El­iz­a­beth Olsen en­joys cult staus in Martha Marcy May Mar­lene.

El­iz­a­beth Olsen can’t do an in­ter­view with­out ref­er­ence to her sis­ters, writes Don­ald Clarke, but Martha Marcy May Mar­lene marks her as one to watch, with or with­out her sib­lings

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

THERE ARE two very small elephants in the room. When, al­most ex­actly one year ago, El­iz­a­beth Olsen ar­rived at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val for the pre­miere of Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Mar­lene, more than a few cyn­ics ar­gued that she must be an un­wit­ting vic­tim of stunt cast­ing.

Olsen is, you see, a younger sis­ter of the famed Olsen twins. For the pre­vi­ous decade and a half, Mary-kate and Ash­ley of that ilk had been de­light­ing teens – and ter­ri­fy­ing adults – with their faintly creepy tele­vi­sion shows and un­set­tling fea­ture spe­cials. The sub­se­quent raves for El­iz­a­beth’s per­for­mance as the trou­bled in­ductee of a ru­ral cult were flavoured with hints of guilty as­ton­ish­ment. Good grief. She seems to be the real thing.

One of the best re­leases of the past six months, Martha Marcy May Mar­lene is (de­spite its in­di­gestible ti­tle) well worth chew­ing over. But we will have to dis­cuss those con­tro­ver­sial sib­lings. How long can your cor­re­spon­dent leave it? We don’t want the poor woman to think she is just an ap­pendage of the twin’s em­pire.

As things work out, El­iz­a­beth touches on the sub­ject al­most im­me­di­ately.

“I am en­joy­ing all this,” she says, when I ask about the pres­sures of film pro­mo­tion. “Well, I am en­joy­ing the stuff that has to do with the movie. I get frus­trated when peo­ple men­tion my sis­ters and then say some­thing rude about any of us.”

Re­ally? Peo­ple say rude things? Surely, the de­cent pol­icy (one I am fol­low­ing) is to be po­lite about the twins to her face and keep the snitty com­ments for the re­sult­ing copy.

“We are very close as a fam­ily,” she says. “There is no need to com­pare and con­trast. We do dif­fer­ent things. We just hap­pen to have the same par­ents. But peo­ple will min­imise some­thing they’ve ac­com­plished and that pisses me off. If they wanted to be se­ri­ous ac­tors they wouldn’t be mak­ing their clothes line. Mary-kate wants to be an ac­tor. But she is also do­ing other things.”

If hap­pen­ing upon her in a bus queue, you would not be al­to­gether sur­prised to learn that El­iz­a­beth Olsen is one of those Olsens. She has the same heart-shaped face and sandy blonde hair. She up-speaks at the end of al­most ev­ery sen­tence. But, prej­u­diced by years of snip­ing, you might, af­ter learn­ing about her ori­gins, be sur­prised at her keen, if slightly over-reach­ing, in­tel­li­gence. A ded­i­cated stu­dent of theatre at New York Univer­sity’s Tisch School of the Arts, she has made ev­ery ef­fort to miss no classes over the past busy year.

“I have Fri­days off. So I can fly on Fri­day,” she says (we meet on a Satur­day in a London ho­tel).

But the teach­ers must re­alise that she’s sud­denly very much in de­mand. They surely give her a bit of lee­way. “They re­ally don’t care. I have a midterm this week. And you don’t want to say: ‘Look, I am an ac­tor. Can I go to London?’ You ask for ex­ten­sions and, maybe, turn in the pa­per late. It’s New York. A lot of the stu­dents are jug­gling jobs. Who am I to say that my job is more im­por­tant than any­body else’s?” What a sen­si­ble young woman. One as­sumes that El­iz­a­beth, now 22, must have taken a pos­i­tive decision not to em­bark on a ca­reer as a ju­ve­nile per­former. Raised in the San Fer­nando Val­ley, she is the daugh­ter of Janette, a busi­ness­woman, and David, a real es­tate de­vel­oper. Both par­ents seem to have been fairly force­ful in­flu­ences on their chil­dren. The twins be­gan work­ing when they were just six and, over the suc­ceed­ing decade, de­vel­oped into a dis­turbingly ubiq­ui­tous phe­nom­e­non. El­iz­a­beth makes a few fleet­ing ap­pear­ances in their pic­tures. But she does not seem to have made any se­ri­ous lunge for the lime­light.

“Those per­for­mances were re­ally just af­ter- school care,” she laughs. “We’d be down on set af­ter school wait­ing round and then some­times they’d in­clude me. ‘Hey, can we put gum in your hair,’ some­body would say. ‘Yeah, sure!’ That’s all we did. It was great fun.”

