Unlike her famous siblings, Elizabeth Olsen avoided the traps of growing up in the spotlight. Now, however, she’s ready for her close-up, writes Helen Barlow.
Despite the fact she’s the little sister of two of the best-known twins on the planet, Elizabeth Olsen has managed to stay under the radar – until now.
Only a year ago, Elizabeth, three years younger than millionaire fashionistas and film-star sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley, started making movies, with a supporting role as Jane Fonda’s granddaughter in Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, directed by Australian Bruce Beresford.
She followed that with leading roles in two movies, a horror thriller called Silent House and the drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, about a woman trying to adapt to life after fleeing a cult.
Both were surprise hits at the Sundance Film Festival last January and suddenly, everyone knows who she is.
The late bloom was deliberate, she says. It was part of a plan to avoid the child-star fame she dipped into alongside her siblings, then decided to avoid.
“I’d been wanting to work in theatre and in movies since I was six or seven but I waited until I was comfortable as a person to start working professionally,” Elizabeth says.
“I never wanted to be a child actor; I never wanted to be a part of that type of media attention. So, I’m an actor; I’m not a brand or a personality,” she says emphatically.
“I’m happy to be at Sundance because I think that’s where you want to be when you’re part of something that’s really, really special.”
The 21-year-old, who spent two years studying acting at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York before she started auditioning for films in January last year, seems mature beyond her years. “Staying grounded is not something I think about,” she says. “It’s something the media puts upon people.”
One US columnist quipped: “It’s good to know there’s an Olsen who grew up.”
Like Carey Mulligan and Jennifer Lawrence before her, Elizabeth’s star rose at Sundance, where she found herself lauded as the next big thing.
“If they are saying I’m an it-girl, what I think is great about it is it would hopefully bring attention to the movies I’m a part of and hopefully get them distribution,” she says. Martha Marcy May Marlene has been picked up for distribution by 20th Century Fox, and Silent House by Lionsgate.
“I don’t do the same thing as my sisters, we do very different things in fact, but we support each other. I don’t feel that I’m living in their shadow as the media assumes.”
Mary-Kate and Ashley, now 24, have been in the spotlight since they were infants when they shared a role in the ’80s sitcom Full House. Elizabeth first acted at the age of four in her sisters’ first movie, Our First Video. She went on to make guest appearances in their series The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley and performed a cameo in their production, How the West Was Fun.
While at the time, with caked-on mascara and bright lipstick, she managed to resemble her siblings, she’s hardly like them at all.
Now she’s mostly compared to Maggie Gyllenhaal – with her soulful ease, those green saucer eyes – as well as to Angelina Jolie for her husky voice and bee-stung lips. Ultimately, though, Olsen displays a confidence in knowing who she is and she’s very much an individual.
Dressing down in battle-fatigue green and wearing brown leather boots and with little jewellery, she is fresh-faced and hardly the glamour queen – but then again, that was at Sundance, where everyone dresses down. Still, her movies at the festival are not exactly glamorous, even if in Silent House she wears a clingy horror-movie tank top. “They chose it for me to wear,” she says, “then they were trying too hard during filming to cover it up as much as possible!”
The writer-director of Silent House, Chris Kentis, and his producer wife Laura Lau, made the 2004 Sundance hit Open Water. Olsen was attracted to their latest project because it was filmed in one continuous take. “That was really exciting to me and to have the stamina to do the film was like doing a play.”
She says she chose all three of her films for different reasons. In Beresford’s crowd-pleaser Peace, Love & Misunderstanding – which has Jane Fonda as a feisty, well-preserved hippie living in Woodstock – Olsen learnt what it was like to be part of an ensemble and was greatly influenced by working with Catherine Keener, who plays her conservative lawyer mum. The story follows Keener taking her two teenage children to meet their estranged grandmother.
“Catherine is so comfortable in her skin and every day I tried to soak up as much as I could to learn and to understand things better.”
With Martha Marcy May Marlene, Olsen was again part of a star-studded ensemble, though under vastly different circumstances. In fact, as in Silent House, her character is abused. She’s a member of a cult who has escaped and tries to live with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and affluent husband (Hugh Dancy).
How did her family react when she told them she was playing a cult survivor? “My dad asked if he could come visit the set one day and I said no. He asked why. And I said, ‘I don’t know what we’ll be shooting that day.’ And he goes, ‘Liz, is there nudity?’ And I was like ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Is this a good idea?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it is.’ They’ve always backed me up.”
At Sundance, of course, her sisters stayed away. Not that she needs their help. Olsen has already landed her next film: a paranormal thriller where she’ll star with Robert De Niro, Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver.
Her future, and her ability to make her own mark, seem assured.