In lieu of a formal acting education, Olivia Cooke swerved conventional pathways for lived experience, portraying almost a decade’s worth of characters by the age of 26 – whether lusting after Norman Bates as wide-eyed Emma Decody in Bates Motel, or gallivanting through a virtual universe in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi epic, Ready Player One.
Born in Oldham, a quiet mill town in Lancashire (and after living in New York for four years), Cooke now finds herself based in London for the first time, energised and with two exciting projects in tow: alongside John Boyega in the newly-released heist-drama Naked Singularity and in Chad Hartigan’s apt new project Little Fish as a newlywed fighting a mysterious pandemic that erases people’s memories.
From one of the UK’s most promising actors to another: as the world slows down due to Covid-19, Cooke meets with friend and rising star Paapa Essiedu, whose Gangs of London and I May Destroy You made a solid impact, for a moment of pause on an ever-accelerating journey.
Olivia Cooke: During lockdown, there was a golden age of telly because you literally had a captive audience. How was it for you with Gangs of London and I May Destroy You being so popular?
Paapa Essiedu: I suppose quite weird, mainly because part of something coming out is having the… [inhales sharply] The public has got it and you’re out in the streets and people have seen it or whatever. But we were in lockdown so that wasn’t really happening. It always makes me think of like, have you seen Straight Outta Compton?
PE: So the way they’d know if people liked their new music or not would literally be playing it out of a lowrider with the hood down in the streets and seeing how people responded to it, right? So this whole thing about the connection between what you’re doing and the reality of people receiving it – there was something about all of that happening in a box where we felt very separated, that was quite weird.
OC: But also the immediacy of how people respond, because everyone was watching it at the same time.
PE: So then for you to really gauge how people respond to it you’ve got to go to social media, which I’m terrified of and like, chronically shit at. When you have a film come out, do you read the reviews?
OC: Yep. I try not to but then I can’t help it.
PE: It’s no shame, though.
OC: Sometimes it depends on whether I care about the film.
PE: Say it’s a film you do care about?
OC: I’ll read every – not every single one but the top reviewers.
PE: The good ones [laughs].
OC: But also my agent – and to be honest I’ve not told her not to – but she’ll just be like, “Oh my god, I just read a really good review” and then like –
PE: You’re like stop it! Stop sending… send it.
OC: [laughs] What about you?
PE: Similarly yeah, I will try not to. I think it’s worse with plays because there’s this weird thing when you do a play and the critics get up while everyone’s applauding, they’re writing it and I’m literally like [grits teeth].
“So then for you to really gauge how people respond to it you’ve got to go to social media, which I’m terrified of and like, chronically shit at.”
OC: That must have been so hard when you – [leans towards the microphone] – played Hamlet.
PE : Yeah, so I played Ham-let [laughs]. But actually it was no harder than any of the other ones. For me, I just need one person to say, “It’s good,” for me to then be like, “Phew.” Similarly to you, I start from a point of, “This is the one where everyone finds out, this is the one that ends the career.” I start from that point every time, and it’s so cliché and boring and lame and kind of self-indulgent, because no-one really cares about you [laughs].
OC: And you wouldn’t have got the job if you can’t do it, either.
PE: Well, I don’t know if I believe that.
OC: In certain people’s cases, yours specifically.
PE: In my case, I only ever get it because they know I can do it and I’m so objectively good [both laugh]. I think it’s another thing, and again call me a cunt if this sounds like a massive first world problem – I can already see you calling me a cunt and I haven’t said it yet! But I’ve got a real problem with sitting in praise or joyful, successful moments –
OC: Oh god me too, yeah.
PE: I’ve got a real problem with it and I’ll always find a way to undermine it or trivialise it and I’ll go like, “Yeah but… you know? It’s Michaela [Coel] that actually taught me about not doing that.” So for example with I May Destroy You, I watched a couple of episodes at her house, live, and she was like, “Look, the fact is you worked for this amount of time and this amount of other people have since worked on it to make this what it is, right? And it’s going out live and loads of people in all directions are literally watching it now. If you can’t accept that is fucking sick then you’re mad.” And I was like, “Rah, that is actually true.”
