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Olivia Hamilton talks First Man and getting into acting


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First Man, tells the story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the years 1961-1969.

Olivia Hamilton plays the wife of Astronaut Ed White, who must deal with the aftermath of her husband's death during the mission. We spoke to her about the making of this giant leap for mankind.

Read our review here.

How did you prepare for the role?

Because it was a historical piece, I did a lot of general research about the time period and ordered a bunch of etiquette books so I could learn more about being a woman in general at that time. The most important thing I did was go to Dallas to meet the daughter of my character, Bonnie White. We had brunch and also spoke with her brother Eddie, my character’s son. That was so helpful in learning about the specifics and the family dynamics and relationships, and how my character related to the space program. I remember I asked her, “Did your mom ever complain about how much time your dad was away?" Because [astronauts] were away a lot. And she said she never ever complained. She was very much a believer in NASA.

Did the film change your perspective on the Apollo 11 mission?

Absolutely. When I read the script and also when seeing the film, I was amazed at how much failure and sacrifice was involved. I didn’t think of it as sort of military families in the way that it was, how they were risking their lives and how many people died. I had no idea. And what the film does is show that these are real people. This is not a superhero action film that’s not real. Those were real people and real families.

It’s quite surprising that the story hasn’t really been told on screen before. 

Yes, I know! I think it’s great though that there has been some distance from it so you can step back and also see how it applies to today’s time period. I find it to be inspiring and I think a bit of a wake-up call in the way that, okay, if our generation wants to achieve great things, it’s going to take maybe a bit more muscle than we’ve all been putting in.

Did you feel an added pressure on set from playing real characters?

Yes, I felt added pressure playing a real woman, whose children were going to see the movie. I think that’s where all of our heads were at, that this was a sort of duty and an honor, to tell this story that had never been shown this way and have real people see their parents on screen. That was always in my head, just wanting to do it justice.

So you had the support of Neil Armstrong’s family?

Yes, his sons were really involved in the script stage and then they came to set. The writer Josh Singer was doing research on the subject for four years so he also spoke to Neil’s sons and all the NASA people he could get his hands on, and anyone related. Everybody was really supportive, it all felt like a big family. Talking to Bonnie about NASA, they all talk and know each other. It was like a whole community and they were all very involved in the movie. She was my date to the Toronto film festival!

Damien Chazelle and Olivia Hamilton - Photo by Charley Gallay - © 2017 Getty Images 

Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling already worked together on La La Land. What do you think is so special about their collaboration?

I think they’re very compatible about what they like in film and acting. And they both very much value things that feel organic, improvised and real. They’re both averse to things that feel very movie-ish, those one-liners that you don’t really feel like a real person would say. So they share that, and I think they’re also both very collaborative. There are some actors who can just show up, take the script and say the words as written, and there are others that feel more ownership even in the writing of their character. And I think Damien likes working with actors who take that ownership, which Ryan does, so it’s a nice combination. This was actually the first project they had decided on working together, before La La Land. And Neil [Armstrong], he’s is a very specific type of person. I think not every actor could pull off his quiet, inner, sort of reserved but very thoughtful and intelligent nature. And Damien always really wanted Ryan to play this role, and he got his wish.

There was some controversy about Damien Chazelle’s decision not to include the planting of the flag during the moon landing. Do you have any thoughts on that?

No one really expected or predicted that it would come up in that way, but the fact that it has become a controversy to me is indicative of how relevant an event that happened almost fifty years ago is today. That we’re still debating what was already a debate back then: is this an American achievement? A global achievement? What does it mean to be a hero for your country and for the world? So I think it’s great that people are discussing it and for me, it reinforces the relevance of the film.

You studied Economics and Finance at Princeton. How did you transition into acting?

I don’t know if you were the same, but I was the kid that did a lot of things in high school. I did acting, sports, and all the academic things like Model UN… But then you get to college and you’re forced to narrow it down into one thing. And I was just very determined to be good in what I was doing. So I didn’t want to do anything subjective, which is why I ended up doing economics, because I knew that it was, you know, math problems, and if you get it right you can get a good grade. And I did like that world to some extent, but I didn’t feel fully fulfilled.

Ultimately, I ended up reading this book called The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron). It’s a twelve-week, self guided path towards higher creativity. Sounds very loony but it’s amazing and has been around since the 80s. It’s very much a self-discovery process. I was writing in a journal about acting a lot, but often writing that it was too late, that I should have done it five or ten years ago. Then I ended up saying ‘okay, I’m just going to take a class at night, while I’m working’. And I loved it. I felt that I was listening to my gut. I quit my job, tutored economics as my ‘waitressing job’, moved to LA, and just went for it. I think a lot of the time, it’s hard to know what your gut is, especially when you grow with a lot of other voices in your head. And for me those voices were “prestige, prestige… do something prestigious!” and you don’t even realise that’s not what you want until later.

Do you have any advice for students who would want to get into the industry?

Yes, I’d say make your own stuff. I feel that, obviously studying the craft is very important, but it’s an art form. And I think that you can only find your voice and finding what’s unique by really doing it, and it’s hard to get opportunities when you’re new at something. What really made me grow in confidence was writing roles for myself, and filming them, and then editing myself and seeing, what was good and was wasn’t. Because you’re an instrument and every instrument is unique. So that would be my advice.

 First Man lands in cinemas on October 12th.


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