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Elizabeth Olsen is a gifted young actress who, over the course of a decade, has become a major star. She burst onto the scene in Sean Durkin‘s 2011 directorial debut Martha Marcy May Marlene, a Sundance sensation for which she received a breakthrough actor Gotham Award nomination, best actress Critics Choice and Spirit Award nominations, and a BAFTA EE Rising Star Award nomination. She subsequently did standout work in numerous other indies including 2013’s Kill Your Darlings, 2015’s I Saw the Light and 2017’s Ingrid Goes West and Wind River, and on TV in the Facebook Watch drama series Sorry for Your Loss, which ran for two seasons spanning 2018 through 2019. But since 2013 she has been best known as a member of the Marvel family, playing Wanda Maximoff — aka Scarlet Witch, a Sokovian mutant with the power of chaos magic — on the big screen, with limited screen time, in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, and then this year on the small screen in the limited series WandaVision, Disney+’s first MCU TV series and the first series in phase four of the MCU, for which she has garnered rave reviews and Emmy buzz.
The 32-year-old recently joined THR‘s Awards Chatter podcast and reflected on lessons learned from her older twin sisters, Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen; the fateful series of events that led to her breakthrough first year in the business, during which she made five films, auditioned for the part of Daenerys on Game of Thrones and battled debilitating panic attacks; and why, despite a frustrating experience with Facebook Watch, she agreed to do WandaVision for another new streaming service.
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You can listen to the episode here. Highlights — lightly edited for clarity/brevity — appear lower on the page.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Lawrence, Snoop Dogg, Julia Roberts, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Kevin Hart, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Cate Blanchett, Jimmy Fallon, Renee Zellweger, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Ken Burns, Jodie Foster, Conan O’Brien, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Zendaya, Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Glenn Close, Michael B. Jordan, Jessica Chastain, Jay Leno, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Porter, Brie Larson, Kevin Feige and Tina Fey.
Where were you born and raised? And what did your folks do for a living?
I was born and raised in the Valley — we covered quite a span of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. My father hopped around from mortgage to real estate when mortgage became a bad business. And my mom was a stay-at-home mom.
You of course have older sisters who preceded you into this business, and you occasionally made cameos in some of their projects, but my sense is that their experience of child stardom actually made you less interested in being a child actor yourself?
From a very young age, I wanted to go to every camp, every class that I could that had to do with dancing, singing and acting. What my sisters did was a job and not playtime. I did try to audition for three months when I was around 10, and I had to stop doing everything else that I enjoyed doing as a kid. And I was so self-conscious about what it meant to be an actor in Los Angeles, I think I was like, “Oh, well, that’s crazy. Everyone wants to be an actor. That’s why they moved here. It’s so stupid.” Theater felt safer — I could still study acting, but it felt significant and not silly — so I continued to study. Through the college I ended up going to, NYU, I got to work with the Atlantic Theater Company, and because of them I met my agent, started understudying, and then Martha Marcy May Marlene, my first film, happened while I was still in college.
Martha was part of a wave of film work that you got and completed within about a year — you would soon have Martha and Silent House at Sundance 2011, then Martha and Peace, Love & Misunderstanding at Toronto 2011, and then Liberal Arts and Red Lights at Sundance 2012.
That’s crazy to think about, because I hardly want to do two things in a year now. Yeah.
Didn’t you also audition for Game of Thrones?
Yes, I auditioned for Game of Thrones. I auditioned for, like, the assistant to the casting director in a small room in New York with just a camera on me and them reading the script. I was doing the Khaleesi speech when she comes out of the fire. It was awful. I didn’t get a callback.
Somewhere around that time, you once said, you began experiencing severe panic attacks.
I started getting panic attacks the fall and winter after I filmed Martha Marcy May Marlene, before it had come out. I think it was before Sundance even. I just remember it was winter in L.A., and I had my first panic attack in a restaurant, and I thought I was having like a blood sugar fainting thing, because I’m not like an anxiety person — or I wasn’t. I was a healthy young kid. I went to a doctor — I got my heart scanned, my brain scanned, I got all the things scanned — and he told me that it sounded like panic attacks.
One can never know for sure what triggers things like that, but do you think it was the knowledge that with those movies about to come out, your life was going to change?
I do think it must be. I mean, at that moment anytime someone said, “Your life’s about to change,” I was like, “Well, it’s not, I’m still living in a 400-square foot apartment and my stuff is in boxes because they don’t have enough space.” But I do think that has to be somehow part of it. And then I also think it had something to do with a minor, could be like a minor head injury that happened before, because that also could be a cause of panic disorders or a sort of physical vertigo with having misalignment in your ears. Now it’s connected to like going to an award show.
Even after that first wave of films came out, you remained a student at NYU and ultimately graduated. Why was it important to you to do that?
Well, I genuinely loved school — I love being a student — but I think the driving force was anyone who would be like, “Yeah, I knew you wouldn’t finish,” or whatever. I just had to do it. I try not to compete with other people, but I’m very competitive if someone gives me a challenge.
After a few years you began to do some larger-scale things like Oldboy, Godzilla and, of course, Marvel movies. Was this a reaction to the fact that up to that point, you had pretty much exclusively appeared in indie movies playing characters who were a little troubled? Were you trying to avoid being typecast?