It’s very British I guess, this kind of self-flagellating, compulsive humility. I think it’s a protective mechanism. Because what we do, it’s never promised, so being freelance, everything is so unstable. In the middle of a pandemic, we don’t know when we’re going to work, so you never want to attach yourself to anything for fear that it’ll go. So we never want to say, “Oh this was amazing” just in case someone takes it away.
“It’s very British I guess, this kind of self-flagellating, compulsive humility. I think it’s a protective mechanism.”
PE: So anyway, long story short, all this stuff coming out at this time was quite weird and I wasn’t very good at being like, “This is great,” but now I’m trying to do that.
OC: I don’t know where this comes from or who started it, maybe it just looks better when people go on fucking Graham Norton and they’re like, “Oh my god, I’m so terrible, don’t even say that to me.” But it’s just like, I’m from Oldham, I’m doing fucking mint stuff I’d never have even dreamed of as a kid.
PE: It really is that. It’s like, if you put yourself in the tattered shoes of your impoverished younger self…
OC: Please sir, can we have some more! [laughs]
PE: Exactly, but if you put yourself in the shoes of you before you did your first job, even the joy of getting your first job would be like, “Oh my god I’m actually doing this.” To think of where you are now, you would have slapped yourself in the face.
OC: Oh my god I would have thrown up all over myself to hear the conversations that I have sometimes where I’m like, “I just don’t think it’s for me anymore, I need to look at other avenues.” Like, who the fuck do I think I am, really?
PE: I just think it’s so important to keep in touch with that version of yourself, because that perspective is what makes it really fucking cool. Have you got a moment you’re most proud of? Do you do much reflection?
OC: No and I think I should, because I never appreciate what’s happening in the moment or what’s happened in the past because I’m always so worried about what’s going to happen in the future.
PE: I’m going to make you do it now.
“Maybe it just looks better when people go on fucking Graham Norton… But it’s just like, I’m from Oldham, I’m doing fucking mint stuff I’d never have even dreamed of as a kid.”
OC: OK, let me think… I think it’s usually when I stand up to directors and I’m like, “No, actually…” Or I feel like I’ve been manipulated by a director, or they’ve tried to make me do things when really I just want them to have an open conversation with me rather than trying to evoke some emotion by doing some weird sort of pseudo-psychology.
Usually you’re the only woman around for fucking miles, and you’ve got this male director who’s years older than you trying to make you feel things where really like – I’m quite competent at feeling a lot of things, all they need to do is talk to me about it. I’ve had it with really high-profile directors. You’re in a crew of 200 and you’re trying to say some line and they’re like, “No, Olivia. Angrier.”
So you say it again and they’re like, “No. Angrier!” And so you say it again and then they’re like, “Eurgh, OK. Do it to me.” So you say it to them and they’re like, “No, I’m not getting it,” and I just go, “Alright! I’ll do it on the day.” Then said director just goes, “OK, and action!” And you’re just so annoyed because if they’d just said this is what I’m trying to get from the scene, you would have done it, but they’ve got you to such a level where they’ve humiliated you in front of the set.
So when you stand up to people like that, even if you get a reputation as being a bitch or whatever – which is so uncalled for and so fucking gendered – that’s what makes me proud.
PE: And I think what you’re describing is stepping into yourself, right? Stepping into your power.
PE: Because really, that’s what they’re signing up for when they get Olivia Cooke on board.
OC: Do you know what I mean? [laughs] What about you? What’s your proudest moment?
PE: I think it’s all so relative, right? I still remember the first job I ever did. It was a play at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, a political play by a guy called Amiri Baraka called Dutchman. It’s about a Black guy in New York, all set on the subway, and this older white woman comes and tries to seduce him and he ends up killing her. It’s a real dissection of civil rights at the time the play was written – a really intense play at 21, having just graduated. I still don’t know what I think of myself as an actor now, but then I was really into demonstrative gestures. I was like, if I’m really feeling it, you need to see I’m feeling it, right? [both laugh]
OC: Spit flying.
