Dialogue: Elizabeth Olsen on Cults, Isolation, Her Famous Sisters and Creating Musicals About Standardized Testing

Dialogue: Elizabeth Olsen on Cults, Isolation, Her Famous Sisters and Creating Musicals About Standardized Testing

Oct 20, 2011

Elizabeth Olsen hasn’t been in a lot of movies, but she already seems to have them, and a lot of other things, pretty well figured out. Then again, watching her famous sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley grow up in front of the camera, forming their own little entertainment empire, it’s no surprise that she learned a lot, even experiencing the lessons vicariously. In the meantime, she’s carved out a markedly different path for herself as an actress: her first two films premiered at Sundance this year – Silent House and Martha Marcy May Marlene – to considerable acclaim, and both demanded a lot from a fledgling thespian, much less one who’s only 22.

In Martha Marcy May Marlene, her new film, Olsen plays Martha, a young woman reconnecting with her sister after spending time in a rural community whose dubious influence she just can’t shake loose. Movies.com sat down with Olsen at the film’s Los Angeles press day last week, where she talked about tackling the role’s tough emotional challenges, examined her short but substantial history as an actress, and suggested what she wants to do in the future.

Movies.com: How tough was it to internalize the experiences your character goes through in the camp, because those sequences don’t seem to be memories she’s reflecting on as much as just flashbacks to what she went through.

Elizabeth Olsen: The way I like to work, especially with a script that is so difficult as a puzzle to piece together, that there’s no clear arc, that’s something that is – I mean, yes it is a very well-written story and it is suggested where she is in the present moment, so you have to fill those things in. [But] I treated the scripts almost like two different movies, where I had like an arc here at the lake house, and a different arc at the farm. And I just tried to map everything out as specifically as possible, and what would inform the other, and sometimes I would try and think about how they intercut within the film, what’s happening in the past and then what’s happening in the present – how those relate. And Sean was like, “those might not be the edits, so please don’t think about that. Just think about the present,” so then I threw that out the window. But it was definitely a very analytical way of approaching anything, and especially for the scenes where she’s alone, more than anything it’s important to pretend like you’re responding to something, even if no one’s there. Responding to like the fear, or the possibility of someone, like when she’s just looking out the window. So there are all of these things you try and have reactions to, and there’s nothing there (laughs). And that’s what I tried to do as much as possible.

Movies.com: How difficult or easy is it for you to relate to your character’s susceptibility to being drawn into this group?

Elizabeth Olsen: I wouldn’t be. I pretend like I’m really tough, but I do like to think that I have a good amount of understanding of people, and knowing who to trust and things like that. So for me, it’s not something I could easily relate to, however, just the idea of imagining, because I’m someone who’s fortunate to have had the same friends since I was in kindergarten, because I went to the same school forever and all of those people turned out to be great people, but the idea of not having any of that, and I also have a very strong family, not having that and then this person floating and literally having nothing to root herself in. And then friends go to college and you graduate high school, or the few friends you’ve had clearly aren’t that close to you, and then this girl starts floating around and she has nowhere to belong, and she has never had a sense of purpose or like true passion. It just all makes sense to me, and you just have to accept that from her point of view. And so it wasn’t too hard for me to accept this story. I mean, I couldn’t imagine that happening to me, but it makes sense for someone who’s wandering. And you just justify all of it.

Movies.com: It almost seems like her experiences in the lake house, in the present time, are like a drug withdrawal.

Elizabeth Olsen: Sean definitely used that as a reference when he was writing. He said that.

Movies.com: She seems disoriented after leaving an environment that gave me a sense of belonging, but can’t deal with the recognition it probably wasn’t healthy.

Elizabeth Olsen: That, logically, from an analytical point of view, all made sense, and that is how I thought of it. It’s someone who you can imagine, whether it’s a boyfriend or it’s living in a different country, when you get back sometimes after being isolated and changed by someone or a situation or a state, you always hear in movies or you hear about other people and they’re always like, “I don’t know who you are any more.” I hear that all of the time in stories – like, “who have you become?” Just kind of like that, you change. And a lot of people don’t accept change, and she’s changed a lot in a very drastic way. But for me, what I understood, what I could relate to, because I couldn’t relate to the drug thing, for some reason someone experiencing paranoia was something that I [could relate to]. Because that’s what she is experiencing in the story as well, or that’s part of it - that was kind of my lead-in; that was something I could grasp onto, not because I’m paranoid, but because those are the stories that affect me the most viscerally. Like A Beautiful Mind, I literally can’t sit through the last half of that movie without crying the entire time or like, hiding myself in my hands. I think that’s the worst thing that could happen to someone, like knowing you’re about to die is awful, but at least you understand something. And then not understanding that you have this issue where you can’t see what’s real and what’s not real and you have no idea what’s happening, that to me is the scariest thing in the world. So even though that didn’t really help me act it, the idea of just understanding paranoia and like how everything is real and everything is a threat and trying to get behind people who suffer from things like that, was how I connected with it. And it has nothing to do really with the story, but it helped me connect with everything.

