By Andrea Mandell, USA TODAY
NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - The beer menu is miles long, but Olivia Wilde is confident, steering a guest to the Craftsman 1903 Pre-Prohibition Lager.
"It's not too heavy or hoppy," she says, holding up her pint of wheat-hued brew. "It's kind of light."
Wilde knows her beer - now. The actress took a deep dive into the craft beer scene in Chicago, touring local breweries for two weeks while preparing to shoot Drinking Buddies (in theaters Friday).
More starkly funny than standard sudsy, the romantic comedy is a boozy probe into personal messiness. Wilde plays Kate, an effective marketing manager at a craft brewery whose day begins in dark Ray-Bans and ends at the tap. Alcoholism isn't the focal point of the indie, but lifestyle is, and Kate, the ultimate cool girl, "is a mess," says Wilde, 29. "She's a mess and that's what makes her enticing."
Drinking Buddies dives into Kate's relationship with a magnetic co-worker (or work-spouse, in 2013-speak) Luke (New Girl's Jake Johnson), although he has a long-term girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) at home. Kate, too, is tied up with a stable boyfriend, Chris (Ron Livingston). When Chris invites the group on a getaway to his lake house and is drawn to Jill, blurred lines and transgressions, from the physical to the emotional, abound.
"The really interesting thing in seeing the reactions to it is that married men think Kate is kind of repulsive in her messiness," says Wilde, makeup-free and tucked somewhat inconspicuously into the back corner of a local North Hollywood bar. "They think, 'Oh god, she's a nightmare. I remember that girl in college -- she's a nightmare.' Single guys watch it and they're like, 'that's my dream girl.' "
Today Wilde is dressed simply in an army green button-down and jeans, her hair loosely tied back. A woman sitting on a couch nearby can't place her at first. "I know you," she says to Wilde curiously.
"What's your name?" When Wilde tells her, the woman instantly brightens. "Oh!"
The dark bar allows Wilde to slightly downplay her looks and killer figure, but fans know she can easily pull the curtain and emerge a magazine cover girl, a scene-stealer of awards shows, the face of Revlon.
"Here's the thing about Olivia," says Livingston, whose straitlaced music-exec character can't handle Kate's unpredictability. "She's a great girl. She's a terrific actress. She's good people. And she's drop-dead gorgeous. And I feel like the thing that the world learned about her first is that she was drop-dead gorgeous. And that's actually the least important of the four (qualities) to her. It's not her vibe at all."
If Wilde relates to Kate's turbulent path, it's in a historical sense. The daughter of two D.C.-based journalists, Wilde eloped at 19, marrying Italian filmmaker Tao Ruspoli in an abandoned school bus. Her TV and film career burgeoned in her 20s, from an early start on The O.C. to a star-making role on House, followed by films like TRON: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens and In Time.
In early 2011 Wilde filed for divorce, entering a period of dating she likens to "living out college" after being married during those years. It was then she began seeing former Saturday Night Live actor Jason Sudeikis, whom she became engaged to this January.
"I think Kate is very much a version of me if things hadn't turned out quite so well," says Wilde. "And I think a lot of the way things have turned out for me had to do with luck. Any successful actor is dealing with a lot of luck in their lives."
Sudeikis cameos as her dry, scattered boss in a role that wasn't intended to be his. "He was just visiting me and I roped him into it," says Wilde. "He came to visit me right before he shot We're the Millers. And I was like, 'Hi. Thanks for coming. So we don't have someone to play my boss. Will you change your T-shirt and will you come play with me right now and just improvise?' And he was like, 'yeah sure, let's go.'"
"Very few people can compete with Jason Sudeikis in terms of making you laugh and being dynamic on camera," says Swanberg. "Everyone already knows he's really good at that. So it was fun to work with Olivia and just see her - she's just so confident."
Early reviews have been strong. The Hollywood Reporter highlights Wilde, praising a role that allows her to step "out of the generic-love-interest slot into a leading role." William Goss, a critic for Film.com, says "Wilde's performance here not only makes the best case yet for her natural comedic chops; it also allows her plenty of subtly dramatic beats with which to convincingly convey the longing lurking beneath Kate's tomboy exterior." IndieWIRE's Eric Kohn calls it "her most assertive performance to date."
Wilde's upcoming wedding to Sudeikis is wrapped up in a new chapter for the actress, who turns 30 in March.
She's embracing the milestone. "The 20s are awful! It's like high school all over again!" she says, ticking off the sticky traps of youth: heartbreak, job mayhem, body issues. "It's so hard, it's so bumpy. It's like you're on this really bumpy dirt road and you're hitting all these rocks and then you suddenly hit the highway and you're like, ah! Smooth!"
Today she's wearing her large, round engagement ring, plus a tiny gold chain around her neck with the letter 'J' hanging on it. She swears Sudeikis has turned her into an "overly romantic" person.
"It's interesting because I'm the most committed, dedicated, hardworking professional. I really have always been. I like working. But if I had to choose between going to a press screening and going to support my fiancé at his press screening, I would do the latter," she says. "It makes me happy to support him. Which speaks to this kind of romantic spirit that he brings out in me."
Their upcoming wedding will be more traditional than her last, though Wilde comically repels at the word.
"I eloped before and that was its own experience, and I value it and I have zero regrets. But I'm really looking forward to making promises in front of all the people I love and care about," she says. This time there will be a real wedding dress, and bridesmaids. "A wedding dress is traditional," she agrees. "But my wedding dress won't be."
A SIZZLING FALL
New York-based (she and Sudeikis rent while in L.A.), Wilde is slowing down while working with a stable of highly respected directors. "At one point I was doing seven movies a year, and that spoke to a lot of how I was feeling in my actual life. Twenties panic," she says. "Just go, go, go." Now, "I feel no pressure to stay relevant."
But her fall is packed. In September she stars in Rush, Ron Howard's tale of the epic 1970s Formula 1 rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Wilde plays Suzy Miller, the model Hunt married before his philandering drove her to Richard Burton.
"I wouldn't have put up with James Hunt for one minute," she says. She reconsiders, a wicked grin crossing her face. "Maybe one night."
At the Toronto Film Festival next month, Wilde will debut Rush, along with Her, a film directed by Spike Jonze, and Third Person, a new film from Paul Haggis.
"I'm excited for Olivia right now because it seems that everybody all at once is waking up to the fact that she's really good, which is a cool moment to know her and be working with her," says Swanberg. "It's not a secret or a mystery anymore."
"I think people are really going to get to know her in a way that she hasn't been allowed to show herself," adds Livingston.
Wilde finishes her beer over a tale of her great-grandmother. Banished from the love of her life, her great-grandmother went on to marry a different man, as her sister intercepted stacks of letters he sent her. "And in her 80s, she ran into her former lover," says Wilde. "And they had lunch. And he said, 'I just have to ask why you never responded.' And she said, 'what letters?' And they got married."
"Isn't that amazing?" she asks, agog.
Well, either that happened or "My mom clearly took a sleeping pill and watched The Notebook on a plane and then she's like, 'I have to tell you, your great-grandfather is Ryan Gosling.' "