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AnOlsen Sister Finds aSpotlight All Her Own

By LEAH ROZEN


ON arainy afternoon last month, Elizabeth Olsen apologized profusely for pushing back bymore than anhour aluncheon interview atarestaurant inthe Gramercy Park neighborhood ofManhattan. “I'm sosorry,“ she said. „Ireally hate being late.”

The 22-year-old actress she's the younger sister ofthe child stars turned clothing designers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen had the most fashionable ofexcuses for the delay: Karl Lagerfeld. The Chanel designer had been shooting her for acoffee table book, and the photo session had gone long. She modeled anoversize classic Chanel tweed jacket for him. “Ididn't get tokeep it,“ she said, laughing asshe pointed toher own nondescript sweater and T-shirt.

She may have been tardy for the interview, but Ms.Olsen, nicknamed Lizzie, isrunning way ahead ofschedule onher career. She has starred infive movies, all independent films, inlittle more than ayear, with the first release, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” due onFriday. Itisanunsettling psychological drama inwhich Ms.Olsen plays the tricky role ofanemotionally troubled young woman who, after asojourn asacult member onaremote farm inthe Catskills, takes refuge with her older sister and brother-in-law attheir upscale, lakeside vacation house.

Traumatized bychilling memories from her past and ill atease inher present, Martha isawoman onthe verge, unable todistinguish between what isreal and what isinher head, and equally unable tobehave appropriately. She crawls into bed with her sister and brother-in-law while they're making love and skinny-dips inthe lake inbroad daylight, seemingly unable tocomprehend why either action would cause offense.

The movie was astandout atlast winter's Sundance Film Festival, and Ms.Olsen, who also starred inasecond film atthe festival, „Silent House” (an art-house horror film scheduled for 2012), impressed critics and industry insiders alike, and was quickly tagged the “itgirl“ ofthe festival.

“You had the sense that here was somebody who was arriving onthe scene who can make adifference,“ said TyBurr, the movie critic for The Boston Globe, inaphone interview. “Ithelps that she's pretty and blond but she also has talent.“

Sean Durkin, the director and screenwriter of“Martha,“ said hewanted anunknown for the challenging central role inhis debut film.

„Lizzie read the first scene and, immediately, there was something different happening,” hesaid. „She could convey alot without doing anything. There was somuch going onbehind her eyes.”

Partway through her audition, Mr.Durkin texted his producer that they'd found their leading lady.

The unmoored character she plays in„Martha” seemingly couldn't befurther from Ms.Olsen herself, who inperson comes across asgrounded, friendly and bright.

„When Imet Lizzie, Ifelt like she was more mature and worldly than Iam,” said Sarah Paulson, 35, who plays her sister. “Ifind her kind ofastonishing.“

John Hawkes, who plays the manipulative cult leader, said: “You can't help but fall for her. There isanopenness and ajoy about her, but tempered with street smarts and anintelligence that's rare for someone her age.“

Equally smitten isthe veteran director Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy”), who cast Ms.Olsen inher first movie, the coming comedy „Peace, Love & Misunderstanding,” featuring Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener.

„Nothing ever struck measfalse with her,” hesaid ofMs.Olsen's acting. She has this rare knack the same asRobert Duvall she listens wonderfully. She has ascene where Jane istelling her about asculpture she has made. Jane does all the talking. Lizzie doesn't say anything and yet you're fascinated byher reaction.

Impressively, Ms.Olsen landed this string offilms still tocome are “Red Lights,“ asupernatural drama featuring Robert DeNiro and Sigourney Weaver, and „Liberal Arts,” acomic drama with Zac Efron and Josh Radnor while attending New York University, where she's asenior majoring intheater atthe Tisch School ofthe Arts. She took ayear off from college toshoot the films, pretty much going straight from one film tothe next.

A Los Angeles native, Ms.Olsen was raised inthe San Fernando Valley. Her parents (her father isareal estate agent, her mother aformer dancer) split when she was 5, but she says they remained friendly post-divorce. She isclose tothem and toher five siblings (in addition toMary-Kate and Ashley, who are fraternal twins, she has anolder brother and anadolescent half-sister and half-brother). When she was shooting “Red Lights“ inBarcelona, “myolder sisters came tovisit, which was really nice ofthem, because they knew Iwas lonely.”

Their visit was aturnabout because, asachild, she visited the twins onthe set of„Full House,” the sitcom onwhich they began appearing asinfants in1987. “Growing up, itwas just what they did,“ she said. “There was nobefore.“

Elizabeth Olsen's earliest acting credits came inahandful ofbrief cameos inher sisters' popular made-for-video movies.


„All ofour family vacations were somehow involved ortied tomysisters' working,” she said. „Itwasn't until really afew years ago that Irealized how hard that must have been for them. Ijust thought itwas afun vacation, but they were working every day, whether itwas acruise oratrip toCanada orwhatever.”

She studied acting even before college but says that despite her sisters' success, she always knew she wanted tobeanadult actor rather than achild star. Her reasoning? She watched, loved and aspired tobeinclassic movie musicals Frank Sinatra, inhis “Pal Joey“ and „Guys and Dolls” period, was her first crush and she rarely saw kids popping upinthem. Today, she still loves “Pal Joey” but said her own singing wasn't strong enough for musical roles.

But theater remains anabiding interest. Her N.Y.U.course work included classes atthe affiliated Atlantic Theater Company. She landed understudy roles inplays off Broadway (2008's “Dust”) and on(2009's “Impressionism“), which helped her secure anagent, who put her upfor the movie roles. „Inever got togoon,” she said ofthe understudy jobs; rather, while waiting backstage, she wrote school papers onher laptop.

She also spent asemester inRussia, taking classes atthe Moscow Art Theater School. During her stay, she fell inlove with aRussian actor hespoke English but said the romance ended seven months after her return tothe United States when the “long” inthe long-distance relationship proved too daunting.

Ms.Olsen anticipates graduating this winter orspring. She said that she would stay inher 300-square-foot one-bedroom apartment inthe West Village but that she would also take apartial share inafriend's apartment inLos Angeles. Besides getting more movie roles, Ms.Olsen said she was eager toland ameaty theater role. Her dream? “Iwant toplay Ophelia in'Hamlet,' Masha in'Three Sisters' and, really, really later inlife, I'd love toplay Mary Tyrone in'Long Day's Journey,' “ she said.

Obviously, she isnot looking tobecome the next rom-com princess. Career longevity, along with challenging roles, isher goal.

“I'm not interested ininstant gratification,“ she said. “And Ithink the only way you can dothat istomake choices that are representative ofwhere you are and don't get caught upinwhat other people want you todo.”

Mr.Beresford said hebelieved that Ms.Olsen could have any career she wants. „She's going toget every role she goes for,” hesaid, likening her toCate Blanchett, whom hedirected inher first major movie, „Paradise Road” (1997). “Iwould definitely put Lizzie inthat class.”

The New York Times
11-10-2011


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