Oldham-born actress Olivia Cooke has made the move to Hollywood but is she ready for her biggest challenge yet: taking on Britain’s prime-time Sunday night TV slot with the UK’s latest adaptation of Vanity Fair?
The 18th century novel about the search for wealth and social climbing in English society has been adapted into an eight-part series for ITV in which Cooke plays the feisty Becky Sharpe. We chat to the actress about relocating from Manchester to Hollywood and her next big career step.
Vanity Fair is following in the footsteps of shows like Downton Abbey; how do you feel about that?
“It’s prime Sunday night telly, the kids are back at school, and it’s getting into autumn and a lot hinges on what your drama of choice is around that time. I love the fact that England still has this telly culture where everyone sits down to watch that programme even in the age of Netflix and streaming services. I really hope that people will embrace it as much as the drama before it.”
What has playing your character, Becky, in Vanity Fair taught you about yourself?
“That you can afford to not wallow in things that have been missed or lost, and that it can be quite crucial and helpful to plan, as my character Becky Sharp often does. There’s always a plan, always a scheme, after something goes wrong.”
If you could be more like your Vanity Fair character, Becky, in some way, what would it be?
“I’d like to be a little bit naughtier, a little bit more mischievous, and I would like to not care about what people think of me.”
What do you think makes the show special?
“I think it’s been told and retold time and time again because it is such a special story. Even when the book by William Makepeace Thackeray is set in the early 1800s, it was so forward-thinking, and even though it felt definitely of the time, these characters are incredibly modern and I think will continue to be related to whatever time we’re in at the moment. I think this adaptation plays with that modernity, into the way its shot, the language isn’t overly stuffy and doesn’t alienate an audience and looks to the camera, which I think invites the audience in even more. There’s an attitude to it; there’s an air of cheekiness that I don’t think has been in other adaptations before.”
What does being from the North mean to you?
“Well there’s an inherent identity with the North that I think is different from being from anywhere else in England. There’s this sense of strength; there’s a bit of a chip on our shoulder. There’s definitely a chip on my shoulder from feeling immensely proud of coming from Oldham and having the accent that I do, but also that there’s still the ingrained class battles that you have to face and prove yourself just because of the accent – how it kind of dictates the working-class background, but I think that there’s a massive amount of pride there for me because I’m Northern.”
How was moving from Oldham to America?
“I was 18 when I did it and it felt like there was just no other option to me. I just wanted to get out of Oldham and travel. I wanted to excel in my career and I got a job in America; I got a job in Canada first, so there was no other option.
What’s the biggest difference between Manchester and America?
“Accent! The humour, but I mean, architecture-wise, between Manchester and where I was in New York, is not too dissimilar.”
How did you find working with Steven Spielberg on Ready Player One?
“He was just really lovely and down to earth. I mean you never forget the fact that you’re working with Steven Spielberg, but he undercuts your nervousness with his own anxiety about the performance at hand and, I mean, not any outright advice, but his demeanour and his kindness on set is very inspiring.”
In the UK, and Manchester especially, we’re seeing more women at the forefront in the creative industries – do you think it’s the same in the US?
“I think there’s a conversation about it everywhere because it’s at the forefront at the moment, and it’s in the press all the time. There are some changes with more female producers, more female storytellers, but I still think it’s being talked about a lot and I think a lot of these ideas need to be put into action.”
There’s a huge push for women to gain more diverse roles at the moment, what’s your experience of that been?
“I have only ever taken roles that have interested me. In the past, before it became a massive conversation, I hadn’t really thought about taking a role that’s just the girlfriend, or the wife, or the woman at home pregnant, while the man goes off on the massive adventure, that, even without me thinking about it, wasn’t really interesting to me and I’ve always wanted to challenge myself. I’m quite grateful for the fact that I’ve always played diverse roles and hopefully will continue to!”
Since the start of the ‘me too’ movement and the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, have you noticed a shift in your industry?
“I’ve noticed that men are a little bit more timid, scared. I mean, god! It doesn’t mean you can’t talk to us! [laughs]. I’ve noticed that there’s a little bit of a shift, but I think also it’s a bit too soon to be able to see if there’s been a complete upheaval.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“Be kind but firm.”
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
“I think meeting and becoming really, really good friends with the cast in Vanity Fair: Claudia, David, Tom, Johnny, and Charlie. I can honestly say that I love them all to pieces, and even if the show doesn’t do well I’m so happy to have met them and to have worked with them.”
Lots of actors are now venturing into writing, producing and directing, does that appeal to you at all?
“Yeah absolutely! I’m already starting to do that. I’ve got a couple of films that I’m producing at the moment. There are new authors and there are new stories and short stories that I get sent and articles that I find really appealing and would love to get the rights to, and option, and develop that into a story.”
How did you find playing Becky Sharpe? Did you relate to her?
“Well the thing is, as actors, we’re always dialling up and dialling down little bits of ourselves, because in order for it to be honest it’s always got to come through the prism of our personalities. I mean I love her [Becky’s] cheekiness, and her mischievous side, but I would hope that her selfishness, and her blinkered view of the world, and her cutthroat ambitions in life doesn’t exactly mirror mine!”
The series is based on a novel from the 1800s; do you think audiences today will still find it relatable?
“I think it’s a story that has been incredibly, incredibly timely for whatever period of history that we’re in at the moment. I think that’s why it’s been adapted so many times. I think it will continue to be timely because it’s got two women at the forefront, and their love is the longest lasting love and relationship throughout the entire book. They’re two incredibly flawed, [seemingly] perfect women and neither is the archetype for a pure honest woman.”