Elizabeth Olsen: Sister Number Three Rises to the Top

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Jody Lee Lipes / Twentieth Century Fox

Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in a scene from Martha Marcy May Marlene.

There is a softness to the way Elizabeth Olsen moves on screen, as if her joints are made of recently melted wax. Simultaneously tough and unabashedly feminine, she can stretch out like a sleepy cat in one scene and coil up as if to pounce in the next. The 22-year old actress is transfixing. The only count against her is that she happens to be an Olsen.

Not that family ties should count for everything, but being related to Mary-Kate and Ashley does come with it’s fair share of baggage. “I wasn’t naive to how I would be perceived when I decided to choose to act,” Olsen says. “I’ve been asked the question about what it’s like growing up with famous sisters since I was seven years old. I feel like I’ve been talking about them forever.”

Though the twins have moved away from the screen and into the fashion world, commanding three successful clothing lines and enjoying critical runway success, they still cast a long shadow in certain Hollywood circles. So it is serendipitous then that the younger Olsen has her film debut in a role so challenging and poised that there can be no doubt as to whether she deserves to go into the family business. In fact, Olsen’s debut performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene, proves that as an actress, she has already surpassed her sister’s accomplishments. Mary-Kate and Ashley—collectively the 11th richest women in Hollywood—may have an empire to run, but Lizzie will be the one to put an Oscar on her mantle.

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Olsen says that she started to consider acting when she entered high school. “I couldn’t at first decide if it was just a childish dream or a reality, she says. “Even though I’m from Los Angeles and I know how it goes, saying that you want to be an actor is still a ridiculous thing to want to do.”

In order to make the dream less ridiculous, Olsen decided to attend conservatories in New York—the prestigious Tisch School and Atlantic Theater Company— to hone her craft. All that time spent in New York traipsing from audition to audition helped to land Olsen two parts back-to-back. (That famous name probably helped somewhat.) The first film she shot was a family comedy called Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding. In it, Jane Fonda plays an aging, incense-burning hippie in upstate New York; Olsen is her city-mouse granddaughter. The other role Olsen booked was as the star of a low-budget independent film with a tongue-twister of a name.

Sean Durkin, the young writer-director of Martha Marcy May Marlene, was looking for an untested actress to play the lead role, a girl who finds herself sucked into a youthful farm community that begins to look more and more like a cult. The actress needed to show extreme vulnerability and innocence in order for the cult’s seduction to be believable; Durkin wanted to write Martha’s story on a blank face. When he saw Olsen for the part, she had not yet debuted on screen. She was raw.

MMMM, as people have come to abbreviate the film, was a hit at Sundance and is already popping up on Oscar prognosticator lists, in no small part thanks to Olsen’s dynamic performance. The role would be a heavy lift for any actress—the film flashes back and forth between Martha’s post-cult life, when she lives with her distant sister (the excellent Sarah Paulson), and her life as Marcy May, the member of the cult who captures the affections of the group’s charismatic leader (a quietly terrifying John Hawkes). Her perspective is constantly changing from the present to the past, from the real to the imagined, and soon it becomes clear that her entire mind has been warped by her years spent on the farm. Olsen handles this dizzy vaulting with ease; her face is so open and alive that the audience can follow her every emotion. She conveys the fear and paranoia that comes with brainwashing every time her eyes face the camera.

“I just tried to be as analytical as possible,” Olsen says. “ I was always making sure that Martha was clearly reacting to something, that she wasn’t just emoting. I tried to discover what she was missing in her family, to figure out if she ever had a passion, to see what void she was trying to fill by going to the farmhouse. At not one point in the film does she know she is in a cult; she just knows she has lost her voice. And then the PTSD and paranoia she suffers from later is so overwhelming.”

She tackles the role with vehemence, a hungry young talent seemingly unharmed by her proximity to the craziness that swirls around her sisters. Still, she says she gets her ceaseless work ethic from them.

“The thing with my sisters is, they are great business women and incredibly creative,” she says. “They created this fashion empire and they are only 25 years old. My sisters represent to me women who have the strongest work ethic I know. They put all of their work and energy and time into that. They’ve never taken six months off.”

Olson is following suit. She recently filmed the psychological thriller Red Lights opposite Robert DeNiro and Sigourney Weaver, and soon she will start shooting the coming-of-age drama Very Good Girls, co-starring Dakota Fanning and Dustin Hoffman. In the meantime, she will promote Peace, Love and Misunderstanding and Liberal Arts, an independent romantic comedy she stars in opposite How I Mer Your Mother’s Josh Radnor.

“I have so many options now,” Olsen says. “The last thing I want to do with the career momentum is to do anything crazy.”

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