Interview: Actress Olivia Thirlby trades knee-socks & hoop earrings for leather & weapons in Dredd 3D

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The new film Dredd 3D follows a day-in-the-life of the post-apocalyptic Mega City One’s most famous judge, jury and executioner – Judge Dredd. But the new movie is more of a gritty re-envisioning of the comic-book source material than a direct remake of Sylvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd from 1995.

In the new film, Dredd is partnered with a rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson, who is also a psychic-medium and has one day to prove her worth or be rejected by the Judge system. That day ends up being a roller-coaster ride of death and violence as the two go up against drug lords who manufacture “slo-mo” that allows its users to experience life at 1% of normal speed.

Olivia Thirlby - © 2012 Lionsgate

Judge Anderson is played by actress Olivia Thirlby, who is much smaller and daintier in person than the action heroine she plays on screen in Dredd 3D – a significant affirmation of her acting abilities. Thirlby is best known for her role as Leah, in the hit independent film Juno. But she has also been in movies as varied as The Darkest Hour and No Strings Attached.

The comic-book based film Dredd 3D is a change of pace for the versatile actress and on her recent trip to the Valley, Nerdvana was fortunate to sit in on a round-table interview with Olivia Thirlby where she talked about the more sensitive side of Dredd.

You’ve done a lot of smaller, more character-driven films, like Juno and The Wackness, what was it like to go from doing that type of film to a gritty super-violent action flick?

It was fun, but not as severe a transition as it might seem, because Dredd is bizarrely character driven for a film of its genre. My character specifically is one of the most complex and interesting I’ve ever played. In terms of format it is definitely different and having to wear leather and handle weapons is a very different vibe than Juno, which is like knee-socks and hoop earrings. It was a really fun transition and one I feel fortunate to be able to make.

What was it like playing opposite of a character without being able to see their face?

I think because Andersen has psychic abilities it doesn’t really affect her that much, not being able to see Dredd’s eyes, because she doesn’t have to visually read any emotional cues from him – not that he gives any emotional cues – ever! That’s what makes their partnership unique, she has this awareness of him and his internal world that nobody else does and I don’t think he appreciates it at first.

Have you seen the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd? Did Pete Travis [Dredd 3D Director] show it to the cast?

I actually haven’t seen it, but it is something I would really enjoy watching at this point because I’ve been talking about it a lot, it’s probably time for me to see it.

Did he not want the cast to see it in advance?

It really wasn’t an issue on the set, I think what they were doing was in no way a response to that film; it was so unconnected to that film in every respect except for the source material. No one really talked about it that much.

You didn’t get to wear the cool Judge helmet in the film; were you disappointed that you missed out on the challenge of only being able to act with only your mouth and jaw and your body language?

[Laughs] I got to wear it for one scene! I don’t know if I’m disappointed, maybe the word would be more like relieved. It certainly is a very iconic costume and so in that regard it would have been very fun to be able to do the whole thing – but for the most part I valued being able to use my face as an acting tool. It was also important for viewers to be able to enjoy this film and that they be able to see at least one of the protagonist’s faces. I did get to wear it for one very short scene and I’m sitting on a motorcycle when I’m wearing it – so I felt very cool while shooting that scene.

What kind of training did you have to do physically to prepare for this role?

I worked with a trainer, just to kind of keep me [fit] because the leather body suit was very small and had no room for growth in any direction – and the food in Cape Town [where the film was shot] is so amazing…but I digress [laughs]. There was weapons training which was just learning how to fire guns – we were using airsoft pistols and guns with blanks – so we [learned how] to change magazines and mostly just look like you’re comfortable handling the guns – that’s the most important part. I’m not a good shot at all.

There was stunt training as well and there is a fight sequence in the film where I have to take out a couple of henchmen without a weapon and I have to roundhouse kick, so there was that – that was a big one. And then the rest of the training was the same type of tactical training that they give in the military, as simple as how to walk properly.

They teach to go heel-to-toe so that you don’t trip and you don’t have to look at the ground and know you’re not going to trip over any obstacles when you are walking. Hand signals and how not to flag your partner with your weapon – and that’s a major one – because you watch films and you see people walking around with their finger on the trigger and that’s not proper gun safety – so you just have to learn those sorts of things.

Dredd 3D Poster

Did they shoot a large quantity of the film on green-screen or did they use a lot of live sets?

