What a difference a couple of years has made to actor Elizabeth Olsen, once know more for her more famous, older twin sisters, she has now become a serious actor in her own right in a handful of mostly interesting smaller films that have lead to a couple of much bigger parts in much bigger movies that should help her to achieve her ultimate goal of doing pretty much anything she wants. Not everything she's done has been great (sorry, PEACE, LOVE & MISUNDERSTANDING), but she has never been caught giving anything but her best work. Hell, she even saved a couple of potential clunkers into something riveting (I'm looking at you SILENT HOUSE).
Like most, I first discovered her abilities thanks to a fearless performance in MARTHA MARCY MAY MALENE in 2011, which led to roles opposite Robert De Niro in RED LIGHTS, a host of great actors in LIBERAL ARTS, a bunch of Beat poets in KILL YOUR DARLINGS, and a couple of as-yet-unreleased films--VERY GOOD GIRLS with Dakota Fanning, and IN SECRET with Jessica Lange, among others.
And then, of course, there are her tent pole releases for the next couple years, director Gareth Edwards' GODZILLA, and Joss Whedon's THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, in which she'll play the first live-action incarnation of the Scarlet Witch, both of which we talk about a bit in this interview. But the reason we hopped on the phone together recently was to discuss her role as social worker Marie in Spike Lee's take on the Japanese manga OLDBOY, opposite Josh Brolin. Olsen provides the film with its much-needed heart and soul, in a work front loaded with nasty behavior and some truly gruesome violence.
Olsen is a genuinely nice woman, and an articulate and smart person, and I was fortunate enough a couple years ago to moderate a Q&A with her and MMMM writer-director Sean Durkin. It was so much more fun than I would have imagined a post-screening discussion might have gone after a movie that intense and serious. And only one dope in the audience asked a question about Mary Kate and Ashley, so not a bad day's work. Anyway, please enjoy my chat with Elizabeth Olsen…
Elizabeth Olsen: Hey, Steve.
Capone: Hi, how are you?
EO: I’m good, how are you doing? It's been a while since we've talked to each other.
Capone: I didn't think there was any way you were going to remember that Q&A, but it was so enjoyable.
EO: Oh, it was amazing. That was a total blast.
Capone: A lot has changed since then.
EO: You know what? A lot has changed, yeah. Very quickly.
Capone: No kidding. I hope we can get to some of that today. What was your exposure to the OLDBOY material? Was it the first film or the screenplay?
EO: It was the screenplay, but it happened in the same day, I just read the screenplay first, and then I saw the movie, and it was like a double whammy. I liked that my first experience was the screenplay, because all the shock and excitement came from our story not the other. And then I saw the Korean version, it’s almost the perfect film. It’s brilliant. And it’s awful, but it’s brilliant, but there’s no way you can remake it exactly and tell the proper story. If you’re going to do it, you've got to make it your own version. And it’s a cool story to tell.
Capone: And your character is far from a recreation of what that actress did in the original film. So what did you latch onto about this version of that character?
EO: For me right now, if there’s a really great story as a whole that I want to be a part of, and the character that I want to play isn't like the most groundbreaking of characters, I’m okay with that because I’m okay with being a tool to help tell the story. But in the Korean version, she’s almost too much like a pawn and isn’t given enough of her own life. She was hypnotized, and it’s so convenient in a way that she falls for him, and we had to figure out--Mark [Protosevich, writer], Spike, Nathan [Kahane], the producer--a way to make her have a psychologically damaged background that would lead her to becoming a social worker. To be someone who is herself as someone still not fully healed, trying to figure out what is it that she sees in this man, and why is it at this a point in her life that she needs as much from him as he does from her. That was the goal, to tell the story of the film but also make sure that she has a life. That it’s not like in a few days, this girl that puts out for this guy. You want it to be something more.
Capone: Did you actually have to audition for this?
EO: No, it was an offer. When I read it I met up with the producer, I was attached but not officially signed on; he didn’t sign a paper yet. And then I met with Spike, and lucky enough, he wanted to work with me. And he and Josh were the ones that were making all the judgements together. I had to meet Josh also so he could judge me and say whether or not he wanted to work with me.
Capone: That’s a funny way of putting it.
EO: [laughs] Yeah, I know and he’s like one of my buddies. He’s like a big brother to me.
Capone: When you get that call that Spike Lee is working on this movie, and he wants you, what goes through your head at that point?
EO: Well, the first thing you think of is “Oh he’s not going to like me. He's not going to think I’m funny. I should have probably work on jokes ahead of time.” And then I just met up with him and had a really awesome time. He is so direct, and I’m very direct, and it works well when those things happen. He was so collaborative; he’d ask me my opinion on everything, even things that didn’t have to do with my character. He’s an amazing collaborator.
Capone: I hear a lot about his rehearsal process and how so much changes and gets locked in that period. Have you ever been though a process like that in terms of rehearsal?
