To be with Elizabeth Olsen is to be at once starstruck and nostalgic. Her face, strikingly similar to billionaire sisters Mary Kate and Ashley, brings to mind so many memories of "Full House" episodes and "Brother For Sale" singalongs.
But for someone who has barely arrived on the big screen, she carries herself...well, like a movie star. The easy smile, the gentle complexion, and the trademark Olsen figure (slender, though at 5-foot-seven she towers over her sisters) give her an air of glamor beyond her 22 years.
Despite her buzzworthiness – she's become a regular in US Weekly and MTV news blips – Olsen still had yet to appear before a national audience until last weekend. She had made 6 films, if you didn't count her walk-ons in her sisters' movies as a child, and those released had played solely to festival crowds.
That all changed when “Martha Marcy May Marlene” debuted at indie houses across the country. The film about a young woman (Olsen) taken in by an abusive cult leader (John Hawkes) earned rave reviews at Sundance, including a nomination for best picture and a win for Directing (Sean Durkin). The much-anticipated wide release is the next step in Olsen's inevitable rise to fame, as big-name projects keep finding her. She has alread wrapped films with Sigourney Weaver and Zac Efron, and is slated shoot “Very Good Girls” opposite Dakota Fanning and Dustin Hoffman early next year.
The delayed release of “Martha” seems designed to work as both Halloween thriller and award contender. Critics have already picked Olsen as a potential nominee for an Independent Spirit award, and the blogs have tapped her as an Oscar favorite. In short, she's a busy lady. So it was no surprise that she was running late to Gustorganics, New York's first organic-only restaurant, where we had arranged to meet recently. She rushed in the door, flopping her coat and bags down and collapsing into a chair with a wide smile.
“Ugh, so sorry I'm late,” she said, offering an un-movie-star explanation. “I was cleaning my apartment, and while I was scrubbing I looked up and realized I had lost track of time. So sorry. I hate being late.”
After ordering an “Immune Booster” juice drink, complete with spinach, celery, apple and ginger – “could I get it without the asparagus?” she asked the waitress – she took a breath, admitting it had been a crazy few weeks. Not just because of press appearances, though: she's still a student at NYU.
“I filmed 5 movies last year,” she said, this being one of many times she adopted a student's view of time, with the year starting in September and ending in August. “So I took the year off and did summer school. Now I'm back for the fall semester.”
While it might seem ridiculous for Olsen, a rising star, to return to school to finish her theater degree, Olsen admitted that she's never felt like she was at the top of the class. “I went to a high school that was balanced really well,” she said. “Everyone had more than one interest. So thespians at my school weren't encyclopedias of knowledge about theater.” As a result, she had to commiserate with her high school classmate, who had also made the trip from California to New York. “Both of us were like, 'these people know so much more than us!” she said. “It was really intimidating.”
The pressure has eased a bit. Now, “I have a new mindset on school,” she said. “It's not like anyone's forcing me to be at school. I like being at school. So I'm not so nervous all the time.”
It would be hard to imagine Olsen as nervous if she wasn't so earnest. Working with Rodrigo Cortés on “Red Lights” was “amazing. He's brilliant.” Filming long shots, built for seamless editing in “Silent House,” was “so annoying!” Comments that might earn the prima donna tag for another celebrity simply came across as enthusiastic honesty from the young actress.
This wasn't lost on Olsen, who noticed a clump of spinach in her Immune Booster. “It looks like they blended something instead of juicing it,” she said, genuinely concerned, before an embarrassed smile crept onto her face. “Ugh, I have so many white girl problems!” she said. “One night I was like, 'my stomach hurts...because I only ate raw food today.' White girl problems.”
When asked about “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” she became more introspective. “I can't figure out what genre it is,” she confessed, noting that it's not just a run-from-the-cult horror movie – a large chunk of the movie is spent examining the struggle of a victim to re-assimilate with her family. “It's a psychological thriller, but there's a real family drama there. And it's really suspenseful. There's...a bunch of different things there.”