It was mostly sets and sometimes some green-screen at the end of a corridor. So much of the film takes place inside this building that they were able to construct sets. We shot in Cape Town Film Studios and they have four sound stages and we took over all of them. There were a couple of sets that were just winding corridors with rooms and windows, lots of staircases, and we when you see those locations in the film that is a set.

We did have one really big set that was three levels in the part of the building that is looking over the atrium and they would have green-screen on the edges so they could fill in the rest of the world. But for the most part there were really only two scenes shot where it was just me and a green-screen.

Did any improvisation come into play during filming or was the script closely followed?

It was probably the least improvisational film that I’ve worked on, because it was so succinct in that Dredd is a man of very few words and there wasn’t that much room for improv – simply because [the film] is so plot driven. You can’t start improvising about something funny you ate for breakfast, because in this film there is no place for that.

You’ve done a lot of smaller character driven work; what has the transition been like going into big-budget comic book films?

I feel really honored in that I’ve been able to work and I really like this film. It’s been a welcome transition and it’s exciting to put yourself out there in a way that people respond to. Going from a place where you’re making really great movies that absolutely no one has seen, to making a really a great film that hopefully a lot of people will see, I have a lot of gratitude and excitement about it.

This is a very visceral film and the slow motion scenes are awesome. Illegal futuristic drugs aside, what life experience would you like to see in slow motion?

Autumn, in a place where leaves are falling would be very remarkable on the drug “slo-mo.”

Your character in this film is psychic. Did you do any research or preparation for that aspect of the role?

She was psychic in the script but it didn’t really delve into how or what her personal experience was, and that was really important for me. So I did come up with the way in which I thought she was psychic, which was sensitivity to seeing energy as color.

My idea about her is that when she looks at a person she sees the entire rainbow of their life right there inside of them. When she walks into a room she can see the color there and know what the vibe is in that room and what’s happening. It’s a very intuitive and complex way that she is sensitive to energy and it definitely provided for a very full mind all the time. She doesn’t always say that much, but she is always taking in information – constantly.

Films with female action stars have become much more popular over the years, but it seems like many of the heroines seem almost too “badass.” Your character is much more human and vulnerable and relatable. How important was it for you to portray that part of her personality?

It was probably the most important thing. The gun and the leather bodysuit provide enough physical “badass-ness.” But especially in the beginning of the film, when you meet my character, she is incredibly vulnerable, just by the nature of the fact that she has failed her Judge aptitude test and she is unfit, on paper, to do this and be this thing, which I think is all she has ever wanted in her whole life.

So you meet her in this very precarious place where she has only one chance – and it might kill her. She spends the first half of the movie just trying really hard to keep it all together and do the right thing. It’s only once all that completely falls apart, and she thinks she has no chance of getting what it is that she most wants, that she really becomes herself. So that’s a beautifully human arc and something everyone can relate to, and that’s mostly a credit to Alex Garland and the script that he wrote.

For me, playing Anderson’s strengths and playing her vulnerability went totally hand in hand, it wasn’t one or the other, I think it’s a combination of both those things that make her believable – hopefully.

If the script had called for a 30 minute hand-to-hand-combat fight sequence with Lena Headey [playing Ma-Ma, the film’s villain], would your training have prepared you for it?

Absolutely. You’d have to ask Alex [the screenwriter]. We could have done a thirty minute improvised hand-to-hand fight scene [laughs], but the training I had was very specific to the sequence that we used, so I was doing a lot of boxing and stuff like that, but what I really worked on was the actual [physical] sequence, which I still remember [acts out the motions] – it’s [still] in my body language and it was specifically what we worked on.

Were you familiar with the comic books before getting the role?

No, I wasn’t familiar. I had heard of the comic but I had never read one. As soon as I arrived in Cape Town to begin shooting they just handed me a giant binder [of comics] – and I referred to it a lot.

For the high-speed film sequences, were you directed to change your acting method or were you just acting normally while being photographed at 4000 frames-per-second?

There is one “slo-mo” sequence that I’m a part of and shooting that stuff was very, very tedious, because you get everything all set and you go over what you’re supposed to do and you only roll for two or three seconds. So what I had to do was turn from here [turns head] to here and then we would cut and then it would take them a half an hour to watch it back. It looked really beautiful in the end but it is certainly very tedious to shoot. In terms of changing your acting you don’t do anything because there is no time – there is only two or three seconds per take.

