What takes a young girl from Oldham to Hollywood within a brief period of six years? Olivia Cooke’s meteoric rise, from Oldham Theatre Workshop, to star in Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Ready Player One, released earlier this year, seems itself the stuff of movies.
Although her home is now in New York, twenty-five-year-old Olivia hasn’t entirely abandoned us. This autumn, we’ll see her star in the coveted role of the literary vixen, Becky Sharpe, in ITV’s sumptuous production of Vanity Fair.
“When I first heard I’d got the role, I felt an overwhelming sense of grateful excitement I’d got the job. But then I thought they have cast the wrong person,” Olivia confessed at the London launch. “Everyone has their impression of Becky Sharpe in their head so, after the joy of getting the role, I felt an impending sense of dread at having to play her”.
I’ve been fortunate to see the first two episodes, and Olivia’s performance on screen is excellent. Born and raised in Oldham, her parents divorced when she was a child and she and her younger sister, Eleanor, lived with their mother, Lindsy. Olivia loved ballet and gymnastics and started acting when she was eight years old at the famous Oldham Theatre Workshop. At 14, she secured her first local talent agent who placed her in a number of commercials. She appeared in One Direction’s “Autumn Term” video, as a student getting a piggyback ride from Cheshire’s Harry Styles! Olivia attended Royton and Crompton
Secondary School and studied drama at Oldham Sixth Form College. When she was 17, she starred as Maria in the college’s production of West Side Story. Soon after, she landed her first leading role at Oldham Theatre Workshop’s Prom: The Musical. She left college just before taking her ‘A’ Levels when casting director, Beverley Keogh, got her roles in two BBC miniseries, Blackout and The Secret of Crickley Hall.Both proved pivotal roles in Olivia’s career and eventually led to her leaving Oldham. “ I’m based in New York now paying flying visits back home. But that’s why it was great filming Vanity Fair because I was based here for six months. My mum, who still lives in Oldham, came down to see me in London for weekends. I couldn’t go back to Oldham because work on Vanity Fair was pretty full on. And you know what it’s like, wherever you are from, once you go back to your mum’s house for two days, you feel like a fifteen-year-old again!”
In 2012, still with no formal training, Olivia was cast in the film, The Quiet Ones and acquired an agent in Los Angeles. She played Emma, one of the leads, in the contemporary Psycho prequel Bates Motel. Her second feature film, The Signal, with Laurence Fishburne, opened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
That same year she led the cast of Ouija, horror film which proved a box-office success in spite of being panned by the critics. She also supported the Save The Children campaign by appearing in Bulgari adverts.
Olivia next appeared in the comedy-drama, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, in which she shaved off her hair because the female lead was battling leukaemia. The film premiered at Sundance where it was awarded both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards. Katie Says Goodbye, with Jim Belushi and Mary Steenburgen, was followed by Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem with Bill Nighy- both premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
Olivia then starred in the thriller film Thoroughbreds, which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Most recently she starred as Art3mis in Steven Spielberg’s science fiction adventure, Ready Player One, released in March of this year. She will also be seen soon alongside Samuel L. Jackson in Life Itself. But in spite of previous successes, Olivia admits she was still concerned about her starring role in Vanity Fair.
“When I turned up for the first day of filming in Budapest I was really nervous and convinced I didn’t know enough about Becky Sharpe.
She’s stuck in a class system and is determined to break through the glass ceiling by marriage. She’s become an expert charmer because she’s had to and if she was alive today she’d probably be running a film studio! But ultimately this is a story of female friendship and women empowering other women.”
Olivia reminisced about filming in Budapest and putting on a corset for the first time. “It was 35C, and it was sweltering. However, we were filming in a beautiful location, and we had a good first day. Tom Bateman, who plays my love interest Rawdon Crawley, Claudia Jessie who plays my best friend, and Johnny Flynn who plays Dobbin who is in love with her- the four of us got on really well and we laughed a lot which helps.”
Olivia also shares the screen with some of our most famous actors including Michael Palin, who plays the author William Thackeray. Indeed Michael revealed he’d chosen Vanity Fair as his Desert Island book, as it’s one of his favourites, and he impressed Olivia.
“Michael was such a gentleman and was so sweet and kind. There’s no ego there although everyone was a bit star-struck. It was also amazing working with Martin Clunes and Frances de la Tour. Martin was generous, very easy-going and a tremendous actor. We had such a ball together. Frances too was absolutely brilliant. I’ve just been very lucky with a great cast. I’ve never met a funnier bunch of people, and we laughed so much over the six months of filming.”
I wondered if Olivia had any family time during filming.” I was going to ask my mum Lindsy to be an extra in one of the ballroom scenes, but she would have died of embarrassment. However, she’s still really proud of me. She says everyone in the street keeps asking about Vanity Fair and how I am. She tells me replies- she’s still my Olivia!”
ITV’s Vanity Fair will be screened from September.