The phrase “rising star” was invented for performers like Elizabeth Olsen. The 24-year-old actress (younger sister of fashion moguls Mary-Kate and Ashley) first wowed movie audiences as the haunted Martha in 2011’s critically acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene, and will star in three soon-to-be released films, plus Godzilla and a forthcoming star turn as the Scarlet Witch in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Rather than heading off to Hollywood for good, Olsen, a recent grad of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, is currently in previews as Juliet Capulet in Classic Stage Company’s revival of Romeo & Juliet. The in-demand actress recently chatted with Broadway.com about loving Shakespeare, lessons learned from her famous sisters, and more.
How does it feel to be making your off-Broadway debut in Romeo & Juliet?
It’s really, really exciting and terrifying [laughs]. For a couple of years, [CSC Artistic Director] Brian Kulick and I have been trying to figure out what to do together. Last March, he proposed a reading of Romeo & Juliet, and I wasn’t that interested until I started to do the work. I feel like I saw Romeo & Juliet for the first time. I always thought of it as the most typical Shakespeare play; every human being on earth, if they know literature, knows Romeo & Juliet. But I realized there’s a reason why, because it’s one of the most beautiful plays every written.
What do you relate to in the character of Juliet?
You cannot bend Juliet—she is so determined and headstrong, but not in the negative sense. Anytime she sets her mind on something, she attacks it at full force and I find that fascinating. She’s so smart about everything and she’s such a strong young woman, the only one who’s making active choices. Everyone else is dealing with things, and she’s the one who proposes answers.
How does it feel to be co-starring with newcomer Julian Cihi rather than an experienced actor like Finn Wittrock, who was originally attached to play Romeo?
Oh, it’s fine! We’re figuring it all out together, trying to settle on a common dialogue and trust and safety and how we both work. No matter who you’re working with, whether it’s someone’s first job or their 57th, everyone ends up saying, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” If you don’t, what’s the point of collaborating? So, I don’t think it makes too much of a difference. The funny thing about Finn is that he had already done Romeo in an all-male production, so I was like, “Great! He’s gonna show me the ropes.” [Laughs.] But it’s more interesting to come together as a group of people and discover everything for the first time.
You’re an up-and-coming movie star. Why is stage acting important to you?
It’s all I did my whole life since I was eight. The reason I wanted to do it now, and I’ve been waiting to do it for about a year, is because I wanted to be challenged and exhausted every night from work. Theater offers the repetition and the time to keep revisiting the same moment every day. That repetition is difficult, but it makes your mind think differently than with film. When you’re making a movie and someone tells you that you have to go back and do reshoots, you’re like, “What? I’ve closed that chapter. I don’t want to do that again.” But in theater, you don’t have that mentality. It’s like a gift you get to rediscover every day.
Speaking of films, you have three debuting this fall and winter: Therese, Kill Your Darlings and Oldboy, plus the high-profile horror movie Godzilla. Can you tell us why you’re excited about them?
Therese is like a roller coaster that never stops, and when you’re finished, it feels like your gut’s been ripped out of you. I think Kill Your Darlings and Oldboy will both surprise people but in very different ways. I have no idea what to expect with Godzilla, but all I know is that if it’s anything like I saw at Comic-Con, it’s going to be so amazing. I’m super excited for it! I think I got more excited than the fans did.
When you were younger, you appeared in some of your sisters’ [Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen] movies. What did you learn from them about handling fame?
There are things of theirs that I was in because somebody had to watch me after school, so that’s how that happened [laughs]. I just admire them so much. They work so much harder than I do. I get breaks in between these different jobs, and they have like a hundred jobs and never stop. They’ve really allowed their work to reflect their life and their life to reflect their work. They’re so disciplined and good at what they do, and they don’t listen to any other noise besides trying to be better than their best. I’ve been trying to make choices that will better my job and my life and help me get what I want out of it. I’m always trying to make a shift from what people anticipate.
Your sisters have a popular fashion line named after you and your brother, Elizabeth & James. Do you enjoy wearing their designs?
I do! It’s funny you should ask because I’m actually wearing their pants right now.
I saw paparazzi photos of you just waiting for the subway recently. How do you deal with that?
Yeah, I was on my way to rehearsal. Honestly, that never happens to me. That was just so strange and confusing. I was like, “Where is that coming from? Who are you really looking for?” I was glad I wasn’t going on a luxurious walk and that I was just going to work and they had to go away. It doesn’t happen to me enough for it to be a problem.
You’ve worked with some of the best actresses in the world. Who’s been an inspiration to you, either for something they said or how they worked?
Sarah Paulson. She’s incredibly talented. I got to see her do Talley’s Folly, and it was so good and she’s was brilliant. I love how she’s like this quiet cat that sneaks up on you. That’s how I imagine her work. When you look back on all of her jobs, they all make sense as a body of work. She’s such a unique human being and she leaves her stamp on everything. I just admire her so much. She’s one of the funniest people I know and I just want to be with her every day. Sarah is really, really special to me.
You’re also a singer. Would you like to do a Broadway musical?
I’m not a singer! Oh my goodness. No, I don’t sing. I just sing with my guitar at home [laughs].
Any dream roles?
I worked on Lady Macbeth in school and I have a huge obsession with her. And, randomly, there’s a surge of Macbeth productions in the last few years. I guess the ultimate goal is to keep up a career long enough to get to play Mary Tyrone.
Oh, just like your Therese co-star, Jessica Lange?
Yeah, we were in Toronto doing press for Therese, and she said she was going to go do that and I freaked out. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ I can’t wait to see that. She is going to be amazing.
See Elizabeth Olsen in Romeo & Juliet at Classic Stage Company.