1 Olsen-longread-lead

Sweet Valley Idol

Elizabeth Olsen meets Caroline Ryder to talk reboots, sex and female liberation

Taken from the September issue of Dazed & Confused:

Despite growing up in the shadow of her elder sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley, America’s most famous twins, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Olsen has pointedly remained her own woman. She moved from Los Angeles to New York when she was 18 to study theatre at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, pacing her career to suit herself and remaining happily under the radar while honing her craft. Three years ago, she finally dipped her toes in cinematic waters, making several films in a row, some good, some not so good and one mesmerising – Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), a moving contemporary drama about a girl haunted by memories of life within a twisted utopian cult. Her vulnerable, instinctive performance in the lead role (her first) prompted the late, great film-critic Roger Ebert to describe Olsen as a “genuine discovery” who reminded him of a young Michelle Williams. Whatever whispers of nepotism may have existed prior to that film (“Who is this new Olsen? Is she piggybacking off her sisters’ fame?”) were immediately silenced – Elizabeth’s talent was indisputable. She’s still thankful for the magnificent debut that complex role afforded her.

“I don’t know where I would be if that movie had not happened,” says Olsen, sitting outdoors at a low-key cafe in the Toluca Lake neighbourhood in San Fernando Valley, about 20 minutes from Hollywood. This is close to where she grew up, and she seems relaxed and at home. Her features are perfectly symmetrical and her wide-set eyes are the colour of light jade. Her warm, slightly sallow skin is untouched by make-up and she’s wearing her hair long, tousled and sunkissed – pure California surfer babe. So much so that it feels like we’re at the beach, not in the Valley, the Essex of Los Angeles, a sprawling suburban enclave maligned by city hipsters unaware of its high-quality donut shops and tucked-away vintage stores.

I think it’s weird that teenage girls know more about giving blowjobs than they do about masturbation. It makes me sick to my stomach that so many young girls think sex is just about a guy finishing

Since Martha Marcy May Marlene, Olsen has landed some meaty, high-profile cinematic roles, including a lead in Spike Lee’s much-anticipated remake of Park Chan-wook’s dizzying 2003 horror classic Oldboy. The Korean-language original, she says, remains among the most impressive films she has ever seen. It features a notorious scene in which the protagonist swallows a live octopus. “In Korea, it became a copycat competition,” she says. “Men would try and swallow octopuses. One even died after it got stuck inside his oesophagus.” 

She can’t divulge too much about Lee’s interpretation of Oldboy except to say that the ending, subject of much heated debate in fan forums, will be a surprise. “This film is very different to the original,” she says. “We made it our own thing, and the ending is one that western audiences will enjoy.” 

Also upcoming are Godzilla (“This one is going to be really fucking cool,” she says. “It will be nothing like any (other) American Godzilla”) and the title role in Therese, an adaptation of Emile Zola’s classic 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, opposite Jessica Lange and Tom Felton (aka Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies). Olsen plays a woman whose sexuality and freedom have been so suppressed that when they are finally released, shit gets primal. This kind of theme is right up her alley. “Women’s sexuality is something that I am obsessed with,” she says, “and I love stories that touch on it.” She’s also vocal about motherhood (“I find it is actually the most modern feminist thing to do, choosing to have a family young instead of having a career”) and masturbation (“I think it’s weird that teenage girls know more about giving blowjobs than they do about masturbation. It makes me sick to my stomach that so many young girls think sex is just about a guy finishing”). She may look demure, but a shrinking violet she is not.

In fact, like a younger Kate Winslet or Jane Fonda, Olsen exudes a charmingly outspoken intelligence that, combined with her beauty, results in what you might call “the full package” – beauty, brains and balls. Imagine if Botticelli’s Venus had a PhD and a punk band. “When I was 13, I told my parents I didn’t believe in God any more,” she says. “I wanted to be an atheist because I believed that religion should be about community and having a place to go in prayer, not something that should determine women’s freedoms.” This is rare and brave talk for a young actress in America, where the fear of offending the right-wing, God-fearing masses (who buy lots of tickets to the movies) is more intense than most Europeans could ever imagine.

She left Los Angeles for New York in 2007, aged 18. While technically she still lives there, she’s now ready to come back to LA. “It’s hard thinking about going back to my isolated square footage in New York,” she says, sighing. “The heat of walking in Manhattan in the summer, the AC units dripping with water, the laundry units spitting out heat and the smell of urine... I used to love New York and get off on how stimulated it made me feel, but right now I’m kind of dreading it.” At the age of 24, she feels like she’s already paid her NYC dues. “I actually feel more productive in LA. Here, if you decide to stay home, that’s perfectly okay. In New York if you stay home you’re like, ‘What am I doing with my life? I have nothing to do, I’m a loser, argh!’”

