Olivia Wilde began to realize what was happening when she would run down the steps and hop onto a subway in New York City. She would have her earbuds in listening to The New York Times‘ news podcast The Daily while someone was “singing their heart out” on the platform — but she wouldn’t unplug to listen.
“I was not connecting with anyone,” she tells PEOPLE while munching on popcorn and drinking a green juice at Gallery Mar in Park City, Utah during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. “I realized I’m more guilty of it than anyone.”
Instead of looking up from our phones, we want to stay in our “safe cocoons,” which “disallows any spontaneous inspiration,” muses Wilde. “Everything is prepared.”
This realization inspired Wilde, who made her directing debut with 2019’s Booksmart, to begin working on the short film Wake Up for HP, starring Margaret Qualley from Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. (Watch it below.)
In the powerful short, Qualley was so committed to the role, says Wilde, that “she herniated a disc in her neck and threw up at the end of the shot.” “She threw herself into work with reckless abandonment,” says Wilde.
In the short film, Qualley walks and dances around New York City striving to connect with everyone she encounters. Instead, everyone remains glued to their phones and computers.
“I hope that we can use it as a starting point for a conversation about how to find balance,” says Wilde. “Technology is a wonderful tool for connection and creativity, but are we capable of finding a balance so that it doesn’t completely disconnect us?”
The project, says Wilde, is “a recognition of my own reality and how I see it in all of us. When that happens we lose the opportunity to be surprised by the world around us.”
Wilde, now 35, says it “feels really satisfying to really understand what I do.”
“I think that comes from understanding your ‘why,'” she says with a smile. “I recently got to interview Nancy Pelosi. One of the best things she said was, ‘When you know your ‘why,’ you’re capable of anything.’ It sort of sounds obvious but when you plug into that it’s really motivating. I find that now with directing, I really understand what I do that other people don’t do. You find your why, your specific skill.”
Wilde says she found her confidence to be a director when she began to direct music videos ten years ago. When she acts on other people’s sets, she admits to being like “a spy,” observing how the director works.
“Now I feel that I’ve really hit a certain pace, a certain rhythm, where I understand my process. I’m still learning so much every day,” she says. “It feels like a pivot, but one that is healthy and allows you to appreciate every experience you’ve had.”
What’s amazing about the business, says the mom of two, is that “you’re capable of flowing in between the different roles within the industry” including producing, acting, writing, and directing.
“The fluidity within those positions is so liberating if you take advantage of it. I think many actresses are not encouraged to take advantage of that fluidity,” she says. “The doors are open. It’s not actually a wall. It’s like a beaded curtain, you just have to walk through it. I feel so inspired and energized by that realization for myself.”
She adds: “I’m really lucky that I get to be doing this now. It just shows, also, that you can find your ‘why’ at any age. It feels like I found my truth.”