By Noah Nelson
Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the famed "Olsen Twins" Mary Kate and Ashley, is quickly emerging as not just a rising star, but an acting powerhouse. In just her first two feature films -- last year's drama "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and this week's "Silent House" -- Olsen has made her mark as a performer of remarkable depth and stamina. In Martha her wide eyes act as windows into her thoughts, which are masked to those around her by a pensive silence.
On screen, Olsen has a slow burn intensity. She eschews melodramatic impulses for composure in the most extreme of situations, and in playing that counter-note raises the stakes of scenes. She doesn't demand to let you know what she's feeling; instead she plays the subtle trick in the actor's toolbox, hiding just enough that you have to know more. When the tears finally come -- as they must in a horror film like "Silent House" -- they carry that much more weight.
That's the on-screen Olsen. In a room filled with journalists, the self-professed theatre nerd and foodie is talkative and quick to laugh. Her expressions play large, using her almost anime-scale eyes the way a stage actor would: playing to the back of the house. That's no accident, as Olsen pursued a life in the theatre before indie-film snapped her up out of college.
"When we made Martha," Olsen told us, "I was just like 'Oh cool, I get to work on some good material.' I was totally unaware of what happens after you make an independent film. I didn't understand all of the festivals. I didn't understand all of the buying and selling and releasing and how you release it."
Both "Martha" and "Silent House" debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where Olsen's screen presence drew the attention of the press and filmmakers alike. Olsen knows her career is already atypical, with her first two movies bowing at Sundance without her having to go through traditional rites of passage for young actors.
"Without ever having to do a Law & Order or anything. I auditioned for them, they didn't cast me."
While "Martha" called on Olsen's ability to reveal her inner state without saying a word, "Silent House" forced the actress to develop an entirely different skill set. The film is constructed out of incredibly long takes. Many of the sequences run for ten minutes or longer without cutting away. Scenes that required Olsen to rev up a high level of emotion again and again and sustain a hair trigger sense of fear.
"Eventually it became a muscle. I actually... it became detrimental in my personal life. Because I remember having a meeting with someone at NYU," Olsen proceeds to tell us all a story about dealing with the University's bureaucracy.
"I was sitting there and like, immediately tears come down my faces and I'm just like: 'I'm so sorry. I can't believe I'm crying right now.' But it was because my body was literally pushed so many times and there were so many easy buttons to get me emotional. I was so mortified that I was dealing with something like business -- work oriented -- and I just made it so personal really fast. So it became this automatic muscle."
The heavy waterworks the role of Sarah in "Silent House" required had a physical toll as well.
"I think I have snot come before tears, so I got a sinus infection at the end of filming."
While Olsen has been around the entertainment industry her whole life, she became seriously interested in acting while in high school.
"When I was seventeen I went to Strasberg school in New York for a summer and then went to NYU at the Atlantic Theater Company. Then I went abroad to the Moscow Art Theatre School. I understudied off-broadway for a semester while I was in school, that's how I got my Equity [the stage actor's union] card, and then I understudied on Broadway. My entire sophomore year I understudied and I was in school full-time doing conservatory."
Like any actress with a passion for the stage, Olsen has favorite roles and playwrights whose work she wants to perform.
"There's a Eugene O'Neil play called Strange Interlude and it tracks the life of a woman from about twenty until fifty. So I think I have to be a little bit more in the middle of those ages to really play that part. That's the big one. I'd really love to do a Sam Shepard play, and i'd really love to do something by Martin McDonagh-- whatever it is-- television, a movie. whatever it is. seeing his plays in a theatre is so fun for me. I just think he makes it alive. Those... I also really love Lucy Therber whose an unknown... not an unknown, but she does awesome, awesome plays that are kind of removed from reality a little bit."
The buzz around "Martha" led to nominations at the Gotham and Independant Spirit awards, putting Olsen in the kind of spotlight that a life in the theatre would not have generated. It's a world Olsen is familiar with thanks to her famous family, but one she has chosen to stay away from. She admits to still getting starstruck at Hollywood events -- which she sees as work and not play -- when running across personal favorites like actress Catherine O'Hara or [Top Chef star] Tom Colicchio.
That later bout of awe reflects just how deep of a foodie Olsen is.
"I started doing dinner parties when I was 17. I do dinner parties for my friends seasonally, which is kinda weird. So I try to cook based on whatever season it is. I hadn't been doing as much cooking now, but during the summertime I would just get so many heirloom tomatoes and cook 'em three different ways.
"For my birthday my mom took me to Williams-Sonoma and she bought me pots. I couldn't be more happy to have a new set of pots. I was using really bad ones before that made everything burn; it was so frustrating."
With "Silent House" set to introduce her to genre fans in the same way that "Martha" brought her to the attention of the indie set, Olsen is primed to transform her festival born momentum into a healthy career. Three other films are wrapped and three more in pre-production, including a period piece with Glenn Close. It's the kind of start any actress would kill for. And while she is reveling in the challenges she is getting to tackle, she knows just how lucky she is.
"I'm also well aware that the life of an actor goes in and out, and goes up and down."
Originally published on Turnstylenews.com, a digital information service surfacing emerging stories in news, entertainment, art and culture; powered by award-winning journalists.
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