After a breakout year in 2011 courtesy of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” up-and-coming actress Elizabeth Olsen is planning for 2012 to be a “year of firsts”: “my first time portraying a real-life person,” “my first period piece,” and “for the first time in my life, I’m putting work first.”
“I’m just really excited to work,” Olsen told The Playlist while doing press rounds for “Silent House.” “And it’s a rollercoaster.”
Olsen — who was juggling her studies at NYU when she shot “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Silent House” (as well as “Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding” arriving this summer), hasn’t been in front of cameras for anything since finishing “Liberal Arts” in July. But she is now taking a break from school so she can shoot her next three films: Beat-era drama/murder mystery “Kill Your Darlings,” period drama “Thérèse Raquin,” and coming-of-age tale “Very Good Girls.” She has two classes left to take in humanities to earn her degree, but she doesn’t want to make up lost work in summer school. “I was just emailing my college counselor,” she said, “trying to explain to him that maybe I can do a winter session to finish it up. I want to take these classes, and I’ll get to them.”
But for now, she wants to learn by being on movie sets, and she’s choosing her projects by what will challenge her the most. “Before, I was just, ‘Can I please have a job?’ ” Olsen laughed. “I was just slap-happy with that. Now, I’m being selective. Now I care more about who the director’s team is — what DP does he work with? There are obviously going to be hits and misses along the way, but as long as you know why you’re choosing to do things, no one can take that away from you.”
“Kill Your Darlings,” for instance, gave her a chance to “be part of an ensemble cast” (with Ben Foster playing William Burroughs, Daniel Radcliffe playing Allen Ginsburg, Jack Huston playing Jack Kerouac, and Olsen playing Kerouac’s first wife Edie Parker) and “do something that’s small but cool.” The story follows a real-life murder case from 1944 in which the Beat poets’ mutual friend who introduced them all — Lucien Carr (played by Dane DeHaan) — admitted to stabbing David Kammerer (played by Michael C. Hall) under questionable circumstances. Was Kammerer stalking Carr, or did he try to rape him? Were the two lovers, as some believed due to their long association? Either way, Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as accessories when Carr confessed to them, with the latter having advised Carr to dispose of the murder weapon. In order to bail out her boyfriend, Parker had to marry Kerouac to come into her inheritance.
“I play a very small part in it,” Olsen said, “but in my head, I think I’m doing her autobiography! She had this autobiography [‘You’ll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac‘], which was clearly written by someone who is not a writer, but she remembers things, like the clothes she wore, so then you’re like, ‘Maybe she would actually do that,’ or, ‘This is what she always did with Jack,’ and that’s cool. You’re part of the conversation of the story.”
Still, Olsen laughed, she’s trying to learn restraint, “because it’s not her story.” “You think, as the actor, ‘Oh, but there’s this and this and this about her. Can we bring that in?’ ” she said. “And it doesn’t matter, because you’re trying to tell this story, and that doesn’t help tell the story in the best. You’re fictionalizing a historical thing and also trying to do justice for these people, and for the people who knew them who are still around.”
This wasn’t a pressure she felt with “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” even though her character was based on the experiences of a few real-life people. “I purposely tried to never outwardly have any interest in meeting those people,” Olsen said, “and it was because I didn’t want to feel like I was anyone. It wasn’t a referential performance. But now I’m portraying someone who existed in real life, and you’re like, ‘Oh, shit!’ ” The key this time, she said, was trying to fictionalize the part just enough so she didn’t feel like someone else per se, but like she had things in common with Edie. “It’s weird,” she laughed.
Olsen is in rehearsals now for her ‘Darlings’ role, and then she’ll shoot her four scenes in the first week of the six-week shoot, so that she can travel to Serbia to start on “Thérèse Raquin,” which she anticipates should take two months. “It’s this 1860s French period piece with Glenn Close,” she enthused of the adaptation of the classic novel and play by Émile Zola, in which a woman plots to kill her husband with her lover/his best friend, while caring for her sick mother-in-law. “I’ve never done an affair story, even in acting school. I’ve never worked on something where there’s such an intense love where you have to be that intimate. That’s an interesting challenge, and I want to challenge myself.”
After that film wraps, Olsen gets a one-week break and then moves on to “Very Good Girls,” which is finally back on track. “Dakota Fanning and I have been trying to do this movie since last summer!” Olsen said. “So we’ve been rehearsing it ahead of time, knowing that we’ll have to start right up.”
Olsen said she related to the story of two best friends who decide to lose their virginity but fall in love with the same boy (played by Anton Yelchin) because “it’s a really awesome portrayal of friendship. My best friends are my family, and this is the first time I’ve seen a script that shows an honest friendship between two girls,” she said. Plus, she loves her character, who is insecure, but “uses humor and wit to cover it all up.”
While still juggling other possibilities — note to Spike Lee, she’s happy to do “Oldboy” if you want her — Olsen said she’s just excited to be working again, even if it’s just doing a read-through or rehearsing or even auditioning. “I’m like, ‘Oh, great!’ This is what I want to do. This is what I like doing! I feel like I’m getting back in shape.”
Although she said she doesn’t have “a list of goals” of parts she’d like to try for, she’s keeping an eye on Jonah Hill‘s career path, with an eye towards creating some of her own content someday. “He has that amazing cartoon [‘Allen Gregory‘] and he’s killing it right now,” Olsen said. “Everything he does is funny and great and perfect.”
Until she gets to that stage, Olsen said, she’s putting life on hold, “at least for the next six months,” so she can do as much as possible. Laughing, she said, “I want to do that, and that, and that — can’t I do it all?”
“Silent House” is in theaters now.