If your entertainment studio produces movies packed with supernatural suspense or nail-biting TV series, you’ve probably had Olivia Cooke at the top of your contacts list for the past several years. The British actor went from amateur productions to auditioning for professional work at 14, quickly vacuuming up so much work that her agent advised her to skip theater school. She did, moving nonstop through roles in don’t-watch-them-by-yourself chillers like “Ouija,” “The Limehouse Golem” and 49 episodes of A&E’s “Bates Motel,” a prequel to “Psycho.”
Earlier this year, the 24-year-old brought her saucer-eyed ability to play young and reflect angst — or cause it — to a superstar performance in the bloody comedy “Thoroughbreds.” She played an aloof trust fund teenager casually plotting to murder her bestie’s obscenely wealthy stepfather.
While cold sweat has been Cooke’s calling card, “it wasn’t a conscious decision to go down the horror route,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “I grabbed those opportunities as they came.”
The only acting experience that gave her jitters was meeting Steven Spielberg, who cast her as the female lead of his virtual-reality-themed fantasy “Ready Player One,” which opened Thursday.
“I don’t know why he wanted me,” she laughed. “I do know that there was extensive auditioning with different boys to see if we have the right chemistry. But I don’t know. I don’t know. You’d have to ask him.”
The film takes place both in a gritty, dystopian 2045 and a surreal VR universe. Cooke had never done anything like a double-edged role that exists largely within a digital video game as a not quite human pink-haired avatar. She performed partly in live action in front of a standard lens as Samantha, a regular teen.
Then, to become the digital sprite Art3mis, she pranced about before a tracking camera wearing motion-capture tights and face-mapping visual markers to capture every expression.
The role was a good opportunity for Cooke to demonstrate her range. Art3mis is a fearless and competitive star in the film’s gaming world, committed to winning the competition for the greater good of stopping the corporation that owns it from siphoning money away from its addicted fans.
“I just loved her because she’s selfless and active and passionate, a conscious and responsible member of society,” she said.
Like every Spielberg movie, this has a moral. The tagline in the film’s advertising is “Accept your reality or fight for a better one,” which Cooke finds appropriate.
“If we don’t make change and we don’t look after our environment and we don’t have people leading us in the right direction, then we’re going to be propelled in that direction at a very fast rate.”
Beyond the irresistible opportunity to work with a legendary director and cutting-edge technology, the film was an introduction to cultural material that Cooke had never explored. Based on the bestselling novel by Ernest Cline, “Ready Player One” is a cornucopia of 1980s pop culture references and video game geekery.
“I’m not too schooled on the games at all. But the film is very inclusive. Even if you haven’t played any video games, you’re not excluded at all. It’s a classic Steven Spielbergian adventure that nods to the past but is set in the future,” she said.
Cooke’s next film also features a cultural throwback — a soundtrack peppered with Bob Dylan songs. “Life Itself” follows the cascading effect of one event over many generations. She stars as the angry, rebellious, trauma-touched daughter of Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde, with an ensemble including Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening and Samuel L. Jackson.
“It’s a story that takes place over a few decades. It’s incredibly emotional and well acted, a lovely film I’m so proud to be a part of,” she said. The horror genre’s loss appears to be drama’s gain.