Interview: Elizabeth Olsen of Martha Marcy May Marlene

by Christina Jedra / Beacon Staff • November 5, 2011

The Beacon and reporters from other college media outlets took part in a conference call interview with Elizabeth Olsen, star of emMartha Marcy May Marlene. /emThe up-and-coming actress spoke about working with experienced thespians, taking on challenges, and portraying the film's many puzzles. a href=http://berkeleybeacon.com/2011/11/olsen-sets-herself-apart-from-sisters-with-martha-marcy-may-marlene/Read the Beacon's review of the film./a

strongThe Berkeley Beacon:/strong I know that you focused a lot on your education up until now. What specific skills did you learn from your training at NYU and the Atlantic Theater Company that you apply in your work now or in Martha?

strongOlsen:/strong It’s very analytically based, and for me that’s the most effective way to work, especially on a script that’s so riddled and there are so many puzzles. The only way that I can approach acting this is really making everything as specific as possible from an analytic point of view and not what they really highlight at the Atlantic. And also it’s an action-driven technique that they teach.

And so for me with the film that’s so quiet, and I’m alone a lot, the only way that I could actually figure out about how to convey anything, it’s like always figuring out what kind of active thing I’m doing, and I have to figure out exactly what I’m responding to even if I’m by myself in a room. So all those things to me were things that I learned from them that helped me with all of the private moments where you really have to figure out in your mind what you’re reacting to and responding to and what your action is. You can have some clear arc throughout the story of following where she is in her mind... But I think, also, it’s important for actors — for me in this film, because it’s so much of her face — [to] have clear, specific actions.

strongUniversity of California, San Diego: /strong I thought what was so disturbing about this film was how real the characters were, and I was wondering if you could comment on the dynamic on set between you and Sean Durkin, and how much leeway he gave you to really become the character versus sticking to the script?

strongOlsen:/strong Yes well, the great thing about Sean as a director is he presents himself as an open book. He has every single character’s back story figured out in his head, and he has all these answers, but he also says, “If you have questions ask me, and I’ll give you my answer. But, I’m open to everything that you want to bring to the table.” So, he is very specific in what he wants, but he’s not a micro-manager. So the script—no one really wanted to deviate from the script. The only way to deviate from the script was probably by minimizing some of the language just by nature of rehearsal and figuring out exactly what we need and what we don’t need.

But it was really a great communication, and you felt open to being fully creative, and you also felt like—you also knew that he was going to be able to take care of you and steer you in the right direction if you were caught up in anything. And we also created such a tight knit family, it was a small crew, it was a small cast, and we all lived together on location. And so all of that created an amazing creative environment.

strongEagle for American School:/strong So this movie was a raw, emotional and … Was it difficult to show such a multi-faceted character at different points in her life?

strong Olsen:/strong  It was lucky. I felt lucky that I was able to essentially almost make two different movies, because I was the only person besides the crew who was able to be on both locations. It really did feel like making two different movies, because she has two different journeys in both locations so it—I felt lucky that I got to be able to explore someone’s positive life of growth, which I would say be of the cult even though it ends up turning out not so great. But I was excited to try and figure out where there was hope in that, and then the struggle in the lake house was a fully different story... I just enjoyed being challenged in that way.

strongLindonwood:/strong Elizabeth, was it like working with the seasoned actor, John Hawkes?

strongOlsen:/strong  He—I mean, there’s so many things. He first off is like really funny and caring and kind, so there were no tricks we played on set. He never tried to make me feel uncomfortable or any of those things. He actually did the total opposite and we always checked in with each other to make sure that we’re doing okay, we’d always be rehearsing, and we worked very delicately and specifically.

And what I learned from him is how much you can do, and also same with Sarah … is how much an actor can do for you when it’s your coverage, and they’re not even on screen. He would think of ways to surprising me when it was my coverage, and this is my second film so I didn’t realize—he always asked, “If there’s anything you need me to do with your coverage, tell me” and I’m just thinking, “Just be here.” I didn’t realize that there was more that someone can do to help you with your performance. And I learned that from him also, and I always tried to be able to do something like that for him, but he thought I’d be distracting. But yes, he was so supportive off camera that I’m so thankful I learned so much from him because of that.

strongSan Diego State University: /strongI was wondering, what scene was the most memorable for you to film?

strongOlsen:/strong Well I guess for me the most memorable, because it was the most difficult, was the lake house party scene. That whole scene from when she comes down the stairs until when she—they’re locked up in the bedroom. There’s only one cut in that whole scene, so that was—and we never shot more than six takes the whole film. So it was challenging, and I just remember it so well, trying to find out the rhythm of that scene and how to build a climax without any cuts...

Also it was interesting to have the third element of all the extras there, because they’re really just people from the town where we were filming. And they really wanted to be in the movie and they talk to you the whole time, and you’re trying to film this really difficult scene. So that was another element that was memorable. But yes, I’d say that scene.

strongUSF:/strong  I believe I read that the Sundance trailer was the first time you saw the film. After spending, you said, two different journeys really, shooting both of the different locations, and then finally seeing the film in the way it was meant to be told... how did you feel? Was it like coming to it with fresh eyes?

strongOlsen:/strong Not at Sundance. At Sundance it was very confusing to watch the movie, because it was my first time seeing myself on screen also. And so to me it was like a moving photo album, like I’d just saw a scene and I just thought about the … set, because it’s only like two and a half months after we finished filming. They edited it really quickly.

But then when I got to see it in Cannes, that was my first experience being able to distance myself from it, and it was so interesting to watch because I truly believe that everyone should see this movie more than once, because it is so smart, and there are so many things hidden and framed specifically, and lines that all come together that you won’t be able to notice just on the first watch. And that’s how clever it is and intelligent it is and beautiful it is to watch. I really—I had such a great time watching it.

I have a hard time though—I’m in every frame of the movie, and so that was difficult to watch. I don’t really necessarily enjoy watching myself for that long. But now is the same thing with emSilent House/em. emSilent House/em is the same where I’m in every frame of the film, so my first experience watching myself is in that which was overwhelming. But I do—I love this movie a lot. It is very similar to the script, just a little bit cut down.

strongOhio State University:/strong What do you hope that people take away from the movie, or what are you most proud of?

strongOlsen:/strong For me, the reason why I love the script so much is because I truly think it’s an original and unique story, and I think the way it’s told is original, and I think—but what I want people to get out of it is just a new cinematic experience. I think experiencing this film is something that is an experience that people don’t get watching any other movie. And as they said, it was more from American 70’s films like a Robert Altman, or I don’t know, I guess not just not American but … like Polanski, or something.

So I think for modern audiences that there’s just nothing like it. So I hope that people go in with an open mind, and trust that you don’t always have to have the answers to everything you see and that you are treated as an intelligent audience member and can figure out your own story while watching it and also just get behind this woman’s psychology which I think Sean does really effectively.

So I just think it’s a ride, I just think it’s a really fun ride. When I was reading the script I was so excited to turn the next page and figure out the next puzzle piece. So that’s what I hope people get out of it.