EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview with recent Gotham Award nominee Elizabeth Olsen was originally published during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in January. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” opens in theaters this Friday, October 21st.
With the entire town of Park City deeming her this year’s big breakout, Elizabeth Olsen has been one of the biggest talking points at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. She’s the lead in two well-received films – Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s haunted house thriller “Silent House” and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” a drama exploring a young woman’s experiences in an abusive cult — but before last summer, the only film experience Olsen had was playing “Girl in Car” in 1994’s “How the West Was Fun,” a vehicle for her very famous older twin sisters, Mary-Kate and Ashley.
Twenty-one years old, the young actress sat down with indieWIRE immediately following the premieres of her two films. With another film coming out soon down the line (Bruce Beresford’s “Peace, Love and Misunderstanding,” where she stars opposite Catherine Keener and Jane Fonda) and “Marcy May” now a Fox Searchlight property, 2011 is about to be the year of the other Olsen sister.
So which film did you do first?
I filmed “Martha Marcy May Marlene” first and then there was a week I didn’t work and then I started “Silent House” rehearsals right afterwards.
And these were your very first features?
Actually, I did my first movie this past summer [before “Marcy or “House”] but it didn’t apply to Sundance. It’s a Bruce Beresford film with Catherine Keener and Jane Fonda called “Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding.” So that was the first movie I ever worked on. It actually overlapped a week with “Martha Marcy May Marlene” so it was three movies back to back which was really cool.
What was the evolution of you deciding to go after these parts and pursue an acting career?
It kind of naturally happened. When the Atlantic Theater Company has a play that they are producing, they have students audition for understudy roles. So I started auditioning for understudy parts on Broadway and off Broadway and I got a few parts. My agent ended up hearing about me while I was working on these really scrappy workshops in New York City and she came and saw those and we started working together.
I started auditioning in January  and the first thing I got a job for was “Peace, Love and Misunderstanding.” I just got super lucky. And then I got “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” I read a ton of scripts, and that script was unbelievable. I was obsessed with it. So I met with the director, who is now a good friend of mine, and they chose to go with an unknown, which made me incredibly happy.
And then “Silent House”?
Yeah, I was going to take the semester off of school because “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was shooting two weeks into the school year and “Silent House” was going on during the same time. I was like, ‘this is going to be insane thing to do, let’s do it.’ It just seemed like such a challenge and I was excited about it.
Are you back at school now?
Ha, yeah. I turned in a paper on Wednesday.
So you’re taking the James Franco school of career paths?
How do you balance all of that?
You know, when you go to NYU and you’re a theater student, you have conservatory and you have academics. So already you’re a balancing an intense and crazy schedule with academic classes. So you kind of already figure out how to multi-task. The only thing that sucks is that NYU isn’t allowing me to work while being in school so I have to actually take time off when I want to work. That’s what’s frustrating. I wish there was a way to work it out, but there isn’t.
So back to the films specifically, do you want to talk about these characters and how you went about embodying them? “Marcy May” in particular seems like a very difficult character to channel. Although I heard you say in the Q&A after the screening that the set was actually a very pleasant set.
On set was great, and thank god. Because when you actually film ten hours a day and it’s all about going down into your deepest fears, it’s so exhausting. So thank god we all get along and had a good time filming it. But to go back, when I read that script I just really understood her, and I totally got it. Sean wrote it very clearly and it wasn’t so much a preparation as it was trying to figure out where her paranoia stemmed from and about her embarrassment from not really understanding what she’s doing is socially incorrect. It’s also embarrassing to not know whether what is happening to you is real or not, so that was where she came from. I never thought of her as someone that was crazy. Everything that happened to her is very real.
And it must have almost been like filming two different movies with “Marcy May”. There’s two narratives – during your time in the cult and after it. And you’re in an completely different environments with completely different characters for each one. Not to mention your character is at such different stages in each.
It definitely felt like two movies. Especially because I always felt like when Martha is living at the farm house [with the cult], she’s continuing to progress as a person and she’s actually trying to get somewhere. But when she’s at the lake house it’s like a regression. So as much as the cult took me to an unhealthy place it was still the place where she felt the most comfortable and progressive as a human being. It was going back and retreating into the world with her sister and her family life that made her retreat back. It’s interesting to me that that’s how Sean wrote it. It questions how bad these communal groups are. I mean, they all do have purposes. That’s why we have religion. Not saying religion’s a cult…
And what about “Silent House”?
With that film I think the challenging part was that you’re on your feet doing really long shots and it kind of reminded me of doing a play on film. The whole house was rigged like a theater and it was just an exhausting challenge.
So when did you find out that both would be screening here?
I found about “Marcy May” around Christmas time and I found about “Silent House” in the new year because it was actually one of the last films announced. And it was so cool to find out that they were both going to be here. It’s like these two movies that I worked on both got into Sundance. And they’re both young, female leads who are complicated people. The fact that I got to do two movies at my age where I think the characters are so interesting and difficult and challenging is awesome. And for them to be received well is even more so.
I have to say, it’s a pretty impressive entrance into this world. What do you want to take from this experience and where do you want to go next?
I read so many scripts and a lot of times for films people don’t have the ability to hire unknown actors because of financing so hopefully I won’t be unknown after this. And that’d be awesome, because there’s a lot of roles that I’ve loved that I haven’t been able to have access to. I also really want to do a play, but I do have to finish school.
I’d imagine your options are considerably greater now. People are definitely calling you a Sundance “breakout.” Does that excite you? Scare you?
It excites me, but what’s funny is that they started saying that before the movie premiered. But it was great, and I hope that intention helps the movie. So, that’s fine; that’s great.