'Dredd' star Olivia Thirlby talks 'badass' Anderson and keeping 'grit' of the comics alive
With a looming release date of September 21, director Pete Travis' "Dredd" is a cinematic reboot of the comic-book franchise that previously inspired a widely-panned 1995 film starring Sylvester Stallone. Along with Karl Urban as the title character, the new "Dredd" also stars Olivia Thirlby ("Juno") as Cassandra Anderson, a telepath who shadows Dredd in hopes of becoming one of the all-powerful Judges in the futuristic metropolis of Mega-City One.
Sitting down with HitFix contributor Geoff Berkshire at San Diego Comic-Con earlier this month, Thirlby spoke on topics including what drew her to the project, the film's inventive use of 3D, and why she feels this version is "truer" to creator John Wagner's vision than the '95 adaptation.
Immerse yourself in the wide-ranging interview below, then let us know what you think in the comments!
HitFix: I had a chance to see the movie the other night and I really liked it. It's hard to find a good female role in an action movie. When you read this did that immediately stand out as something unusual about the script?
Olivia Thirlby: Absolutely, yeah, most of the time in genres such as this one I think that the female characters are largely there to look hot. I'm not saying anything bad about that. That definitely serves a purpose, but that was never the idea for Anderson and I think that's what made me feel comfortable to play her. The character is so majorly badass in the script, and [it's] really Alex Garland who wrote this amazing character. But the costumes, even the way that they were designed, I remember being in the early fittings when they were just taking the measurements and telling me about what it was going to look like. The costume has a zipper on the front and I was saying, 'well can't I keep it unzipped a little bit?' And they were saying, 'no you can't, because this film is not about making you look sexy and buxom, this film is realistic and you're supposed to look like a riot cop. No riot cop would unzip their bulletproof vest down to show cleavage.'
HitFix: And she also really gets to carry the emotional weight of this movie.
Olivia Thirlby: Absolutely. Dredd as a character is so impenetrable. It's kind of what makes him so iconic and it's part of the character that he is, but he certainly doesn't show his emotions. He doesn't talk about how he feels and he lives in a very black and white world, so I think that Anderson was an ingenious device to be able to clue the audience in to the more grey areas of the justice system in this world, which is typically very black and white.
HitFix: Exactly. And did you actually go back to look at the comics at all?
Olivia Thirlby: I did. I looked at as much as I could. I was hungry to take in Anderson. It was a very exciting thing to take on a comic book role, and you want to do justice to the character that exists already and already has a life of her own, so I did go back and I had them give me a gigantic binder full of all things Anderson. And I looked through them and was delighted to get to refer back to some of that stuff.
HitFix: Your character is a little bit conflicted about taking on this role [of a Judge], but there's also something that drives her to want to do this.
Olivia Thirlby: She has a strong moral seat. She grew up in a slum, in a place where good people never saw the law come help them, and I think she grew up with this feeling that she would someday change that...and part of it might be revenge fantasy. She might hope that one day she will return empowered and be able to avenge poverty or avenge injustice in some abstract way, and so she is so committed to being a judge. She believes in the justice system fiercely, but the thing that makes it complicated is she has this extreme sensitivity to all human beings, all living things, probably much more sensitivity than a judge should have because it would interfere with the job so much. But I think the film explores how this quirk of hers actually enables her to be an exceptional judge.
HitFix: And it's a very violent movie. I think it's a very interesting movie because it has all these sort of layers to it that you were just talking about, but the violence is very extreme. What is your personal take on that?
Olivia Thirlby: I think that it has a place in this film, and I don't find the violence to be gratuitous, although it is very graphic. But I don't think the decision was a random one. I think that the decision to have this film be real was an effort to keep the grit of the comic books alive, and to me when I watch it, it just sells the stakes of this world. There are a lot of movies that have very graphic subject matter, but they just don't show the gore as much, and I actually appreciate the realism of a film that is not only afraid to tackle violence, but isn't afraid to show it truthfully.
