Olivia Cooke Central STAFF   April 01, 2021

Olivia Cooke Slips Into Dark Lipstick for a Complicated Spring
After finding her noise-rock edge for the Oscar-nominated Sound of Metal, the British actor channels a new mood.

It was only a couple of years ago that Olivia Cooke learned how to really scream: a primal, guttural roar set loose from the body, the kind of sound that turns the soul inside out. For her recent role as the withdrawn, hard-driven front woman Lou in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, she had six weeks to learn how to play the guitar, operate a loop pedal, and perform the searing noise-rock track that cements the acoustic texture of the film’s opening. On top of all that, she had to tear open a sonic aperture in her petite frame through which she could channel Lou’s raw, dynamic power, the character’s hidden strength.

“I think we all in the shower imagine that we’re performing to 3,000 people, rocking out with a guitar onstage. But the reality of doing that is so much more traumatic,” Cooke tells me over Zoom, leaning in so that her dark, expressive eyes loom large in the center of the screen. She’s at home in London filming a new series, and all around her the city is in the midst of another coronavirus lockdown. With her wild auburn waves and daring mouth, 27-year-old Cooke resembles nothing so much as the heroine of a gothic novel, a girl about to wheel around and face the monster head-on. So it’s surprising to hear her divulge rock star performance anxieties: “sleepless nights, dreams about it all going wrong.” Shrugging slyly, as if literally shaking off the seriousness of what she’s just said, she adds, “I mean, when’s the last time you screamed out of something other than fear?”

This merger of the heavy and the buoyant is a signature of Cooke’s work. She made a name for herself playing the wisecracking gamer Art3mis in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One and an alienated, affect-flattened teen in the cold-blooded indie Thoroughbreds. But her most recent turns—opposite Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal and as the star of the haunting, quietly heartrending speculative thriller Little Fish—are evidence of an actor who has learned to leverage a deep internal steel, complicating the luminous vulnerability visible at her surface. With her doll-like features and deep Manchester accent, Cooke channels an uncanny mixture of melancholy, mirth, and mundanity. And what skill set could be more relevant, as we crack jokes on Twitter beneath the shadow of a pandemic, a growing climate crisis, and rising global fascism?

The full orbit back to March, marking a year since most everything ground to a halt, has some people seeing lost time; others look for clues in the last moments of life as we knew it. Rodarte’s fall 2020 collection, shown last February in an imposing New York church, stands out as a harbinger of things to come: vampiric allusions, lips like black roses. It was a mood even before the real mood arrived a month later, with the WHO’s official declaration of a global pandemic. By the time the California label debuted its spring 2021 collection via a cautiously photographed look book—winsome floral frocks offset by holdover plum lipstick; somber expressions caught in sunlight—the subtext felt unsettlingly familiar: the heavy and the buoyant. As Cooke’s face animates my screen, that image floats to mind: I can imagine her painting her lips an inky burgundy, the rich color a mark of tenacious life.

Cooke’s latest role in Little Fish embodies this determination in the face of overwhelming pressure. In the film, Cooke plays Emma, a woman whose photographer husband, Jude (Jack O’Connell), falls victim to a mysterious neurological epidemic that causes its sufferers to lose their memories and, ultimately, their identity. As Jude’s condition deteriorates, Emma resolves to keep him intact through a regimen of memory aids, retelling the brighter, happier moments of their relationship even as she struggles to keep her own mind whole. Visions of a mask-wearing public anxiously awaiting a cure and seeking home remedies on the internet echo our own experience—but even more relatable, at a visceral level, is the firm set and subtle twist of Emma’s mouth as she quietly tamps down her grief to face the crisis ahead.

This spring brings a change in the tenor of our isolation, if not its substance: As the pandemic comes closer under control, the potential for levity looms on the horizon—perhaps a couple of months away, perhaps more. The vision for makeup, then, that might accompany our reemergence into the world melds reflection with a projection of the way forward: dark romance paired with resolute clarity. Pallid skin from a long winter indoors foregrounds a moody lip rich with softness and depth, as if anticipating the return of kisses on the cheek and conversations hunched over small tables. It nods toward the wondrous strangeness of seeing a face in person after some time away: bare skin with a hint of blush to freshen the natural topography, contrasted by oxblood lipstick that serves both as semaphore—a graphic language visible even from a social distance—and a gesture of hope for a maskless future.

Makeup artist James Kaliardos, the architect behind the vampy lip for Rodarte’s fall 2020 show, who conspired with Cooke via Zoom on the makeup for this shoot, says the look is about anchoring. “We’re easing into spring with a little bit of trepidation and a little bit of wear,” Kaliardos says, “and a little darkness.” We’re in a new era, he adds, as we reconsider the way we think and feel about safety, society, and our own bodies—and in the transition, makeup can help reassert something vital about our inner lives. This moment calls for a fresh incarnation of the gothic: still informed by an almost Victorian awareness of mortality but insistently alive, the definition of the face’s contours a declaration of presence.

Little Fish ends on a grace note, a moment of great loss alloyed with qualified hope. To prepare, Cooke called on her own memories of her grandmother’s dementia, of watching her mother care for someone who had once cared for her. “It imprints itself on your mind,” she says of the experience. “And you do wonder whether it’ll come for you as well.” There’s a lesson there about resilience and return, about looking ahead even as we root ourselves in a difficult present. We hold on for the promise that we’ll be together once again, in real, lived proximity, our crisply defined mouths grinning at one another in relieved recognition, our uncovered faces warmed by the sun.


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