About 10 years ago, around the time Olivia Wilde was playing Alex on The O.C., still a year or two away from her breakout role in House and half a decade from her first blockbuster in Tron: Legacy, she got a taste of what it would be like to be a woman in Hollywood. A friend, a female director, told Wilde what happened when she took meetings about the film she was trying to get financed. First, the director would try to convince the studios on her own, explaining why her film mattered and should be made; then, when that inevitably didn't work, she'd bring in a man, someone who didn't have any connection to the movie, or even Hollywood.
As the director told Wilde, with a man in the room, financiers would begin to listen, ask questions (to him, of course, not her), talk about how the film felt more "real" than it apparently did when explained only by a woman. They'd take the man seriously about getting the movie made, while the director, on her own, would receive little more than a pat on the head, she recounted to Wilde. It's a "troubling" tale, in the actress' own words, and one that's stuck with her for a decade.
"As I started producing things, I kept this in mind," Wilde, who worked both behind and in front of the camera on this month's Meadowland, tells Bustle. "I even thought strategically at certain points, should I have a male partner? Will that help these projects move more swiftly? I have felt the instinct to question if I needed that lesson, certainly."
But "now, I would never feel that was something that would make a difference," she says.
Hollywood has certainly come a long way since the time of those meetings, and Wilde, who's worked on nearly 50 projects as an actress and producer over the course of her career, has seen the changes first-hand. When she first started out, most of her roles could be summed up neatly as "girlfriend of" or "daughter of" — now, she's played everything from a magician-in-training to a super-powered zombie. She's starred on hit TV shows, led comedies and thrillers alike, is pursuing a producing career that's taken her from tiny indies to crushing dramas. She's Hollywood elite, with the kind of resume most actresses dream of.
And while Wilde may no longer contemplate getting a man to do her negotiating or finance her films, she is the first to admit that the reason for this is not solely the work she has done herself (although it's undoubtedly been impressive), or even what's been accomplished by her peers. No, says Wilde — it's the audience who has caused this "sea change" of progress.
"There are so many films with five guys and one girl. I’m f*cking over that! I want to see five girls and like, maybe a guy."
"I think that we’re raising a generation of women who now see no reason for the kickass protagonist not to be female," Wilde says. "We’re raising a different type of woman now... there is this new generation that is going to change the way that entertainment is made, and I’m so excited about it."
These young women, this "new generation," are the teenagers coming out in droves for The Hunger Games and Divergent; the film students Wilde talks to and who tell her their dreams of directing; the girls and women who are sending her female-driven scripts every month, hoping to get their movies made. They are Jennifer Lawrence, who wrote an impassioned essay in Lenny Letter this month about pay gaps and fighting for what's hers; they are Amy Schumer, whose recent Apollo special tackled everything from body image to double standards. They are, as Wilde says, changing the way Hollywood runs, by championing women in an industry that's reluctant to do the same.
"Film is further behind than we think," says Wilde. But, she adds, "like any industry, it’s going to respond to demand... and people have started to make noise."
That's an understatement. From trailblazers like Lawrence and Schumer to the federal investigation into the lack of female directors to the fact that Wilde's Meadowland, a small, dark indie both starring and directed by women, even got made, the proof is everywhere that the film industry is changing at an incredible speed. Wilde says she is "optimistic" about the future of women in Hollywood, and while she's not naive about the challenges that still lay ahead — in 2014, women made up just seven percent of directors on the top 250 films and just 12 percent of protagonists of the top 100 grossing films, according to studies by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film — she says she's hopeful that things will only continue to improve.
"I would never discount the need to continue fighting for equal rights in every industry," Wilde says, "but you can’t be a part of a movement and be pessimistic... people have to see the light at the end of the tunnel and feel that it’s getting ever closer."
"If we wait for Hollywood to hand us things, it’ll just never happen."
And closer it's getting, with every movie released and script produced by and for women. When Wilde began work on Meadowland, an indie drama about a couple grieving the loss of their child, she knew that getting the film made wouldn't be an easy process; despite all of Hollywood's progress, a dark, tiny movie starring, produced, and directed by women isn't exactly a quick sell. She and the film's director, the "incredibly badass" Reed Morano, fought long and hard to get Meadowland, out now, released in theaters; Wilde says she knew that their success would mean more than for just their movie.
"If you can’t get these films made, then no one’s ever gonna see them, and then women are going to feel that they shouldn’t bother going to film school and becoming directors, because their movies are never going to get financed," she says.
More and more, though, Wilde says, women are taking matters into their own hands and proving that "institutionalized sexism has changed." "Fearless" actresses like Sandra Bullock and Charlize Theron are taking roles that were originally meant for men; "Incredible" filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Gina Prince-Bythewood are making major strides for women of color; "Inspired" female writers and directors-in-training are sending Wilde and her fellow producers scripts in which "nine out of ten" are meant to be directed by women. As Wilde says, "if we wait for Hollywood to hand us things, it’ll just never happen."
"There are so many films with five guys and one girl. I’m f*cking over that! I want to see five girls and like, maybe a guy," Wilde says.
But, she adds, "I don’t want Hollywood to make it. We should make it."
So she is.