Elizabeth Olsen is on the brink of stardom with the coming blockbusters “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” to be released in 2015, and “Godzilla,” which will be out next year.
So far, the budding actress is best known for her critically acclaimed turn in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and other indies like “Kill Your Darlings,” starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg, which is out now. Oh, and yes, she also happens to be the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
The beautiful actress glided into the claustrophobic room at the Conrad Hotel in Manhattan’s financial district last week, dressed casually and looking radiant, to discuss her role in the new Spike Lee thriller “Oldboy,” which will be released Friday, Nov. 27, 2013.
The previous night, the actress had just completed her final performance of “Romeo and Juliet” Off Broadway. “It feels so good to be done,” she said. She described the experience as fun but exhausting. “It’s funny, I had such an itch to do a play, and I did it and once it was the last performance I was, ‘Get me out of here!’” she laughed. “I feel like that about genres. I got that out of my system, on to the next!”
“Oldboy” is Spike Lee’s reinterpretation of the Korean revenge thriller directed by Park Chan Wook, which came out a decade ago and won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. It became an instant cult classic but didn’t have a wide American audience. Spike Lee’s reimagining of the cult class is violent in so many creative ways and is definitely not for the squeamish.
Olsen plays a young woman trying to overcome addictions, who is damaged by an unhappy childhood. She crosses paths with Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a downward-spiraling advertising executive and alcoholic who out of the blue is imprisoned in a bizarre, hotel-like prison for 20 years. When he’s released, he’s furious and looking for answers. His quest leads him to a young social worker (Olsen) with whom he becomes entangled in a complicated and intense relationship.
Spike Lee later told me that he cast Olsen after being impressed by her performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” “If we cast the wrong person in that, that’s something that no matter how great everybody else is might not make the whole thing tumble, so I’m very happy and fortunate and grateful that we were able to get her in that role, key role. Key. Key. Key,” Lee emphasized. “She doesn’t appear until half way through the film, but she’s a key, key ingredient.”
“Oldboy” has some twisted family relationships going on, which also happens to be a running theme in some of Olsen’s indie work. And then in her upcoming film juggernauts, there’s some faux film incest going on: In “Godzilla” she plays the wife of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character and then she plays the actor’s sister in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
“I just realized that in the last roundtable I was doing,” Olsen laughed of the twisted faux relationships. “It’s so weird,” she said. “It’s really bad that, like, this few years of body of work, that’s the main theme. I’m kind of disturbed by it. I have a very pleasant house,” she laughed.
“Well at least I can say, ‘Martha’ and ‘Silent House,’ I didn’t choose those jobs. I was given those jobs after auditioning and, in my mind, the concept of ‘no’ wasn’t formed yet. It was just like, job, yes, you know. I don’t care what it is. I’m a working actor now. It’s kind of the same thing for the first five, six films I worked on.”
She spoke of how she once considered chucking her film career after she witnessed how her sisters had to always duck paparazzi and the tabloid press.
“Maybe when I was like 15,” she said, but “my whole life was musical theater and acting classes.” She’s from L.A. and to say she wanted to be an actor seemed embarrassing. “I’m smart enough to do other things,” she thought.
She briefly considered being an investment banker or a lawyer. “That was my plan b for a year, or at least what I told people to shade myself from the shame of being an actor. But I had a great high school drama teacher who made me feel confident enough to be willing to do it.”
Her acting career was cemented when she moved to New York. “The school I went to helped me get my first two jobs in the theater as an understudy for a year, and I got an agent that way, so if I hadn’t had my school, I wouldn’t have started my career the way I did.”
Olsen had never seen “Oldboy,” but her brother was a big fan of the original and told her about it. “He was embarrassed that I was his sister and hadn’t seen it until I did. I read the script and that was enough for me to be kind of obsessed with this story. I was so shocked. I was heartbroken. I felt so awful that that happened. That that was the way it ended up because I cared about their relationship.”
