‘Pixie’ star’ Olivia Cooke: “What makes this country great is the arts”
If coronavirus really is “the great equaliser”, some professions have been more “equalised” than others. Olivia Cooke, the Oldham-born actress whose impressive performances in Ready Player One, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and five seasons of Bates Motel have made her a genuinely exciting break-out star, says she hasn’t stepped on a film set in a year. She had “a whole slate of work” booked for 2020 before COVID intervened and grounded the 26-year-old at her Camden flat.
“Everyone’s in the same boat, though, and there’s something quite nice about that in a way,” she says, adding that she drew strength from comments that The Crown‘s Helena Bonham Carter made on a recent episode of Louis Theroux‘s podcast. “She said it’s been really nice not having to experience that overwhelming sense of competitiveness which is sprung on you from agents and just from the industry in general. I feel lucky that I live in London and I’ve got my friends around me and I’m not struggling.”
Still, Cooke admits that lockdown boredom prompted her to re-join Instagram despite her misgivings about social media. “I even tried, unsuccessfully, to slide into a couple of people’s DMs because I was like: ‘This is what the kids do now. This is how they date.’ And yeah, that didn’t really work out,” she says with a laugh. It’s also made her question where she wants to live. Camden is usually one of London’s hubs for live music and nightlife, but hasn’t been nearly as buzzy this year for obvious reasons. “Like, I’ve already done all the walks [in this area], so what will I do if we’re in lockdown any longer?” she says with a shrug. “And my bike just got stolen so I can’t cycle to my friends’ places, which is what I’d normally do because they live in different parts of London. I mean, I guess I can get another bike, but I do think I’ve got a bit of flat fatigue having just spent the best part of a year in it.”
“What do Tories do in their downtime? It can’t be shooting pheasants all the fucking time”
Cooke banishes this “flat fatigue” when I ask about her role in Pixie, a sparky new drug-heist comedy from St Trinian’s director Barnaby Thompson that’s in cinemas now. She stars as the title character, pin-sharp stepdaughter of a small-time Irish gangster (Star Trek legend Colm Meaney). With one eye on a new life in San Francisco, Pixie recruits a couple of local lads (Peaky Blinders’ Daryl McCormack and Bohemian Rhapsody’s Ben Hardy) to help her rob a drug-dealing priest played by Alec Baldwin. Though the film relies too heavily on the stale recurring joke that quaint rural Ireland is an unexpected hotbed of drugs, guns and double-crossing mobsters, Cooke is completely brilliant as the charismatic Pixie, a young woman who’s always one step ahead of the men.
“I just thought the script was really funny,” she says when I ask what attracted her to the film. “And Pixie is really daring and manipulative but kind of owns it. She’s just so much smarter than everyone else around her. I thought, ‘God, it must be so nice to play someone with that much confidence, but who carries it with a bit of a wink’.” Cooke says she thinks Pixie’s confidence was probably “instilled in her by her mother”, a character whose untimely death provides the film’s emotional heft. “And also, Pixie has aspirations that are so much bigger than the small town she lives in,” Cooke adds. “She has to be confident because she’s worked out all the steps she’s going to have to take to get out of there.”
“In this job, it can feel like there’s 17 different versions of yourself”
Pixie was clearly a lot of fun to play, but did her near-heroic confidence rub off on Cooke at all? “I feel like I must be pretty confident. I think I’ve gotten more confident this year because of moving to London and being with my friends and just being centred again,” she says. “I think it’s all about the people you surround yourself with, really. I can go to a premiere or be on a [film or TV] set and feel so unsure of myself and nervous and shy. In this job, it almost feels like there’s about 17 different versions of yourself, depending on your surroundings.”
Cooke, the daughter of a retired police officer and a sales representative, describes herself as a “home-grown” success story. She started acting aged eight, when she signed up for after-school drama classes at the Oldham Theatre Workshop, where successful telly actors like Anna Friel and Suranne Jones cut their teeth. Cooke then studied drama at Oldham Sixth Form College, but left before she completed her course because she was cast in Blackout, a BBC One thriller starring Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston. She applied for London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) soon afterwards, made it to the last round of auditions, but didn’t quite make the final cut. Still, this was the briefest of setbacks. Cooke told Interview magazine in 2014 that the day she got her RADA rejection letter, she also found out she’d been cast in The Quiet Ones, an indie horror flick co-starring Chernobyl‘s Jared Harris and Peaky Blinders alum Sam Claflin.
Since then, her career has continued to gather momentum, and Pixie’s Alec Baldwin is by no means the first A-lister she’s worked with. She starred opposite Bill Nighy in the 2016 horror film The Limehouse Golem, partners Riz Ahmed in upcoming music movie Sound of Metal, and was directed by Steven Spielberg in 2018’s Ready Player One, an ambitious sci-fi adventure which grossed $582.9 million globally. From 2013 to 2017, she had a lead role in Bates Motel, the acclaimed Psycho prequel series which also featured Rihanna. In another career highlight, 2015’s sleeper hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Cooke brought crisp dignity to a part – the “dying girl” with terminal leukaemia – which could in less capable hands have felt mawkish.
