OLIVIA TAYLOR DUDLEY ON CRAFTING MAGICAL PERFORMANCES

Spring is always a wild time for television. There are many premieres but also too many season finales.  Tonight, the last episode of The Magicians season two airs on Syfy.  While season three is already set to shoot, that doesn’t make it any easier to know there’ll be long months without seeing what your favorite characters are up to.  Olivia Taylor Dudley’s character Alice Quinn is no exception.  For the last two seasons, Dudley has brought some magical badassery to the small screen.  Just as The Magicians students at Brakebills University work tirelessly to study their magic, Dudley does the same in her everyday life.  Her real life powers are her ability to create new and exciting characters out of thin air.  She first learned these tricks from her comedy background and continues to study the craft every day.  In this interview, read about how Dudley diligence and focus has helped her create magical moments on screen!

When did you catch the acting bug?

I want to say I was about five when I realized what acting was. I’d watch a movie and think, I want to do that. But it wasn’t until I was around 13 when I realized that you could make a career out of it. I got my first manager when I was about 15 and then I moved to LA by myself when I was like 17 just to start pursuing it as a career. My parents were really supportive of it and I had a hard time in school. I think that the idea all along was that I’d either drop out of school or move to LA the second after I graduated. When I got a manager at 15, my mom was driving me down to LA to see if this was something I really wanted to do—and it was. So when I told them at 17, “You know I think the school thing is not for me. I know what I want to do and I want to push really hard for it.” They were really supportive. I know I wouldn’t be here working if my parents weren’t so supportive.

I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t think a lot of people when they move to LA to become an actor realize that it can take a few years to get things off the ground. But it was the best decision I ever made [Olivia laughs]! 

Growing up did anyone inspire you to pursue a career as an actor?

I didn’t actually do any theater or anything when I was in school. I was homeschooled for a lot of my schooling, so I didn’t have a lot of exposure to theater programs or how to actually do the craft of acting until I moved to LA. I was obsessed with movies. I’m a huge cinephile. I would get movies, watch them 100 times over, make notes, watch the DVD, watch interviews. I got really obsessed with listening to interviews with actors and hearing about whatever mindset they had. I don’t think there was any specific actor who inspired me. I was sort of all over the map. Whatever movie I was into at the time I would watch 100 times over. I got really obsessive. I still am. I think I listen to at least three interviews with actors every day. I can’t stop. I like hearing about the way people think and the way their brains work. That’s what attracts me to this business. So when I’m not working, I have to get it from somewhere—podcasts and interviews.

You come from an improv and sketch background. Can you talk about how that helped set you up for success?

I got really lucky and got to be apart of starting a sketch group—an online comedy group—called 5 Second Films, who are now some of my best friends in the world. We started it before making short video content was a thing. We’d make films every week and put out a new video every single day. We’d film all day on Sunday. We’d film these sketches that were five seconds long. At the time, we didn’t realize how valuable it was. It was really a great acting exercise for improv, figuring out characters on the spot, having a place to stretch my acting ability. It ended up doing really well and a lot of people saw it. It was a gateway into finding representation and other people in the comedy world. We still have it going and we’re still making things with it, so it’s kind of like home base for me. The sketch world is a really supportive place for actors to stretch and grow. Having a sketch and improv background really helped me with dramatic work, as well. For any genre it’s really helpful because your brain has to be so sharp to do that kind of work.

Olivia in 5 Seconds Films Video “Knife in the Back”

You’ve worked steadily since you first came out to LA, but the funny thing about the business is that you never know what’s going to stick—which job will last the longest. The Magicians is such a huge hit. How has it been to be with this show as it’s grown exponentially?

It’s been amazing. I can’t believe how well received the show has been. It’s been such an honor to be apart of something with such a fan following and people are so stoked about and I’m so proud of. Yeah it’s true you never know what’s going to be the thing. I’ve done so many projects where I was convinced, “This will be the one. This will be my big break.” Then it ends up just being dusted away, nobody sees it, and it’s heartbreaking. The Magicians had a special feeling when I read the script and met with the showrunners. I met with everybody, loved the character [Alice Quinn], and was like, “This feels special to me. It may not mean something to anyone else, but this will mean something to me.” We started shooting it and right away it felt clear that we were creating something unique that people haven’t seen elsewhere. Between John [McNamara] and Sera [Gamble] our showrunners and our crazy dense insane scripts and the group of actors they cast were perfect for it. It felt really good from the get go, so it’s really nice to see it out in the world.

We have really great fans. The Internet wants to talk and you never know what you’re going to get, but Magician fans are great! It’s been pretty incredible.

It’s such an intricate, visually interesting show, which, as a film buff, I’m sure is really cool to watch all come together behind-the-scenes. How is it for you as the actor to navigate the external stuff, like the effects, and still stay present in the scenes?

I mean it’s a really big show to shoot. We have all these different worlds our characters are going back and forth between.  There are so many different characters. We’re really lucky because our cinematographer, Elie Smolkin, does an amazing job with the show and he literally creates different feeling worlds when we’re on set. The way he lights it, the ware set designer designs the sets—it kind of does the work for us…They’ve done a really good job of letting us go to these places where our imaginations can run wild. We actually do a lot of practical magic; we don’t do a lot of green screen work or visual effects. I mean some of the magic is done with effects. I can’t really shoot fire out of my hands and sometimes I have to do that. But for the most part, we try to do most of it practically.

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Jason Ralph and Olivia Taylor Dudley on The Magicians

Last year we had a scene where the character Quentin opened a black hole and my character had to come in and close it. So on the day we shot it, they got a giant black balloon that covered the whole building.  They blew it up as the black hole was supposed to be getting bigger.  The whole space got darker. Then they had wind machines blowing and things flying around. We literally did everything practically, which as an actor is such a powerful tool. When you’re part of it your body starts to believe that’s what’s happening. I think they tried to do that as much as they can for us. I think people watching the show can feel that things are really happening and we’re not just standing around in front of a green screen pretending unicorns are there. Also, that’s something I wish are show had more of: unicorns. I’m working on it [Olivia laughs].

What’s your advice for aspiring actors?

This is just so hard. It’s really rare to actually be doing the thing you love—the actual acting of it. I always say make your own content, have a community you can make things with. It feeds your soul and it helps you not get down on yourself. Also, I love watching movies. When I’m bummed out about something I’ll watch a movie, I’ll go to the movie theater alone, I’ll watch movies at home.   For me, that’s what motivates me and that inspires me. I think that if you find what inspires you and your support system, that goes a really long way in this business. You can’t control the jobs and you can’t control the people, you can’t control the outcome of a project. But you can control how you feel about everything throughout the day. So yeah, create content and watch a lot of movies. ♦

Watch The Magicians season finale tonight at 9/8c on Syfy!

Photo Credit: 5 Second Films, Syfy/Carole Segal
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