Out of the Woods

Growing up, Elizabeth Olsen had a strange relationship with celebrity life. Three years younger than wonder twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, Olsen was toted to after-school movie shoots and weekend rehearsals, even landing a few cameo spots in the duo’s countless kiddie productions. Dodging paparazzi was daily routine — and it was frightening.

Even now, following her breakthrough performance in Sean Durkin’s riveting psychological thriller “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (one of three roles this year and the first since her 1996 appearance in “The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley: The Case of the U.S. Space Camp Mission”), the 22-year-old actress is uncomfortable in the limelight.

“I have a hard time,” Olsen told the Guardian in a conference call. “I’m in every frame of the movie, and so that was difficult to watch. I don’t necessarily enjoy watching myself for that long.”

But after the film’s lucrative Sundance premier and subsequent wave of Oscar buzz for Olsen’s staggering portrayal of Martha — a disillusioned ex-member of an abusive back-to-nature cult — Olsen’s sudden arrival is difficult to ignore.

And it’s Olsen’s eerily subtle delivery — mirrored by a truly haunting John Hawkes as emaciated cult leader Patrick — that makes “Martha Marcy May Marlene” such a frightening experience. Olsen attributes this to writer/director Sean Durkin’s on-set dynamic.

“The great thing about Sean as a director is he presents himself as an open book,” Olsen said. “We also created such a tight-knit family, it was a small crew, it was a small cast, and we all lived together on location. And so all of that created an amazing creative environment.”

Kate Winslet’s performance in the similarly cult-themed 1999 drama “Holy Smoke!” also influenced Olsen’s transformation.

“It gave me an understanding of how nudity could be used in a way for it to tell a story, as opposed to being gratuitous or sensationalized,” Olsen said. “[Winslet’s] performance in that is off the wall, so I was very happy to have seen that before working…it just gave me a sort of confidence. But I didn’t base Martha off anyone real, whether that was in my life or in fiction.”

Deterred by the media’s omnipresence in the lives of her older sisters, Olsen focused on her education at an early age, honing her craft at the legendary Atlantic Theater Company in New York City. But the transition from theater to film acting required some ingenuity.

“It’s very analytically based, and for me that’s the most effective way to work,” Olsen said. “Especially on a script that’s so riddled [with] puzzles. The only way that I can approach acting this is really making everything as specific as possible from an analytic point of view. [It’s] not really what they highlight at the Atlantic.”

In one scene, Martha discovers that she’s been tailed by a cult member, launching her into an on-screen psychological breakdown for the ages. It’s Olsen’s first display of unhinged emotion, and the result is as unnerving as it is believable.

“There’s only one cut in that whole scene,” Olsen said. “And I just remember it so well — trying to find out the rhythm of that scene and how to build a climax without any cuts. That was a really rough day.”

But Olsen is drawn to the challenge. Her next film, “Silent House,” is an indie-horror flick shot in one continuous 78-minute take. It’s a career move as daring as “Martha Marcy May Marlene”’s cliffhanger ending, and a thrilling start for this year’s unlikely breakthrough actress.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is now playing in theaters. “Silent House” is scheduled for release on March 9, 2012.

More to Discover
Donate to The UCSD Guardian
$200
$500
Contributed
Our Goal

Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

Donate to The UCSD Guardian
$200
$500
Contributed
Our Goal