Sundance kid

With a slate of daring roles in the works (lesbian werewolf?!?), Juno breakout Olivia Thirlby won't be the best friend forever.

It’s tempting to think Olivia Thirlby is full of crap. When she called from an L.A. hotel on the morning of the Oscars, the 21-year-old actor made not one mention of being nervous. Okay, so she was born and raised in the East Village, and she wasn’t nominated for anything. But still Juno—in which Thirlby plays the titular character’s sensible best friend—was up for most of the night’s big awards. She was gonna be seated, like, all the way up front. Shouldn’t this chick have felt neurotic about something? “It takes a pretty massive situation to get me hysterical,” she says. “I’m, like, the textbook definition of a Libra.”

Well, for reasons astrological or otherwise, Thirlby’s star is on the rise. Since making her film debut among the doomed passengers of 2006’s United 93, she has been building a reputation with a string of solid supporting performances. In the coming months, she returns in two Sundance highlights: the grim drama Snow Angels (Friday 7), in which Thirlby plays a nerdy teen with a big crush, and The Wackness, a coming-of-age flick set in the mid-’90s (July 3). More are on the way, including a dual turn as both a teen and a 36-year-old mom in The Secret, and a reunion with her Juno costar Ellen Page in Jack and Diane, which sounds like your garden-variety lesbian-werewolf thriller.

So far, praise has focused on Thirlby’s “natural” and “authentic” teen presence and how she manages to deliver big with such small parts. In fact, ask her what she brought to Juno, and you’ll hear her moxie surface again. “I basically like to take all of the credit for the story,” she says. You can laugh, but she’s not joking. “It’s Leah who comes up with this totally inappropriate idea to look at adoption ads. She’s the one who sets the saga in motion. The whole story wouldn’t exist without her.”

Surely that sounds like a pile of highfalutin bullshizz, but Thirlby’s assurance in both herself and her roles is genuine. We’ve all met someone like this—the sort of New Yorker who exudes an unflappable self-confidence that borders on entitlement, yet who is driven for all the right reasons. Snow Angels director David Gordon Green clicked with her immediately and shut down a full day’s casting after the two met. “She’s self-aware without being self-conscious, exotic yet down-to-earth,” he says. “She’s really good at being herself and saying her own thing, and that brought out the best of everyone in the room.” It’s hard not to feel jealous of all that cool conviction. “That comes from my dad,” she admits. “He’s owned a construction company for 30 years, and problems arise every second, but he’s very centered.”

Born in 1986, Thirlby grew up at 6th Street and Avenue B. “My entire sphere of existence up to when I was 18 years old was between 6th and 16th,” she remembers. Of course, Alphabet City was quite a different ’hood back then. “My parents know they were absolutely insane to raise a baby there. But I wasn’t aware of how nice the neighborhood was or wasn’t.” Dad started his company in their building’s storefront. And Mom was an advertising executive who would leave ad copy along the lines of “Take Advil for your aches and pains” lying around the apartment. “I once took that into the bathroom to rehearse it and then I performed it for her,” remembers Thirlby. “I loved playing dress-up. As soon as I was old enough to say, ‘I wanna try acting,’ I did.”

She developed her chops in school plays (at Friends Seminary on the East Side) and the Shakespeare program at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Early on, the seemingly unshakable youth discovered at least one thing that made her anxious. “I’d feel this debilitating nervousness the moment before I’d go onstage,” she recalls. “But you just step out and it goes away.” Movies aren’t the same. “There’s definitely no nervousness in film. You’re not performing for anybody at all, really. You’re just trying to be realistic.”

Scoring the United 93 gig during her senior year put a temporary kibosh on her school-play career—although it certainly moved her buzz beyond the auditorium. Maybe it’s because she’s a New Yorker, but one senses that no matter how much attention Thirlby attracts in the coming years, she’s simply too well-grounded to snap like some of her peers, or to generate a new gossip industry like some others. “Acting is not who I am, it’s just what I do,” she offers. And no, she’s not full of crap.

The Wackness screens at the Tribeca Film Festival starting Apr 26.

NEXT: Olivia Thirlby’s cinematic ascension »

Role coaster

A playback of Olivia Thirlby’s cinematic ascension

United 93 (2006)
Thirlby was barely 19 when she landed her first screen role, playing 21-year-old college student Nicole Carol Miller in this re-creation of the ill-fated 9/11 flight. Now she’s a 21-year-old who plays teens. Go figure.

Juno (2007)
As the BFF, Thirlby may not have originated jargon such as food baby, milktate or honest to blog. She just made it sound…human.

Snow Angels (Fri 7)
She lends much-needed warmth and hope to this ice-cold yarn about love and murder in a small town. Take her out of the movie and audiences would need to be put on suicide watch.

The Wackness (Jul 3)
This snapshot of NYC circa 1994 was a major hit at Sundance, and gives the young actor her breakout leading role. Stay tuned.

Margaret (later this year)
Kenneth Lonergan’s upcoming thriller-drama matches Thirlby with Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo and Matthew Broderick.

Jack and Diane (2010)
Lesbians. Werewolves. What more do you need to know?