Olivia Wilde, 27, is one of those women.
The green-eyed bombshell arrived in the movie capital in 2002, strangely enough, to work in a casting agency, your basic head-shot processing plant. Her parents, two prominent Washington journalists with all sorts of Beltway and celebrity connections, helped arrange it. The goal, according to her mother, Leslie Cockburn, a producer for “60 Minutes,” was to squelch Ms. Wilde’s interest in acting by exposing her to a particularly hardhearted corner of the dream factory, where hundreds of résumés are casually tossed aside.
“They thought I would take one look at the cattiness and people from Yale and Julliard begging for jobs and hightail it out of town,” Ms. Wilde said recently over lunch at a tucked-away little cafe on Sunset Boulevard.
But Ms. Wilde was almost immediately cast herself, popping up in shows like “The OC” on Fox and landing a continuing supporting role on that network’s hit series “House” as a self-destructive doctor. Her first big movie part, a Joan of Arc-like cyber warrior, came last year in “Tron: Legacy.” Now she has seven films in stages of completion, starting with “Cowboys & Aliens,” an atypical action extravaganza that arrives on Friday from Universal Pictures, and continuing one week later with Universal’s ultra-crude comedy “The Change-Up.”
“Olivia reminds me a lot of Angelina Jolie — a fiercely intelligent, drop-dead gorgeous woman who knows what she wants to do and goes after it,” said Donna Langley, Universal’s co-chairwoman.
Despite her success in landing ensemble movies Ms. Wilde is still waiting for that one breakout leading part, either a dramatic role that gets her noticed by critics or one that makes her the face of the film. Like what “Letters to Juliet” did for Amanda Seyfried or Emma Stone’s ride with “Easy A.” Her looks could prove a liability; when you are the kind of actress who lands the No. 1 spot on Maxim magazine’s Hot 100 list, it’s very easy to be pigeonholed as cinematic eye candy. It took Charlize Theron’s turn as a greasy-haired, yellow-toothed serial killer in “Monster” for people to take her seriously.
And just because Ms. Wilde is working a lot these days doesn’t mean her film career won’t ultimately fizzle as fast as it started. At this point she’s still just a string of bad movies away from being Kate Hudson.
Ms. Wilde has also chosen a difficult balancing act, at least for a starlet: She has ideas, and she expects directors and writers to listen to them, at a time when up-and-coming actresses of her ilk are still expected to be seen and not heard. When they do speak up, especially publicly, studios often deem them “difficult” and they wither. See: Heigl, Katherine, or Fox, Megan.
“Trying to fight this industry’s tendency to celebrate the physical is a waste of time,” Ms. Wilde said. “So I’m happy to play that game. But I am also thirsty for input. I’m not a dunce whose only skill is knowing how to take a photograph, you know? And at the end of the day I think it makes me slightly less replaceable.”
When she was cast in “Cowboys & Aliens” as a gunslinger with a big secret, the writers of “Tron: Legacy,” Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, called the new film’s writers with a warning: Ms. Wilde will want to discuss her character’s psychological makeup aggressively. “It wasn’t a negative, but rather saying that she’s a dream, somebody who is collaborative and can talk intelligently about the story,” Mr. Horowitz said.
In “The Change-Up,” which stars Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds as opposites who swap bodies “Freaky Friday” style, Ms. Wilde, who plays a vixen legal assistant, spoke up with an idea about adding a scene where her character gets a tattoo in, um, an extremely delicate spot. It’s in the finished movie (although her parents may want to close their eyes during it).
“What makes Olivia’s input different is that she’s not a squeaky wheel who rolls onto the set and has this pushiness that demolishes the whole thing,” Mr. Bateman said. “She has a self-deprecating sense of humor about herself, and she’s generous with ideas, even if they don’t directly benefit her.”