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Elizabeth Olsen sat down in midtown Manhattan with Examiner Dorri Olds to discuss Olsen’s character in the movie “Liberal Arts” which opened in NYC this week. Olsen stars opposite Josh Radnor—who also wrote and directed the film.
Olsen’s character, 19-year old college student Zibby, is precocious and fun. Jesse (Radnor) is a 35-year old bookworm whose growth has been stunted by college nostalgia. In a chance meeting, Zibby and Jesse hit it off. They connect on multiple levels and effect each other’s lives in unexpected ways. Richard Jenkins is terrific as a sad retiring professor. Allison Janney is hilarious as Judith, a rather randy professor. Cast members Zac Efron and John Magaro also add solid performances in this bittersweet coming of age drama.
‘Liberal Arts’ official trailer 2012
Video: ‘Liberal Arts’ official trailer 2012
Examiner: Should I call you Elizabeth?
Olsen: Ugh, no. Nobody calls me that. I’m Lizzie.
Ok, Lizzie, did you relate to your character, Zibby, on an emotional level?
Emotionally? Yeah, absolutely. She’s someone who wants to jump ahead and go straight to being an adult and I had that my entire life—until now. Now I’m really happy being a child, I feel more youthful than I did when I was 19.
Like the Dylan lyric, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
Yeah, I took myself way too seriously for too many years.
The chemistry between you and Josh Radnor looked natural on screen. Was it?
Josh and I have the same agent, Rhonda, and she’d recommended me. The first time Josh and I met was for my audition. We read through the entire script together and it was natural and really fun. We didn’t have to work at the chemistry at all.
Is there anything in the movie that you related to in terms of college?
I’m still a 6-year college student at NYU. I have two humanities classes left which I’m finishing in January. I went to acting school with theater nerds and when we had academics we just wanted to get the academics done the fastest way possible so we could put more hours into rehearsals. But I can relate to Zibby because I went to a really great high school and came from a really academic class and all my friends are really academic people—almost in a competitive way. I’m a very well rooted academic person because I had that experience in high school. So, to have conversations like Zibby does with Jesse in the movie, yeah, I’ve had that.
Did you stick to the script or improvise?
We stuck to the script. Some people asked if we improvised scenes. There was no improvising. I felt like Josh writes in a playwright style, so I didn’t want to stray from it. There’s a common language everyone was speaking. There’s a smartness to the script. I felt like I would ruin it if I spoke offhandedly.
Do you relate with your character Zibby about enjoying lowbrow literature simply for entertainment’s sake? Or do you agree with Jesse that cheap vampire books should be burned at the stake?
When it comes to literature, my free time is so limited that I put pressure on myself to read something important. I want to read the books that I feel like I have to before I die. Because of that I never read anything superfluous. I guess I’m kind of pretentious in terms of what I read. I feel like with my limited opportunities I want to use reading to expand in some way. I watch enough stupid television. It makes me want to read at a higher learning level.
One of my favorite lines was when your character, Zibby, said to Jesse, “You think it’s cool to hate things but it’s not. It’s boring. Talk about what you love and keep quiet about what you don’t.”
That was one of Josh’s favorite lines too. I had to say it so many times. It had to sound as perfectly as Josh wanted. [laughs] But I do believe in that quote. With my friends I’m the beacon of positivity.
Did you find time to read while working on the movie?
Yes, I read Leo Tolstoy’s, “Anna Karenina.” It’s a lot. Sometimes it got too into the political thing and I really just wanted to get back to romance and I wish Tolstoy stuck with just one Russian name for each person, instead of three. I had to keep going back to the first page to look up the characters again to keep them all straight.
Does pressuring yourself to learn feel exhausting?
No, I enjoy it. Okay, yeah, there were parts in Anna Karenina where I was like, “Whoa, I just want to get through this,” but I’m happy now that I’ve read it. I might’ve felt dirty if I’d read something else.
Do you have a favorite book?
“The Sun Also Rises.”
What books are you drawn to when visiting a bookstore?
I go straight for food magazines. [laughs] I read a lot of scripts. I read one a day during a workday. For a while I almost felt like giving up on scripts, a lot of them are just bad. But I don’t want to criticize anything. I’m a positive person. I don’t want to talk about things I hate. That’s boring. [laughs]
If you could make one thing in life mandatory for everyone, what would it be?
In my high school, in junior year, they made art history and music mandatory in order to graduate. At the time I thought it seemed kind of random. But those two classes opened up a whole world to me. I’d find myself sitting at a concert and listening to a quartet playing some concerto—something that I never would’ve listened to if I hadn’t taken those classes.
Do you read all of the reviews written about you?
I read them sometimes. This movie I don’t really care to read reviews. It was a personal experience, and a good one. I was interested in reading reviews of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” because it was my first movie and because I was curious what people thought of it. It was open to lots of different interpretations, like figuring a puzzle out. With “Liberal Arts” every member of the audience is going to have a personal experience depending on where they come from. I guess you can say that about most movies, but I just feel that this is such a feel good movie. I’m just really happy with it.