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
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.