The elephant lurking in the Los Angeles hotel room where Elizabeth Olsen holds court refuses to budge until the question is asked. Patiently discussing her burgeoning acting career, she looks relieved, if not faintly exasperated, when finally asked what role her far-more-famous twin sisters, Mary-Kate and Ashley, have played in her life thus far.
The photogenic twins, three years older than 22-year-old Elizabeth, began their television careers while still in nappies; they were ranked on the Forbes list as the 11th richest women in entertainment in 2007. With their faces plastered over the covers of US magazines for almost their entire lifetime, the public were scarcely aware they even had siblings.
Today, however, Elizabeth has pulled off nothing short of an artistic miracle, eclipsing her sisters in the space of just a few short months, the reason being her critically acclaimed performance in the psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, a tale of a young woman struggling to escape the ties of a cult.
"Maybe somehow they [her twin sisters] did influence me, but I never made choices based on the choices they made; I just always made choices based on following how my path was going," she says vaguely, in what must be a well-rehearsed speech by now. "Obviously your family influences you in every choice they make in some way or another, but it was nothing that was really thought out. It was just something that I always wanted to do. I went about it a different way – and I was in a position where I could go about it in a different way."
We both laugh awkwardly, since her phrase "go about it in a different way" is such a huge understatement in describing the worlds-apart difference between Elizabeth's career trajectory and that of her sisters; their television careers have been chock-full of all-American, apple-pie wholesomeness, taking turns as the adorable Michelle Tanner in the hit show Full House before starring in their own teen-friendly movies.
Although she tested her dramatic chops as a child by occasionally appearing in her sisters' films, as a young adult she's started to select her own roles.
While still enrolled at New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, she first stepped out on the screen earlier last year as Catherine Keener's daughter in Peace, Love & Misunderstanding before auditioning for Martha Marcy May Marlene, a harrowing role in which her often naked character endures perverse sexual domination at the hands of a Svengali cult leader.
"I was cast just two-and-a-half weeks before shooting began. I'm sure if I'd had more time to think about it, I might have freaked out," she admits. "Of course I was nervous, but if you truly believe in telling the story, you'll do nudity if it's necessary. People keep asking me how I felt being so honest and raw in front of the camera, but I'm no different to any other girl my age. When my dad asked if he could come visit me on the set, I said no. But that was more because I didn't want my focus to be broken."
Olsen has since played a young woman on the brink of a breakdown in the low-budget horror flick Silent House – and on the strength of those three key performances, she's secured a starring role opposite Robert De Niro in the upcoming thriller Red Lights and with Glenn Close in Thérèse Raquin. She's also set to star opposite Zac Efron in the dramedy Liberal Arts and in the thriller Kill Your Darlings, playing Edie Parker to Daniel Radcliffe's Allen Ginsberg and Jack Huston's Jack Kerouac.
Next year she plans to star in the coming-of-age drama Very Good Girls, with Dustin Hoffman and her former high-school peer Dakota Fanning. Inhabiting so many complex screen personas is all in a day's work, she says. "I keep myself very separate from what I work on. It's very clear in my head that I'm not the person I'm pretending to be. You have harder days than others, more draining days than others. Martha was emotionally exhausting, but we had a great family and we had a lot of fun doing it, so it didn't feel so heavy all the time."
Unspontaneous and quite rehearsed when we talk, she nevertheless shocks with the matter-of-fact way she tells me about taking her dad to see Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film that most young women would prefer their father never to see for obvious reasons.
Instead she says, "My dad liked it – and not just because I'm his daughter. He thought it was an interesting story and enjoyed not knowing what was going to happen."
Born to Jarnette, a former LA ballet dancer, and David, a mortgage broker, she was raised in Sherman Oaks, a well-heeled, leafy suburb of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, with her twin sisters and elder brother, Trent. The four siblings were home-schooled and also attended the private Campbell Hall school with fellow actor siblings Elle and Dakota Fanning.
"I was also a theatre-camp kid. It's what all my friends and I did. Instead of playing on the playground we were rehearsing musicals and plays we had written. I was always surrounded by creative people growing up, and I had teachers who were really great in high school and gave me the confidence to pursue acting for real as opposed to it being a fun fantasy."
She was still attending NYU when the writer-director Sean Durkin asked her to audition for Martha, short-listing her after auditioning some 50 other actresses. "I didn't really think about the Olsen connection," he says. "Obviously it crosses your mind, but literally for a second. We wanted an unknown actress and Lizzie was simply the best person. It never seemed like she was trying too hard. She manages to convey a lot just with her eyes, without even saying anything. She's so interesting to look at, so unique and beautiful, with a real emotional strength."
After being cast in the role, she cut her studies and left for rural upstate New York, filming at a remote farmhouse which served as the cult's HQ.
Though Durkin based the story on the experiences of a friend who'd survived a cult, Olsen felt it unnecessary to go to the source material. "I didn't want to meet her and feel like I had to tell her story. I also thought it was private; there's no need to invade someone's privacy for something that's fictitious," she says, her sensitivity towards privacy clearly a by-product of her own upbringing in the shadow of her paparazzi-plagued siblings.
Destiny has bountifully intervened in her career, but Olsen is still intent on returning to university. "I'm still trying to get my degree," she smiles. "One day I'll go back to school."
When I ask if there's any actress whose career she'd like to emulate, unsurprisingly she doesn't name her sisters. "Kate Winslet. Absolutely. I see her as someone who has been able to balance every genre and different media. I think she makes really smart decisions and unfailingly does the best work."Reuse content