The conundrum is real to anyone who has seen the trailer. It opens with Olsen huddled around the receiver of a payphone. Despite what looks like a warm day, she is shivering. A voice picks up, asking where she is. “I'm not sure,” she says, voice shaking. “Upstate, I think.” When the voice tells her find out where she is so help can arrive, Olsen's eyes dart across the street. “I can't wait that long,” she says.
Filming that scene was a challenge, she said, especially for someone who had just emerged from two years of theater training where solo pieces are rare. “I'm not actually reacting to anyone, because no one's actually on that phone,” she said when asked to describe creating such a volatile character. “But what I found really fun with this character, because she had so many fears, was that she's always watching her back.” Recalling the image of her alone onscreen, eyes darting around, voice trembling, she explained: “she still doesn't know if people are running after her. So every noise that happened when we were working, I could use...Like if a car drove by, I'm not going to pretend a car didn't drive by.”
If she sounds like she's put a lot of thought into this, it's because she has. Through NYU's acting program, Olsen studied at the Atlantic Theater Company for two years, where she shaped her technique. Being there, she said, “shaped so much of my opinion on how I want to work and what I want to work on,” she said. Noting that since Martha she's been offered a lot of poorly-written, “crazy people parts,” she added that what drew her to Martha was the chance to be active – not just nutty. “If I didn't have that [training], I feel like I'd be internal and emoting,” she said disgustedly, adopting a nasal tone. “It wouldn't be as specific.”
Elizabeth wasn't the first Olsen to study at NYU. Her sisters made headlines in 2003 when they enrolled at the university and began taking classes alongside 18-year olds who had grown up watching them on TV. Security guards accompanied them to lectures, and tabloids documented everything from their parties to their grades. They left the school before the end of sophomore year.
Asked if her time at school was tainted by the all-encompassing glow of the Olsen nebula, she leaned in. “I thought it would happen,” she admitted, “but it didn't.” When asked if other students were intimidated by her acting experience, she said the opposite was true. “I was so intimidated,” she said. “I thought people at acting school would be like, 'whatever. She probably doesn't want to be an actor.” Instead, she found herself in hour-long discussions about Chekhov, where unsurprisingly, freshmen were more interested in their freshman year than hers.
That didn't mean her friends weren't fascinated by her family. One student at orientation, upon meeting her for the first time, was “the scariest girl I've ever met,” said Olsen, impersonating the student's wide-eyed stare at Michelle Tanner's little sister. “Because Jessica's someone who, when she knows something, isn't going to pretend like she doesn't know it. Because she's so honest – that's why she's so great.” The classmate, she added, “is now one of my best friends. Like, period.”
She admitted, though, that she feels more pressure than your average actress making her screen debut. “The thing that does scare me – well, not scare me, but it's weird – is the first movie that's come out is 'Martha,'” she said. “And people really like it...and in the beginning of your career, you make a lot of mistakes because you're trying to figure out what the fuck you're doing. And I feel a little freaked out that the mistakes are going to be a little more...watched over. You know?”
She knew she had been mentioned by several critics as a potential award nominee. Asked how she would feel if she won an Independent Spirit Award, or an Oscar, she giggled. “That would be the coolest thing ever!” she said. “That would be so crazy! But then it's like –“ she adopted a tough, critic voice – “yeah, but her next movie was shit.”
Her next films don't sound too bad, though, if only for her co-stars. “Red Lights,” which is on track to premiere next year, stars Robert DeNiro and Sigourney Weaver. While she didn't have any scenes with DeNiro, she says she learned plenty from Weaver. The 3-time Oscar nominee ran lines with Olsen on their off-nights, something Olsen said she was eternally grateful for. “Sigourney is very much a theater person,” she said. “Rehearsal is important to her, and I appreciate that. Because I'd be too scared to be like, 'hey, Sigourney? Wanna rehearse our lines together?' Because that would be terrifying to me.”
For all of her current projects, though, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” remains the only one with a wide release, and its reception will undoubtedly shape the early part of her career. Pretty crazy, she said for something “we filmed with a $500,000 budget, you know?” she said. “It's a low-budge film.” Immediately, she threw back her head, shocked with herself. “Ugh! I said low-budge. Low budget,” she corrected herself, stirring her juice like an absent-minded college student.