EO: I hadn’t, and it was an amazing two weeks. Actually, we had a little bit of that for GODZILLA. Gareth, Aaron [Taylor-Johnson, who plays Olsen's husband] and I, just for dialogue reasons, character development, and things like that, we did do that for GODZILLA. But before OLDBOY, I hadn’t had that experience where someone was like, “Hey, let's do this movie, but you're allowed to re-write anything that you don't feel comfortable with. What do you think isn’t working, and let’s figure out how to make it work. What lines do you like saying, what lines do you not like saying?" It was amazing.
Capone: Ok, you brought up GODZILLA, and I gotta ask: In my mind, I look at that cast and that’s one of the best casts of any film in recent memory. [It includes Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn and Victor Rasuk.]
EO: It’s ridiculous!
Capone: And I’m just thinking, are we just going to see these amazing actors running away and pointing at something in the sky for two hours? What is going on?
EO: Absolutely will not. [laughs]
Capone: I’m dying to know.
EO: I do that once. It’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s film, but the ensemble, we all are somehow connected to Aaron’s character. He’s the root, and I play his wife and I'm the person who holds down the San Francisco prospective of it all. I’m a nurse and I work trying take care of this chaos. GODZILLA is just so deserving of a good American remake, and I really hope we did it and I really feel like we did.
Capone: A character-driven monster movie, that’s Gareth’s specialty. That’s what he does. And then, of course, you and Aaron are going to be brother and sister in the next AVENGERS film. I'm sure you have a team of lawyers around you right now to make sure you don't say anything, but do you have a sense yet of how much the world is going to change for you by being in the AVENGERS sequel?
Elizabeth Olsen: No, not at all. I just never believe it when they say it's going to chance. My life changed after MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, and people were like, "It's going to change," and yeah, it did. But I've got the same friends; I've got the same family. I have more options with work, so I get to be pickier. Those changes are pretty good. I still don't foresee myself as someone people are going to stalk and follow around. I don't see that in my cards.
Capone: Well, I hope that doesn't happen.
EO: Yeah, but I don't mind the whole work-getting-better aspect of it.
Capone: Scarlet Witch wears one of the hottest costumes in the Marvel comic book world. Have you gotten a sense of what's going to be happening on that front?
EO: I do have a sense. But I have logic and mind enough not to share it. [Laughs] I know what the costume is going to be more or less like. I'm just excited that she's never been portrayed in film or on television before.
Capone: That’s true.
EO: Yeah, I’m so excited.
Capone: Are you going to be able to squeeze anything in between now and AVENGERS? Another film?
EO: I was thinking about it. I just did a play [an Off-Broadway version of "Romeo and Juliet" for director Tea Alagić] and I finished it yesterday, and I’m tired. I haven’t had two days off in a row since August, and that whole eight-show-a-week thing is very tiring. But I don’t think there is anything, and if there was I wouldn’t be doing it, but there isn’t anything.
Capone: I wondered if you might try to get a tiny film in before you loose your mind.
EO: I’m trying to get a tiny one in during AVENGERS; that's what I’m trying to do right now if the timing makes sense. It’s something I’m really trying hard to work on and would rather not talk about it, so I don’t jinx it, but yeah.
Capone: There are a couple of films of yours that are done but haven’t come out yet. I know IN SECRET right now has a February release date, and I think I just saw that VERY GOOD GIRL just got picked up by some new company called 13 Films. Have you heard anything about whether that’s actually going to come out?
EO: I would just assume it should be a beginning-of-summer film. That’s the feel of the film. That movie is really for girls age 14-18 and their moms. It’s a great film, and I want my little sister to see it, and I think her and her friends are going to love it. It’s very specific, and I think the problem is sometimes you make movies like that that are specific, and then you take them to certain festivals and people are like, "Oh my god. In comparison to FRUITVALE STATION…" And you’re like, "Well I’m not making FRUITVALE." We’re making something else that’s a lot more light hearted than FRUITVALE. So it’s a little odd when those things happen, but it’s a sweet film about friendship for younger girls.
Capone: I feel like I just got told to stay away from that movie.
EO: [Laughs] If you want to see it, see it, but I don’t know if it’s going to be your cup of tea.
Capone: Understood. When do you start shooting AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON?
EO: In the spring.
Capone: And have they begun indoctrinating you yet into the character's history, sending you the old books and other source material?
EO: Absolutely. It's so much fun.
Capone: As you're reading them, what are you digging most about Scarlet Witch that you didn't know before?
EO: Everything. I never read these comics before, not Scarlet Witch. She's nuts, she's crazy. She has more things wrong with her than any character I've ever played. She can tell you where an object has been, she can tell you what your future is, she can connect with the dead and people from other universes, and she's the only person in this universe who's capable of doing that. She's unbelievable; it's so cool. I grew up loving STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS, and anything that has this other type of world or universe to it is so fun.
Capone: You grew up on fantasy films, but comic books were never your thing?
EO: No, that was my brother's thing. I think because it was so much his thing, it wasn't my thing. He's collected comic books every week of his life since he was seven; he's almost 30 now.
Capone: He must be losing his mind then about this news.
EO: Yes. I don't think I've told him he's allowed to talk about this now.