Olivia Cooke may be untrained, by some accounts, but that’s done little to scupper her acting career. The rising TV and film star tells Gemma Dunn why she’ll always hit her mark.
Olivia Cooke refuses to be defined by class.
In fact, the Bates Motel star would like to see social conditioning – within the entertainment industry, for one – eradicated completely, stating it simply “makes people feel uncomfortable”.
“There’s even a class structure on a film set,” she says, exasperated. “The actors, directors, producers, the crew, catering… it’s all a big weird hierarchy. It’s just bizarre,” she reasons.
“People are like, ‘Oh I don’t know if I can talk to you because you’re an actor’. And you’re like, ‘What are you talking about?’
“But I think, in terms of coming from Manchester and being an untrained [actor], there’s a certain apologetic-ness that you have, initially. But it’s just an armour that you put on,” admits Cooke, 24.
“No, I’m not trained; no, I don’t know Shakespeare’s whole body of work, and I can’t recite bloody Act 1: Scene 14 for you’,” she quips with a smile.
But the bubbly Mancunian – an alumni of Oldham Theatre Workshop – isn’t done there.
“Just because you have a famous dad or your mum was a director, or you went to Eton, and then RADA, and then Hollywood, it doesn’t make you a better actor than me.
“I mean we’re all doing this, and everyone’s got a different trajectory, but I do think my life and the possible hardships that I’ve faced there, and being from the north, has given me tools to be able to relate to a lot of characters.
“I’m good at accents and I can say the lines and I can hit my mark!” she concludes, finishing with a: “Sooo, I just went on a rant!”
But if anyone has earned the right to a good old rant, it’s Cooke. A small town girl who, it’s fair to say, through her own sheer talent and tenacity, has elevated her career to new heights – the pinnacle so far being a lead role in Steven Spielberg’s VR adventure movie, Ready Player One.
Cooke played High Five member Art3mis, aka Samantha, in the big-screen epic released earlier this year – a life-changing commitment that she says will see her tied to the sci-fi phenomenon for the foreseeable.
“I mean, I’ve signed my life away, so I’m contracted to sequels,” she says, when pushed on the prospect of a follow-up. “But, I don’t know, I haven’t heard anything, so we’ll see. I don’t even think there’s a Ready Player 2 book? I don’t know if you’d want to write that first.”
That said, there’s plenty on the table to be getting on with.
Next up, Cooke will lead in the new seven-part ITV adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
The literary classic – reworked by screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes – is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and follows timeless heroine Becky Sharp (Cooke), as she attempts to claw her way out of poverty and scale the heights of English society.
It was an opportunity Cooke couldn’t turn down – although she admits the prospect made her nervous too.
“I felt an overwhelming sense of gratefulness and excitement to do the job. But also, ‘Oh, now I’ve got to do it. They’ve cast the wrong person. I don’t have it in me to play this part. She is so iconic’. The pressure of all of that,” she confesses.
“Everyone has their version of Becky Sharp in their head. She is so beloved. So after the joy of getting the role, I felt an impending dread of actually having to play her.
“You want to get it right, but you also don’t want to repeat versions of Becky that have been done before.”
A story of “villainy, crime, merriment, jilting, laughing, cheating” and all else – was it a challenge to make the character’s less likeable sides likeable?
“She’s incredibly powerful in her choices, yet her choices and herself are completely flawed,” says Cooke, who had to sing for the part.
“[But] it’s going to be different with everyone, in regards to their views of women and certain women that they have come across, or certain elements of Becky that strike a chord for you.
“I really relished being selfish, and naughty, and mischievous, and dastardly at times,” she adds. “I really, really enjoyed it and I wanted to push it more, but I was aware that I had to bring it back sometimes, just for British telly.”
Joined by a star-studded cast, including the likes of Johnny Flynn, Martin Clunes, Frances de la Tour, Michael Palin, Claudia Jessie and Tom Bateman, Cooke is certainly in good company.
But one person she couldn’t convince to get in on the action was her mum, Lindsy.
“I was going to get my mum in to be an extra in one of the ball scenes, but I think she would have died of embarrassment so I thought better of that,” reveals the actor.
“But she’s really proud. She says, ‘Everyone keeps asking on the street about Vanity Fair and what you are like. You’re just my Olivia!’
“She’s proud, but only as proud as any mum would be if her daughter is successful in any field.”
For now, Cooke resides in New York. Could she ever see herself moving to LA, should her star continue to rise in Hollywood?
“I don’t know, I’d never say never,” she answers, having also impressed as co-lead of American black comedy thriller, Thoroughbreds, last year. “But every time I go there, I’m like, ‘This is more and more and uncomfortable’.
“Though two weeks later, I’m [fine] – and I’ve got loads of friends there as well,” Cooke concludes. “But, no, I can see myself moving back to London before I move to LA.”