Olivia Cooke and Naomi Scott Discuss Self-Tapes and Self-Doubt
When Olivia Cooke began developing Little Fish with the screenwriter Mattson Tomlin, their goal was to take a farfetched premise and ground it in something more recognizable. Instead, the story’s sci-fi hook—a pandemic featuring an Alzheimer’s-like illness that causes rapid memory loss—gave the movie an accidental timeliness that the 27-year-old actor, who also serves as an executive producer, is still trying to wrap her head around. Cooke plays one half of a married couple struggling to cope as her husband (Jack O’Connell) slips away at the hands of the disease. For Cooke, who made her name in Sundance hits like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Thoroughbreds, the movie comes on the heels of her visceral performance in the eerily similar Sound of Metal, where she plays the lead singer of the hard rock group Backgammon, whose drummer (Riz Ahmed), who she is also romantically involved with, begins to lose his hearing. Up next, the Manchester native will take a hard pivot out of indie fare as she prepares to film her role as Alicent Hightower in the enormously anticipated Game of Thrones prequel House of Dragons. But for now, she’s just hanging out in her London flat, which is where she connected with her friend, the actor Naomi Scott, with whom she is starting a podcast, to discuss, among other things, the highs and lows of being an actor.
NAOMI SCOTT: Olivia Cooke, this is fun. Do people call you Liv, Livvy, what’s the deal there?
OLIVIA COOKE: Livie when I was a kid. My first MSN name was Livieyaxx. I was so naughty. And now people just call me Liv.
SCOTT: I feel like a lot of people don’t know that you’re from Manchester, because you’re always doing an American accent. Do people come up to you and think you’re American?
COOKE: In America. I never get recognized anyway, but if I do it’s usually by people who have done a bit of research. But Brits don’t really tend to come up to you.
SCOTT: They’re way too snobby. In America they’re like, “Oh my god,” whereas here, they’re like “I know who you are, but I’m not gonna say I do because I’m too proud.”
COOKE: I prefer that because I get mortified and embarrassed.
SCOTT: I can imagine you being someone who isn’t super comfortable with that. You strike me as someone who doesn’t revel in that attention. Am I right?
COOKE: Who does?
SCOTT: Oh, there are some. Come on.
COOKE: You don’t strike me as that person, either.
SCOTT: I enjoy a moment with a kid, which is lovely, but no, I’m very British like that as well. I think we’re probably similar. But there are some actors out there that revel in that stuff.
COOKE: Then you begin to wonder if they’re in it for the right reasons.
SCOTT: Well that’s a whole other conversation, girl. Do you miss Manchester?
COOKE: I miss my family, but I don’t miss Manchester. I left when I was 18. I don’t know it that much anymore, and the years I spent there, my formative years, I feel so mortally embarrassed by my behavior then.
SCOTT: What were you like?
COOKE: Just really wild.
SCOTT: When you say wild, what are we talking about?
COOKE: A party girl. Fake ID, fake tan, stuff like that.
SCOTT: What would you wear to the club?
COOKE: A bodycon dress.
SCOTT: You were not a bodycon dress girl.
COOKE: And stilettos, at like 16 years old. It’s embarrassing.
SCOTT: This is amazing. I at some point need to see photo proof of this.
COOKE: And then I was a good girl, because I started working. Now I’ve found a bit of fun back into my life, but not in a self-destructive way.
SCOTT: Me and my husband have been playing backgammon. That’s as far as our excitement goes during this lockdown. Every night we look at each other and we’re like, “Should we play backgammon?”
COOKE: It’s mad, because it does feel like our youth has been eked away a little bit.
SCOTT: Is there anything that you’ve always wanted to do, but always put off, which you plan on trying soon?
COOKE: Traveling on my own. I’ve traveled loads, but it’s always for work which is not as fun. You’re contractually obligated to not get yourself in trouble, so don’t ski, don’t go whitewater rafting, don’t do anything where you could possibly break a bone.
SCOTT: I’m at the grand old age of 27, where I’m beginning to understand what gravitates me toward a project. I’ve always admired your choices, but like I’m interested in your process, how you decide to go for a role, whether it’s fighting for one or accepting a role that you’re offered.
COOKE: It’s a really good question and one that I don’t quite know the answer to. It’s more instinctual and guttural. I find it hard to intellectualize how I feel about projects, especially when I’m talking to managers and agents about why I don’t want to do them. The writing has to be so stellar, and I always do a bit of a background check on the people involved, because if I’ve heard from multiple people that someone’s a bit of an asshole, well, life’s too short.
