Laughs] Figure out what’s really true in all of this. Then speak truth to power! I think they really always encouraged me to take my voice seriously and to consider my own opinion to be a real opinion even when I was young. They never gave us the impression—which I took for granted because I thought this was every child’s experience, but now I know—but they never gave us the impression that our voice was less valuable or impactful because we were young. In many ways, they encouraged us to use our voices at a young age because our perspective was unique! I think that had a big effect on me. Because by the time I was twenty, I thought of myself as a valuable, thinking member of society. Or even younger than that! In high school even, speaking up for issues that I cared about was something I just found to be part of who I was. I didn’t have that sort of apologetic, self-evasive thing that a lot of young people have—it’s like, well, why would you consider yourself less worthy? So I think they were really good at that—the basic idea of leaving the world a better place than you found it, that you have to live your life with your eyes open and to stand up for people who are being abused. I just feel like we were always raised to stand up for those who didn’t have a voice.
There’s been talk of audience members of 1984 having to leave, or getting nauseous. What’s been the most surprising reaction?
Well, I certainly didn’t expect the fainting or the seizures or the vomiting. What’s really fascinating to me about that is, as you’ve seen in the show, we don’t show a lot of violence.
Yeah, I was surprised!
It’s all in your mind! So the people who have strong reactions, I think, Wow! What an amazing imagination you have! Because in those blackouts you’re seeing something that is so disturbing to you that it’s making you throw up or pass out. Now, obviously, there’s a lot of strobe lights, and there’s a lot of loud sounds and for some people who are very sensitive, that definitely gets to them. But actually, a lot of young people seem to be undisturbed by the practical elements? The sounds and lights? They are kind of thrilled about it! And actually what is extraordinary about this show, is the audience. We have so many young people. I’m telling you when I look out into the audience, girl, I swear the average age is twenty-five. That’s unheard of for Broadway! It’s extraordinary! I would say the first couple weeks of previews we had a lot of what I would call the more typical Broadway audience, which is a little older. They heard that it was definitely an intense show to watch and I think that for young people it was something unique and potentially exciting, and since then it’s been all young people. At the stage door, every performance, what I hear from these young people is like, “It inspired me!”, and “I now want to see more theater! I didn’t think Broadway was really for me!” I think that it’s a part of a movement, right? There are a lot of directors like Ivo van Hove, as you know, there are a lot of directors who are experimenting with a more expressionistic, multi-media approach. I think the more that Broadway allows that on stages, then the more young people feel Broadway is for them. What’s wonderful is to be a part of a community that has such a wide array of styles happening simultaneously. You know, we’ve got Hello, Dolly! happening at the same time as 1984. It just feels very…it feels exciting! It feels great!
In terms of audience reactions the one that thrills me the most is the basic age of the audience and the diversity. What’s exciting to me isn’t that at the end of every show the security guard will tell me “You had this many fainters tonight” or “You had two people vomit tonight” or “You had six people run out.” What’s more interesting is when you have an 80% young audience, or you have a ton of people who have never seen a Broadway show.
Yeah! I felt like there were a lot of young people when I went last week.
It’s cool, right? You wouldn’t necessarily assume that to be true. I think that’s what a lot of people get wrong about a young audience. It’s what corporations get wrong, it’s what politicians get wrong: young people are not looking for something lighter and poppier! They’re looking for something more intense, and more serious. The propensity for it is higher. ♦