September 14, 2012
No longer ‘the third twin’ to child fashion moguls Ashley and Mary-Kate, Elizabeth Olsen is making a name for herself as a rising star in Hollywood. And nepotism has nothing to do with it, she says.
It’s day seven of a debilitating August heatwave in Los Angeles, but Elizabeth Olsen – deftly put together in an Annie Hall outfit of white shirt, light, puffy skirt and secondhand sleeveless vest (“I don’t know what this thing is… but it cost three dollars!”) – looks freezer-fresh. Blond-brown hair that should be stringy, damp and shapeless instead bounces against her round cheeks. Her face – like her physique – is marginally fuller than the rail-thin look favoured by her famous older twin sisters, the tween-moguls Ashley and Mary-Kate.
No one had heard of Elizabeth Olsen before Sundance 2011, when she took the festival by storm playing an escaped cult member in Sean Durkin’s unsettling indie drama Martha Marcy May Marlene. Also playing that year was Silent House, a psychological horror movie designed to look like a single unbroken shot, which featured Olsen in every frame. Martha Marcy May Marlene proved that here was a young actor – she was barely 22 when she made it – ready for anything you could throw at her: trauma, brutality, a creepy rape scene, ambiguity, hints of mental illness. Meanwhile, Silent House involved repeated retakes of lengthy tracking shots over the course of three weeks. “It’s something I’d never do again,” she says, “but I learned a lot about temperament and how to keep your cool. You have to talk about all the technical things, and also perform at the right pitch without bumping into the cameraman, who’s always right there.” She holds her palm inches from her face. “But when you hit minute 10 of a 12-minute scene and something goes wrong, and you have to start from the beginning… Everything you did till then is just for nought. So that can be heart-wrenching to deal with.” She laughs, with a note of weariness at the memory. “Especially when you have to do it over and over again.”
Martha was the breakout film of the festival that year, and suddenly Olsen, hitherto patronised as “the third Olsen twin”, was crowned “Little Miss Sundance”. “I never thought I was going to go home from Sundance and find my whole life had changed, and honestly, it didn’t. I just went home. But it was exciting. I had been nervous about putting myself out there on film. Theatre seemed so much safer at that point. But people loved the movie. And you can’t say that about a lot of the work you do. Sometimes it all looks good on paper, but it doesn’t come together, or it’s great as a movie but the experience of making it wasn’t. That time, it all happened the right way. The first time!”
Her latest movie, Liberal Arts, is the first project that she actively pursued. “Until then, I had been out on casting calls and theatre and movie auditions. That was how I got cast, not because anyone was looking or asking for me in particular. I’m the kind of theatre person who loves auditions – I really do – whereas for a lot of actors it’s just a nightmare, all nerves and panic. Me, I just love to watch everyone sizing each other up, warily looking around the room to feel out the competition, how people’s faces look when they go in and then come out of the room.”
Shot mostly at Kenyon College, Ohio, Liberal Arts sees 34-year-old Nat (writer-director Josh Radnor) return to his old college and fall for his old professor’s hyper-intelligent 19-year-old niece (Olsen). The role lets Olsen do debonair and witty, as Radnor tries to follow her advice to say “yes” to every new experience.
“I liked that about it – the yes/no angle – because there’s always one time when you end up having to say no, and then you can really find out some things about yourself,” she says. “Liberal Arts is also the first movie where I spoke up for myself getting the part, instead of taking it because I needed a job.”
Although we’re having lunch in Hollywood, Olsen is really a Valley girl, born and raised in the suburb of Sherman Oaks with her older twin sisters Ashley and Mary-Kate and brother Trent.
I expect a sigh when I mention her sisters, but she’s easy with it. She has said that she almost reconsidered acting as a career back in 2004, when the media had a weeks-long feeding frenzy over rumours of Mary-Kate’s anorexia. I’m more interested in the weird notion of growing up alongside twin sisters who were multimillionaires before they hit puberty.
“I never thought about working on movies or television as something super-special that all these super-special people get to do. Neither did my sisters, and they were on camera from the age of a year old onwards [both played the youngest child on the 1987-95 network hit Full House]. My parents had very little to do with my sisters’ job really, at least not after getting them that first job. They always did what they could to hook them up with the right people to handle things, like being child stars and managing assets and running production companies and so on, but they never pretended they could do it well themselves.”
Which is a good thing, right? Nothing’s worse than stage mothers. “And my parents were so not that at all. My mother’s a ballet dancer – which isn’t what you call a job – and the mother of four children, and my father works full-time in real estate. My sisters run their own thing now. They have since they turned 18.”
Still, the shadow of her sisters’ success and fame must have dogged her early on, I suggest. People used to come to her room at NYU, pretending to knock on the wrong door just to stare at her, didn’t they?
“Oh absolutely. But their fame made me more determined to study. I knew I wanted to be an actor, but I also didn’t want to start working when I was under 18. These days, my sisters are mainly an inspiration as business people, and whenever I feel like I’m ready to package some project of my own, they’ll probably be the first people I’ll talk to for advice. Also, I love their fashion lines – I practically live at their clothes company when I’m here.”
As a child, Elizabeth appeared in small roles in several of Mary-Kate and Ashley’s straight-to-video tween-pics. “Oh, I really got to exercise the acting muscles there – you can’t imagine the awesome thespian demands on the kid playing Girl In Car in How The West Was Fun!” she guffaws affectionately. “And my biggest scene was getting bubblegum out of my hair!”
Wait, didn’t she “retire” at the age of 10?
“I did! My parents made me write down a pros and cons list. And the cons just piled up. So I figured I’d keep acting as a hobby until I was older. Because I felt that pressure, and that people would say, ‘Oh, that’s nepotism.’ I decided that as long as I felt confident and worked hard for it, instead of having it handed to me, no one could take that away from me. I don’t have any insecurity about it. I never got any job because of my sisters. I could have pulled a few strings through them, but I never needed to.”
At 17, Olsen moved to New York to study acting first at the Tisch School of the Arts, then at NYU. The city has been her home for six years. “I like being young and social there. I like meeting my friends in a bar, going to dinner, playing pool, I like the pace of New York. I’m a theatre kid, and the centre of that world is there, not here. The moment I get tired of it I come back here. When I’m in LA, I’m the total homebody: clubs, bars, the Hollywood scene, premieres, none of that really interests me. But it’s the place I best know how to unwind in.”
Not all of Olsen’s movies have been great – the limp comedy Peace, Love & Misunderstanding took lots of flak, though she enjoyed working with Jane Fonda. (“Best raconteur ever! Then I saw her on Oprah and she told all the same stories again!”) But she’s at the start of a career that promises to be a thing of wonder. Soon we’ll see her as Zola’s sexually ravenous Thérèse Raquin: “I didn’t have a day off. At the end it felt like a real physical feat, and I’m proud of whatever becomes of it, even though I haven’t seen it yet.”
As we part, and she’s climbing into her neat black Prius outside, she tells me her autumn project is a remake of Oldboy, co-starring Josh Brolin. “There’s no reason to remake it unless you can do justice to the violence – and the original is one of my favourite movies. Ours is even more twisted in the way it wraps up.” Murder, mental illness, kidnapping, amputation, incest – sounds like a gas, I say.
“Oh, what’s wrong with a few more months of pitch-black emotional darkness? It’s just work.” She laughs and roars away.