HitFix: And it also has just such a striking visual style. Was that something that you knew was going to be in the film or did it surprise you?
Olivia Thirlby: Well working with Anthony Dod Mantle, who was our DP, just him having the body of work that he has and being the kind of artistic force that he is, we knew that he was looking through the lens and making it beautiful. There was never any question that he was shooting something mediocre visually just because he's so gifted as a cinematographer, and he embraced the challenges of 3D and wanted to not just shoot a film and also have it in 3D. He wanted to take this medium, which he was actually excited by, and try to make it even more exciting... It's like the idea of an artist embracing a new material to sculpt with. He really embraced it and wanted to take the 3D to the next level, and I think that he did. He built a digital handheld camera so he could shoot 3D in super close-up, which hadn't really been done before. I had filmed another movie in 3D just before "Dredd" and it was all wide shots and medium shots. There wasn't that much pushing the envelope in terms of the 3D thing, and I found "Dredd" to be the opposite. He was really pushing the envelope with the 3D.
HitFix: Yeah, he really did pull it off. A lot of filmmakers say that they want to do that when they work in 3D, but you don't always see it and in this one I think he really did. Did the 3D make the shoot more difficult at all? Were the takes longer? Was it any more complicated?
Olivia Thirlby: No, it was always a pleasure, even if you needed extra time for close-ups or something like that. But Anthony, besides being incredibly talented, he's also just a lovely person to have around, so he would never ask us anything that we weren't happy with.
HitFix: Both you and the director [Pete Travis] have a history with Paul Greengrass because you were in "United 93" and he worked on a film of his. Did that bring you together in any way, or is that purely a coincidence?
Olivia Thirlby: It's purely a coincidence.
HitFix: Okay. And it wasn't anything that you talked about on the set or-
Olivia Thirlby: We might have had a conversation about our shared faux documentary history, but no, for the most part we were pretty focused on the world of Mega City One.
HitFix: Right. Is this your first time at Comic Con?
Olivia Thirlby: It is. I was in New York Comic Con last year, but it's a totally different thing.
HitFix: Yeah, this is crazy. Have you been able to go on the floor at all or anything?
Olivia Thirlby: We were out there today. It's pretty remarkable. It's a phenomenon of human culture. I think it's very cool to see people's imaginations alive and well, and it's nice as someone who is in the entertainment industry to see that affirmation of the value of entertainment culture and that it means so very much to people. It's actually inspiring.
HitFix: Was making a comic book movie something that you specifically wanted to do?
Olivia Thirlby: It wasn't a goal that I set out to do, but this script was really exceptional. I read it and I was so immersed in it from page one. Just the character of Anderson - I remember that when I first read the script, which is a very preliminary thing to do, and as I read her first scene I was already saying her lines. And this was before I auditioned, before I made a tape, before anything. And reading a script is a necessary, but fairly meaningless part of the job hunt, as in just simply reading the script has no bearing on whether it will ever come to pass. I was in a hotel room in Moscow when I read it, and I was completely captivated instantly and I made an audition tape. And to answer your question, I didn't set out to make a comic book movie, but this experience has really solidified for me the fact that I adore Anderson. I love this character. I find her to be endlessly fascinating, and her journey is a really powerful and admirable one and I just I'm honored that I get to play her.
HitFix: So if they do make a sequel you definitely want to be back then. Right?
Olivia Thirlby: I mean that would be a real dream come true. She is badass.
HitFix: Exactly. Did you have any trepidation about that, or was it just really exciting to kind of get in there and do some of those big action scenes?
Olivia Thirlby: It was so exciting. I think that there is always some trepidation when you're making a film, and that's just kind of part of the process because regardless of how [the shoot] goes, the film is really constructed in post production, especially a film like this. So there is always trepidation when you're shooting. It doesn't matter what the genre is. There is always that kind of hopefulness that what you're making is eventually going to be crafted into something good, and it was nerve-wracking having to wear a leather bodysuit and having blonde hair for the first time and how was that going to look and all that kind of stuff. But it was so much fun to film this movie, aside from the fact that we were in Cape Town, which is [one] of the most beautiful cities in the world in my opinion. We also, all the training that was necessary to bring this role to life, like the tactical and weapons and the stunt training, was so much fun to do. It was just great fun.
