Wright talked to GQ about an extremely daunting first day on set.
If you ever venture into the “filmography” section of Sarah Wright’s IMDb page, what you’ll find there is an impressively long roster of roles as Staceys, Ashleys, Nikki/Nicoles, Trishes, and Tiffanys—and one Millicent Gergich. If she looks familiar, it’s because you’d have to have actively avoided TV and movie screens for more than a decade to have never seen her before. Wright has played the type of blonde human female known anthropologically as a megababe in movies like The House Bunny and Celeste and Jesse Forever and TV shows like Mad Men, Happy Endings, How I Met Your Mother, and of course, Parks and Recreation—where she played the eldest of the three improbably smokin’-hot daughters of Jerry Gergich (and erstwhile love interest of Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger).
But it’s American Made, the new film starring Tom Cruise as the real-life drug-smuggling, CIA-informing pilot Barry Seal, that gives Wright her most distinctive, spotlight-tugging role to date. Directed by Doug Liman, American Made finds Wright (sometimes credited as Sarah Wright Olsen) in the role of Lucy Seal, skeptical wife-turned-co-conspirator of Cruise’s Barry. She spoke to GQ about filming unorthodox sex scenes, the challenges of playing a real person, and life as a 5’9″ woman in an industry full of short guys.
GQ: How much of the American Made script did you read before you were like, “Okay, I have to do this movie,” or “I have to have this part”?
Sarah Wright: I read the first 15 or 20 pages and it was one of those things where you look back at the front cover, where it says, “based on a true story,” and I was like, “Wait, what?” I couldn’t believe it. But as I kept reading, I just really felt like I knew her, like I grew up with women like her. It was exciting; I’ve always wanted to play a Southern woman, because I’m from Kentucky originally. I immediately was like, “Yes. I would give anything to play this role.”
I was wondering! Your accent in the movie is so good—I figured you must have learned it somewhere other than a movie set.
Yeah. It takes one phone call back home to my mom and then I’m right back in there. I grew up in Kentucky, in a really small town called Horse Cave. We lived and worked on area tobacco farms, so I was around a lot of people with strong Southern accents.
I had a pretty strong one, and then I moved to Chicago when I was 18. I kind of adopted this sort of middle-American accent in Chicago, and then I booked this TV show out in L.A. and I really had to work on getting rid of that drawl that I had. From then on, I just kind of lost the accent. But I loved getting to bring it back.
What was the hardest scene to shoot?
There’s this scene in an airplane, a zero-gravity sex scene—where we sort of fly up and hit the ceiling and come back down again. That scene we shot on a soundstage on a half on an airplane that was connected to this thing called a gimbal that flips it around in circles, almost like a washing machine.
Inside of it, Tom and I are tethered to different parts of the airplane and to each other. So, when this thing gets going, we’re flipping around inside. It simulates that zero-G moment. So, it was just really daunting before we got in there, because everyone was like, “Is she gonna get sick?” I was gonna be so embarrassed if threw up on Tom Cruise. I really did not want that happening. So I was like, “Please God, if there was one moment where I don’t have a sensitive stomach, and just puke everywhere…!”
I did not get sick, thankfully, and it ended up being great. But we shot it at the very, very end. So I thought about it the whole time.
There are a bunch of sex scenes in this movie. Were any of the other ones that memorable?
Yes, yes. Gosh, I’m trying to remember, ’cause there’s all these quick cuts of them at the beginning, a whole montage of sex scenes right after Barry decides to go into the CIA. We shot all of those scenes on day one of shooting, which was insane. I was so nervous.
It was great, ultimately, because Tom and I were really comfortable with each other after that. But there’s a quick sex scene in a car—I was laying inside the car and Tom was on top of me, and his feet were sticking out of the car. But Doug wanted the garage door to go up and down. So, what ended up happening is that I had to have my leg in the air hitting the garage button, Tom’s boots and legs needed to be outside of the car, the car needed to be shaking. So, basically, the two of us weren’t even touching. We were just shaking the car and doing all these mechanical things to make it look like we were having sex inside the back of this car. I was like,”Yeah, this is exactly how I pictured a sex scene with Tom Cruise.”
He’s pretty famous for doing his own stunts. Did you get to watch him do anything crazy on set?
He did all of his own flying, and I got to fly with him. That was incredible. He’s such a great pilot. He loves it, too, so watching him do it was like watching a 10-year-old get to go to Disneyland for the first time. He was so pumped. Flying with him, I still say, is better than flying with anybody.
“So basically the two of us weren’t even touching. We were just shaking the car. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is exactly how I pictured a sex scene with Tom Cruise.'”
Your character is based on a real person—Debbie Seal, the third wife of Barry Seal. Did you ever get to meet her? Did you cross paths with her at all?
I did not. The producers talked to her and got some great stories and information from her about the couple’s relationship. That was incredible to be able to hear that. We were able to apply some of that to the actual script. But it was based on his wife, so I didn’t talk to her personally.
I did want to. But I figured, if you’re gonna pay tribute to someone authentically, then you want to spend a lot of time with them. I didn’t want to have just one conversation and feel like I maybe didn’t really pay tribute to what it was like for her.
That’s interesting. So it’s almost like, if you play a real person, you either want to know them really well, or just know the outline?
There’s a scene where Lucy puts on all of her jewelry and her fur coat, because Barry tells her the investigators raiding their house can’t seize anything she’s wearing on her person. What was that like to shoot? Did it take you forever to get into all of her jewels?
It was a group effort! Tom and Doug just started loading up my wrists, and Kim [Roth, producer of American Made] was putting necklaces on me. Tom was on my right side, Doug was on my left, and everyone was just loading me up with stuff until finally they were like, “Okay. That’s perfect. That’s it.”
You must’ve felt like a Christmas tree, everybody putting stuff on you.
I did. It was pretty hilarious.
You’re pretty tall, at 5’9″, and Tom Cruise is—famously—pretty short. Did you guys have to do anything creative on set to make it look like you’re seeing eye to eye?
You know what’s funny? When I auditioned for it I wondered—I didn’t know how tall he was actually, and I wondered if my height would be an issue. But it wasn’t an issue at all. It never even came up.
I saw him in sneakers, and he wore these brown shoes when we were shooting, work boots. I was always in sandals, but we were always eye-to-eye, in every single scene. And there was nothing done visually. But people ask. People that I see are like, “Is he standing on an apple box for you?”
There was a movie years ago that I was screen-testing for, and the guy that was playing opposite me as my love interest was a younger kid, in his twenties. I was supposed to be a little older than him, but because I was so tall next to him, they were like, “You just kind of… eat him alive.” So, it’s definitely been an issue before, but it’s fine. It’s… I’m sure things, I’m sure it’ll all even out.
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