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SUNDANCE Q&A: Elizabeth Olsen Reflects on 'Martha Marcy May Marlene,' 'Silent House' and What She's Learned From Mary-Kate and Ashley

Elizabeth Olsen in Marcy May Marlene
Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival
"Martha Marcy May Marlene"

No Sundance first-timer arrives in Park City with more fame-by-association than Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of media moguls Mary-Kate and Ashley. But the buzz surrounding Elizabeth on the occasion of her first festival is anything but gratuitous: She tackles two meaty dramatic roles in the much-anticipated Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which she portrays a young woman who escapes a cult (premiering Friday at 1 p.m. at the Eccles Theater) and Silent House, the late-addition non-competition thriller (which will screen as part of the Park City at Midnight program) about another young woman grappling for sanity. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, the younger Olsen reflects on her feature-film debut, her love of studying psychology and what she’s learned about fame from her famous sisters. 

The Hollywood Reporter: Okay, let’s get the obvious question out of the way. What’s it like having the Olsen twins as your sisters?

Elizabeth Olsen: I grew up with it so I don’t know anything different! The only thing that I struggled with growing up is that I wanted to be an actor … but I was very nervous to actually work. I think that’s why I focused so much on theater. I thought theater was a safer place because it’s more free of media.

THR: How does it feel to have not one, but two films screening at your first Sundance?

Olsen: I’m so excited! I was very happy to hear Martha Marcy May Marlene made the competition. We actually just finished filming Silent House in November, so that was a thrill too.

THR: How did you get the role in Martha Marcy May Marlene?

Olsen: I was filming Peace, Love and Misunderstanding, a movie directed by Bruce Beresford, last summer and we had Monday and Tuesdays off for weekends so I would come into the city [New York] and audition. I was obsessed with the script. Sean Durkin, the director, was there at both of the auditions, and then we met for tea one time and it just seemed like a really good fit for both of us. He’s now one of my good friends.

THR: What did you like most about the script?

Olsen: That the audience takes the point of view of my character, Martha. They will see what’s the present and what’s the past through flashbacks. So what happened to her [in the cult] is slowly revealed, but what’s happening in the present is for the audience to decide whether it’s real or whether it’s a paranoia.

THR: The story has shades of Elizabeth Smart’s ordeal in Utah. What kind of research did you do to prepare?

Olsen: The story is based loosely based off of two cults that the director knew about. It’s not a true story specifically, but inspired by these different groups that he heard of in the U.S. and the U.K.

THR: What was it about playing this character that most interested you?

Olsen: Well, I find mental illnesses fascinating. In fact, right now I’m taking a class on Freud at NYU.

THR: How did you land a role in Silent House? Had you seen directors’ Chris Kentis and Laura Lau's previous film, Open Water?

Olsen: I hadn’t actually. My brother is a film nerd so he told me a lot about it. I did see La Casa Muda, though, the Uruguayan thriller on which it’s based. I auditioned for it the same time as MMMM. Then they called me when I was driving back upstate New York to finish MMMM and gave me the job.

THR: This film is essentially one long shot of you descending into madness. Did you intend to make two films in a row about people losing their minds?

Olsen: [Laughs.] No! Silent House was actually a totally different animal. It actually made me physically sick because it was very exhausting to keep the momentum of the fear and terror in one shot. But yes, Basically people look at my face for an hour and a half.

THR: There’s little doubt that you will emerge an “It” girl after this year’s Sundance. What are your ultimate goals moving forward?

Olsen: I’ve been training in theater and dance since I was a kid, so being in front of a camera was really the most frightening thing. Right now I’m just trying to balance school and acting, going script by script. I hope I will be able to do stage and film work. I really love it all.

THR: Well, you’ve certainly come a long way since guest-starring in your sisters’ made-for-DVD movies, The Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley, in the early '90s.

Olsen: [Laughs.] Yes. When I was a little girl, my parents would pick me up from elementary school and my sisters would be at the set, so my afterschool care was basically hanging out there. They would be like, “Hey Lizzie, you want to be on this one?” I would be like, "Okay!," and then they would put gum in my hair.

THR: What are the most valuable lessons your sisters have taught you about show business?

Olsen: Well, first of all, our family is very close. We keep our values and our personal lives very private. I think my sisters are also very smart businesswomen and they work endless hours — people don’t realize that. Fame is a really weird thing, and I think my sisters have handled themselves very well. It’s really something for me to know that you never have to get caught up in it; you can just go on with your work.