To talk to Elizabeth Olsen you’d never presume she’s a star. She’s content to discuss her flourishing garden and how much she loves to grow berries. When she’s talks about the popularity that’s come from her emotionally resonant performance as Wanda Maximoff in the Disney+ series, “WandaVision,” she said it’s not something to which she necessarily has an attachment. It’s a response that’s powerful, unique, and not unlike the character of Wanda herself.
There’s an interesting dichotomy for Olsen in looking back at her time filming “WandaVision” because it seemed to feel saner than what was going on in the world with regards to the pandemic. “[It] felt kind of profound that we were in this situation where we couldn’t see people [and] we’re like hundreds of people trying to figure out how to make this thing work that’s all about maintaining a bubble and a family nucleus,” Olsen told IndieWire.
There was certainly a lot to live up to, not just with the character herself but considering “WandaVision” would be the first Marvel series put out by the new (at the time) Disney+ streaming service. “I was already working with Facebook [on “Sorry For Your Loss”] at the time, which was a new service for scripted,” Olsen said. “I was nervous to be part of [another] streaming service.” But, that being said, Olsen credited Marvel President Kevin Feige as the one who kept those nerves at bay. “I felt I was in good hands,” she said.
“You can’t control people’s experiences and you never really know why something catches,” Olsen said, so her bigger pressures were to please a fanbase that cares deeply for the Marvel brand and Wanda as a character. It’s something she’s certainly used to since her first appearance in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” especially when it came to her accent. She said people started making their opinions known on the subject starting around the time of “Captain America: Civil War.” When it came to “WandaVision,” Olsen knew people would be commenting on it and she appreciated the show’s attempts to draw on those critiques.
In the moments where Wanda was deep into the American sitcom universe, such as the 1950s, she wouldn’t have the accent, according to Olsen. “As much as she’s trying to keep this reality together she’ll have the American accent,” she said. “Then, at what point does her Sokovian come back and we get to make a comment on it when it happens?” Olsen said she got a big kick out of the moment where Kathryn Hahn’s Agatha mentions Wanda’s accent, as it was a direct call to those who online who had been questioning it.
The cast and crew knew where the structure of the story would go from moment one, engaging in a two-week “sitcom bootcamp” that didn’t just lay out the world but allowed the cast to aid in strengthening the story. “It was remarkable with us getting together as a company,” Olsen said. “We went in knowing what were the things we maybe wanted to figure out and storylines that needed a bit more meat on the bones.”
For Olsen, that boot camp helped shape where Wanda’s head is at between the various decades. Olsen wanted to constantly hook into the rational elements of Wanda, the moments where she is actively seeking to control what is going on. “We’re trying to modulate the audience discovering what’s happening, as well as her discovering what’s happening and her consciousness of the entire situation,” Olsen said. Before the series, Olsen had always seen Wanda as a character with immense power but no idea how to harness it.
“The most powerful moments come from her being an emotive, empathetic, deep-feeling person as opposed to someone who deals with trauma and bottles it up, and becomes stoic,” Olsen said. Wanda gets to accept who is as well as her power, finding a great sense of accountability and using that to move forward. “There are so many things that happened to her in the movies and now she’s steering the ship,” Olsen said.
“WandaVision” is not just creating a foundation for its heroine, but also set out to look at the tropes of the sitcom world. For the first time since high school Olsen went back and rewatched episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” capturing Moore’s ease in a way that felt modern. Olsen also did sitcom research to look at the elements of the world they were going to be upending. Where so many sitcoms of the 1950s and ’60s perceived women as just wives and mothers, Wanda’s biggest desire is to be that when she physically can’t.
Olsen was similarly struck by how sitcoms of the past often worked hard to ignore the pertinent issues bubbling up in the times they aired. “Just thinking about the actual history of what’s going on in the United States when these sitcoms are coming on-air and how the ’50s really pushed this family nucleus on us aggressively as a culture and we are still reacting from that effect,” she said. “Thinking about the Vietnam War while ‘The Brady Bunch’ is on TV…[that] not showing up on television.”
The experience also helped her change up how she approached acting in a way that was reminiscent of live theater. “My comfort space, as a kid, was on stage,” Olsen said. “And going to college you forget, as an actor, how to use your whole body.” It was something all the performers, including Paul Bettany and Hahn (both who have theatrical backgrounds as well) had to utilize, especially in the 1950s episodes that utilized live taping with an audience and didn’t have close-ups.
“Everything’s physical,” Olsen said. “It just felt so good to exercise those muscles again.” She said it opened her up to wanting to see roles that are more “physically nested.” “It kind of shifted me to a different gear which I appreciated,” she said. There’s hope that we might see more of that physicality when Wanda returns in “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.” Till then, we can go back and watch Olsen flex those muscles on “WandaVision.”
“WandaVision” is streaming now on Disney+