Olivia Cooke plays Lou, the girlfriend to Riz Ahmed‘s Ruben in the new film “Sound of Metal.” Her performance has netted multiple Best Supporting Actress nominations from critic groups, including the San Diego Film Critics Society.
Cooke recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about what made her interested in “Sound of Metal,” how Lou is not just the average girlfriend role and what it was like working with Ahmed. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: What was it about the script that really just grabbed you and made you want to be a part of this?
Olivia Cooke: I just hadn’t read anything like it before. I know everyone says that every time they read a script and they have to promote something but I genuinely hadn’t. I never read anything that affected me so much, and also, I was just so woefully ignorant about the deaf community that I felt, number one, that I was so chuffed that something like this was being made, just to shine a light on deaf culture, but also, I would have done anything just to be a part of it. I would have run and got the coffees. It was just so beautifully written. I knew that Riz was going to be in it and I think he’s a phenomenal actor. It was just one of those where, “I just want to do anything to be a part of this.”
GD: Well, I think with movies like this where the main character, it’s so centralized to his experience, sometimes the other characters around him can feel a little more simplified. But I think we do really get a strong sense of who Lou is and I’m curious how you developed that with your director, Darius Marder, as far as making her her own person rather than just being defined as “the girlfriend.”
OC: With Lou, I feel like you feel her depth of experience, yet it’s not spoon-fed to the audience, which is nice. Darius sent me an email quite early on with Lou’s backstory that was a bit like a 10,000-word essay just going from her early childhood up until now and how her and Ruben met each other and her relationship with her estranged father, what happened to her mother. So that was something that just, without having even to be said, informed my performance from the get-go, and you don’t really realize how valuable things like that are because the audience is never privy to those conversations, but still, you do feel this history with the character and their relationship.
GD: And you have such a distinct look at the beginning of the film with the eyebrows, the hair, and I have to admit it actually took me a minute or so to realize that it was you. So what were the discussions about figuring out how Lou would present herself to the world as the lead of this metal band?
OC: Yeah, there’s an androgyny to her inherently and there’s a reticence to show her sexuality until she’s on stage, so in her normal life, there was a push towards skewing towards the masculine with the way she dressed and also the bleached eyebrows, I think I was just flicking through Pinterest and saw a picture of a model with bleached eyebrows and she was just all eyes and I thought it had this really cool, feral look to it and I thought, “Oh, that would be interesting, because I wonder without eyebrows how that would come across,” and we did it just as a bit of an experiment and it looked really cool. It just gives this alien quality to the look, which I think really helped the character’s overall appearance and feel to her.
GD: Yeah, and then with her being in a metal band, you’re screaming your vocals, which I imagine must have been kind of strenuous. How did you develop the musicality of Lou?
OC: Well with the screaming, all you do is scream and then you have a day of rest and then you just scream again (laughs). So, I mean, there was only a few takes that we could do. I think we did about seven and on the fifth, I was like, “I don’t know how much I’ve got left in.” But I had this wonderful muse, coach, musician called Margaret Chardiet of the band Pharmakon, who taught me the vocals, taught me how to play guitar, taught me how to loop. We wrote the song together. She wrote the music. She’s just incredible and I basically just copied everything from her, even just the way she was. I was just like, “You know what, I’m just gonna steal that.”
GD: And obviously, your relationship with Riz Ahmed is so crucial for the film in order to really make us care about this couple and I’m wondering just what the two of you did in preparation to make that relationship feel so authentic.
OC: We rehearsed as a band for two months before we started shooting and we would discuss the script and our relationship and our backstory with each other and with the director but it was more so just the sheer terror of ultimately having to perform this song, which I think bonded us. In any rehearsal space, you really get to know that person and know how they work, and I thought that was really invaluable, but it was easy. I think he’s such an amazing actor that to act opposite him and to spend three weeks in a tin can, which was the Airstream, was made so much easier just by how phenomenal he is.
GD: Well, you mentioned the Airstream RV, which is such a confined location. Were there actually any challenges in that kind of filming experience?
OC: Yeah, it was so hot. It was like an oven. It was August in Boston. They had everyone in it who could possibly be in it. So you’ve got the DP, you’ve got Darius sometimes, me and Riz, maybe a gaffer, you’ve got the sound operator and we’re just trying to do this really emotional scene and not let the drips of sweat just wash onto the table. But it just adds to the claustrophobia of the first act of the film (laughs).
GD: Definitely, and I was reading that you shot the whole film in order, which is somewhat rare, which means you had a big gap between the first act and then the third act where you’re acting with Riz again. Can you talk about picking things back up with Riz and whether things felt different in those final scenes?
OC: Yeah, they did! I mean, it was about a month and a half, maybe two months after we’d shot the first act before Riz goes off to the sober house and to when we meet again in Paris, so I had gone back home, I’d gone back to Manchester, I was in London and I was in Europe myself and I know Riz and Darius were having this experience without me. So it was sort of this change in relationship where you’re having to catch up and you are a little bit more estranged from each other, because especially in this industry, things move so fast, relationships move so fast. You do a job with someone and you’re best friends and then you come to promote it and you’re practically strangers again because someone else slots into your life and you wouldn’t expect that to happen, but that just was so helpful for the last act where we’re trying to connect with each other again.