SCOTT: Life is too short.
COOKE: I used to think that doing a project was like Neverland. You could leave your own reality behind for a few months. But I realized that I’m going to probably keep doing this for hopefully a long time, so my life has to be all-encompassing within that. I can’t just compartmentalize the job and my life, and so I have to really sit down and think, “Is this whole experience beneficial for my life, and what I want to be saying about the world at large? Is it something that I want to give myself to?”
SCOTT: I’m the same as you. Do I want to give the energy and the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to make something, and do I want to put it out in the world? Do I believe in what it’s saying? Do I believe in the visionary, whether that’s the filmmaker or the writer? That’s kind of where I’m at now. In terms of Sound of Metal, how did that come about?
COOKE: That came about because another actress had fallen out of the job. I’m the king of filling in the space.
SCOTT: That is literally my life. That’s how it works, babes.
COOKE: Even if I’m offered the job outright, I’m like, “They probably fucking want Emma Watson instead.”
COOKE: My agent called me in a bit of a tiz, and said, “I want you to meet the director [Darius Marder] tomorrow, because I think the script is incredible.” I flew back from L.A. to New York to meet with him, and I read the script on the plane. Not only does it explore a culture that I was so ignorant to, but it explores codependency and addiction and it does it in this really heartfelt, nuanced way. I was crying so much that the flight attendant came by and passed me a piece of chocolate. I met Darius the next day, and I had a bit of an emotional hangover from the day before, so I just talked profusely about how I loved the script. I probably flattered him because a week later he offered me the job.
SCOTT: That’s all you need. You had to do a lot of, what is it called, that kind of scream-singing?
COOKE: Screaming. The person who taught me how to scream, Margaret Chardiet from the band Pharmakon, is the real deal. She has this cool industrial sound and she’s a screamer. She took me to a studio in Bushwick, and was just like, “Scream now.” I was so embarrassed, and she was like, “I’ll do it with you.” And then we’re just screaming together in this padded cell.
SCOTT: I know there’s a certain technique when it comes to metal music to not fully wreck your voice.
COOKE: I did lose my voice, but it was a badge of honor.
SCOTT: And of course the star of the movie was your eyebrows, clearly.
COOKE: It’s so funny, the infamy that those eyebrows have gotten because I genuinely thought I looked so fucking cool with them.
SCOTT: I felt like you were on the cover of i-D for the first part of the movie. I haven’t been able to watch Little Fish because it’s not out here, but it’s about a pandemic, which is so strange. Did you film that before our pandemic?
COOKE: We filmed it nine months before we even knew that coronavirus existed. I’d read the short story by Aja Gabel, we optioned the rights to it, and me and the writer Mattson [Tomlin] had been workshopping it for two years before we filmed it, and we were like, “This is so sci-fi, can you imagine if anything like this ever happened?”
SCOTT: What was that process like in terms of workshopping it and figuring out what it looks like as a movie?
COOKE: Aja’s writing is so melancholic and cinematic. Her story captured this young couple in a relationship that is so pure, which makes the heartbreak even purer when the relationship starts to fall apart because one of them starts to forget the other. There’s been no deceit, no cheating, no one’s fallen out of love with the other person. It’s just that one is starting to forget the other which we usually see in older couples, so the fact that it’s two young people, it’s like a life cut short, in a way. We tried to maintain that within this script that also has to world build without it being blockbuster-y.
SCOTT: It’s like [the Drake Doremus film] Equals. It has the science-fiction element, but it’s way more grounded. Humans remain the same, whatever context you place them in.
COOKE: We’ve seen in the past year how adaptable we are.
SCOTT: I was on set and the cast sits with these big plastic things on either side of us, full shields, and I was talking to one of the actors about how we have adapted so quickly. We’re just like, “Oh, this is like the new normal.” She was saying that someone she knew went back on a shoot in Australia, where it’s close to normal, and they actually had to adapt to that, which is so insane. But how blessed are we that we’re working?
COOKE: I know. I think about that all time. I also feel a bit guilty for it as well.
SCOTT: In terms of what you’ve been watching, is there anything you’ve been gravitating toward during the pandemic? For example, I’ve absolutely binged Ted Lasso. I don’t know if you’ve seen it.
COOKE: I haven’t.
