“Miniature enthusiast” is how Olivia Wilde describes herself in her Instagram bio. And with her sophomore directorial effort, Don’t Worry Darling, the actress-turned-auteur has created her own self-sustaining ecosystem—the Stepford-like 1950s community of Victory. You can imagine Wilde gazing down, Godlike, at a maquette where every detail is perfectly period-accurate. “Designing this world made me Frank,” she says, referring to the alpha-male founder of Victory, played by Chris Pine. “Because I was saying, ‘This color will never be seen in my town, and I want everyone to wear these dresses, and this is the car I want to see.’”
But putting a project into the world, she has found, inevitably means relinquishing control. Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, transformed the way Hollywood saw her, after nearly two decades in the business. But it has nothing, in terms of column inches, on Don’t Worry Darling, which has become the most talked-about movie of the year. (It came in at #1 its opening weekend, an impressive outing for a second-time director.)
That’s due in part to its intriguing premise, 18-studio bidding war origin story, and stacked cast, including Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Pine, and Wilde herself. (Wilde has a turn as Bunny, “the all-knowing salty friend” who crackles with “an almost pickled cynicism.”) Outshining all the stars, though, is a media meta-narrative around the film that—with its themes of sexism and public scrutiny—oddly echoes that of the movie. Instagram gossip hub DeuxMoi doesn’t chronicle the day-to-day doings of Martin Scorsese, but Wilde is another story. In case you’re reading this from your home under a rock: She has been in the news for her reported relationship with Styles, a rumored feud with Pugh, and a disagreement with Shia LaBeouf about the backstory behind his departure from the movie (a conflict that was not yet aired when we spoke). Then there’s her contretemps with ex Jason Sudeikis, who served her custody papers when she was onstage promoting the film at CinemaCon.
Over tea, Wilde confides her disappointment with the way the story has been “minimized into bite-size TikTok points.” When I offer that it could be good publicity, she says her intention was not, as she jokes, to “throw myself into the flames for the movie.” She wants people to pay attention to what’s onscreen, and is frustrated that the press hasn’t. “This film is trying to ask big questions, but [it’s] ‘Let’s just focus on this sideshow over here,’ ” she says. “Having been a known figure for a while…makes me well-equipped to have a Teflon exterior. But it also means that you’re under a different kind of microscope. It’s brought my attention to the media and how it pits women against one another.” (For what it’s worth, she has nothing but praise for her leading lady. “She’s so generous in her acting in every scene. She makes everyone around her better.”)
Meanwhile, Wilde is developing, and set to direct, a Kerri Strug biopic with the working title Perfect, and reportedly has a deal with Sony to direct a hush-hush, female-centric Marvel feature. “A few of the things I have in development are about the raw determination of women,” she says. “Clearly, I idolize women who survive a system that they feel challenged by.”
Perhaps it’s something she can relate to as she navigates this latest chapter. “It is shocking to see so many untruths about yourself traded as fact,” she says. “Florence had a really wise comment that we didn’t sign up for a reality show. And I love that she put it that way, because it’s as though the general public feels that if you are making something that you’re selling to the public, you somehow have accepted that your life will be torn to shreds by a pack of wolves. No, that’s actually not part of the job description. Never was.”
Her only-in-Hollywood moment
“Tom Hanks wrote me a letter after Booksmart. [It was composed on a typewriter.] I gather this is a Hanksian practice.”
On Don’t Worry Darling’s complicated feminist perspective
“I’m very curious about our collective complicity in [upholding] the patriarchy. I found myself seeing a lot of content that was struggling to address feminist issues and instead becoming either really simplified or overly didactic. I had no interest in making a feminist parable that was judgy or that defined men as bad and women as good. I was much more interested in that tense space where we recognize our own participation in the system that objectifies us.”
How 1950s conformity lives on today
“Your lawn was the same size as the next person’s. There was a choreography to life that everyone was learning. And I think we still do it. Instagram—and unfortunately all social media—is where you go to learn your expected choreography.”
On the political reverberations of the movie
“We knew about the movement to overthrow Roe long before we started making the film. It’s something that’s ever-present. I have been very involved in the pro-choice movement, and it’s introduced me to probably the ugliest, most depressing element of our culture in terms of [certain pro-life advocates] who have made vicious, violent threats against me. I mean, no one else has threatened to throw acid on my face other than a ‘pro-life mom.’
“We had a bunch of Trump quotes up on our board when we were writing the script, and there was this gross tendency of Trump’s to be very nostalgic about a better time. What these men are referring to is a time that was horrific for anyone who wasn’t a straight white cis man. It was interesting to recognize that I had spent my entire life lusting after the iconography of this time when I would’ve had very few rights.”
On plunging into the thriller genre
“Phoebe Waller-Bridge said to me: ‘People are never more vulnerable than when they’re laughing.’ There is an opportunity to really get to people when you disarm them with humor. I think that same process is present in making a psychological thriller. You’re hypnotizing them into a state of vulnerability so you can catch them off-guard, and as an audience member, I really enjoy that experience….What creates collective anxiety, I think, is very telling about our culture.”
On the movie’s controversial sex scenes
“I was interested in acknowledging female pleasure that doesn’t come from penetration…. The one area of cinema where I don’t see people being held back [about sex] in this way is queer cinema. Harry has a film coming out, My Policeman, which is a wonderful example of real eroticism that is explored and treated in an adult way without being fetishized or objectified.
“But it’s interesting because Florence very wisely pointed out that a lot of attention has been given to the sex scenes. And I think she’s so right. I completely agree with her that it’s overshadowing everything else that the movie’s about, which is so interestingly ironic because one of the uses of sex in Victory is as a tool of distraction. When Florence pointed that out that this film is so much bigger and better than just the sex scenes, I was so happy that she said that because I feel the same way.”
On receiving ageist hate on social media
“It’s so interesting for me when that comes from women because I’m like, ‘Do you plan on not getting older? Or if you already are older, do you feel that you don’t deserve the same opportunities in life?’ It’s so sad to me to look at that and realize people have such small expectations for their own lives and they are projecting those expectations onto me. And I reject your projections.”
On motherhood in the spotlight
“I share custody of my kids with my ex. If I’m photographed not with my kids, people assume I have abandoned them, like my kids are just somewhere in a hot car without me. The suggestion is that I have abandoned my role as a mother. You know why you don’t see me with my kids? Because I don’t let them get photographed. Do you know the lengths that I go to to protect my kids from being seen by you?”
“I think that the greatest demonstration of power is the ability to listen and to maintain your cool when everything inevitably falls apart, and to make other people feel empowered. My ‘no assholes’ policy comes from being an actress, seeing so many fucking assholes on set and how it never made us do better work. It’s something that I take very seriously, and we let go of people who aren’t kind all the time…. I think it should be the expectation of the workplace. We don’t say, ‘My set’s a no sexual assault set.’ ”
How #MeToo has changed Hollywood for women, five years on
“There’s a much stronger sense of community. We were kept in separate rooms for a long time…. [Women] could realize, ‘Wait a minute, why have I been told you’re my competitor? You’re not. You’re actually my partner. How convenient that they told us we were competitors.’ ”
Dress, Ralph Lauren Collection, $3,190, ralphlauren.com.
Hair by Mara Roszak for Rōz; Makeup by Mélanie Inglessis for Armani Beauty; Manicure by Megumi Yamamoto for Chanel Le Vernis; Produced by Lola Production.
This article appears in the November 2022 issue of ELLE.