For the audition you did a video tape without having a lot of background on the comic. After you had a chance to do some research and read some of the comics, did you change the character based on what you read?

Making audition tapes is a very big part of every actor’s life and the audition process and getting jobs. I felt like I really identified with the character from the moment I started reading her on the page and really felt her intuitively.

I did end up feeling like most of my choices could be based on the Anderson who exists in this version of this film and in this script. Because in the comics – and it’s important for me to be loyal and do justice, so to speak,  to this character because she’s had a long life before I ever came along – she was different depending on who was writing and drawing her.

So it seemed to me, because the plot of this film doesn’t come from any of the comics, for my character it was kind of her genesis story, so I felt like I could be really true to what we were doing and it wouldn’t be untrue to the comics by doing that.

Olivia Thirlby - © 2012 Lionsgate

You’ve had roles in a lot of different genres of films, what was it in particular that drew you to this part?

The character, in that she was so many things mixed into one and I really identified with how her sensitivity and vulnerability were her greatest strengths and what set her apart in the world and made her special – but they were also things that, on paper, made her unworthy and I thought that was really interesting.

What was it like working with Karl Urban [playing Judge Dredd]?

It was a total joy to work with him and I think we were really good partners both in the world of the film and out. We spent a lot of time before shooting, really breaking down the script and tracking these two characters emotionally, and where they were with each other, how they felt about each other; mostly whether or not Anderson was passing or failing her assessment.

Because the film is about her assessment and she, because she is psychic, kind of always knows whether she is passing or failing, so there was a lot of back & forth or wave-like motions between them. Karl & I were really great at checking in with each other and making sure that we weren’t skipping-over any beats about their relationship. Just as a guy, he is so nice and charming and funny, and nothing at all like Judge Dredd, the character.

What was the most challenging thing about immersing yourself in this role?

I think the biggest challenge came from me actually, and it was less of a character thing, but more just constantly battling the insecurities that plague us all. Like, God I look terrible with blonde hair, I look like a football player in this leather bodysuit, it’s not sexy and it has shoulder pads [laughs].

It was definitely very daunting to take on a role like this because what you do on the day when you’re shooting is only such a very small part of what the final product ends up being, so you’re really just trusting and putting your faith in that it’s not going to end up being really embarrassing, and that’s always part of it.

Not to say that it was a huge struggle and I was going through some crisis of self-confidence, but there were certainly moments when I thought, Man, why didn’t I just dye my eyebrows too, but it’s too late now and we’ve been shooting this for a month and I don’t like the way my hair looks – those kind of very human difficult things.

What did playing Judge Anderson teach you about yourself?

So much, actually, especially as a woman, being sensitive is a good thing, and in the world today women are constantly told that they are too sensitive and that is a bad thing, and that they should be like men. I think that where Anderson really excels in her sensitivity. She is so incredibly sensitive to everything around her. Normally that would make her unfit to be a Judge, but she knows that in her heart, and during the course of the film she proves it’s that sensitivity that really makes her capable of being a Judge.

I think that’s a pretty major lesson to take away, that the key is in letting more in, giving more, being more sensitive, not shutting down and closing off – that might make your decisions easier, but it won’t make you happy.

Being a sensitive person, did the violence in the film affect you at all off-set?

No, certainly not, because in the movie world it doesn’t feel real. When you’re shooting that stuff it couldn’t feel less real. There is lots of cutting and action, there’s no long continuous thing where all that is happening. And also a lot of stuff was added in post-production, a lot of the explosions, not all of them, but a lot of the violence. At the time, being there in the flesh, it didn’t affect me at all, it was actually the opposite, it was kind of like playing laser-tag or paintball – but with incredible production values.

So it was actually really fun to be given these weapons with blanks, and me & Karl would be given tactical practice when they would take over one of the office floors in the studio and plant their stunt guys and we would have to go through and tactically clear the area – it was so much fun.

If the film is successful and they approach you about a sequel, would you return to the role and where would you like to see your character’s arc go from here?

Fingers-crossed, because I would be so thrilled to revisit this character, because I really like her. There is 30 plus years of source material to draw on, and I can’t profess to be acquainted with all that, but Anderson has some very interesting ties to the Dark Judges and I think that whole concept in general is really fascinating.