GD: Yeah, and also in that third act, you get to work a bit with Mathieu Amalric as Lou’s father. What was he like to work with?
OC: Oh, he was brilliant. We met each other the night before we acted together and then practiced the song that we had together in the morning and then did it that night and all the while having to act like father and daughter. But again, I don’t know if it was in Darius’s master plan, but having this practical stranger that you just met and then having to be father and daughter is a really intimate dynamic made harder if you don’t know the person, but I think with just how the story works, it all made sense in our performances. But he was brilliant. He’s so talented and so French and so sexy and so relaxed and talented. Yeah, he was great.
GD: And I’ll just throw a spoiler warning here for those who haven’t seen the whole film yet. We’re going to talk a little bit about the ending of the film. So the last scene you have in the film is so quiet and intimate, but it’s also just seismic in terms of being a real inflection point in the relationship between Lou and Ruben and you’re both communicating so many different emotions. Was there any kind of special preparation for that scene to just make sure you got it right?
OC: Trying to think, I don’t think that was. That scene was just the straw that broke the camel’s back in my waterworks when I read it, but also just what made me 1,000 percent invested in the story. The break-up is so quiet and so respectful and so loving, and I hadn’t really quite seen anything like that before. It obviously comes from a very real place and a real experience, and when they tell each other that they’ve saved each other’s lives, it’s just so heartfelt and so gut-wrenching and we’ve all been in that situation. So I think because the words were so honest, there wasn’t really much to be done than say the words and see what happened when we were on set, also knowing that this was shot right at the end of the film and the experience that we’d all been on was quite… not easy, because it was a gut punch, but it all felt quite right.
GD: Yeah, and it’s so cathartic, I’m not sure how much you think about this with parts that you play, but where do you imagine that Lou goes from here?
OC: There’s so many different paths that she could have taken. I do think she’s probably exploring the alt-music scene in France. I think it helps that her father is probably somewhat famous in France, too. I don’t judge people that use their parents or their relative’s connections. It’s not their fault, a bit of nepotism, but I think she’s probably finding her true self or one of her true selves, and getting to know herself as an individual rather than as a couple, which I think a lot of us do when we exit an intense period of time with someone else.
GD: Do you wonder if they ever kind of reconnect at any point later down in their lives?
OC: I’m sure it’s one of those where they’re always in touch and they’re always checking up on each other and they’re always rallying for each other from different continents, and if they’re ever in the same country, they meet up. But I think that relationship is probably something that is so formative that it’s better in the past than it ever would be as the two new people who they are today.
GD: Well, this feels like such a memorable experience, maybe even more so than other roles you’ve done, possibly, and I asked Riz this when I talked to him last week, and I’m curious for you if there’s anything about just the experience of “Sound of Metal” that you felt has had a lasting impact on you since you’ve finished shooting it?
OC: I think just how raw I was. Darius has an amazing ability to get out any secret that you have deep inside of you and then use it on the day, even though you try and hold back and you try and push against it. But he really does rip you open and I think if you trust the person, which I trusted Darius, eventually — I think I was reticent to give him too much at first — but if you trust the person, then it only adds to the performance and adds to the experience itself, because you’ve got a person who knows how to direct you and knows what buttons to press. Also, you’ve got a partner in Riz who is having the same experience as well. So in a way, something like this, if handled correctly, can be one of the most cathartic experiences that you can go through in a somewhat safe environment.
GD: Well, switching gears a little bit, I think a lot of people first discovered you as an actress because of “Bates Motel” playing Emma. It’s been three years since that show ended, but I imagine people are continuing to discover it since it’s available on Netflix. The experience of doing that show for five seasons, do you find that it really helped to inform how you are choosing your roles now, anything with your work ethic or just how you approach the roles you’re taking now?
OC: Yeah, I went onto that show when I was 18 and I think if I hadn’t had that show, I would have gone to drama school or done something like that. So I was really lucky to have this be my formative training in a way, and working with Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore and just having these amazing actors around me, I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m learning from the absolute best.” So I think the sense of work ethic, the sense of team building. Making a film or making a TV show is just such a team effort and there shouldn’t be a hierarchy, even though you are number one or number two or number three on the call sheet or you’re an actor so you get a private car to work, it all makes no sense if the main goal is to make something incredible at the end of the day. I think that’s what that show taught me, is just everyone is striving to make this the best it can be, and so, that should be our attitude as well, and you should respect everyone around you. I think that was a bit tangent-y, but yeah.
GD: No, it’s good. With roles like that, obviously you were in that for five years, or “Thoroughbreds,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” do you find that those kinds of roles just linger with you or do you feel like you’ve done it and now you put it away?
OC: I feel like I put it away. The roles were all high school and now I’m 27 at the end of the month so I’d be pushing it. Maybe the last year of college if she’d gone on a gap year. But yeah, I feel like I’ve put them away but I’m so grateful for those experiences because God, they were such great roles for a young actress to take and for them to trust me to do that as well and try and do an American accent as well as trying to act, it’s funny because I can’t imagine my life now doing anything else, but I would have just been either in drama school or leaving drama school and trying to get a job. I do feel really lucky that I was working during that time and getting to be collaborative with all these incredible artists.