HitFix: What were the sets like? Because they're so impressive onscreen. In person were they massive?
Olivia Thirlby: Yeah, they were very impressive in person. It was so much fun always to wander around the sets and look at the details. There is so much that film can't possibly pick up. It was to the most minute detail. For example, in almost all the hallways there are vending machines with individually designed specific products for Mega City One. There is a scene that takes place in the atrium of this apartment block and all of the individual shops and vendors are so ingeniously done. There was nothing that was overlooked, not a single detail, and of course it just helps us throw ourselves fully into these roles. The whole thing takes place in this one location of this 200 story concrete apartment block that's a mega block. It's not just an apartment building. It's an apartment building times 20.
HitFix: It's like a city.
Olivia Thirlby: It's completely self contained, schools, medics, everything. It's all in there.
HitFix: A movie theater...
Olivia Thirlby: Supermarket, everything, and it houses 75,000 people in this one building. So we had these sprawling hallways that were all connected that we were able to navigate around, and then there was one set that was three levels. It was two sections of the block and it went up for three levels and it was just a massive set.
HitFix: Yeah, it's really impressive.
Olivia Thirlby: They were amazing. The atrium of the apartment building is one of the only locations we were actually on. It was the civic center in Cape Town and it's only about two stories, and they added all the rest.
HitFix: Tell me a little bit about working with Karl too, especially since he has to keep the mask on the whole time. What was it like working with a costar where you can't even see his eyes?
Olivia Thirlby: Well, Dredd is such a complete character that I think as Anderson it never really phased me that I couldn't see his eyes, especially because Anderson doesn't need to see Dredd's eyes to know what he's thinking and feeling. And for that reason she is probably the only person on the planet that has ever been privy to Dredd's internal world, and that's I think what makes their relationship unique. He is humbled before her in that sense and right from their first interaction, where she is speaking through two-sided glass and describing the person who is there, I think that's why he instantly hates her because she can see inside of him.
HitFix: Does he hate her though? He seems to admire her in some way too.
Olivia Thirlby: I think so. I mean hopefully he goes on a journey. Dredd's world is very black and white. If the rookie failed the test she is not going to be a judge, as simple as that, and he doesn't think she should be in the uniform. He doesn't think she deserves to be. He thinks that she's a failure, and he's probably waiting for her to fail, and she of course can pick up on all of that, but Karl... Luckily Karl Urban is very different than Judge Dredd. It was just a joy to work with Karl.
HitFix: Since the original "Judge Dredd" was so poorly received and known as a flop, did that concern you at all?
Olivia Thirlby: This was always so distinctly a reboot, a complete reimagining. The knowledge of the former "Dredd" and its various merits and shortcomings wasn't really a factor at all I think in the making of this film. We're not trying to show anyone up. We're not trying to—it's not a one-upmanship game. It's not a who is best. It's simply this amazing source material, and all we did was make a feature that was true to the source material. And the former "Dredd" film took a lot more liberties in terms of the source material, so that's the only difference. It didn't faze anyone I don't think that "Dredd" had already been made because our idea was always to do it so differently.
HitFix: Did you ever get to meet Judge Dredd creator John Wagner?
Olivia Thirlby: John Wagner came to the set, and my meeting with him was so brief. I was terrified to meet him. Here I was like nobody, in the blonde hair and a leather bodysuit. We revere him as our creator and it was great when he came to set just to kind of see what was going on, but the most exciting part is having his support for the film. He was really happy with how this film has turned out and he thinks that I did justice to Anderson, no pun intended, and that's pretty much all I could—I think I can die happy. ...John Wager approves. We made the movie for the fans and he made the fans.
"Dredd" is slated for release on September 21.