Elizabeth Olsen has become one of America’s most interesting actresses, and yet she still doesn’t get the attention or the credit she deserves. Some might be quick to confuse her with Elle Fanning — like her, she’s blonde and lithe and comes from a famous family. Others mix Elizabeth up with her siblings, Ashley and Mary-Kate, and automatically dismiss her. But since 2011, when she played a cult member in Sean Durkin’s mysterious, atmospheric indie Martha Marcy May Marlene, the younger Olsen has grown into her own. Like many Hollywood denizens of her generation, she alternates big-budget action (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War) with oddball picks, like the Beat Generation piece Kill Your Darlings. And yet she stands out: There’s something slow and deliberate about Olsen’s screen presence, something a little opaque. Maybe it’s the discrepancy between the way she sounds and the way she looks.
A youthful 28, Olsen still hasn’t quite grown into her decidedly mature, low, and smoky voice. It’s the kind of instrument that lands you on the stage, which is where Olsen learned her trade when she was at NYU and the Atlantic Theater’s acting school. (She was the lone bright light in a paltry off-Broadway Romeo and Juliet in 2013.) Now Olsen has two new movies in which she explores different sides of her widening palette. In Taylor Sheridan’s drama Wind River (out today), she is an FBI agent who’s dispatched to investigate a murder on a wintry Native American reservation — and faces a frosty reception from the unimpressed locals. In the dark comedy Ingrid Goes West (out August 11), she portrays a sunny social media star who becomes the focus of Aubrey Plaza’s obsession. Olsen got on the horn from her home base in Los Angeles to chat about theater and the high cost of empathy.
I saw that 2013 Romeo and Juliet and ever since I’ve been wondering when you’re going to do another play.
That was kind of a strange experience for me, so I had to get over that one [chuckles]. But I’m looking forward to doing something soon. Theater for me was the ultimate goal — it was the medium I understood the most when I graduated from college. Not watching it but doing it: That was my training.
You even studied it in Russia, which is as hardcore as it gets.
[It was] really physical. I don’t think there’s better theater in the world than in Russia. It was a nice abandonment of the work I was doing in New York in college. The semester I studied at the Moscow Art Theatre was much more about using your imagination. I thought a lot about theater in my life when I was there.
You read younger than your age, and while youth is a valuable commodity in Hollywood, I feel your appearance has worked against you in terms of landing interesting roles.
I agree [laughs]. Someone even called me “baby-faced” in some review, and not in a negative way. I think it’s harder for me to play the parts that I want to play. In some ways I felt it was interesting playing Jane in Wind River, being this white, blonde female who looks really young, and so [generates] personal offense [among] the people she’s trying to help. But yeah, I’m older than a lot of actresses who look like they could play opposite…certain actors. It would look weird sometimes with me. I’m almost 30, so that has to catch up with me at some point [laughs].
You’ve worked with both experienced directors and rookies. What’s important to you in a director?
I don’t enjoy someone who’s very minutely controlling, where they just want you to do something in the very specific way it was in their head when they wrote or mapped out the scene. I like someone who can be a lie detector for me — I don’t need anyone to stroke my ego. There was this one time, I’ll never forget it, when Sean [Durkin] said, “It’s just not working.” I said, “I know, I’m such a bad actor right now.” It was the way I was playing it, and I felt terrible. It’s always the transition scenes, the ones that are supposed to be nothing scenes, and all of a sudden you feel like you’re being the worst actor. There’s a scene like that in Ingrid where I’m just saying bye to Aubrey and I felt I was doing a terrible job every time.
Why have you started developing your own projects?
I want to bring together a crew and a story and a director who makes sense. I like a lot of quirky directors like Yorgos [Lanthimos] — I really wanted to be in The Lobster, but there was a time problem. I want to work with Alexander Payne, the Coen brothers, P.T. Anderson, Quentin Tarantino. I like things that are a little off-center. Noah Baumbach. I love the tone, for different reasons, of all their films. I’d love to work with Reed Morano again — she was a director of photography [on Kill Your Darlings], and she directed the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale.
It sounds like you appreciate American auteurs. In his own way, Joss Whedon qualifies, even though he makes blockbusters. What was it like playing Scarlet Witch in his Avengers: Age of Ultron? Being an empath sounds like a total nightmare!
When we would do junkets, people would ask, “Wouldn’t you love to know what’s going on in other people’s heads?” And I said, “No!” [Laughs] That’s way too much stimulation. If you’re someone who’s already overly cautious of how you’re coming across to others, how others are feeling, why would you want to take on everyone else’s anxieties?
Don’t you think that’s part of what actors do?
Yeah, but there’s a release: You’re abandoning yourself, but you know you can leave it later. You can indulge for a little bit, explore the parts of you where you connect to someone, and then you move on because it’s not your life. We’d be filming some deep, weird, strange, hard scene, and I’d make a joke afterward. I don’t carry it with me, like, “Oh, this is so hard, what I’m doing.” I’m not an actor who lives in the world of a character or something. But it does seep in. There’s this laugh I do in Ingrid and somehow I kept doing it with all my friends. It was driving me insane.