The younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Olsen may have grown up alongside America’s most famous twins, but she has pointedly remained her own woman. Studying theatre at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, she paced her career to suit herself, remaining happily under the radar while honing her craft. Two years ago, she finally dipped her toes in cinematic waters, making several films in a row, some good, some not so good, and one mesmerizing—“Martha Marcy May Marlene”, 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”, an actress who reminded him of a young, raw Michelle Williams. Whatever whispers of nepotism may have existed prior to that film (who is this new Olsen, and is piggy-backing off her sisters’ fame?) were immediately silenced—Elizabeth’s talent was undisputable. 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 neighborhood of Toluca Lake, in the Valley about 20 minutes from Hollywood. This is where she grew up, and she seems relaxed and at home. Her features are perfectly symmetrical and her wide set eyes are the color of light jade. Her warm, slightly sallow skin is untouched by make up and she’s wearing her hair long, tousled and sun-kissed--pure California surfer babe. So much so, it feels like we’re at the beach, not in the Valley, the sort of Essex of Los Angeles, a sprawling suburban enclave much-maligned by city hipsters who, unlike Lizzie, are unaware of its high quality donut shops and tucked away vintage stores.
Since “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, Olsen has landed some meaty, high profile cinematic fare, including a lead in Spike Lee’s much-anticipated remake of Chan-wook Park’s dizzying 2003 horror classic, Old Boy. The Korean-language original, she says, remains among the most impressive films she has ever seen, featuring a notorious scene in which the protagonist swallows a live octopus. “In Korea, it became kind of like a copy-cat competition,” she says. “Men would try and swallow octopuses…one even died after it got stuck inside his esophagus.” She can’t divulge too much about Lee’s interpretation of Old Boy except to say that the ending, subject of much heated debate among 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 (“I think this one is going to be really fucking cool,” she says, “it will be nothing like any American Godzilla,”) and the lead role in Therese Raquin, a period piece and adaptation of the classic 19th century French novel by Emile Zola, in which she stars opposite Jessica Lange and Tom Felton (aka Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies). She plays the titular role Therese, a woman whose sexuality and freedom have been so suppressed that when she finally unleashes them, shit gets primal. This kind of theme is right up her alley. “Women’s sexuality is something that I am obsessed with, and I love stories that touch on it,” she says. 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.” Demure she may look, but a shrinking violet she is not.
In fact, like a latter day Kate Winslet or Jane Fonda, Olsen exudes a charmingly outspoken intelligence that, combined with her romantic beauty, results in what you might call “the full package”— beauty, brains, and balls. Imagine if Botticelli’s Venus had 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 tend to buy lots of tickets to the movies) is more intense than most Europeans could ever imagine.
She left LA for New York in 2007 aged 18, and while technically, she still lives there, she’s now ready to come back to Los Angeles, after a few projects are completed. 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 ripe old 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 OK. 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!’”
She will, however go back to New York City, where she will play Juliet in a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, off-broadway. It wasn’t until being offered the role that she fell in love with Juliet, whom, at first, she had dismissed as something of a sappy, boring female character. “But the more we worked on it the more I realized she was one of the greatest characters ever written,” says Olsen. “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 Robert Downey Junior for example. “I would do anything with him. If he was part of project and I could be in any scene with him, I would do it, hands down. He’s so talented. And so smart. You just don't have that kind of humor 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.” Olsen, much like Pfeiffer, counterbalances her waifish beauty with the aura of inner strength. 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, who is an avid golfer, in the same way that she is an avid actress, her brother is an avid collector of comic books (he has an entire storage unit filled with them) and her sisters Mary Kate and Ashley are avid fashionistas (they named their fashion line Elizabeth and James after their siblings). “It wasn’t that creativity was nurtured so much in my family as much as a spirit of hard work,” she explains. “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 immensely successful siblings. Today, she’s close with her immediate family, and collectively, she views them as a team. Team Olsen.
“I’m obsessed with teams,” she explains. “When I was in sixth grade, I realized that mine and my siblings’ fist 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 where they’re more interested in “getting in the zone” (she says this in an affected Zoolander-esque voice) 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 whatever limelight is inevitably around the corner for this talented young actress; fame, awards and adulation are not the end goal here. Perhaps growing up with such well-known sisters, who cast her in their TV show when she was a baby, stripped that whole lifestyle of its mystique for her. She’s already seen that life first hand, and witnessed how the tabloids have hounded her sisters, how the entertainment industry can be a cold and fickle mistress. After years of observing its mechanisms from the safe confines of Camp Olsen, Lizzie is developing her career unburdened by unrealistic notions of what success means, and remains very clear about what she wants. “The only things that are important in life are family, and friends,” she says. “Fuck the rest of it.”