A Conversation with Elizabeth Olsen About Her Role in the Film Martha Marcy May Marlene

Conversations / October 28, 2011
Elizabeth Olsen

Actress Elizabeth Olsen. Photo: Tabercil

One of the most talked about films at the Sundance Film Festival last year, Martha Marcy May Marlene, the debut feature film from writer/director Sean Durkin has become one of the most critically-praised and most anticipated films of the year.

The feature, for which Durkin won the prestigious Best Director (in the Dramatic Feature Competition) at Sundance is a wonderfully crafted and gripping psychological thriller about a young girl who escapes from a seductive cult and finds herself losing grip on reality as she “returns” to society.

Yet, while their are many great things about Durkin’s screeplay and direction that make the film so intoxicating and unique, it’s the breakout performance of star Elizabeth Olsen as the titular Martha that has everybody talking.

While Martha Marcy May Marlene is the feature film debut of Olsen, she’s best known as the younger sister of former child stars-turned-fashion-moguls Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.

Following in the footsteps of her sisters, Elizabeth is a recent graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where she majored in acting. As the psychologically unstable Martha, Elizabeth Olsen turns in an incredibly haunting and harrowing performance and shows that she is an acting force to be reckon with.

During a press tour of Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth stopped by Washington, D.C. to sit down with Meets Obsession to talk about her role in the film, working with another first timer (Sean Durkin) as well as the fantastic John Hawkes, and the great time she had making the film.

Meets Obsession: So, since this is your first film, I guess the obvious first question I have for you is how did you become involved in this particular project?

Elizabeth Olsen: It’s actually the second feature I worked on, but the first feature being released. The other one premiered at Toronto [International Film Festival], it was Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding, and that was the first movie I got to work on. We overlapped filming the last week of that movie with Martha Marcy May Marlene, [laughs], it was quite a changed of pace- family comedy right into intense psychological thriller.

MO: Yeah, that’s quite a contrast

Elizabeth: What happened was I started auditioning for things in January of 2010, and it was July of last year when I read this script among like, seven others… I read everything and auditioned for everything because I’m a new face and I need to do that. I just happened to get lucky that Sean [Durkin’s] intentions were to cast and find an unknown actor. He has a situation with his production company where their investors don’t have artistic license on casting or final cut. When they decided they were going to make feature films– Sean, Antonio Campos, Josh Mond— the three of them wanted to make their first features the way they wanted to make them, so that their first film could be their own voice…without anyone else changing it.

He auditioned tons of people and I was just one of those girls who auditioned. I knew the casting director already… so she brought me in towards the end… I came back for a second time, and that was it!

MO: You say ‘unknown actress’, but a lot of people know who you are because of your sisters.

Elizabeth: People are like “I didn’t know they had a family! I thought they just existed and appeared!” [laughs]

MO: But when you walk in for auditions, do you feel like you have an advantage, because of your sisters, or do you think it’s like a blank slate?

Elizabeth: I don’t think it’s a blank slate, I think it differs for different people. I have zero control over someone else’s opinion of me, based on my family. I think in some cases it can be an advantage, and in some cases it can be a disadvantage. I’ve certainly seen where it’s been a disadvantage, on one occasion, but that was very early on in my auditioning process. There was a theatre casting director that didn’t want to see me! [laughs] And I was an understudy for off Broadway and Broadway when I was in college, had my equity card, trained at one of the greatest conservatories in New York City and he didn’t want to see me!

So my agent tricked me into saying that they wanted to pre-screen me on tape, when really they didn’t ask for that. Once they saw that, they started bringing me in for things. That was just one occasion, a theatre role. Maybe it happened without me knowing, but that was the only time I’ve ever been aware of it.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Actress Elizabeth Olsen (L) on the set of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE.

Photo by Drew Innis

MO: Your character, Martha (or Marcy May, or sometimes, Marlene) goes through a lot during the film, how did you prepare for a role like this?

Elizabeth: I am very analytical. Especially with something that requires work. I think a lot of jobs don’t really require work. They require you to be present, and energetic, and healthy, and know your lines, things like that. But they don’t actually require lots of other work, and this job did. I really just took a lot of time to analyze it from a very fundamental standpoint. Like, if you’re paranoid, even if you’re in a room by yourself, there’s still an outside force you’re reacting with. Even if it’s not there, you create that for yourself. So even when I wasn’t in actual direct contact with anything [while filming], I always had to make sure that there was some sort of active force I was reacting to, in order to forward the story.

MO: Not to spoil anything in the movie, but you have some pretty tough scenes with John Hawkes, who I’ve heard is one of the nicest guys in the world, what was it like working with him on this particular project?

Elizabeth: I think because there’s such a dichotomy between our relationship in the film- there are moments where [Martha] is seduced and in love with [Hawkes’ character], and finds comfort in him, and then there are moments that are terrifying, and so you need both. In order to do both of those things it was helpful, in both cases, that he is such a kind person. He never tried to play any tricks, or do anything to throw me off or make me uncomfortable, which I appreciated because I’m not someone who works like that either [laughs], because I’d be totally freaked out if he did! And then that would make me feel less comfortable to open up to him in the scenes where I do.

