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Complex role adds to young actress Elizabeth Olsen's career

Gene Triplett Modified: May 15, 2013 at 12:18 pm •  Published: November 14, 2011


Many a seasoned actress might be daunted by an identity-challenged character named “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” not to mention a player who’s still in drama school.

But Elizabeth Olsen, 22, slipped into the title role of Sean Durkin’s psychological thriller like a practiced pro.

“It’s so easy for people to write others off who do become part of a cult,” Olsen said in a phone interview from a publicity tour stop in Dallas. “It’s really easy for someone to say, ‘Oh, you know, clearly they’re easily influenced, they’re more likely to (give in to) peer pressure.’ But the truth is that it can happen to anyone who’s trying to fill a void or be part of something larger than themselves.”

She was speaking of Martha, a young woman who escapes from a cultlike farming “family” in the Catskills and attempts to re-enter the normal world at her sister’s posh lake house in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” a film by first-time writer-director Durkin.

“I think initially the first thing I responded to, which I found really fascinating to explore, was kind of her growing paranoia,” Olsen said. “And that was something that was kind of like the launching-off point, where I just felt like I had so much compassion for her. … Instead of trying to figure out where it came from, and instead of making something like a clinical choice or creating a victim, I thought it would be really interesting to try and figure out how you could stand behind someone and defend them, in this story in particular.

“And so that was really what was the goal for me, was to not make her the victim and make her stronger than people would imagine.”

Serious about acting

The film also marks Olsen’s big-screen debut, although she’s no stranger to acting in front of a camera, having grown up playing herself in a series of direct-to-video films starring her famous twin sisters, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. But interviewers are instructed by Olsen’s publicists not to ask about her siblings, as she’s obviously determined to stand on her own as a serious performer.

To that end, she studies her craft as a full-time student at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. She understudied on the off-Broadway play “Dust” and the Broadway production of “Impressionism” while attending college. Her other workshops include “Bottom of the World” by Lucy Thurber (Atlantic Theatre Company) and “The Living Newspaper” (DRI Theatricals). Olsen also has trained at the Atlantic Acting School and Moscow Art Theatre School.

Last year she landed her first feature role in the yet-to-be released “Peace, Love and Misunderstanding” with Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener, followed by “Martha Marcy May Marlene” with John Hawkes and Sarah Paulson, then “Silent House,” a remake of a successful Uruguayan horror thriller. This past spring she finished “Red Lights,” a drama about the paranormal with Robert De Niro, Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver, and she recently began work on “Liberal Arts,” a story about a relationship complicated by age difference, opposite Josh Radnor. All will be released in 2012.

“Martha” is the first of her films to hit theaters.

“Sean and I, what we did … we filmed all the farm stuff first at the cult, and then we went to the lake house,” Olsen said. “So, by the time we went to the lake house, he had already

Elizabeth Olsen, Sean Durkin
Elizabeth Olsen, Sean Durkin

almost given the character to me and trusted me with it. And so when I would have questions or I would feel apprehensive, Sean would always say, like, ‘You know what you’re doing.’ Like, ‘You know her. You’re fine.’

“You know, if I did need help, he’d give it. But for the most part I did feel superconnected to this character. So when I saw it for the first time, it was also my first time seeing myself on-screen. It was very strange, because I did feel so connected to her, and now when I watched, I was like, ‘I am nothing like that woman.’ That was an interesting experience.”

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