Recently, everyone’s been congratulating Elizabeth Olsen. So when I think to do the same, standing in my house with a phone to my ear, waiting for Olsen to pick up the other end somewhere in the Aosta Valley in Northwestern Italy, I wonder which of her recent accomplishments I’m speaking to. This is when I get nervous.
After training at Tisch and starring in Sean Durkin’s cigarette burn of a debut Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Olsen has emerged from the silken cocoon of a famously show-busy family, neatly engineering a lo-fi, roots-up career.
But Olsen looks to be leaving obscurity behind. There’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron slated for release in 2015, and Gareth Edwards’ madly anticipated reimagining of the once-tainted Godzilla franchise out this spring. (Reasons for Congratulation #1, #2, and possibly #3.) Both pictures have in common large, well-established ensemble casts (including a double pairing with Aaron Taylor-Johnson), but consist of entirely divergent personalities: Cranston/Watanabe/Binoche on the one hand, and Downey Jr. and co. on the other.
As the phone rings, warbling and distant, I imagine Olsen lounging on a tufted settee in some historic Baronial hotel, panoramic Mont Blanc in the distant dark. I wonder whether or not she’s become eager to leave behind her indie roots and embrace the multimillion-dollar Hollywood machine, though that strikes me as unlikely. She answers and the first thing I do is excuse myself, blathering while I clumsily hot-potato my phone, making sure the damn thing is, indeed, recording.
Lizzie—as she introduces herself over my frantic screen-pawing—sounds relaxed and chirpy: a relief. A relief, too, that the app says it’s been dictating this whole time. And here’s a third, for good measure: Olsen’s breezy attitude makes me feel like if this totally fails, if the transoceanic call drops or the battery melts in my hand, calling her back wouldn’t be such a big deal.
I confirm we’re recording.
“I’d have no idea how to even begin to do that, honestly,” she starts in, laughing.
It’s Saturday morning and she’s the last remaining Avenger on the European continent; Joss Whedon’s army of a crew have been shooting for a week, pulling the odd 14-hour day. “The weeks and weekends don’t feel that separated in my life,” she explains, though you wouldn’t be able to tell. But there is, (consider Reason for Congratulation #4: her recent engagement) perhaps, the slightest tinge of melancholy when she adds that the rest of the crew departed that morning. It’s a somberness hardly fathomable to most aspiring stars; Olsen is staying on to do a photoshoot. But she’s sitting there, alone in her mountainside hotel room behind a perfect silence, the lack of background buzz only adding to this subtle zap of loneliness coming through the receiver.
“I don’t know a lick of Italian, and even just going to restaurants, it’s been awful in these small villages. The people at the hotel don’t really speak English, either,” she says. “I feel so stupid looking at every other word on a menu, so I’ve downloaded this Italian dictionary to my phone.” Again she laughs, finding deadpan consolation in the fact that “at least pasta and pizza are the same.”
Lunch aside, Olsen remains understandably tight-lipped on the subject of the new Avengers even as I probe; the threat of peering studio men locking down all evidence isn’t so fantastical: “Any time they give us a call sheet or any time there’s a new draft, they have to shred our old papers.” Surely that’s been peculiar, working on something so closely protected, yet right out there so squarely for all (the internet) to see? “I don’t think I’m allowed to say anything! And I’m too terrified.”
“I really just feel like I’m doing something that’s top secret and somehow has a lot more importance than anything else I’ve been around, so that alone is hilarious. I want to take a photo and send to my friends, not that I want to tweet or Instagram it, just for personal reasons—and I feel like I’m going to get in trouble if I take a photo on set!” Although that would never stop the militant fansites, I get the impression she’s glancing over her shoulder as she utters these choice words, tiptoeing on the settee, say, looking for wiretaps in the smoke detector. A world apart from Godzilla, perhaps because of this—despite both films boasting mega-investment, a lot of equipment and a lot of bodies—Olsen has experienced two vastly opposed shoots in a short space of time, kind of a theme for her career to date.
“The people at Legendary [producers of Godzilla] are really good at keeping things under wraps,” she says. “Avengers already has so much attention—all the Marvel films do—so filming something like Godzilla was basically a cast of actors who are all really well-respected, [but] they’re just under the radar. We didn’t have anything like [this for Godzilla], you’re just focused on making the movie. There wasn’t any other media part of it. It was an awesome first experience on one of these big movies because it’s been a really simple transition; there’s nothing too grandiose about it in my mind except for the fact that we had a very large crew and a lot of extras.”
It’s at this point that I decide one of us should be outdoors—probably the Hollywood Green cineplex, Tottenham, where I’ll likely be watching the very movie in question. But I worry the connection will cut off.
“Godzilla just looks so, so special and unique, and that’s something that I don’t think monster films have been able to do yet,” she says. “When it’s a monster, I think people tend to make things a little cartoony. This film puts the world in a fantastical position but handles it seriously.” [Not unlike Olsen herself, perhaps.] “Which is funny, in a way, but how it’s made—it can be a story about family and society, and how we’re responsible for our acts with the environment and all that’s related, or it can also be watched as a really fun monster film.”
Has that transition been made all the more easy being surrounded by ferocious talent?
“Especially with a situation like The Avengers where there’s already an established franchise, you’re the newbies. That’s kind of intimidating. But I feel like I swing back and forth. I’ve been prepping this since January, at least, so I kind of feel like I have some understanding of what’s going on already, which is nice.”