It’s clear this success hasn’t gone to Cooke’s head. Today she says modestly: “This job is like having the first day of school every six months or so. Every time it’s a new set of personalities to navigate. A set is a bit of a delicate ecosystem in a way, and you have to kind of work out what your place within that ecosystem is. And it may not be the same as the last job, so you have to be really adaptable.”
“Any film I do is gonna have feminist values”
In a previous interview, Cooke described Pixie‘s delicate ecosystem as “a bit of a boys’ club”. It’s an accurate observation: the film has a male director, male writers and producers, and a predominantly male cast. Cooke’s character certainly shines brightest of all, but is this enough to make it a feminist film? “I feel like, because I’m a feminist, any film I’m gonna do is gonna have feminist values,” she says. “It is changing slightly, but sets are just a boys’ club anyway. Also, the men on the set were so lovely. I would say – as I’m sure they’d say themselves – that they are all massive feminists. And with that, it does feel like a feminist film. Plus, Pixie is just so much smarter than the boys, so of course [it is], yeah.”
If this answer feels a little cautious and diplomatic, Cooke is more outspoken when it comes to the government’s inadequate support for performing arts during the pandemic. The much-mocked “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber” social media advert has been disowned by the government, but for many people it seemed to speak volumes about the way Boris Johnson’s Cabinet views our creative industries. “You go to the theatre and the majority of people there are older, white, middle-class men and women – and I’m sure a lot of them are Tory [voters],” Cooke says. “I’m sure they would want to see their party fund this artistry that they’re out there enjoying. It will still go on [after the pandemic], but we’re all going to have to struggle a lot more in the process. It’s just been so brazen, and I think that’s what is so discouraging.”
I point out that over the years, Tory governments haven’t generally been known for their patronage of the arts: it’s not something they appreciate or even fully understand. “It’s like, what do they do in their downtime?” Cooke replies. “It can’t be shooting pheasants all the fucking time!” We both laugh. “And I mean, look at all the music festivals that people come to this country for,” she continues. “What makes this country great is the arts – not the bloody government, that’s for sure! It’s so frustrating and it’s so upsetting, but it’s like, what do we expect? What’s been amazing to me is how confident they’ve been in just not supporting us.”
“It’s amazing how confident the government has been in not supporting us [through COVID]”
Cooke then coolly obliterates the misconception that all performers are “comfortable and rich” enough to take a sustained hit to their livelihoods. “I’ll tell you for certain that this is a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of people who work in the arts,” she says. “I’m lucky: I went to America and got paid somewhat handsomely, so now I live in a rented two-bed in Camden and I can afford my rent. But my friends around me, they’re lucky to get one job in the arts a year, and then they have to fund it by working in bars and cafes and any other part-time job. That’s the experience for a large percentage of people in the arts.” Cooke sighs, then adds with a palpable flash of annoyance: “The way they’ve skewed it – that we’re all comfortable and middle-class and can ask mum and dad [for money] – that’s just not the case.”
With the government’s ears burning, I ask a slightly lighter question: why does Cooke generally steer clear of social media? “Well, obviously I did go on in May because it was the height of lockdown,” she says with a self-deprecating grimace. “I was on my own and I was like, ‘I want some friends’.” Sliding into DMs aside, Cooke says she mainly uses Instagram to follow interior decor accounts. “But honesty, I barely use it,” she quickly adds. “I’ve put a time limit on how much I can use it because I’m just like: ‘God, you sap so much of my brain.’ I think I’m very close to deleting it again.”
“People see arts workers as comfortable and middle-class – that’s not the case”
The problem with Instagram, I suggest, is that you inevitably end up measuring yourself against your peers – and this must be especially distressing in a precarious profession like acting. “Oh God, yeah!” Cooke agrees. “But I always try to come at this from the perspective of my 16-year-old self. If I’d been told, ‘This is what you’re going to do with your career; these are all the parts you’re going to play,’ I don’t think I’d quite have believed it.”
What was Cooke like at 16? “I think I was quite bolshy. I did think, ‘This is the one thing that I want to do, and I’m going to do it,’” she says. “I had the confidence of a 16-year-old: that not quite fully understanding what the world is actually like. And then I got my first job at 18, which confirmed everything for me.” Cooke says that when her mum told her she needed a plan B, she remained defiant: “I was like: ‘OK then, I’ll go and work in McDonald’s’.” And then luckily for me, it all worked out – and I’m fully aware that’s not the case for a lot of people. So yeah, I definitely had an attitude, and that attitude definitely helped me to get a foot in the door.”
It’s this attitude which will stand her in good stead as the industry returns to something approaching normality. There’s no doubt Olivia will be back on her bike again soon, and back smashing it on a film set, too.
‘Pixie’ is in UK cinemas now