Olivia Thirlby has one of those faces. You know you've seen her before, but can't pinpoint where. She played Ellen Page's gal-pal in Juno, Natalie Portman's sister in No Strings Attached and Anna Paquin's bestie in the acclaimed drama Margaret. If you still can't put the face to the characters, don't worry; you'll be seeing a lot more of the doe-eyed 26-year-old in any of her six films out in the next 12 months.
It's with a sense of justice, then, that the sweet, hardworking actress not only gets her first lead role in the darker, grittier Judge Dredd reboot Dredd 3D, but steals the show as Dredd's (Karl Urban) rookie psychic partner.
"It was really a no-brainer," Thirlby says of the switch from support to lead actor. "I made my decision based on the script that Alex Garland (28 Days Later) wrote. I was drawn in from the first few moments of reading it and was making audition tapes to get the role. It was an exciting opportunity to develop a really amazing character in a character-driven action film."
Until reading that script, Thirlby admits she knew almost nothing of the AD2000 comic-book character created by John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra in 1977, nor Sylvester Stallone's lame film version in 1995.
"It's a world I'm not all that familiar with," she says from her home in Los Angeles. "I had heard of the character, but I think part of the reason I haven't seen the original film is because I've heard a lot about how bad it is."
Despite the stench of the original, Thirlby wasn't afraid to sign on to the reboot, which is already receiving strong reviews as a faithful, graphic actioner.
"This is something else entirely," she says. "I think they are so eager to completely divorce themselves from any notion of the 95 version of Dredd. It's not a remake. I don't think they even like that term 'reboot'. So it wasn't a problem to begin with."
Yet there were problems with the reboot, which sees Dredd and Anderson (Thirlby) imprisoned in a 200-storey slum-scraper and set upon by its drug-lord mistress (Lena Headey) and her well-armed minions. Fast-rising director Duncan Jones (Source Code, Moon) was reportedly offered the helm but turned it down. And director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) was rumoured to have walked during filming. The wafer-thin brunette insists the rumours are false and admits to having a ball in a much more physically demanding role than the indie film gal-pals she's accustomed to.
"I had a fair amount of combat training and that's a big challenge for me, because I'm a bit of a spaz," she says. "I'm about 5'3" (160cm) and 110 pounds (50kg). I'm not a born fighter. So I had to learn how to throw a good kidney punch and do a roundhouse kick and to make it look real. I trained every day with the stunt team and must have hiked up Table Mountain in Cape Town (where Dredd was shot) a couple of dozen times in my spare time."
Despite the physical demands, Thirlby found it easy to slip inside her rookie cop's skin.
"It's like playing pretend or dress-ups as a little kid," she says. "Only this is not all in your head. You strap on boots with 18 buckles and skin-tight pants that took two people to get me into. Once you're all suited up with a weapon in your hand, you start to feel pretty cool. It's all-consuming and literally puts you in the character's shoes."
It was that love of play-acting as a child, in fact, that inspired the actress in her later on.
"My mum wrote commercials and I would beg her to let me be in one, but she never did," Thirlby says. "I saw a lot of musical theatre growing up and studied a lot of Shakespeare. I did classes at the American Globe Theatre in New York and summertime Shakespeare productions in London."
After her big break at age 18, opposite David Duchovny in The Secret, Thirlby knew she could do it from then on.
"Truthfully, it's something that ignites me," she says. "It causes a spark in me that says 'Ooh - I want to do that'."
And that's just what the plucky, humble sweetheart will be doing in upcoming dramas such as Being Flynn opposite Robert De Niro and Paul Dano, and Nobody Walks opposite John Krasinski and Jane Levy. But she's not giving anything away about her role in Mystery White Boy, the much-anticipated, hotly pursued film about the late indie rocker Jeff Buckley.
"It's definitely happening and I'm honoured to be part of it," she says. "Having success is a welcome thing."
Dredd 3-D opens tomorrow.