Twenty-year-old Olivia Cooke has just been cast in Steven Spielberg’s next film, Ready Player One, despite “self-sabotaging” her audition. “He’s really lovely,” the Mancunian gushes, clearly relieved. Filming won’t start for quite some time, but the announcement is placed prominently on her IMDb page, which the very private Cooke finds odd. She “can’t be bothered” with Twitter or Instagram, she says. “The thing with social media these days is you can’t really say what you want. It’s always going to be judged or backfire. I don’t want to be a spokeswoman unless I’ve really got something worthwhile and important to say. Otherwise, it’s just pictures of, I don’t know, fucking lakes and beaches. It’s like a mum showing pictures of her child.”
Technically, and sort of ironically, her breakout role was a nonspeaking part. In a video, filmed to be played behind a One Direction tour, Cooke can be seen gallivanting in a field with the boy band. “That was just half a day of my life when I was 17,” she sighs. “It was 250 quid. They’d only just come out of The X-Factor so they weren’t even known at all. It’s a bit embarrassing that that was, like, the start of my career.”
Next came “screaming at nothing, CGI-ed ghosts” and suffering on-screen illnesses in an array of American and British accents (but never her own rounded northern intonation). She gasps and cries in The Quiet Ones, Blackout, The Signal, Ouija, the forthcoming Limehouse Golem, and in an ongoing role in the TV prequel to the horror film of all horror films, Bates Motel. Here, Cooke’s character is not only dangerously close to the young Norman Bates, slowly discovering his psychotic tendencies, but she often needs a respirator for shortness of breath due to cystic fibrosis.
Arguably, Cooke’s real breakout wasn’t until this year, when she played Rachel, a teen with leukemia, in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, based on the popular Jesse Andrews novel. The screenplay, also written by Andrews, intentionally waffles between sentimentality and distraction through its referencing of classic independent film. The clever format is telling of its characters’ hyper-researched generation and also of the way anyone, young or old, handles tragic loss. Devoted to the role, Cooke opted to shave her head halfway through filming instead of wearing a skullcap for when her character undergoes chemotherapy. (The studio promised to pay for the $10,000 wig she’d need for continuity in Bates Motel, Cooke confides.) Authenticity has no price. “[Rachel]’s a totally real-life character,” says Cooke. “You don’t want her to just be another Manic Pixie Dream Girl that just comes in and changes this guy’s life and then edges away slowly, saying all these really profound things in her last moments of life. She’s human, completely human.”
For her starring role in the forthcoming Katie Says Goodbye, the freedom that came from what she calls “bare-bones drama” (meaning no horror or illness to muddy a character’s emotional distress) completely changed Cooke’s way of thinking. Katie, a small-town Arizona diner waitress, prostitutes herself after hours.
“She wouldn’t call herself a prostitute, though,” Cooke corrects. “Sex isn’t a taboo subject for her. She sees this as a simple transaction—she makes these guys happy and she gets paid for it. I don’t want to go on the bandwagon of how women are perceived in films, but it was so freeing for me to be liberated of any inhibitions, any embarrassment.”
Without having seen a cut of the film, she’s ready to defend its depiction of sexuality, if only for the sake of variety. “You never really see a woman being pleasured in film,” she says. “You see a woman getting raped or beaten, or seen as the jailbait, or she’s the old hag, but you’ll never see a woman in control of all of her sex. It’s a weird thing in America when you’ll see someone’s head being blown off more than you’ll see someone having a loving, intimate sex scene—which actually happens all the time. Rarely does someone’s head get blown off.”