Q&A: Elizabeth Olsen opens up about lead role

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Actress Elizabeth Olsen arrives for the official BFI London Film Festival screening of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” at a central London Cinema. Photo courtesy of Associated Press/Joel Ryan.

A year ago, Elizabeth Olsen was most recognizable for her last name, one she shares with older sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley. Fortunately, Elizabeth skipped the child star route and is now an infinitely better actress than either of her older sisters, something that’s abundantly clear in her stunning performance in Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Olsen stars as Martha, who’s recently escaped from a horrific cult and takes refuge with her sister, played by Sarah Paulson. Oscar buzz has been surrounding Olsen ever since her Sundance debut, and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is more than deserving of all the attention it will hopefully get.

The Daily Texan participated in a conference call interview with Olsen earlier this fall.

DT: Did you study any other performances to influence this role?
Elizabeth Olsen: No, not for the acting. I did, coincidentally, as research, someone told me, ‘You’re in a movie about a cult, have you seen Jane Campion’s ‘Holy Smoke?’’ Kate Winslet is in a cult and Harvey Keitel comes in and tries to help her out of her brainwashed mindset and basically, I saw the movie because I was curious. It had nothing to do with research for a film. There are lots of vulnerable and difficult scenes that Kate Winslet was really brave to do, so by watching that film, I felt confident to be put in situations that were physically and emotionally vulnerable. Watching that movie also gave me an understanding of how nudity could be used in a way to further tell a story as opposed to being gratuitous or sensationalized, and her performance in that is really balls-to-the-wall, so I was very happy to have seen that before working, because it gave me a confidence. I didn’t base Martha off of anyone real, whether in my life or in fiction. It was all on the page and trying to realize what Sean wrote down.

DT: Was it difficult to show such a multi-faceted character?
EO: It was lucky. I feel lucky that I was able to essentially make two different movies. I was the only person besides the crew who was able to be on both locations, and it really did feel like making two different movies because you have two different journeys. I felt lucky that I got to be able to explore someone with a positive life of growth, which I would say would be at the cult but ends up not turning out so great, but I was trying to figure out where there was hope in that. And then the struggle in the lake house is a fully different story. I really enjoyed being challenged in that way.

DT: What was it like working with John Hawkes?
EO: There are so many things. First off, he’s really funny, and caring and kind, and he never tried to make me feel uncomfortable or any of those things. He was the total opposite. We always checked in with each other to make sure that we’re doing okay, we’d always be rehearsing, and we worked very delicately and specifically. What I learned from him is how much you can do, and also the same with Sarah [Paulson], is how much an actor can do for you when it’s your coverage and they’re not even on-screen. John would think of ways of surprising me when it was my coverage. I didn’t realize that there was something that someone can do to help you with your performance, I learned that from him. I always tried to be able to do something like that for him, but I thought it would just be distracting. He was so supportive off-camera and I’m so thankful for that. I learned so much from him because of that.

QA: How did you feel when you saw the film for the first time?
EO: Sundance [where the film premiered] was very confusing for me. It was the first time I saw myself on screen, and it was like a moving photo album. I saw a scene and thought about that day on set. It was only like two and a half months after filming. They edited it really quickly. But when I got to see it in Cannes, that was my first experience being able to distance myself from it, and it was so interesting to watch; because I truly believe that everyone should see this movie more than once, because it is so smart and there are so many things hidden in frame, specifically lines that all come together that you won’t be able to notice on a first watch. That’s how clever it is, and intelligent it is, and beautiful it is to watch. I had such a great time watching it. I had a hard time, I’m in every frame of the movie so that was difficult to watch. I don’t really enjoy watching myself for that long.