She wasn’t bothered that it was a remake. “People read Greek tragedies all the time, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ stories all the time, people tell ‘Hamlet’ all the time. All these relationships and if it’s a good story it’s a good story, so I have a feeling this same kind of story is going to be told again in 10 to 20 years. I wouldn’t be surprised. Yeah, it’s a crazy story and people who don’t know the twist at the end” will be shocked. “It’s fun, it’s bad, it’s awful, you know, but it’s fun to be surprised as an audience member.”
Now that she’s on the brink of stardom, how will she approach her new roles?
“The same way, I think. I actually feel really good that I just did a play because it requires so much imagination,” she said. “And with Godzilla, it wasn’t that hard with Godzilla because instead of imaging Godzilla, I imagined the sniper on the building. I’m not going to be scared of a monster, but a sniper, I can understand that.”
“So far, I’m just doing a lot of reading right now on Scarlet Witch [her role in “The Avengers”] and it’s really exciting. But the imagination to be a child and running around and playing in the yard, it sounds like so much fun,” she said. “My part, it just had more extreme things to it. I’m really excited.”
“It’s just fun to read these comics,” she added of her character Scarlet Witch. “She’s the only human being from this universe who can communicate with paranormal things and the past and the future and other universes. To me that’s incredible,” she laughed. “Just thinking about that is amazing. She can touch things and know where they’ve been. It’s crazy.”
As for her future career choices, the actress said, “I have no plan at all. I just like kind of taking things as they go. I feel really lucky and I feel more confident in my choices than maybe I did six months or a year ago. It’s been fun because before it was, ‘Oh my god, people want me to work, that’s amazing, and then it was, well then I’ll try this, I’ll try this, I wasn’t even thinking. Now it’s about the company, now it’s about the director, for some reason, that wasn’t the easiest concept for me to grasp at the beginning, so everything’s been a great learning experience.”
As for working with the “Malcolm X” director, “Working with Spike is a world of a difference than working with a first time director, and I feel like I’ve worked my fair share of first time directors now, and it’s incredible. The funny thing is, the more experience you have, the more collaborative you are because you’re more confident in your own abilities. And so Spike, the first thing he does, is wants to know everything that you think. And you’re like, really? You care what I think? Ok. It’s a really comforting thing to be part of that, working with a director like that.”
She also wants her life down the road to be in a more peaceful place. “I just know that I would maybe like to be in a place in my career where I don’t have to live in L.A. or New York City,” she said. “I just think the older you get and you start families and the kind of b.s. that goes around and you start, I think, to pay more attention to the other stuff that isn’t part of this job that somehow becomes part of the job, like people photographing children and stuff. It’s weird, so just don’t live there in those places then.”
Olsen says at the moment she doesn’t get bothered by paparazzi in Los Angeles. “I don’t go to cool restaurants. In New York, I just think I walk a lot so it’s like they’re waiting for someone else and I just happen to walk by,” she laughed. “I’ve only been followed into the subway twice and that was weird.”
Her next film is “In Secret,” based on the classic tragic love story of Therese Raquin, set in 1860’s Paris, which the actress said is going to be released in February. It co-stars “Inside Llewyn Davis” star Oscar Isaac.
“It was fun to do a period piece. It was interesting. It was also difficult. Oscar Isaac is phenomenal in it, so is Jessica Lange and Tom Felton, and the supporting cast,” Olsen said. “Those movies are hard, those period pieces. You’re acknowledging the fact that something’s a melodrama, and it’s hard to watch melodrama in film sometimes. But I think if it’s done with enough care, then maybe the story and humanity is told.”
After praising her co-stars, Olsen was asked how she viewed her own performances on screen.
“When I look at my performances, I honestly think it’s like a boxer watching their match. I’m thinking I shouldn’t have made that choice. I could have carved that piece out better. I look at it from a very athletic point of view.”