First though, she’s playing the female lead in an Off Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet. It wasn’t until being offered the role that she fell in love with Juliet, whom she had dismissed at first as a boring, sappy character. “But the more we worked on it the more I realised she was one of the greatest characters ever written. She is just so smart. She is smarter than anyone in the play, aside from maybe Mercutio. She uses her words to benefit her and to screw with other people, but she also feels things so earnestly and deeply. She is so powerful and strong and committed and determined.” 
Olsen’s enthusiasm is sincere and infectious. When she likes something, she’s not frightened to say so, whether it’s Shakespeare’s Juliet or, indeed, Robert Downey Jr. “I would do anything with him!” she enthuses. “If he was part of a project and I could be in any scene with him, I would do it hands down."

When I was 13, I told my parents I didn’t believe in God any more. Religion should not be about determining women’s freedoms

"He’s so talented. And so smart. You just don’t have that kind of humour unless you’re smart.” Sounds like she’s having a bit of a Downey moment. “Girl, I’m always having a Downey moment,” she laughs. As far as female role models go, she’s obsessed with Michelle Pfeiffer. “Best Catwoman ever,” she says. “Also, she is able to exude sexuality without being written off as dumb. You look at her and think ‘Fuck, she’s sexy, but she’s not sexy and stupid, she’s sexy and owns it because she’s smarter than everybody else in the room.” Like Pfeiffer, Olsen counterbalances her delicate looks with a steadfast resolve. It’s the kind of attitude that could see her succeeding as a mainstream comedic or blockbuster actress as well as an indie muse. Both worlds are her oyster.

Her phone buzzes – it’s her dad, calling to say hi. She’s very close to her father, an avid golfer in the same way that she is an avid actress, her brother, James Trent, is an avid collector of comic books (he has an entire storage unit of them) and her sisters are avid fashionistas (the twins named their fashion line Elizabeth & James after their siblings). “It wasn’t that creativity was nurtured in my family so much as a spirit of hard work,” Olsen says. “My dad always says, ‘Beat your last best score, and don’t worry about the person who beat you. Be the best you can be and don’t compare yourself to someone else.’” A valuable and very liberating lesson indeed, especially for someone who grew up with such immensely successful siblings. She remains close to her immediate family: collectively, they’re a team. Team Olsen. 

The only things that are important in life are family and friends, Fuck the rest of it

“I’m obsessed with teams,” she explains. “When I was in sixth grade, I realised that mine and my siblings’ initials spelled the word ‘TEAM’. T-rent, E-lizabeth, A-shley, and M-ary-Kate. So I bought us all little trinkets that said ‘TEAM’ so we could always remember that.” She likes doing movies because it feels like teamwork, “all these weird people that probably shouldn’t ever be in a room together, who have to work together and get one thing done. It’s the best.” Her pet peeve is actors who fall into the trap of believing themselves the most important person in the room. In Olsen’s view, a film is the sum of its parts. In that sense, she’s the anti-Russell Crowe, the anti-Christian Bale, the anti any actor who sees themselves as more important than the movie. “Sometimes I can’t stand the bullshit of actors,” she says. “You know, when they’re more interested in ‘getting in the zone’ than they are about showing up and doing their job and remembering that film is a group activity. When you’re an actor, it’s not about you. It’s about a team.”

You get the sense that despite the limelight that lies inevitably around the corner, fame, awards and adulation are not her end goal. Perhaps having grown up with such well-known sisters – they first cast her in their TV show when she was a baby – stripped that whole lifestyle of its mystique. Olsen has seen that life first-hand and witnessed how the tabloids hounded her sisters, how the entertainment industry can be cold and fickle. After years of observing its mechanisms, the youngest member of Team Olsen is developing her career unburdened by unrealistic notions of what success means. “The only things that are important in life are family and friends,” she says. “Fuck the rest of it.”


Hair Duffy at Tim Howard Management; make-up Frank B at The Wall Group; nails Tracylee at Tim Howard Management using Sally Hansen; set design Shelley Burgon; photographic assistants Sam Nixon, Remi Lamande; styling assistants Coline Bach, Victor Cordero; hair assistant Peter Matteliano; make-up assistant Rika Shimada; set-design assistants Alex Teplitzky, Dan Nix; retouching Output; production Nikki Stromberg at MAP, Sophie Ruthensteiner