Olsen - coming of age at last

Avengers star on awards, blockbusters, and wanting to get older

by Richard Mowe

Elizabeth Olsen: " I do not judge the social media thing and the cult of personality but as someone who loves their job I find that other part of the business very strange.”
Elizabeth Olsen: " I do not judge the social media thing and the cult of personality but as someone who loves their job I find that other part of the business very strange.” Photo: Deauville American Film Festival

She may have been in the shadow of her older twin siblings Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who made their debuts aged nine months, starred in the sitcom Full House and are now celebrated fashionistas, but Elizabeth Olson, 26, is catching up fast. She now has Avengers: Age Of Ultron behind her and is playing Hank Williams’ wife in I Saw The Light. She proved conclusively she could act in Martha Marcy May Marlene (with a Bafta Rising Star nomination) and also came out fighting in Godzilla. Her mother is a former dancer and her father a property developer - and they know little of the film world. Elizabeth Olsen manages to swing between blockbusters and art-house films in the same way as role model Scarlett Johansson. In Deauville at the American Film Festival last night (9 September) she received a New Hollywood Award in recognition of her achievements in career that has spanned just ten years.

Elizabeth Olsen as she appeared in Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Elizabeth Olsen as she appeared in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Richard Mowe: How does it feel being the younger sister in a line of three. Was there a lot of competition?

Elizabeth Olsen: To me it is just normal. I don’t think I have anything different from my sisters. It was pretty ordinary in our family and it wasn’t really about fame but more about it just being a job. I think I might have a healthier attitude to the industry because of that.

RM: Did it help that your parents did not really have any direct connections to the film world?

EO: Absolutely. My parents don’t really have anything to do with my work or my job. I hardly tell them things anyway because I wouldn’t like the constant reminder that I didn’t get something. I am not even sure they really know why I am here in Deauville!

RM: What does the New Hollywood Award in Deauville mean for you?

EO: Of course it is fantastic. When Martha Marcy May Marlene came out I started getting noticed and I was nominated for a Rising Star award at the Baftas. I have been working in film for around ten years now and the award feels like an acknowledgement that people are watching my work.

RM: Does your generation of actors take things more seriously than perhaps previous generations?

EO: You seem to end up getting a lot of actors who want to go against certain things. It is something that our society and culture has created and people want to go so far in the other direction. Rooney Mara, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Lawrence and me don’t do social media because we don’t want to engage in that way. And maybe that means we are taking it seriously so that other people will take us seriously as opposed to being personalities.

After Martha came out I found I had more choice. I did not really know how to chose. I have gone through a lot of phases since then. Right before Martha I was doing jobs just as they came my way. There wasn’t any consistency to why … it was more like Thank you for giving me a job! And then after the success of that film I just wanted to play different characters rather than thinking of projects as a whole. Now I am thinking of projects as a whole including who is producing and who is directing. I am starting to learn better how movies are made and how to make it a better experience in the end. So after going from Avengers to I Saw The Light was so nice. Avengers was just so big and non-intimate and then going to something with a small crew and everyone felt so respected because we were made to feel our opinions were important and they were. You could feel that when you were filming and you ended up with this amazing creative environment. That stimulates better team work in a way.

RM: In I Saw the Light you are playing Hank Williams’s wife Audrey Mae opposite your Avengers co-star Tom Huddleston. Is that the first time you have incarnated a real person?

EO: I played Edie Parker in Kill Your Darlings [in which Daniel Radcliffe played poet Allen Gisnberg]. I read her autobiography and found out about her relationship to the Beat Poets for the role. But I treated Audrey [Williams] differently because it is a much more prominent part. Also she is not alive and people who knew her and talked about her in interviews and documentaries did not like her. Not many people said good things about her. So in a way I thought my role was to be her lawyer and to defend her. She had a tough situation so I had lot of fun giving her so much compassion and I think that comes across. You do not hate her. I have noticed that characters I prefer to play and I prefer to watch are not necessarily characters that I agree with. May be they are not the greatest human beings but some how as a member of the audience you want them to succeed. In a way I embrace their flaws but I don’t need to be their friend either. You hope that things work out for them and that is what I have decided I like in a very broad way.

