The Olsen It’s Cool to Like

Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of those squeaky Olsen twins, is going into the family business. Is the business ready for her? Is our interviewer?

One of the hazards of this journalism game, particularly if you’re a middle aged man, is meeting attractive young female actors in the interview situation. They’re likely to look at you intently, laugh at your feeble stabs at humour, lean towards you confidentially, look interested. And of course they’re in the acting game, so being plausible is a large part of what they do. It’s unbelievably easy to believe these bundles of talent and hotness fancy you. It’s a frequent occurrence to leave the interview completely smitten.

Take Elizabeth Olsen. She’s the younger sister of the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, the semi-anorexic tween moppets who defied expectation by NOT ending up in some internet sex tape scandal. Instead, now they’re heading towards fashion/fragrance billionairedom. Yes, take 23-year-old Elizabeth Olsen, fresh, bright-eyed, talented, giggly, intelligent, cool, offbeat…

Olsen, suddenly, is everywhere, harvesting awards for her remarkable work in the odd almost-thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which she plays the multi-monickered lead, a young woman whose tangle with a weird religious cult has left her dazed and bruised. And it’s just one of four films she’s made in the last year.

“Yeh,” she laughs throatily when I ask about the twins, “I’m the curvy one.” As you might expect from a young woman who reels off her favourite TV without a blink – “Masterchef, Iron Chef, Top Chef, The Food Network.” And she laughs again.

This is refreshing. A young woman who eats normally, looks normal, doesn’t seem to be obsessed about her weight, her looks, seems well adjusted, very normal. Normal? That’s odd, isn’t it? Considering the showbiz family background, Olsen ought to be at least 50 per cent straitjacket. Instead she comes over as some sorted, feisty goddess, a bundle of optimistic can-do.

She wears a beat-up bomber jacket, a pair of old loafers, is cool to the point of knowing that Facebook is a gigantic pain, “but I need it.” Loves a bit of old school – “I’ve really got a bit of a Van Morrison thing going on right now.” She’s that rare thing – a rounded individual.

So she followed her sisters into acting? “I didn’t, actually. The people I grew up with and went to school with ever since I was five… we would make movies and do plays together. We made The Wizard of Oz when we were in kindergarten. It was awful”.

The way Elizabeth tells it she actually resisted the easy option. “Even when I was ten, people would say, ‘Do you want to do this straight-to-DVD, interactive kid’s book thing?’ I just decided to keep training, and along the way started understudying for Broadway and off-Broadway plays.”

She got the Martha Marcy May Marlene gig how? “I auditioned. They chose to go with an unknown. That was so cool.”

Do I believe this totally connected, biz-attuned sibling of twin-pack famousness did it entirely unaided? Cynic that I am, I do. Maybe I’m being snowed by a total professional.

Bolstering this “I did it my way” claim is her performance in MMMM. Olsen doesn’t just create an entire character with very little – this is real “less is more” stuff – she also manages to suggest what her character might have been like before the whole cult business even happened. It’s remarkable, unnerving even.

Ask her how she did that and the answer is straight – “There are good things about her – you can actually have empathy for this person because she’s fully realized, as opposed to just being an off-balance, naïve girl.”

Agreed, this doesn’t really answer the question, but that’s actors for you. Considering what normally happens when you invite an actor to talk about the internal process it’s remarkable enough that there’s still oxygen in the room.

So I ask her again, in a slightly different way. Is she a Method girl – staying up for nights on end to “understand” exhaustion, putting on or losing weight, trying to connect personally to the character’s psyche. Brando, De Niro, Pacino etc etc.

It turns out that New York University, where Olsen has been studying acting, has an affiliate programme with the Atlantic Theater Company. And she’s been on it. “It’s David Mamet and William H. Macy’s company. A playwright created it, so the script is your bible. You follow the script and you try not to mess it up.”

So no Method madness? No Daniel Day-Lewis stuff (training for two years with Barry McGuigan for the film The Boxer for instance). “You’re not the same person as the person in the script. Working with Cillian Murphy on [supernatural drama] Red Lights was really interesting. We’d be in conversation about something really random and the director would say, ‘Okay, rolling.’ We’d do the scene and then Cillian would say, ‘So, as I was saying…’ And he’d pick up exactly where he’d left off. I think that’s kind of a healthy way of working… “

At last year’s Sundance, Olsen was there with Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Silent House, one of those genre horrors where a nice young girl is stalked by an older guy with a cleaver. She was the It girl of the festival. “To find out that the two movies I’d worked on had got into Sundance… that is so awesome,” she said at the time. Now, looking back, she admits that beneath that buzzy, gregarious exterior – “cool… awesome… amazing” – she was in fact “terrified”.

Well, she’s going to have to get used to it. This easy-going kinda hipster – loves the music of Bon Iver, Sharon Von Atten and Ani DiFranco (“always”) – is going straight into the big league. Red Lights, with Cillian Murphy, also features De Niro and Sigourney Weaver (“a great, funny woman”), as well as touchstone of excellence Toby Jones. And because of the weird time frames of the movie business we’ve also still not seen the first film she made, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, starring Catherine Keener (“amazing”) and Jane Fonda (“she was a riot… the craziest stories”).

Bruce Beresford, who directed it (along with Driving Miss Daisy), reckons she’s the new Kate Winslet – “She’s going to get every role she goes for,” he said. And being the new Kate Winslet, in the first flush of her career, means she’s going to be taking her clothes off a fair bit, right, as she does in Martha Marcy May Marlene? Olsen’s ready for this one. “I heard recently that America has the biggest porn industry – yet everyone hates seeing nudity in American films. It’s a funny paradox. But in this film I always knew that it was to serve a purpose. A woman’s body can be very beautiful.”

Indeed it can, Ms Olsen. “It’s so odd to watch myself, sitting in an audience, especially in Martha cos I’m naked, and now everybody knows what I look like.” She laughs lustily, not least at her own pronunciation of the word “naked” – elongating the “a” throatily, coquettishly, girlishly, innocently.

Yes, smitten. It’s happened again.

Martha Marcy May Marlene opens Fri 3 Feb

The Silent House opens in April

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2012

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