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


© Steve Morrissey 2012




22 October 2012-10-22

Viktor Gerrat in Silent Souls

Out in the UK This Week

Silent Souls (Artificial Eye, cert 15, DVD)

Two men from an almost extinct Russian ethnic sub-group, the Merja, take the dead wife of one of them to her final rest in this poetic, poignant drama which works brilliantly as character study and as a meditation on the notion of national identity.

After the rampage of Anders Breivik in Norway in July 2011, and in a world of multicultural cross-fertilisation, the positive case for ethnic separateness or uniqueness is rarely made without it sounding like the spit-flecked rantings of ultra-conservatives, die-hards or Nazis. Yet director Aleksei Fedorchenko has done it. That his film is mystical, full of half-remembered ritual and possibly imagined histories shows, perhaps, that Fedorchenko and his writers (Denis Osokin, Aist Sergeyev) understand they’re stepping out onto a cultural minefield.

Either way, this approach allows them to sneak a rather unexpected sub-plot under the radar, one which builds beautifully and solidifies to give this film’s second half more lean-forward appeal than the first half might prepare you for.

Silent Souls – at Amazon

The Arrival of Wang (Peccadillo, cert 15, DVD)

There’s really almost nothing I can say about this Italian film without entering spoiler territory. It is a raggy but highly ingenious drama about an interpreter called in by the government to do some translating out of Chinese into Italian for an alien who’s just landed on planet Earth. And that’s about as far as I can go.

Suffice to say it’s a sci-fi playing with the notion of the good alien/bad human and there is no way that Hollywood can remake it in its present form.

It’s terribly amateur in many respects, yet the concept is so strong it doesn’t matter. Highly recommended, it’s reviewed at greater length here.

The Arrival of Wang – at Amazon

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (ITV, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

This is aimed at those who haven’t seen Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece. If you have you’ll already know why it’s on all the “best British film” lists. Telling the story of Clive Wynne-Candy, a professional army man, from youthful campaigns in the Boer War to his being put out to pasture with the territorial reserve in the Second World War, it is the portrait of the making of a man and of a country.

Beautifully shot in the most vivid Technicolor, and with a subplot about Wynne-Candy’s lifelong friendship with a German (Churchill was apparently less than happy about that bit), it co-stars Deborah Kerr as the three different women in the military man’s life.

Funny, moving, informative and wistfully nostalgic, it’s probably the most finely nuanced propaganda film ever made.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – at Amazon

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

From the writer of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a similar joke, steampunk vampires versus a US president who knows how to swing an axe – political metaphor entirely accidental. Timur Bekmambetov, the director of vampire classic Night Watch who’s never quite fulfilled his potential in Hollywood, is in charge but hasn’t been given the monster budget that his mad, audacious ideas require.

That’s not to say there aren’t enjoyable moments in a film that actually looks at times more like a gay love story (between leads Benjamin Walker and Anthony Mackie), and threatens at almost every turn to morph from high concept zombie movie to low concept history dirge.

Here comes the big “however”. None of that matters, because in the finale, Bekmambetov pulls off a special effects sequence so brilliantly orchestrated, so dazzlingly cheeky, that you almost forget that he’s been used pretty much as a gun for hire in the rest of the film. Now if they’d only get him to remake Wild Wild West.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – at Amazon

Chernobyl Diaries (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A kids-in-the-woods horror with a “who croaks next?” structure. Plus radiation. The plot coalesces around a gaggle of daring tourists who go off the trail with a visit – organised from the shop doorways of wherever – to Chernobyl. What they find in there is the product of the mind of Oren Peli, of Paranormal Activity, who was clearly watching the Australian film The Tunnel before he sat down to write. No problem with that. The Tunnel has enough flavour to go around.

Chernobyl Diaries – at Amazon

Red Lights (Momentum, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Here is a potentially great film about two professional sceptics (Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy) who go around exposing spiritualists as phoneys. Yes, Weaver as a woman who busts ghostbusters is a bit of stunt casting. But she’s also the best thing in the film, or her bracing scepticism is at any rate, along with the moody direction of Rodrigo Cortés, who delivers plenty of Spanish haunted-house atmosphere.

Then, at the halfway mark, the duo enter the orbit of spiritualist Robert De Niro – is he the real thing or not? – and this enjoyably promising film dives away from the world of the rational and into the world of Hollywood nonsense, where clever people stop asking questions and turn their bullshit detectors off. And it falls right off the rails.

Still, Robert De Niro as a charismatic and possibly murderous mentalist might tick your boxes, though the cast is uniformly excellent (Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones, Joely Richardson) and they carry on being excellent even after the film has crossed over to the other side.

Red Lights – at Amazon

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Lionsgate, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

There are decent roles for women – though all of the females are on the toxic spectrum – in this girlcom about pregnancy that’s more expectation than delivery. Bum tish.

J-Lo plays the anxious adopter of an overseas orphan. Cameron Diaz is the TV celeb unexpectedly up the duff by her Celebrity Dance Factor co-star. Elizabeth Banks is the neurotic desperately watching the ovulation calendar. Anna Kendrick is the nice girl pregnant after a one-night stand.

It’s a committee-written comedy grown hydroponically in a studio tank and fed on misogyny, and it’s honestly difficult to find anyone admirable in here at all. The only half-OK female character – the tough, good-looking, upbeat, nice, not-a-victim Brooklyn Decker – is treated as something of a joke.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012