I just failed to meet Elizabeth Olsen at the Cannes Film Festival last May. The day after she introduced Wind River – a fine, snowy procedural with Jeremy Renner – in the Debussy Theatre, I was trotting along to our interview when the authorities rang to cancel. There was some problem with extraneous noise. It took another few months. But here we are.
“Sorry about that. The interview part is a great big blur to me, but that was all very cool,” she says.
Is that really fun? The first few times you run the gauntlet on the red carpet it must be hugely exciting. But the novelty must wear off.
“That depends on my mood,” she cackles. “Sometimes it’s a lot of fun, but sometimes I’d prefer just to be wearing a black sack. One day I’ll do that. I’ll wear the same dress to every premiere and nobody will bat an eyelid.”
I didn't want to graduate high school and go straight into movies. I wanted to study theatre and come out with a degree
Elizabeth Olsen has gone about this business the right way. She is the child of middle-class parents from southern California and made a point of finishing a degree at NYU after leaving school. She simultaneously worked on impressive independent projects such as Martha Marcy May Marlene and Kill Your Darlings. She became the Scarlet Witch in the continuing Avengers sequence. Not every young actor would have bothered to finish college.
“I think it’s important to finish something you start,” she says. “I loved that so much. I didn’t want to graduate high school and go straight into movies. I wanted to study theatre and come out with a degree. Then, after I graduated, I felt: what do I do now between jobs? I was freaking out.”
The other Olsens
I wonder if her unusual upbringing helped develop that more disciplined approach. Olsen is, famously, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. While those twins were becoming the most famous child actors on the planet, Elizabeth was quietly developing her own ambitions. She lurked in the back of a few Olsen Twins videos. But she resisted the temptation to become Zeppo to their Chico and Groucho. Elizabeth surely learned about the pressures of fame at second hand.
“I’m not sure. I always wanted to be in performance. I took acting classes as a child. But I wasn’t doing it as a job,” she says. “I am in awe of theatre actors in New York. And they aren’t bothered in their lives. So I wanted to focus on that and I just got into film because I was auditioning for everything. But you’re right. It doesn’t glamourise it when you grow up seeing it. You don’t yearn for that lifestyle. You don’t want to be followed and chased by strangers in cars. I try to make personal choices that don’t entertain that kind of attention.”
So her sisters’ experience didn’t put her off the work, but it did mean she had no desire for celebrity?
“Yeah. Some people are doing it right. You try and observe and apply that to yourself.”
She was 22 when she broke through in Sean Durkin's insidious, disturbing thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene. Her stillness, her intensity and her commitment were unmistakable. She also had an old-school glamour that mainstream film-makers continue to savour.
Wind River hangs around a delicious partnership between her and Renner. He is a robust US Fish and Wildlife Service officer on an Indian reservation in Wyoming. She is the urban FBI agent sent to investigate a murder. You could have structured a nice 1970s cop show around the match-up.
“It was hard. It was physically exhausting at the end of the day,” she says of the snowbound shoot. “But that’s what made it physically rewarding. That was a lot more exciting than waiting around on a set. We had a 10-hour day in the snow, making sure we got everything before the sun fell. That to me is thrilling. That’s why I love independent film.”
I wonder if that feels like an entirely different job to shooting a behemoth like Avengers or Godzilla. I don't imagine she spent many days shivering in fields making those films.
"They certainly are very different," she says. "The heart of it is the same: finding a grounding in a story. I am lucky in that I get good story arcs in The Avengers. If I was just standing around using my powers, that would get tiring. Though I enjoy that. The main difference is you rehearse for three days on a stunt routine. Then you spend a week shooting the scene and occasionally you say a line that's dramatic. Ha ha! Maybe it's just a word. It's like you're pulling something out of nothing."
It was Elizabeth who talked Jeremy Renner into taking the role in Wind River. The two have become sound pals since working together on The Avengers. She waves fingers as the Scarlet Witch. He fires arrows as Hawkeye. There are worse ways of earning a living.
"It's funny. He and I live in the same neighbourhood and so does Chris Evans. So we all see each other between jobs. Aaron Taylor Johnson, who's not in Avengers any more, is also around a lot."
I have had the same friends since preschool and kindergarten
I like it. So Avengers such as Evans and Renner really do hang around together when shooting is done. Olsen has returned home to Los Angeles after her eight years studying in New York city. Her character suggests a happy blend of those two cities. She has a high-brow, well-read New York swagger, but she's also got the slow vowels of a Californian.
“Oh, I really enjoyed growing up here,” she says. “I have had the same friends since preschool and kindergarten. Obviously I have accumulated more since. But my core group of friends is the same. I also feel it’s a healthier lifestyle. In New York if you want to go on a long walk in nature, you need a home somewhere else. But the goal would be to live in neither place. I’d love to be isolated in a home in the woods.”
Olsen is a very impressive personality. She has got herself in a strong professional position without betraying her early ambitions to do work that doesn’t sour the soul. One suspects she is in it for the long run.
What was it she said? “Some people are doing it right.” That sounds on the money.
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