Elizabeth Olsen in Deauville: "I have looked roughly the same for the last ten years and that is not a good thing.”
Elizabeth Olsen in Deauville: "I have looked roughly the same for the last ten years and that is not a good thing.” Photo: Deauville American Film Festival

RM: Do you feel that the fact that you are in big budget titles like Avengers could have an adverse effect on independent directors coming to hire you?

EO: I am not sure … I am aware that there are some directors that are so prestigious that they may roll their eyes at an actor who is doing a blockbuster franchise but at the same time Scarlett Johannson is the perfect example of someone who has been in all of them. She has been in some amazing films and worked with incredible directors at the same time as doing blockbusters. I like to latch on to that hook.

RM: You mentioned that you are reluctant to embrace social media but there are some directors apparently who cast on how many twitter followers an actor might have. How do you balance that out?

EO: I have never come across it. No-one has asked me yet. When it is a project I care about I am very willing to do all the media stuff - obviously you have to. I like to think I am not someone who is difficult to work with. I hope those kind of things counteract the need to have followers. I do not judge the social media thing and the cult of personality but as someone who loves their job I find that other part of the business very strange. It would be a weird thing for my ego to elect to do that in my daily life. It does not make sense to me. It is a very uncomfortable feeling yet some people do it because they like to control it. I prefer to control it by distancing myself from it. I have had trouble with paparazzi just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or because I am at the farmers’ market and suddenly that sucks because that is where they hang out … unbelievably at the farmers’ market. So have to find another farmers’ market. I avoid going to places where I know there would be a problem including certain restaurants I would love to try.

RM: Some of your choices have been quite courageous. Do you like edgy material?

EO: I loved doing the remake of the South Korean film Oldboy because I liked the original so much. When I watched it for the first time my mouth was gaping open for a very long time afterwards. I liked the twist and I liked the idea of making a Western audience see it if they had not seen the original by Park Chan-wook. I also wanted to work with Spike Lee and Josh Brolin.

RM: Are there boundaries you would not cross in terms of what you are prepared to do on screen?

EO: I do not agree with nudity for a lot of situations. It would be hard for me to be cool about having to walk down a beach in a bikini just for the sake of it. When you are talking about rape or a very important love sequence in a film that is part of driving the story forward then it makes sense to me. But I am certainly open to lots of possibilities.

RM: Is there an ideal role that you have a burning desire to try?

EO: I have people I want to work with and I love films that have abstract ideas to explore. I wanted to work on The Lobster but it was in conflict at the time with my role in The Avengers. That was a heartbreak and I was in a contract I could not get out of. So that didn’t work out but it’s OK.

RM: Was it hard to break in to theatre?

EO: There is a certain elite in New York theatre land and until you open that door and go to enough casting sessions to make an impression it can be tough. I haven’t been doing much theatre, but I would love to go back. The last time wasn’t such a good experience so I am a bit scared of it at the moment.

RM: How do you regard the ageing process where Hollywood tends to be severe on older actresses?

EO: This is going to sound weird but I cannot wait to look older because I have looked roughly the same for the last ten years and that is not a good thing. All the leading actors are in their mid-thirties or older - all the ones who are able to green light films. That has been frustrating for me because I am deemed to look too young to work with them. Then I find that someone who is younger than me gets the role because she looks older! I am sure it will work out later. There is always a reason you don’t get jobs and I am not going to start partying and smoking so I look older. I feel that the roles I find to be most interesting are women in their thirties and forties. People comment when they get the mom roles but over the last four years I have actually been playing young moms [in Godzilla and I Saw The Light] ! So I won’t have that transition at least.

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