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Elizabeth Olsen emerged with one of last season’s most notable performances in the psychological meditation on identity, community and occultism: “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” She had a strong presence in the critics’ circuit and many felt she ought to have been granted an Oscar nod. An aspect of the intrigue surrounding Olsen’s debut is, of course, her familial connection to the industry.
Her older sisters, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who began their careers before they even had the power of speech, have long been famous, essentially, for being famous. The twins have been associated with the dramatic spectrum of celebrity for years. Unthinkable wealth (they are said to have net worth of upwards of $120 million dollars and preside over a billion-dollar fashion empire) is countered with a near constant onslaught by a press corps in search of the details of their private lives.
So to have their younger sister make her theatrical entry in a rich, thought provoking, independent film that presented her free of artifice and stark in her emotional vulnerability and physical beauty was, for many, a surprise.
We will get our second glimpse of Olsen’s aesthetic and talent this weekend when the horror film “Silent House” makes its way into theatres in the U.S. and Canada. Olsen shot the film directly after she wrapped production on “Martha” so, while it may present a snapshot of her skills as an actress, it will not truly reveal how she plans to shape her career now that she has been afforded the privilege of choice.
“Silent House” -- which was, for a time, marketed as a “single-shot” movie -- is in fact a series of long takes (10-15 minutes in length) which are stitched together to create the illusion of one continuous shot. Part of Olsen’s acting challenge was to summon terror, rage and heartbreak and sustain it again and again through grueling 12-hour days. What the film offers its audience is an opportunity to see the actress rise to that occasion.
Olsen spoke a bit about her career thus far and the challenges of working on a film with “Silent House”’s parameters at the Los Angeles press event for the film recently. “It became a muscle,” she says of her emotional endurance. “It actually became detrimental in my personal life.”
The actress realized just how raw she had become during a meeting at NYU where there had been a misunderstanding about the date that she had submitted withdrawal papers for the semester. A clerical error indicated that she had not submitted her paperwork on time and, as such, was going to be forced to pay 40% of the semester’s tuition. Frustrations over the misunderstanding quickly lead her to tears.
“I said ‘I’m so sorry, I can’t believe I’m crying!’” she recalls. “But it was because my body had been worked over so many times and there were so many buttons to push. I was so mortified that I was dealing with something so business/work-oriented and I just made it so personal so fast but it became this automatic muscle.”
Olsen’s sudden career rise has made it impossible for her to continue her studies at NYU for the time being. But she did not enter the cinematic arena lightly. Perhaps a bit gun shy after witnessing the insanity that her sisters were subjected to, Olsen has moved into her own career with slow, measured steps thus far.
“I very consciously focused on doing theatre when I was in high school because I wanted to be an actor, and the idea of doing film work was very intimidating to me,” she says. “Because it’s a much more public thing you’re choosing to do. I did acting classes when I was a kid with professional child actors, but I wasn’t working, it was just something I enjoyed doing.”
The actress continued her training at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Institute in New York, the Moscow Theatre School in Russia and the Atlantic Acting School through the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Olsen spent her sophomore year in college as an understudy in both off-Broadway and Broadway productions where she was able to meet casting directors as well as her agent. She made a commitment not to begin work until she had completed the three years of conservatory work that NYU requires. That was two years ago.
“I know that I’m in a very odd situation where the first movie I’ve worked on happened this way without having to do a 'Law & Order' or anything,” she says of her rapid fire entrance into the world of cinema. “I did audition for those kinds of things, but they didn’t cast me. What’s happened is very odd and lucky and I couldn’t expect any of it. And I’m going to keep trying to work until I have so many misses that I have to try and work back up and start again. I am well aware that it is a roller-coaster.”
For now, Olsen has moved past the audition phase (for the most part) and into a career where she takes meetings to explore her connection to a character or a project, something she notes with some measure of loss. “I love auditioning,” she says. “I’ve always liked it. I think it’s an important part of the process where you get to say, ‘This is what I’ve got; do you jive with it?’ But sometimes you can tell just by meeting with someone if you’re going to have a compatible working style, which I guess is equally important.”
As she moves through and beyond this “year of firsts,” Olsen is slowly laying the groundwork for her long-term professional goals, even as she discovers exactly what those are. “What’s happening right now is that I am so excited that I have choices that I kind of want to do everything," she says. "So I am doing a small part in an Allen Ginsberg movie ‘Kill Your Darlings.’ I’m in four scenes and I cannot wait to work on it. And then I get to do a period movie with Glenn Close [‘Therese Raquin’] for three months of my life.
“I’m just trying to do things that I’ve never done, that are challenging and interesting to me and with people I respect and want to work with. I feel very lucky to be in a position where I don’t have children and I don’t have to pay for a mortgage and things like that so I can make independent movies because I just take care of myself. When I have kids I’m going to try and do as many animation movies as possible to pay for tuition.”
In the interim, Olsen attempts to maintain a sense of balance in the face of circumstances that are, doubtless, often surreal. Perhaps the lessons of her youth will provide her with a sense of grounding that many other young actors must struggle with.
“I don’t really want it to infiltrate my personal life,” she says. “I’m very well aware of what reality is and what work is. Even if you’re going to a party, that’s work and that’s not my reality. I’m seeing my little sister play in her championship basketball game tonight and that’s my reality. You just try and work and know that that’s why you’re doing your job.”
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