Yeah. I’ve never wanted to be put in a box as an actor. And I’ve certainly avoided anything that attached youth and beauty to being an actor. That was something that I felt like was damaging to a career — it becomes limiting. What I did know is I like blockbuster movies as well, but I was not being considered for them. Why was that? So I started taking generals. When it comes to Marvel, that was the result of a general meeting.
Eventually, Joss Whedon was the first one to raise the part of Wanda with you?
Joss couldn’t even tell me what I was meeting him about. I just went to tea and he told me, “Look up the Scarlet Witch, look at these comics.” And he truly said, “Know that you’ll never have to wear a leotard and tights, and you’ll never have to wear that headband.” I went back, did my research, learned a lot from my brother who knew the comics, and talked to Aaron [Taylor-Johnson] about it. Joss had offered me the part of Wanda and Aaron the part of Pietro [Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, Wanda’s brother] when we were doing reshoots for Godzilla, so Aaron and I were like, “Are you going to do it?!” “Should we do it?!” “Should we do it together?!”
How long was the original commitment?
I signed on for two films and a cameo. I’ve gone through three rounds of contracts with Marvel already. I just do appetizers, they never had me over for the big meal. (Laughs.) It really has benefited me because they continue to use me not because they have to, but because they think there’s story that can be used, and so even though I’ve had my own scheduling conflicts that have broken my heart in certain moments, I have always felt like they had a plan for me. They never really let me in on what that plan was, but I knew that they would only use me if it was useful.
Your first foray into TV was playing a grieving widow for two seasons on Facebook Watch’s Sorry for Your Loss…
It must have been 2016. I had moved from New York to L.A. and had been going through a big transition, and it was the first time something was sent to me, and they said, “Does she want to come on early and become a producer on it?” I had never had that experience and I was interested in what that meant. We developed first at Showtime, and then it was taking too long and they wanted to renew contracts, and we just went out again instead, and it landed at Facebook because they ordered 10 episodes right off the bat. I was really hesitant. It was really hard for me to do press talking about it because everyone wanted to ask about Facebook. And I was really hesitant to be a part of a new streaming service that didn’t quite have its kinks worked out yet. And that is what was our experience was, was being on a service that didn’t have their kinks worked out yet.
You went straight from working on the second season of Sorry for Your Loss into WandaVision. How long had WandaVision been on your radar?
It was pitched to me in between Infinity War and Endgame. I was finishing round two with Marvel, with Endgame, and Kevin Feige had me come into his office and explained his concept for WandaVision.
This ask was very different than what you had done with Marvel up to that point — you had always been part of a big group, on a big screen, and now were being asked to help launch Disney+ on the small screen. Did you have any hesitance?
Yeah, completely. I was really scared because I thought, “These characters are supposed to be in a movie theater. They’re larger than life, they’re saving the world.” But I was excited about honoring television and the sitcom, and I felt like that was the best way for Marvel to enter television. But still, in the moments leading up to its release, I was mortified. I felt like such an insane amount of pressure, just of being the first Marvel thing that the world had seen in 18 months because of the pandemic. And then this other crazy pressure of like, “What the hell did we just film?” We filmed something crazy, so you either were going to be with us or not with us.
Had you ever really been able to do comedy like this before? You basically had to make Wanda fit in to every sitcom era in TV history, and even shot the first episode in front of a live audience!
No. The closest thing was Ingrid Goes West. I had been talking about how I wanted to do comedy for a long time, and I would even have generals with people about comedies, and no one thought I was funny.
Pre WandaVision you once said, “Everything that Wanda had gone through in the MCU had happened to her, and she almost didn’t have any agency.” WandaVision feels different. The ball is in her court, the show primarily had female writers, etc. It feels like it addressed what might’ve been lacking in her earlier appearances.
I think so. Before, people were making decisions on this woman’s behalf and things kept happening to her. She needed a sense of self. We’ve watched her for such a long time wrestle with this idea of should she or shouldn’t she be a superhero? What does it mean to her and everyone around her? She’s lost because of it. This is the first time we’ve watched her have an acceptance of self. It’s like a woman coming-of-age story. And so I feel like that is what this show led her to become: a fully realized, autonomous woman.
This thing dropped in the middle of the pandemic, when everybody was at home, and it made a huge impression on people. How did you learn it was clicking?
Well, it was odd in many ways. I was filming Doctor Strange 2, playing the same part, in a different country — I wasn’t even in a major city in England, I was in a small river town in England. It sounded like there were lots of posters and billboards and things like that in L.A. and New York, but I didn’t see any of that. When I first realized it had big numbers? Disney+ had projected a certain amount of millions of viewers they were hoping to have by a certain time, and it was like 100 million more or something crazy like that. I was like, “100 million?!” And then I didn’t realize the cultural impact it had until last week when our director Matt Shakman sent Kathryn Hahn and me a video of a WandaVision drag brunch in Minnesota. I truly believe that you have to reach a certain level of presence in pop culture in order to be honored with something like that. That’s when I started to realize, “Wow, people really did watch this thing and talk about it weekly. How cool.”
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