By PETERSON GONZAGA
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—It’s seems like yesterday that audiences saw actress Sarah Wright Olsen in “The House Bunny” and “21 & Over,” playing co-eds in both films. Olsen has moved on to the “hot mom” world as she stars opposite Tom Cruise in the Doug Liman-directed action comedy “American Made.”
The Kentucky native gets to tap into her southern roots as she plays Lucy Seal, wife of a commercial pilot turned secret government operative and sideline drug smuggler Barry Seal (Cruise). Based on a true story, the film centers on Barry Seal, a well-regarded commercial pilot who is bored and burned out at his job. He is approached by a secret agent to fly over various spots in Central and South America and take intelligence photos for the government, a job which he does quite well. With his success, Barry catches the attention of notorious Colombian drug dealers who call on him to become their drug runner to America. All the while, his wife, Lucy, must hold down the fort back at home, taking care of the kids and the household.
While on a whirlwind global press tour for the film, Olsen spoke by phone from London. Married to actor Eric Christian Olsen, she eagerly spoke about her high-profile role in the film, despite feeling a bit jet-lagged.
Q: How’s London treating you?
Olsen: it’s good. The weather is amazing right now here, but I swear I’m in a bit of a jet lag haze all day today.
Q: Hopefully, you’re not too tired to talk about “American Made.” When you were offered the role, were you already aware that Tom Cruise was connected to the film?
Olsen: Tom (Cruise) was already attached when I read the script. I was reading the script to go in for audition with the director and the producers, and I fell in love with it. I couldn’t put it down. The story was fascinating. Obviously, Tom Cruise is someone I’d definitely love to work with. I was so excited to read for it. I wanted to play a southern woman for a long time and sort of harness that southern girl in me that I had anyway because I’m from Kentucky. This was really exciting to jump in with. I never thought in a million years I’d get this part but I was pretty shocked and overwhelmed when it actually ended up happening.
Q: Playing a southern woman in the film, were you able to channel your most southern part of your personality and also being based on a true story? Did the filmmakers give you any leads on how to play Lucy?
Olsen: No, because the character is loosely based upon the wife. They wanted me to really sort of find my way with the character. Part of the reason Doug (Liman) loved me for this role was that when I came in, I just sort of had this strong sort of southern mama in me anyway. He saw that and knew that we could build from that. I grew up around a lot of strong southern women. As soon as I read this, I knew what this woman ate, what she did during the day. I knew where she lived. I knew where she worked. All those things just made sense to me. I didn’t have to build a backstory. The backstory was something from my childhood. That made it easier. Also, it was fun to play with that and to be able to add that to this character.
Q: You’re also a singer. Were you hoping they could sneak in a scene in there where you’re singing?
Olsen: (She laughs.) That wasn’t a part of the script at all. I never thought that would be a part of it at all, but I hope to do that in some point in my career. Tom told me that the different roles he’s done in his career was something he’d think about. Like, “I’d really like to do something where I fly planes,” (and) it happened. Or like, “I really would like to do something where I sing in a film,” and he was talking about “Rock of Ages.” It was a funny thing because, before the movie, I was thinking that I would really love to play a southern mama and that ended up happening. And now I’m thinking, “I want to play a role where I sing.” I wonder if that’s possible.
Q: Tell us a little bit more of your first meeting with Tom along with the table reads, rehearsals and so forth? What was your first reaction to working with him?
Olsen: I met in him in Atlanta when I was doing the audition. I arrived off the plane and it was Doug Liman and he was like, “Hey! We’re excited to have you and we are going to have so much fun tomorrow in Atlanta. Hold on a second, Tom wants to say ‘hi.’” I almost swallowed my gum with Tom Cruise on the phone. The next day was the audition. When we pulled up, Tom was standing outside the building we were going to go into and so I was so nervous when I saw him there with his sunglasses and the whole thing. I was hoping to God that I wouldn’t fall out of the car or trip on my walk towards him. He was just wonderful and we talked and he wanted to chat with me for a bit before we went into the audition. It really helped me to calm my nerves and I felt very comfortable with him once we went into the audition. The audition was four hours. It was sort of like a long work session of the scenes. It was such an incredible learning experience.
Q: What was the best part working with him? Did you have any reservations of doing some of the scenes like the one where you slap his face?