Obviously, I think there are scenes where we didn’t speak to each other right before working, we kept our distance to help [the scene]. It was all natural… I learned a lot from him and how he acts with someone else and how he helps them, without even realizing he’s helping you.

MO: Even as a trained actor, I can’t imagine a role like this wouldn’t take some sort of physical or emotional toll on you.

Elizabeth: It’s so funny, when I think [back] about working on the movie, I really just think rainbows [about] the whole experience [laughs]! It was such a fun set and we had such a great time making it. I wonder if it’s like that thing that happens after women give birth they release all those great endorphins and they can forget all the pain [laughs]…

But I do remember being tired a lot and needing to nap, and feeling drained. I do remember one specific day, we filmed a scene in the bathroom, and that was a tough day for me. I guess it [all] just hit me… But at the end of the night, we were always able to hang [out] as a cast and crew together and relax and have dinner and a drink, then go to bed and get ready for the next day.

MO: So, this is your first feature film as well as the first feature film for Sean Durkin. What sort of things did he work with you on while preparing for such a disturbing role?

Elizabeth: Sean and I have a very special relationship. He’s by nature really gentle and direct, and he’s very good at communicating, he knows exactly what he wants when he directs. I would like to say that I’m always someone who can be directed in a very confrontational manner, so it can be effective instead of someone just dancing around [an issue], because I think that’s just a waste of time. The truth is, I’m not like that, and I wish I were, but with [Sean] I was, because I trusted him, and he’s so kind and gentle and careful. Just by his manner, if he were to say: “that’s all bullshit, Lizzie,” I’d be like, “God you’re so right, I’m sorry” and snap out of it, instead of being like [crying] “he said I was bullshit!” [laughs].

He allowed me to feel like I had full creative ability and license to do what I needed to do. As a director, he hires his actors and crew because he knows they can do their job well. He surrounds himself with people who he likes to work with and thinks is bringing something to the table. He doesn’t micromanage anything… It was really a creative environment.

MO: Between the flashbacks to scenes in the cult, and the scenes in the present, at the lake house, it almost seems as though you’re portraying two different characters, how did you handle that dichotomy?

Elizabeth: We filmed all the farm stuff first, so that was helpful. For me, I kind of treated it like two totally different stories, different [story] arcs, but they interweave in the actual storytelling. I’m someone who truly believes that I cannot control the larger picture, I can only control my job and I have to trust that editing tells a lot of the story. There’s just no way I can try and act ambiguous [laughs], it would make you so much more confused!

So I had to be as clear and specific as possible from her point-of-view, and where psychologically she was at, so that it opens up for an audience to try and connect with where she is throughout [the film]. Because there’s so many seamless intercuts and edits- a lot of those were written into the script, I asked Sean when we first started shooting at the lake house, “would you like me to remember what I was doing, or where my mind was at when we filmed the scene that goes into this scene”? And he said “No, there’s no reason because you’re supposed to be in the present in both places, so you don’t need to worry about trying to create this back and forth, it’s going to be there”.

MO: The film depicts the cult in such a harmless way at first, almost enticing. How important was it for you and Sean to not caricaturize the depiction of the cult within the film?

Elizabeth: It was very important. We actually only started using the term “cult” to talk about the film [after the fact]. It’s not because we banished the word, it’s just because we never used it [during filming]. It was important for not one of [the cult members] to seem impressionable and easily manipulated. It was really important for all of these people to find something within this group that offered something they were missing. What Sean says, is that if we wrote in a cult with people in robes and preaching sermons, for audiences those are all red flags, no one is ever going to get behind why anyone would ever go there. It was important for Sean that [the cult] didn’t have any red flags so the audience can actually understand what’s so appealing about it.

MO: There’s been so much positive buzz about this film, and in particular, your performance. Even the film’s poster has a quote from Peter Travers [of Rolling Stone] that says “Elizabeth Olsen gives an electrifying, star-is-born performance”, how do you feel when you see something like that?

Elizabeth: I got to do an interview with Peter [Travers] at Sundance, which was so cool. But, it’s weird! It’s exciting, and bizarre, and it’s my first film! A lot of “first films” aren’t really good and no one sees them! There’s like an adjustment period to find a niche and figure out what the hell you’re doing, and I still have it. It started off high, but life isn’t like that, life doesn’t just go like this, and I’m well aware of that.

It’s great, but it’s also a little intimidating,  because it’s all the ebb and flows of life, the ups and downs. Right now I’m just going to appreciated that something we all loved working on is being received so well, and that it has opened up job opportunities for me, and those job opportunities, to me, sound so exciting!

MO: What sort of opportunities?

Elizabeth: It’s not anything specific. It’s more hypothetically speaking. I might decide to do something that I think is “the perfect script!” and all these things, but you don’t have control over how it’s going to be perceived. All I can do is to try and continue to make choices that I can learn from and that I care about.

MO: Well thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me!

Elizabeth: And thank you! It was a real pleasure!


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Matt Cohen
Matt Cohen
Matt is currently obsessed with Rap Snacks, post-hardcore, pizza parties, and Carl Sagan's Cosmos.




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