Olivia Wilde: Documenting Difference-Makers

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This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.” We wanted to support this global movement by devoting an entire issue of PASTE to men and women doing just that. We’ve partnered with Half the Sky, a book and documentary series from New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn. In the film, a Masaii woman named Rebecca Lolosoli clearly lays out the challenges that many women in the world still face: “The rights we want: We want to choose our husband; we want to own the land; we want to go to school; we don’t want to be cut anymore; we want also to make decisions; we want to participate in politics; we want to be leaders; we want to be equal.” We’ve enlisted some of the most effective women activists in this arena—people like Somaly Mam and Helene Gayle—along with some of our favorite actresses who’ve lent their time and influence to the fight. We’re an entertainment magazine, but like these actresses, we don’t believe that lets us off the hook when it comes to talking about more important issues. We begin with this week’s cover subject, Olivia Wilde, who excels as both an entertainer and an activist.—Josh Jackson, Paste co-founder, editor-in-chief.

Kibera is the largest slum in Africa and third largest in the world. Three miles from downtown Nairobi, Kenya, its makeshift hovels extend as far as the eye can see. Garbage piles higher than some of the shacks and shallow streams of sewage flow past barefoot toddlers playing alone in the streets and pre-teens getting high from cheap bottles of glue. My tour of area in 2001 was guided by a group of orphaned or abandoned adolescent boys who’d been the terrors of the neighborhood before getting off the streets with the help of a local doctor named Tom Olewe. Even after they turned from thieving and raping, they still faced difficult lives. But in many ways, the girls they knew had it even worse.

Olivia Wilde traveled to Kibera with journalist/filmmaker Nicholas Kristof for the documentary series Half the Sky. “Life in the slums is always shocking—and should be shocking,” she says in the film. “No privacy, no food, no electricity, parents who are desperate and maybe their mothers who are working as prostitutes. It’s really horrifying, the poverty that exists in the world.”

Kibera wasn’t the first slum Wilde had visited, though. Shortly after landing her breakout role as Doctor Thirteen in FOX’s House, she traveled to Haiti’s largest slum Cité Soleil, where she helped start the Academy For Peace and Justice, the country’s first free secondary school.

Wilde read Kristof’s book with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky, shortly after it was released in 2009 and credits the book with inspiring her activism. She was thrilled when the offer to be a part of the documentary project came along.

“I think before I was finished with the book,” she says, “I knew it would change my life. I bought it for everyone I met and I hoped something would follow it—something to flesh out the experience of reading it. So when I heard that the part that was available to me was in Kenya? Yes. Nicholas Kristof? Yes. It was really a dream come true in every single way.”

Really, though, that streak of activism has always been in her blood. Her family was filled with writers and war correspondents who weren’t shy about sharing their beliefs. “I grew up with a spirit of curiosity,” she says. “I never thought I want to be a journalist. I took for granted that it was part of who I was, that I had been formed by these people to move through the world in a specific way with a certain awareness. But I never thought about making it my career. I always hoped that I could use that in some way to make acting—which I have always loved—useful to the world by combining acting with making documentaries or being able to travel, and basically doing exactly what I’m doing right now is kind of my dream.”

When she’s not traveling to slums around the world, Wilde remains busy as an actress, as well. She plays a magician’s assistant alongside Steve Carrell, Steve Buscemi and Jim Carrey in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, which hits theaters March 15. She’s also in Joe Swanberg’s latest film Drinking Buddies, which debuts at SXSW next week. We talked with Wilde about her trip to Kenya and her upcoming films.

Paste: How did having journalists for parents and grandparents shape your view of the needs of the world and our response to it?
Olivia Wilde: They definitely instilled in us a sense of our responsibility as winners of “the life lottery” to be useful humans. We all love to tell stories in my family, and we’ve all found our own ways of using our voices to fight for justice.

Paste: How and why did you get involved with the Half the Sky campaign?
Olivia Wilde: The book floored me. I found it to be such an optimistic call to action. I wanted to be involved in the Half the Sky movement in any way. The opportunity to join Nick in Kenya was a dream come true.

Paste: What did you learn from your time in Kenya?
Olivia Wilde: I learned a tremendous amount about microfinance as a tool for combatting poverty. We met incredible women business leaders and community organizers, who have accomplished astonishing feats despite serious obstacles. I fell in love with Kenya! What a beautiful, wild, magical country.

Paste: Can you talk about some of the women in Kenya who inspired you?
Olivia Wilde: Rebecca Lolosoli is a political firecracker, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s leading her nation one day soon. She founded the Umoja village for women escaping dangerously violent homes. She formed a jewelry company to sustain this village, and though her struggles are still challenging, her accomplishments are extraordinary. She is a fearlessly passionate warrior for women.

Jane Ngori is a dressmaker from Nairobi who was able to escape prostitution thanks to Jamii Bora, a microfinance and micro-savings organization in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. She has three brilliant children, and even having to battle stigma and health concerns due to her her HIV diagnosis, has become an industrious businesswoman. She is a kind and generous mother, and I will never forget her son’s ninth birthday party, the family’s first such celebration, complete with a beautiful cake and a raucous dance party!

Paste: What was your reaction to walking around Kibera and seeing the destitution?
Olivia Wilde: My experience in Haiti prepared me somewhat for seeing the unjust effects of poverty, but Kibera slum was still a tragic wake-up call.

Paste: It can be overwhelming to think about the violence towards women on an international scale. What can we do about it?
Olivia Wilde: We can support organizations run by women who have identified the most effective way to help their communities.

Paste: Can you talk a little about the work of Nicholas Kristof on behalf of those in need?
Olivia Wilde: Nick is not only a brilliant journalist because of his thorough reporting and intelligent observations; he is also an extremely empathetic person, who understands the value of human stories as opposed to cold statistics. He cares deeply about peace and justice for all.

Paste: What did the book Half the Sky mean to you?
Olivia Wilde: The book is a call to action. Sheryl and Nick made each reader feel inspired and empowered by the stories of each astonishing woman and her journey from victim to leader. They seem to ask, if this woman has not lost hope, how dare we?

Paste: Do you have any plans to return to Africa or get further involved in international charities?
Absolutely. I can’t wait to return to Africa to continue exploring the continent. There are so many organizations I would like to visit and document. The capacity for human kindness is staggering. I am so proud to be a member of the HTS movement, as well as Artists for Peace and Justice in Haiti, and the other philanthropic endeavors I’m lucky enough to be a part of.

Paste: Can you talk a little bit about your experience filming Drinking Buddies and working with Joe Swanberg?
We improvised the entire script, and it turned out to be the most organic, honest performance of my career thus far. I love Joe’s movies. He has created a new process that allows for realism without sacrificing cinematic flavor.

Paste: And finally, you’ve done comedy before but nothing quite like The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. How was that experience of diving that deep into the comedy world?

The track associated with this story is from Kimya Dawson, who lent her music to the Half the Sky movement.

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