When I suggest that, with those two films, her universe is about to Big-Bang wide open, I can understand her eagerness to quell any such notions. “No!” she says, laughing. “That’s definitely not the case, but you hope these other films will open you up to a more international audience, and the independent films that you’re trying to argue for can find financiers.
“I don’t really feel like there’s a world of the ‘middle-budget’ film at all right now. You’re either making blockbusters and films for the Oscars, or an independent,” she explains. “I don’t really see where people are making anything in between that. Sometimes you’ll get a film studio that’ll invest in a movie that has a beautiful story and director behind it, those are just the hardest ones to get made and for everyone to sign-off on. And those are the ones I’ve been chasing for the last year and a half, and they’re just not happening. You’re just waiting for people to take risks.”
Olsen leaves such an indelible stamp on the characters played that it appears as if each role had been written for her, often from first-time writer/directors. Perhaps this is due to her stringent beginnings at the Atlantic Theatre Company, one-time stomping grounds of McDonagh, McPherson, Mamet, and Allen.
That experience—placed by NYU at the Atlantic—has nonetheless been a fundamental influence. “If I didn’t go there, I really have no idea where I would be,” she tells me. “I didn’t really know what I was going to get myself into going to a theater school, because I was a theater kid in high school, but being a theater kid in L.A. is a lot different [from] being a theater kid in a small town in Connecticut, with regional theater. I was so scared to be in a place where everyone was a theater kid. They present the realistic world of work, and the disappointments. The teachers are all working themselves, no one’s just like an ‘acting teacher.’”
And when I ask if she’s keen to return to the stage, off the back of last year’s “edgy” Romeo and Juliet with the Classic Stage Company, it’s her fresh-in-the-mind experience on the Avengers set that provides sharp contrast.
“[Classic Stage is] an Off-Broadway production company that [is] mainly focused on classics, like Shakespeare and Chekhov. Even though I did Romeo and Juliet, I think I’d enjoy Chekhov a bit more. He was the playwright that made me excited to study theater when I was 15 years old. I love theater, so I just really wanted to see how I could stand on stage again. I hadn’t had to use my whole body for a long time. Everything was always isolated in the frame and I was curious about the stamina and the discipline. So it was definitely an interesting exercise for myself.
“Doing theater, you’re in something for about three hours. Even if something really great or really bad happened in your day, for those three hours of that night you’re not able to think about anything else. And it’s a really freeing feeling, and some days you think, ‘Oh god I have to do this’, and you do it, and then it’s over and you’re like ‘Shit, that was actually pretty good’ or ‘That was a great audience.’ It’s definitely different when I’m doing Avengers now. It takes, like, eleven setups to do one-eighth of a page; you spend a whole day doing what might be a seven-second sequence.”
Is there a preference, perhaps?
“I love them both. With one, you have the advantage of editing, which sometimes can be a disadvantage for actors, actually. There’s something about picking the frame and the speed of how you shoot it, that all those things will help you. And then on stage, you play everything that leads up to the moment—you have a momentum—whereas on set, you wait around for an hour and a half and they call you to do something epic. And you’re like, okay, wake up, you’ve been sitting for an hour and a half.” But performance is never draining, she tells me. “It’s stimulating. It’s being alive. It’s breaking up the mundane.
“I’ve actually been really interested recently in how people’s physicality can manipulate their emotions, as opposed to emotions manipulating someone’s physicality.” This is part of Olsen’s charm: that self-awareness, rather than self-consciousness, overflowing into her performances.
“I don’t approach things like ‘I am the character.’ I don’t think that would be healthy for me,” she admits. “I do think, doing things like The Avengers, I’ve noticed I’ve felt really confident recently. And I think it’s because I get to be very confident physically all day. I get to be a kind of grounded badass. And if that’s rubbing off on me, then that’s fun. But then when you’re playing someone who is weak, then you kind of walk around feeling weak without even realizing it. Anyone can bring that into their lives. It’s in our control to be positive or to be powerful or confident, even though people don’t think it is.”
It’s this refreshingly healthy attitude toward acting and her position in her world that’s disarming; she has previously referred to her part in production as being a tool. “It’s funny,” she says, “because acting ends up being somehow a very glorified thing. In a play, they’re the last thing to be put in place, in a sense, unless they help develop it. In a film, you have people in pre-production for five months and then you bring in actors for a couple of months, and edit for however long it takes. Actors are just there for that little bit, and the only thing they have control over is those two months.”
Like any young actor, Olsen is on a learning curve. But she’s changed that near-Bressonian view of acting, that screen performers are merely a vessel within which the story resides. “I’ve been feeling more empowered recently,” she says, “that you’re in control of something, and to really take that seriously, even though someone else is ultimately in control of what the thing’s going to end up looking like.”
But her view of photoshoots is again different, even surprising. “I was never good in pictures. Ever since I was a little kid, I never learned how to smile properly in photographs, that was something I kind of had to learn how to do when I started promoting films. It’s still a very intimidating thing for me, and I kind of walk onto a photoshoot set and say, ‘I’m not good at modeling clothes but if you just tell me what you need me to do, I’ll do it.’”
So, her in her hotel room and I in my Turnpike Lane kitchen, I ask what she thinks she’ll be doing when she’s 80: “I think I’ll be making food for my grandchildren in a kitchen in the mountains.” And that’s the perfect note to say goodbye.
When the call is over and I’ve hung up, I realize that I’ve forgotten to congratulate Lizzie. Congratulazioni. You may not need your dictionary app for that one. It’s universally understood, like pasta and pizza.