With these Judges, Mega City One has just turned them bad, and I think Dredd himself is in such high moral seat of right and wrong, and Anderson has such a finely tuned sense of it as well, it would be very interesting to see them come up against more Dark Judges. You see them come up against kind of  crooked Judges in this film, but yeah – Dark Judges, Judge Death – she gets chained to him for all eternity. That would be interesting to explore.

If they made a Judge Anderson action-figure in your likeness, what would that mean to you and would you own it?

Uh…I didn’t say anything just now because there were curse words of excitement coming, flooding… and I just stopped myself – but it would be friggin exciting to see an action figure of likeness!

Would you play with it?

[Laughs] Yeah, I would play with it! I would definitely play with it – I would probably bring her home to meet all the Barbies from when I was six-years old and they would hang-out.

DREDD 3D - © 2012 Lionsgate

How do you reach out to your fans? Do you use the Internet to see fan reactions and feedback?

You know, I don’t reach out to my fans very much, except in person and I do answer fan mail that I get, but I’m not that into social media. I don’t have Facebook and I don’t Twitter, I’m really into being as present as I can and even just having an iPhone, on which I receive email and text messages, is enough of a diversion.

Typically with a movie like this, you’ll experience a lot more rabid fan-base than you have before. How do you feel about having the increased attention to what you are doing?

I haven’t experienced it too much, but for the most part it feels the same. It’s an honor that people care enough to make the effort to connect with you in whatever way. I think that what gets me out of bed every day is the desire to connect with people and have meaningful relationships. So the notion of more people attempting to connect with me isn’t so scary – it’s kind of exciting, but I have experienced absolutely no change in my life thus far. I don’t know, we’ll see what it brings, but I don’t think you can put yourself out there and then do a double-take when you get attention for it, so it kind of all goes together.

With the popularity of comic-book movies over the past several years and the number of roles available, could you see yourself playing a villain in the future?

Absolutely, I would.  I think the most interesting characters are flawed. There is nothing interesting about someone who is perfect and does the right thing all the time. So, who gets more flawed than the bad guy? I mean, that person’s messed-up and mean – it would be very fun.

How were your relationships off-set with actors like Lena Headey [Ma-Ma], who you were fighting with when the cameras were rolling?

The fighting looks real in the finished product, but there is a lot of movie-magic in there. It’s just like sex scenes, when you are shooting them they’re not sexy, they don’t feel like anything,  it’s just another day at work and it feels just the same as shooting a dialogue scene – camera rolls, you do what you have to do, then the camera cuts.

Anderson and Ma-Ma don’t really have a relationship in the film, so luckily there was even less opportunity for my ideas of Lena to be tainted. But off-set Lena is so cool and I admire her tremendously, she’s incredibly beautiful, as we all know, but just so laid-back and incredibly kind and she was a pleasure to work with.

Olivia Thirlby - © 2012 Lionsgate

The weapons were so interesting in this film. Did you walk away with any souvenirs from the set?

[Laughs] I have to give a shout-out to Jason Wright, who is one of the weapons fabricators on Dredd. He built the Lawgiver gun, and no, I didn’t get my own souvenirs. But I do have so much love for the people whose creative minds think-up this world and can take a Glock and turn it into that -it’s very cool! The production design on this job was unbelievable.

I could always entertain myself on-set by just walking around peering closely at the details. Like the garbage that was dressed into the set if you looked at these wrappers and unfolded them they were like real futuristic candy bars.  There were vending machines and convenience stores and posters and everything you can imagine; this world was so fully-realized with stuff that you will never see from just watching the film.

When I was on the set it was so much fun to wander around and read all of the graffiti they had put up and the fake advertisements, and even the fake food was very carefully thought out and really beautifully done.

Are you hoping to do more blockbuster films like this, or are you hoping to go back to more indie films like Juno?

I’m not planning on having to make a decision one way or another. I’m really open to whatever comes my way and the crazy thing about blockbusters is that you don’t really know they’re blockbusters until after they come out. Sometimes you shoot a tiny little movie and it ends up being something really big, like Juno for example. It’s all just about finding projects that are stimulating creatively.

Olivia Thirlby images courtesy Lionsgate publicity


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About the author

Bob Leeper

Bob Leeper is the co-owner and manager of "Arizona’s Pop Culture and Alternative Art Network," Evermore Nevermore. He is the co-creator of the pop culture events Steampunk Street and ENCREDICON, and is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society. He also curates the Facebook fan site The Arizona Cave – AZ Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is one of the few brave and bold fans of Jar Jar Binks.