ABOVE: OLIVIA COOKE AND FREDDIE HIGHMORE IN BATES MOTEL. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOSEPH LEDERER/A&E NETWORKS.
“I can’t really think about ‘in five years time,’ ” says Mancunian actress Olivia Cooke. “I just hope I’m happy, that’s all… so sappy.”
On Bates Motel, A&E’s Psycho prequel, Cooke plays Emma Decody—a determined, scrappy high schooler with cystic fibrosis who, for some reason, decides she is going to be Norman Bates’ best friend. While presumably no woman in Norman’s life is safe, it seems that if anyone will escape his increasingly frequent anger blackouts, it is the ever-resilient Emma.
“She needs stop being so nosy,” Cooke laughs over the phone. “I’m very much like, ‘I don’t want to know. Ignorance is bliss.’ I’m much happier when I don’t know everything,” she continues. “[But] I think Emma would have to do something that would really, really hurt Norman for him to kill her. I don’t think it’d be just a random killing; it would need to really cut deep with him.”
At 20 years old, Cooke has been acting professionally for two years; Emma was her first American role (and her first American audition). That will change next month, however, when Cooke’s film The Quiet Ones comes out in the US. The film, which costars Jared Harris and Sam Claflin, is the first in a trio of supernatural roles for Cooke: her second film, The Signal, debuted at Sundance in January and she just wrapped Ouija, which is set to come out this October. “I was always going to audition for drama school,” she explains, “even though my agent was like, ‘I don’t think you should; you’re already getting going.’ Then I auditioned for RADA and got to the last round and, on the day I got my rejection letter, I got the lead in The Quiet Ones, so I wasn’t too upset.”
HOMETOWN: Manchester, England
LOCATION AT TIME OF INTERVIEW: I’m in my hotel room in L.A. I’ve just ordered chicken tenders and I’m watching Basketball Wives L.A. It’s the best afternoon ever. This is my first episode, but they’re so fierce; I can’t take my eyes away. I don’t know the names yet, but they’re all so beautiful. You should watch it.
THE BEGINNING: Do I come from a family of actors? No, I don’t. My dad’s an ex-policeman and my mum is a sales representative and they haven’t got the acting bug. Bless them. [laughs] I did ballet and gymnastics and then I started acting when I was eight—just doing amateur theater at a place called Oldham Theatre Workshop in my hometown. Every single year I was in the ensemble, and it was the best time ever, but every year when they’d call out who’d been cast as the lead, I was so disappointed because I thought, “This year, it’s my year. I’ll get the main part this year!” But it wasn’t, every time. They did regurgitate a lot of the same people, so when they left and went to university I was like, “Okay, this is my year now,” but then other people would come in and they’d be amazing.
I think I just enjoyed the ensemble too much and I didn’t really put myself out there. I used to mess around in the background. I think I’m better for TV; I always felt really embarrassed when I had to do really big stage acting. I just felt like I was making a fool of myself and I didn’t really like to do big facial movements or big arm gestures or anything like that. I thought, “This isn’t real! This isn’t real! I wouldn’t do this in real life,” and they’re like, “It’s not real life, darling, it’s theater.”
I FEEL PRETTY: My first big role was when I was 17 and I got the part playing Maria in West Side Story in my school production. That was my major one. Then, at Oldham Theatre Workshop, they finally realized that I could be of use and then instead of the ensemble, they cast me as the lead in this remake of Cinderella called Prom: The Musical. That was my first and last main part there because then I left to do TV work after that. I was fortunate enough to get a job two years ago, when I’d just turned 18, playing Christopher Eccleston’s daughter in a BBC miniseries [Blackout, 2012]. It’s just been a whirlwind since then. [Before that] I had an agent from a really small agency in Manchester and I did really cringey commercials and some really bad shoots for tracksuits and things. Then there was a casting director next door to my agency called Beverley Keogh, and she really fought for me for a lot of stuff and then the director really liked me for Blackout. From there on, it was a snowball.
THE AUDITION: I put myself on tape in England for Bates Motel; it was my first ever tape for America and it was my first ever time doing an American accent, so I sent off this really horrible tape. Then, three weeks later, they came back and were like, “Yeah, you’ve been hired. We want you to play the part of Emma.” I was so shocked. I was convinced that I was going to fly over there, they were going to see me in person, I’d do a couple of scenes and they’d be like, “Yeah, she’s really not right for this character,” and then send me back home. I was like, “Are you sure? I’m thrilled, but are you sure you want to give me this part?”