PE: Really doing that – for the record, I’m doing a lot of gestures with my hands – but so nervous and for the first one, so sure that it was the end of the road. Going out, doing it, coming off, surviving – it’s just huge. I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous as I was for that. It was the only moment where I’ve fully gone into the unknown, into the realm where people are paying for you to show them your hands, right? So yeah, pride is just so relative.
“Usually you’re the only woman around for fucking miles, and you’ve got this male director who’s years older than you trying to make you feel things.”
OC: Do you feel you’re more confident in your ability now or then?
PE: Now. You didn’t go to drama school did you?
OC: No. Didn’t get in.
PE: Didn’t get in?! Wow, you must have been shit.
PE: Did you apply?
OC: Only one. I applied to RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] and got to the final round.
PE: You only applied to RADA? Did you think you were something special?
OC: I was actually filming when my RADA audition was, so… [both laugh]. I got to the last round of my audition and I’d done two jobs already but I thought I needed to get that formal training. I didn’t get in but then got my first film straight after so I was like, “Oh well.”
PE: It’s hard, you know? That audition process.
OC: It’s really hard being me [both laugh].
PE: The rest of us who had to fucking go through those three years… I came out the other end of drama school not particularly comfortable. I remember going in thinking I was sick and coming out thinking I was shit.
OC: Really? Why was that?
PE: I’ve got quite mixed feelings about drama schools. I think I needed to go because I hadn’t really done any acting at all, I’d barely been to see a play so I needed to do that basic stuff but there’s a lot of pseudo-psychological bullshit, basically. Just people talking about their processes or their ideologies and often you’re looking at people who have tried but it hasn’t worked out and suddenly they’re boosting their own egos by telling drama students that they’re doing it wrong.
OC: Did you get an agent straight after?
PE: Yeah, I’m really lucky in that I’ve only ever had one agent.
OC: Oh right, amazing.
PE: I don’t think I was particularly gifted when I started. I feel fairly confident now just because I don’t use my hands as much [laughs]. But I’ve got more of an artistic interest in it, so I love watching films and actors and I’ve got a genuine curiosity for the craft. I feel like at least now I know what I’m trying to do, whereas when you start it really feels like you’re just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. How about you?
“I feel like at least now I know what I’m trying to do, whereas when you start it really feels like you’re just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.”
OC: I feel the same, but maybe I was a little bit braver back then, just making mad choices, whereas I feel more confident in my ability now because I’ve learned over the years. Back then I’d just do mad shit, because I just didn’t know who was seeing it, if anyone, I just made my bold choices. Whereas now I think it would really take a lot more gumption to get there.
PE: Did you ever do school plays?
PE: It’s that thing, isn’t it? Because weirdly, doing the school play felt like the stakes were never higher.
OC: [laughs] Oh god, yeah.
PE: It’s like, what? Other people in your year are going to see you trying to do something? In front of people?
OC: The popular girls are going to see it.
PE: I was going to do National Youth Theatre, and I genuinely couldn’t afford to do it so I had to do a fund-raiser at school which was me doing a medley of speeches, i.e. my audition speeches for drama school and then like, what I can only describe as karaoke –
OC: Face to face with people?
PE: In assembly. Like the school was gathered in the assembly hall.
OC: Oh god, the vulnerability.
PE: The vulnerability, the purity, naivety, the stakes, mate – the fucking stakes. And I just think I actually need to apply that version of me to everyday, you know? Because it’s like, if that girl sees me doing that and doesn’t like it, my life is over, it’s over, I’m dead, right? It means that much.
OC: I know what you mean. Sometimes I wished I cared as much as I did when Alex Hill got the lead part and I didn’t.
PE: Where is she now though? Exactly.
Originally published in HEROINE 13.