Olsen: That scene is one of my favorites. We had spent a long time working on that scene and trying to figure out what direction we wanted to take it, and it was a very pivotal point for the characters. When we first shot it, it really didn’t work. We had to go back and figure out what we had to do differently for this couple in this moment. It was such a strong scene for Lucy because I felt this is the moment where she’s driving and really pushing at him to be open and honest with her and demanding that he pull this together or I’m going to take the kids and going back home. That was really fun to shoot because it was terrifying and at the same time it was exciting because it felt like it was a big challenge. We all trying to figure it out that we were doing it together.
Q: There were some scenes where you and Tom’s character were in Colombia. Did you actually shoot scenes on location in Colombia?
Olsen: I shot in Colombia, in Medellin. We were shooting in some of (notorious drug lord) Pablo Escobar’s buildings and houses. The thing about shooting there, you got the sense of the culture and the energy of that place. We had this great band playing music and fireworks going off in one of the scenes and it set the tone and made us feel like we were back in that (1980s) time period being there.
Q: Were you familiar with that time period and the whole Iran Contra scandal?
Olsen: I was very little when all of that went down. I didn’t necessarily remember the time. There are some parts of the story in the film, that I was like, “Oh. I know that.” When I read it, I called my dad, who is a big history buff, and I asked him if he knew everything about it, and he knew the whole story. He gave me all his insight into it. It was fun to hear his perspective to hear someone who was in tuned to that time period.
Q: Did you father get to watch the movie?
Olsen: My dad would come to set and he got to meet Tom, which was amazing, and he saw the trailer of the movie which was a huge win for me because he passed away last year.
Q: Sorry about that?
Olsen: Thank you. He was very excited to watch the trailer. He watched it seven times in a row. The producers sent it over to him. It was amazing.
Q: Lucy seems so empowered. Do you love to seek roles where the women are empowered even if the role does not include a lot of screen time but they are in those key scenes that makes the movie?
Olsen: I really was drawn to this character because she was a force. She was definitely not a thankless role. She had a very strong voice and presence in the script so I was drawn to the aspect of the script. Also, when Doug Liman does a movie, he loves to empower the women in the film. He usually gives women amazing roles, if not sometimes better than the men, and so I was excited to work with him and someone who loves and focuses on that as well.
Q: What is your takeaway from the film? And how has it helped you grow in your career?
Olsen: It was fascinating to learn about so much going during that time in politics and it’s crazy to realize so much more that we don’t know that goes on behind the scenes. It was sort of like watching the story unfold while shooting the film. It was really fascinating how wild this guy’s life was and how much he really did seek adventure, and how I feel about the whole experience with him. He was an outlaw. He was a guy who was looking for that adventure. I don’t condone what he did but, at the same time, Tom plays this very charming and engaging character turning it into this thing that was so fun to watch. To me, we were making this into a kind of comedy and that was really fun to be a part of that.
Q: Speaking about comedy, how exciting was to see that this filmed turned something serious and light-hearted that even though Barry was doing something bad, like you wanted to root for him?
Olsen: That was the kind of the point that we kept saying. We’re making a comedy. Even from the day we were doing the audition, there were things that we were playing with and Tom could not stop laughing in the room. It was kind of like we were finding or trying to walk that line to make this an irreverent comedy but, at the same time, get this powerful message and story across.
Q: Not get too political, do you think we need this type of comic relief to help alleviate the tone that’s going on in the U.S. today?
Olsen: (She laughs.) I wish it was that easy. It would be nice to find comic relief in it all. Now more than ever, we have to stand up for what we believe in as citizens.
Q: You’ve done quite a number of comedies. Do you look for comedies or are there any other genres that you would like to try?
Olsen: I’d like to do an independent drama with a fascinating story but also, I love doing comedy. Doing an all-female comedy would be really fun for me and there is some other stuff I’ve been reading lately. Something that has a musical and comedic aspect to it would be such a dream job. I’m pretty open, but I’m excited to find the next thing that gets me going.
Q: What keeps you going as a person and an actor?
Olsen: I have two kids. I have a four-year-old and a one-year-old; they are my world. When I’m not flying to London or shooting or whatever, I’m excited about taking care of my kids—making food every night and making lunch boxes, the whole thing. That’s the greatest gift I’ve been given is to have these kids and a wonderful husband. Balancing that aspect and this job has been incredible.
Q: What’s next for you?
Olsen: I took some time off to have my daughter so right now there is stuff in the works that I’m not sure about yet.
Q: Why should audiences see “American Made?”
Olsen: I feel like it’s going to be an entertaining ride and Tom is super-charming, charismatic and funny in the film. The film is so unbelievable that you can’t imagine it would be true.