NORMAN BATES’ BFF: I think Emma sees Norman as a fellow outcast. There’s a vulnerability about him that Emma sees in herself and she thinks that she’d be able to manage him—she thinks that they’ll be soulmates and two peas in a pod. What she doesn’t realize is that he, obviously, has these really dark moments. I think she wants, more so than anything else, to show him the best she can offer and to protect him, as well as his mother. I think she just wants someone to love who can maybe project that back onto herself.
NOTHING BUT A G THING: I think the producers, just to save their own skin, made my character from Manchester just in case the accent slipped, which it didn’t. At first I wasn’t too happy that they’d done that, but it’s quite a smart thing for producers to do, just in case. Anything ending in “I-N-G” is particularly difficult to say because being from Manchester, I tend to go hard on the “ing” words. Like “singang,” in an American accent it’s “singin“—you have to be really soft on the “g” at the end. Every time they’d come back from behind the monitor and be like, “Okay, Olivia. ‘G’ again.” Me and Freddie [Highmore] practiced a bit. His American accent—he’s really good at it. He’s done it a few times before, so he didn’t really need a lot of help. But I’d always tell people, “If you hear anything, please just tell me because I’ll be so mortified if it airs and I’m speaking in the Queen’s English.”
THE SIGNAL: It is a pretty vague story—you can only give away so much, otherwise the whole plot is just ruined. It’s about three kids: me, my boyfriend (Brenton Thwaites), and our best friend (Beau Knapp), and we’re traveling across the country to move me into a different university. On the way we discover a hacker that has been hacking our MIT computer system, so we decide to track him down and try and reprimand him. On the way, we get into a really unfortunate circumstance; we wake up and we’re in this underground facility bunker and Laurence Fishburne is in a hazmat suit, and something has gone terribly wrong.
OUIJA: Is about a Ouija board. Have I ever used one? No, I’ve never. My friends were all too big of a wuss to ever want to play with me. I’d always be like, “Let’s find an abandoned barn. Let’s go to a barn and get a Ouija board and let’s play Ouija board in the abandoned barn.” And they’d be like, “Olivia, shut the fuck up.” I was like, “Okay, never mind.”
GETTING RECOGNIZED: I was back home in Manchester recently, I’d just been on a night out and it was really late. I was at the tram stop with my two best friends and this woman was whispering to her husband and then my best friend just goes, “Yep. Bates Motel.” And the woman was like, “Oh my god, it’s not her, is it? It’s not her!” I don’t think they expect an American girl who’s got cystic fibrosis to be in Manchester. She was very shocked.
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR: I was at a photo shoot for Elle magazine and my publicist said, “Jessica Chastain is shooting YSL next door, do you want to go and meet her?” And I was like, “No. Please don’t do this to me. I don’t want to meet her. It’s going to be so embarrassing. She’s going to be like, ‘Who the hell is this? Just turning up, this little shrimp.’ Please don’t.” And she said, “No! It’ll be fun.” So we went in and she was getting her makeup done and I said “Hi,” and she was like “Hi?” And I was like, “I’m just… Oh my god, you look so beautiful. I’m just going to go… I’m just going to let you do it…” And she was like, “Oh, okay. Bye.” I was like, “Oh my god. That’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to me. Don’t do that—please, never again.” Then apparently she said, “Oh, if she wants to come back, while I have my makeup done, she can come talk for a bit.” Horrible. Awful. She’s so luminous and beautiful and I was just… oh God, it was horrible. It was the worst moment ever. I’m good talking to strangers. If I don’t know anything about them, then that’s fine; I can just pretend we’re on the same level, but if it’s someone I’ve watched for my whole entire life then I just get really sweaty and it’s horrible and really awkward.
YOU WON’T FIND ME ON TWITTER…: I can’t keep secrets about myself. I can keep secrets about other people, but if it’s about myself I’m like, “blah blah blah blah.” That’s why I don’t have Twitter. I had it when I was 16, but I think it’s best for me not to have it because my first thought is never my best; my first reaction is never my best reaction.
SEASON TWO OF BATES MOTEL IS CURRENTLY AIRING ON SUNDAY NIGHTS ON A&E. THE QUIET ONES WILL BE RELEASED ON APRIL 25.