Interview: Elizabeth Olsen, actress

With a cult movie – in every sense – behind her, Elizabeth Olsen is emerging from her sisters’ shadow to be crowned indie queen, writes James Mottram

FROM Parker Posey to Greta Gerwig, the title “Queen of the indies” seems to be passed on annually like a Miss World crown. Now it’s the turn of Elizabeth Olsen. This past week she’s been gracing the red carpets of the Sundance Film Festival, the Mecca for any aspiring indie Queen, for the premiere of her new film, the psychological thriller Red Lights.

But it was in Sundance a year ago where it truly all started for Olsen. Arriving as the little known younger sister to the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley – the multi-millionaire child-actors-turned-fashion moguls – she left as the breakout star of the festival, with horror film Silent House and Sean Durkin’s unsettling Martha Marcy May Marlene, which opens here this week.

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For Olsen, Sundance felt like getting a key to a door that had hitherto been shut. “After Sundance, I was allowed to read scripts that I wasn’t allowed to touch before,” she says. “That’s what was really exciting to me.” This was no ego trip on her part, but rather a lesson in natural selection. “I could figure out what was a good script and what was a bad script because I was allowed to read more.”

Just looking at her, she feels like a movie-star-in-waiting. The fashionista set loves her – she was one of the few starlets to get an invite to Chanel’s recent elaborate Couture show “Air Chanel” (in which the catwalk was turned into the inside of an aeroplane). Yet when we meet she seems far removed from the Lindsay Lohans and Paris Hiltons of this world. “This never happens,” she says, gesturing to her outfit. “Full on make-up and wearing really nice clothes – I never do that”

She may be dressed in a cream trouser suit from her sisters’ high-end fashion label The Row, but it’s a practical and not sartorial choice, she insists. “I love their clothes. They fit well, and they’re soft and silky and smooth. And it’s free – so I mostly end up wearing their clothes. It’s that or stuff I get at a second-hand store.” Olsen recently graduated from New York’s Tisch School of the Arts – student habits die hard, it seems.

Living on the East Coast, she doesn’t have that slick LA sheen that so many other 22 year-old starlets have. “I didn’t get a smart phone until January,” she tells me at one point. “I just had a flip-phone, one that makes phone calls. And I’d check my e-mails at night, and my agent was like ‘That’s got to change.’ ” That “pressure” of always being in contact, of being on the radar, just doesn’t feel right to her.

In some ways, this feels like a leftover residue from her time in Martha… She plays the title character, a young woman who escapes from a cult in upstate New York to the relative safety of her sister’s house. Traumatised, she refuses to explain her off-the-grid absence to her sibling Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her partner (Hugh Dancy), yet gradual flashbacks introduce us to her past, and to Patrick (John Hawkes), the charismatic cult leader.

During pre-production, director Durkin offered Olsen the chance to meet the young woman who inspired the story – but she refused. “I didn’t think it was any of my business to pry into her life. Just knowing her story helped me justify a lot of things in the script, and understand why someone wouldn’t talk about it. Apparently, she didn’t talk about it for a year, and it took lots of therapy, and lots of help, to be able to even talk to her family. It took a year – and this movie is only two weeks [before she talks].”

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To put themselves in the right frame of mind, Olsen and her cast-mates lived a communal existence during the shoot, which suited her. “There was no internet. There’s one place in the motel that had cell-phone reception, and it was on this drive-way, so everyone is walking in circles, trying to find reception. But it was great. We didn’t have two-day weekends off, so no-one really went back to the city, so we were all there.”

With Martha and her fellow devotees in the cult forced into frequent sexual submission, it was paramount to Olsen that she trusted her director. “I think we saw eye to eye,” says Olsen. Like any actress, she needed reassurance. “I just said, ‘OK, just tell me if it’s bad.’ When we started filming, I told him initially that I’m not very sensitive when it comes to direction. So just say if it’s shit or it’s not. And he did – like ‘You’re doing that weird thing with your hand and your hair and don’t do that.’”

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While Martha… is a slow-burn of a movie, it’s the sort that gets under your skin – though Olsen refuses to claim it got to her. “I think you have to separate your own day-to-day life from whatever you’re working on. It was more difficult… it was great to finish. That felt great. But while I was doing it, it felt satisfying in a way to be able to have the opportunity to explore so many different ranges of human behaviour. And we were in such a comfortable environment, everything felt like it was safe and OK.”

Being in such a cosseted world is something she’s more than used to. Born in Sherman Oaks, California, Olsen was surrounded by high achievers from a very young age. Her mother was a professional ballet dancer, while her father worked in real estate, when he wasn’t to be found improving his handicap on the golf course. “Conservative ballet dancer meets conservative golfer in LA!” she says, a little flippantly.

Her parents divorced when she was six, by which point her sisters – three years older than her – were about to bank their first million dollars. The Olsen twins became a huge brand in the mid-1990s, with a series of TV shows, films and merchandising lines. For their younger sister, it wasn’t easy. “My whole life they’ve been like women, while I’ve been trying to be a woman but still a kid.”

Still, there’s something quite adult about Olsen, even her film tastes. “Growing up my favourite actresses were Diane Keaton and Annette Bening, and so those were women I looked up to,” she says. “And what were magical to me were the Woody Allen/Diane Keaton years. The films that they created together, I just really loved growing up in high school. But I see everything. I see from romantic comedies to Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void.”

The youngest of the four Olsen siblings – she has an older brother Trent too – she spent her summers in musical theatre camp, honing her craft, before heading to NYU. She even spent a semester in Russia at the Moscow Art Theatre School, before returning to New York to kickstart her career. She exercised little discretion when it came to trying out for parts. “I was auditioning for absolutely anything and everything.”

Her first role was in Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, along with Catherine Keener and Jane Fonda. You might think working with Fonda was impressive, but it was Keener – another “indie queen” – who enchanted Olsen. “I asked Keener 1,000 questions: ‘What’s a close up? What’s a long shot?’ When you’re in acting school you train for theatre. No one really teaches you these things.”

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Now she’s experienced, 2012 could be a critical year. Red Lights pairs her with Irish actor Cillian Murphy and Robert De Niro. Meeting the Taxi Driver star was a genuine thrill, though intimidating. “It was at a big dinner, so I got to meet everyone,” she says. “That was really, really terrifying. I think I did not speak for the first 30 minutes.”

Then comes Liberal Arts, a comedy with Zac Efron that she feels is “almost reminiscent of a Woody Allen film”. After that, she looks set to shoot Kill Your Darlings with Daniel Radcliffe, a story set around the Beat poets, with Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg. And then there’s Very Good Girls, a rites-of-passage tale co-starring Dakota Fanning. “You try and make things that you think would be a smart choice,” Olsen says. «

• Martha Marcy May Marlene is in cinemas from Friday.