She goes on to ex­plain that she did au­di­tion for Robert Ro­driguez's Spy Kids and ap­peared in a com­mer­cial ex­plain­ing parental guid­ance on the in­ter­net. These dis­trac­tions led to her miss­ing bal­let re­hearsals and be­ing cut from the Christ­mas per­for­mance.

“I was dev­as­tated by that. I was do­ing all these ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties. And I didn’t have the dis­ci­pline to do all that. I talked to my dad and we sat down and wrote out a list of pros and cons con­cern­ing act­ing. Look­ing at that, I de­cided that I was not go­ing to act un­til I

was older. So then I could play my sports, do my bal­let, hang out with my friends.”

There was no es­cape. At high school, she was taken un­der the wing of a drama teacher who in­tro­duced her to the aca­demic side of the dis­ci­pline. She put her head down and even­tu­ally man­aged to se­cure a place at NYU. She ex­plains how, at the same time she was study­ing Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, she was pe­rus­ing an of­fer to play the lead in an adap­ta­tion of the novel. The fall­out from Martha Marcy May

Mar­lene is sure to cause fur­ther ruc­tions in her aca­demic life. The film may not have eaten up the box of­fice. But this is the sort of role that makes ca­reers.

Durkin em­ploys a very ef­fec­tive split struc­ture. In the present, we en­counter Martha as, hav­ing es­caped from that sin­is­ter cult, she fails to ad­just to life with her sen­si­ble sis­ter and im­pa­tient brother-in-law. We flash back to watch the pro­tag­o­nist be­ing brain­washed, de­hu­man­ised and sex­u­ally abused in a re­mote com­mu­nity led by a charis­matic maniac.

“I know the story is based on sev­eral mod­ern-day cults,” she ex­plains. “Sean didn’t want a re­li­gious com­po­nent, be­cause it’s just not about that. It’s about the ef­fects on her life af­ter it. He re­searched and dis­cov­ered that the cults al­ways use the ex­act same tac­tics. It was al­ways pa­tri­ar­chal. There’s al­ways a man on top. The other women al­ways tell new woman that this is all okay. Sex­ual vi­o­lence is very com­mon.”

Some ac­tors find it easy to shake off trou­bling roles. Oth­ers carry the char­ac­ter’s angst around with them. Did play­ing Martha get to El­iz­a­beth? This is a very dis­turbed, dam- aged char­ac­ter. She seems to­tally un­able to read­just to or­di­nary so­ci­ety.

“I ac­tu­ally keep my­self re­ally sep­a­rate from the work,” she pon­ders. “Nat­u­rally there are days when you have to go into your own dark places. So those days may be a lit­tle more tir­ing. You may be bogged down by that. But we ac­tu­ally had such a good time on this film. We were laugh­ing be­tween takes. There was no di­vi­sion be­tween the var­i­ous groups on set. We were all in it to­gether.”

I won­der if she was sur­prised that the film picked up quite so much pos­i­tive buzz. Af­ter a suc­cess­ful Sun­dance out­ing, the Martha cir­cus moved on to Cannes, where the film com­peted in the Un Cer­tain Re­gard sec­tion. It’s a very sin­gu­lar beast. But au­di­ences im­me­di­ately con­nected.

“In some ways, it’s not a film that’s easy to like,” she says. “And I didn’t get the fes­ti­val cir­cuit. I didn’t re­alise what could quickly hap­pen to an in­de­pen­dent film. But Cannes was very cool be­cause I al­ways felt the film had a Euro­pean sen­si­bil­ity.”

The break­through has been made. Now, the hard work be­gins. Olsen comes across as a very self as­sured, well-bal­anced piece of work. En­cour­aged, she will hap­pily ex­pound on the pros and cons of her cur­rent stud­ies in post-soviet Rus­sian film-mak­ing (re­ally). She seems ad­mirably com­mit­ted to her stud­ies. But the me­dia scru­tiny is about to get a lot more in­tense. El­iz­a­beth will shortly ap­pear along­side Robert De Niro in a thriller called Red Lights. It looks as if that ver­sion of

Thérèse Raquin is set to go ahead. Mind you, grow­ing up with the twins, she must have some ac­ci­den­tal train­ing in how to han­dle the press.

“Yeah, maybe,” she says. “But I also know it would be stupid to think I have much un­der­stand­ing of how to avoid be­ing pushed around by the me­dia. I have al­ways stud­ied it as a sci­ence and won­dered how other ac­tors have done that. If you be­come suc­cess­ful you are go­ing to lose some privacy. But some stars do know where to go to get pic­tured. Hey, if you’re go­ing to go shop­ping, go to some­where in the Val­ley. You won’t get pho­tographed.”

Take heed, pa­parazzi. You now know where to look.

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