SCOTT: Here’s the thing: If you have a cynical, snobby hat, which I think we all do, you kind of have to park it. It’s incredibly pure and feels like medicine for the soul.
COOKE: I just finished another Apple TV show called Long Way Up with Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor. They’re on a massive road trip on their bikes, from the tip of South America through Central America to Los Angeles, and it’s that bit of wanderlust I’ve been craving so much. They’re also very handsome men doing the UNICEF bit, and they’re also on electric bikes to let you know that they’re trying to be conscious of the environment. They’re having the best time together, chatting shit with each other. That sense of friendship and going out into the world is something I just miss so much. I’ve heard Ted Lasso has done really well, hasn’t it? Everyone loves it.
SCOTT: Mate, do it.
COOKE: I have nothing else to do.
SCOTT: I can be pretty damn snobby when it comes to shows. When you watch something like Succession, you feel like everything has to be to that standard. You forget there are different shows for different moments and moods.
COOKE: I’ve been going to bed watching The Vicar of Dibley.
SCOTT: I love The Vicar of Dibley.
COOKE: Have you watched it recently?
COOKE: It’s so nice to revisit. It’s like getting into a bath of gallons of chocolate.
SCOTT: Do you know what else I’ve been doing? Rather than using my smart TV, I’ve been watching terrestrial TV, like BBC 1 or BBC 2. There’s something that takes me back to my childhood.
COOKE: I know what you mean. It’s like feeling at one with the rest of the nation, like you know its being put into other people’s tellies. I know my mom is watching the same thing in Manchester. GoggleBox also kept me going.
SCOTT: GoggleBox is the best. Who’s your favorite character? I know who mine is.
COOKE: I love the Siddiquis. I love the dad. I love Giles and Mary.
SCOTT: They’re my favorite, hands down. They are genius. There’s something so comforting about that show. Interview gave me some questions, so I’m going to read this one word for word. “Tell us everything you can about House of Dragons without jeopardizing your job.”
COOKE: I don’t think I can say anything.
SCOTT: Fantastic, moving on. During lockdown, I’ve found auditioning quite enjoyable. It’s been my creative outlet. It’s like, “Oh, I get to act again,” because I haven’t been able to be on set. How have you found auditioning in lockdown, and what’s your relationship with the self-tape, because being from the U.K. my whole career has been on self-tape.
COOKE: It’s been alright, actually. The pros of doing self-tapes is that you can have as many goes as you want. The cons are that you can get too bogged down in your own neuroses. You’re trying to give yourself notes and focusing on something that no one else is going to see. Having been on the other side of it, you only really see like 30 seconds of a self-tape. Helping out mates who are doing self-tapes and seeing the pressure they put on themselves, I just want to say: don’t. Don’t worry about it too much. Just have fun with it. You’ll be right for some things and you won’t be right for most of them, so take each self-tape with a pinch of salt. It’s not worth tearing your hair out over.
SCOTT: You’re so right. The more I understand the other side of it, the more I understand how little it has to do with you. There are so many reasons, but rather than focus on that, enjoy the process of getting to play another character and learning a few sides. But I think you’re so right when you said you can get hung up on the really small things, because you’re watching yourself. When you’re in a room, it’s just more of an energy thing, if you’ve got that thing they’re looking for. Whether you get the lines perfect or not, it’s never about that.
COOKE: Also, when you’re in the room, you’ve got the added bonus of having chemistry with people, but most times you’re trying to forge a bond of between you and the director, and you’re at bit of a deficit when you’re reading to a disembodied voice.
SCOTT: I actually record my own. I love my husband, but let me tell you, he is not the one. When it comes to reading with me, he’s monotone. So I have to record my own lines on Logi.
COOKE: My friend does that, even though all his friends are actors, but he prefers it. He just feels less embarrassed, like it’s on his own time. Do you like that, even if you have the option to do it with an actor?
SCOTT: I don’t actually have many actor friends, so I think that’s part of it, but even if I did I would prefer doing it by myself. That might sound a bit narcissistic but it’s more about control.
COOKE: Sometimes casting directors and directors are nasty and ask you to do a really emotional breakdown scene, and sometimes you’re like, “I really don’t want to do that in front of my friend.” Or your husband.
Stylist Assistant: GAL KLEIN. Production: ALEXANDRA OLEY. Hair Stylist: DANIEL MARTIN at BRYANT ARTISTS. Makeup Artist: MATTIE WHITE at SAINT LUKE ARTISTS. Location: RANELAGH ROAD STUDIO.