Movies.com: So then what are your feelings then about the ending of this movie? Because everything you just said sounds like it would be helpful in tapping into what she’s going through at the end of the film.

Elizabeth Olsen: Absolutely. We did film the end of the movie towards the end of shooting, actually, and at that point, Sean kind of gave me his blessing and let me kind of carry Martha with me. I would ask him questions and at one point he was just like, “you know her. I’ll tell you when I need to pull you back or ask more of you. But everything’s right – keep going.” So for that, what I think of the ending is so not aligned with how I want the audience to think about it, because I think what I like is I want the audience to have the same questions that her character could be having at that moment.

And then for me as an actor, I had other thoughts going on in my head, and I don’t want anybody else to have those thoughts, and I don’t think they do because they’ll have a different experience. But for me, it was like she sees this guy and she’s like, “ that’s it – that’s him.” And she looks at them, seeing if they would recognize that what she’s going through is happening right there and they’re not noticing it, and there’s no reason for her to say anything because last time she tried to do that, she was shut up. It’s just one of those experiences of, this is happening right now, and I can’t do anything about it. But that’s not what I want the audience to take away from it. I want them to be like, is he following them? But you can’t act ambiguity. You can only act an opinion, I think. So for me, I had to be like, “this is all real,” but that’s not what I want the audience to feel.

Movies.com: You’ve obviously done some work when you were younger –

Elizabeth Olsen: That wasn’t work. That was after school care (laughs). They would be like, you want to be in this? Let us put gum in your hair. And I’d be like, okay! That’s what that was (laughs).

Movies.com: Was there a reason, even vicariously experiencing your sisters’ careers, that made you want to wait? Or what sort of prompted you to jump into acting more recently?

Elizabeth Olsen: When I was younger, I did do camps, and I was the dancer and I had the singing lessons and I had three plays or musicals every summer that everyone in my family had to go to and it was painful and everyone had to sit through the same ballets with The Nutcracker. I was always performing my entire life, but honestly I saw how much my sisters worked, and I couldn’t do that. There was no way I could do that. I played sports, I sang, I did camp, but there was no way I could do what they did. And I knew that when I was a little kid, that I didn’t have that discipline. And I loved school so much, and my sisters had to be out of school a lot. And for me, being on the playground was like so great; it was the best way to be creative. My friends and I created musicals about standardized tests when we were in fourth grade on the playground, and we were out of our minds. And I knew I couldn’t do what they did, and when I got into high school, my high school teacher at Campbell Hall really made me think that it was something that could be pursued, that it wasn’t just like this kid fantasy idea, and that there’s training you can do to gain confidence and learn more about and theater and how to do techniques and training, and so I decided to take that route.

And I always knew it was something I wanted to do, I just truly knew that no matter when is started to work, and I always knew this, I always knew that the first thing I did, I was going to come up against the wall where it was going to be nepotism in some way. And I knew that was something that was going to be a sensitive subject if I was younger doing that, because you’re so much more malleable I think when you’re in high school than when you’re in your early 20s. I mean, I’m still so malleable now, but it’s different. I feel like I have more of an understanding of who I am and what I want, and my goals than I did then. So it was all just trying to – and I didn’t choose when to start acting, it all kind of happened when I was in New York organically, but that’s a long answer to your question.

Movies.com: After this and Silent House premiering at Sundance, we think about it being a long time, but it’s really only been months. Have you already begun to feel any pressure of being an “it girl” because of the attention those films gave you?

Elizabeth Olsen: The reason I don’t is because my agent and I are very much on the same page. The thing that she thinks would be smartest to do now is a play. We’re not trying to jump on any momentum that’s being created somehow; it’s all about trying to figure out what’s most interesting and challenging project to be a part of. And that’s how she works and that’s how I work, so it hasn’t felt like that yet. And I don’t think it will if you just continue to make choices based on what’s most interesting for you.

Movies.com: Are you then being conscious of choosing roles that are specifically different from the last ones you did?

Elizabeth Olsen: Well, yeah I did, consciously, I did this movie called Liberal Arts with Josh Radnor. It was an independent film, but there’s something whimsical and funny and like fun to say and it’s like quirky. There’s fun dialogue and she falls in love with a guy who she shouldn’t fall in love with. And that’s what I wanted to do more than anything after doing Silent House and this movie and Red Lights. I just wanted something light and fun and I did it, and now I’m on to wanting to do something totally different again. So as long as I follow those impulses and instincts, you can’t really have too many regrets of what you choose to do, I think.

Martha Marcy May Marlene hits theaters in limited release on October 21st. For more info on films arriving in theaters, see our In Theaters page

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