Published by AskMen — October 23, 2011
By Radheyan Simonpillai

You haven’t heard much about Elizabeth Olsen — yet. And if you have, then you already know that she is the younger sibling to the Full Housepair Mary-Kate and Ashley. Unlike her child star sisters, Elizabeth has stayed out of the limelight, hidden behind their shadow, making only brief appearances in the twins’ movies and then charting her own terrain by performing in theater.

But that’s all changing for the 22-year-old actress. Elizabeth is the star of the Sundance hit (with the tongue-twister title) Martha Marcy May Marlene. In it, her character, Martha, escapes from a cult and seeks refuge with her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) and new brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy) in their lake house cottage. Attempting to forge a new life, Martha can neither shake the habits and memories of her old life, nor can she abandon the suspicion that the cult is coming after her.

Following in the footsteps of former Sundance breakouts like Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Olsen has been garnering rave reviews for her performance and is already being shortlisted as an Oscar contender. That would make her the first Olsen sister to walk the red carpet at the Oscars.

The fashionably dressed and strikingly beautiful Elizabeth met with us at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her career, being an Olsen and the film that is making her famous, which opened on October 21st.

This movie is being described in a lot of circles as a typical Sundance movie. What are your thoughts on this definition?

Elizabeth Olsen: I really have no idea about any of the festivals. I didn’t know how they are all different from each other. I’m learning now about Toronto before coming here. People say its more business oriented,Cannes is more glamorous and Sundance is grungier.

People have been calling you a breakout star since Sundance. What’s that like for your first feature, to get this kind of buzz?

EO: If I were to ask myself a year ago whether this would be happening, I would not believe it. It’s really exciting. It’s also a little intimidating. I’m just starting to work so naturally everything is an ebb and flow, like a roller coaster, up and down. So it’s a good thing to be here right now. You just always have to know that you can’t do this your whole life. Everything’s going to be back and forth.

Have you gotten advice from your sisters on how to deal with the fame?

EO: Not really. We have a good relationship, so just by having a good relationship with anyone you are close with, you get good advice. We don’t really talk about work, but we’re all very supportive of each other.

There’s no healthy competition between you guys?

EO: [Laughs] No. That would be the unhealthiest thing, I think. Ashley doesn’t even act anymore. They are just really focused on fashion right now. Today’s their presentation to Anna Wintour in New York. My dad and I talked to them before, and they’re nervous.

I read that you were afraid of doing movies, which is why you were in theater. Now that you’ve gone through this “roller coaster,” did your fears subside?

Elizabeth Olsen: They have so far. I think the main thing I am frightened of about movies is how that brings [attention]. The tabloids create their own stories about people’s lives that don’t exist. They become part of this fictitious storyboard of characters that we follow. Then people start to think that [actors’] lives are for the public. That’s what frightens me. I haven’t really experienced any of that.

Does that fear stem from watching how the media fed on your sisters?

EO: People were really rude to them when I was younger.

Why did you want this part in Martha Marcy May Marlene?

EO: There are quite a few reasons. I really loved the way the story is told with this non-linear structure going back and forth. The ambiguity excited me as an audience member. Also, you don’t get an opportunity like this as an unknown actor. You don’t get the opportunity to have such a range of things to go through in a character. It was almost like making two films. It was just a gift to be able to do something like that. It’s also well written.

Was it exhausting dealing with all the emotions your character goes through?

EO: It got tiring at the lake house set. I took lots of naps.   

What are your memories of your auditions? Were you nervous about your performance?

EO: I really actually enjoy auditioning. I believe that you are only in control of so much. So whatever you are not in control of you can’t worry about. So one of those things is what the director wants to cast, what he wants them to look like, does it work with his idea or not. You just try to be present for this amount of time. I was moving upstate at the time. I was packing my bags. So I had all my bags with me [at the audition]. I enjoyed the audition, but I just remember moving upstate.

Were you drawn to any real stories about cults in preparing for your character?

EO: I didn’t read much before. I got cast about two to three weeks before shooting, and I was working on Peace, Love and Misunderstanding at the time. All I had was the script. [Sean Durkin, the director,] is an encyclopedia of cults. He had the one story of his friend’s experience, so that was my main source to draw from.

Since the film has been playing at festivals, do you meet cult members at screenings?

EO: Yes! Almost every Q&A we have, that happens. Not just cult members but people who have been domestically abused.

The film ends on a wonderfully ambiguous note, where the fate of your character, Martha, is left uncertain. Are you optimistic for her future?

EO: I’m an optimistic person, so, sure. I don’t really like giving my opinion on what happens before or after the framing of the film. I don’t want my opinion to influence anyone else. I think everyone should have their own experience with it.