Prior to her role as 19th-century minx Becky Sharp, there wasn’t much in Olivia Cooke’s resume to suggest she had the personality to play the social-climbing heroine of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel “Vanity Fair,” premiering as a series Dec. 21 on Amazon.
She’s best-known here as Emma Decody, Norman Bates’ (Freddie Highmore) friend, a young girl stricken with cystic fibrosis, on “Bates Motel” (her first role US role). “I’d only been acting for nine months when I went to Vancouver at age 19 to do an American accent, try to be emotionally astute to this character’s diseases and work with Freddie Highmore,” says the British-born Cooke, now 25. “It was so scary. If you weren’t up to the task, you would be sent home if it’s early on and you’d only filmed a couple of scenes. But it was wonderful, learning to have the stamina to do 10 pages of dialogue a day.”
Cooke’s saucer-like brown eyes are a cinematographer’s dream, and it’s one of the reasons the camera loves her. To play Becky, the scrappy daughter of an artist and an “opera girl,” she also needed a healthy sense of mischief as the character’s fortunes often lurch on Victorian society’s volatile algorithm.
“All I wanted to do was be naughty and cheeky and mischievous. I relished playing her,” says Cooke of the role most recently played on film by Reese Witherspoon in 2004. “She’s conspiratorial with the audience and lets them in on the joke. Sometimes in period dramas, the audience is held at arm’s length. If the audience is let on board, it’s a fun ride.”
Cooke, who lives in New York, has been acting since she was eight years old, first in commercials, later in theater workshops. She never went to a fancy drama school like the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art because they didn’t accept her; besides, she was already working and her agent discouraged her from dropping out of the talent pool. Even though she works steadily, with her next project, the ensemble comedy series “Moving On” (recently announced by Amazon), there’s enough anxiety to keep her on her toes. “There are times when I’m not in favor or I can’t arrested,” she says. “I’m very much aware of those times. You’re always kind of in flux.”
“Vanity Fair” features a modern soundtrack with songs like Madonna’s “Material Girl” enlivening the freight of costumes and horse-drawn carriages. Each episode is introduced by Michael Palin, who, as Thackeray, tells the viewers they’re about to enter a world “where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.” It had a successful run on ITV in Britain. Cooke admits to feeling “anxious” that “Americans’ interpretation might be certainly different. She does it all with a wink and a smile and I’m hoping they can see past that.”