Considering she’s the little sister of two of pop culture’s most famous siblings, Elizabeth Olsen came out of relatively nowhere to wow critics and audiences with her eerie performance in last year’s cult thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene. Some observers even had her pegged for a possible Best Actress Oscar nomination. She was robbed; but we digress.
In this week’s horror release Silent House, Olsen again gets to flex her talent for freaking the hell out, only this time with more of the shocks, splatter and lurid psychology favored by the genre crowd. As Sara, a mysterious young woman trapped and fighting for her life in a dilapidated old property, Olsen has the difficult task of carrying the movie — made to resemble one queasy long take — from off-kilter beginnings to its shrieking, full-blown conclusion.
We sat down with a much calmer Olsen recently to talk about shooting the film and the pressure of following up the acclaimed Martha; but first, she took a moment to run through her five favorite films.
Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood; 1939; 95% Tomatometer)
For me a favorite movie is a movie that you can watch at any time, and so I would say Gone With the Wind. I think the cool thing about Gone With the Wind… Well, this is what I decided, as I get older and more intelligent, why I like the film — because as a little kid I just loved the love story, and the Civil War was an interesting thing to me — but now it’s that I think it’s really cool to have the heroine of a film be someone that you really just don’t wanna like. You struggle liking her and I think that’s awesome. It is not a happy film. When it ends it’s just so heartbreaking, and I know it’s happening but I just can’t handle it every time.
Roman Holiday is another one of those movies: first off, I feel like I’m supposed to go to Rome, like my soul’s supposed to be in Rome, but it’s also one of those movies that I have on my computer for when I’m abroad. It also helps me fall asleep — the older movies, the way they look, for some reason, make me tired. [Laughs] It’s just one of those easy movies to watch and cozy up to and unwind with.
Next, Olsen on this week’s Silent House, the pressure of following up Martha Marcy May Marlene, and diversifying her roles.
Silent House is another intense performance from you after Martha Marcy May Marlene. Do you feel any pressure with this, given the accolades you received for Martha?
Elizabeth Olsen: I think I did at first but, you know, they’re different audiences, the two movies. I’m a horror movie fan, and I want horror movie fans to go and see this movie — and that’s a very different audience than people going to art cinema. So at first I was like, “Oh I’m so nervous, what are the critics gonna say?” but now it’s just like, “Wait, this is an audience’s movie.” That’s how I’m thinking about it.
You also set the bar too high for yourself. You should’ve started with a really crappy film.
[Laughs] I know. [Laughs]
Was this actually shot in one take?
No. No, it wasn’t. It was very difficult. We did about 13 takes, so the average take was about 10, 12 minutes; maybe a couple were seven minutes. So that’s how we did it.
Did you get far into takes and then make a mistake and have to do them again?
Every day. Every single day we did one shot, and so we literally just worked on one chunk for 12 hours. They only had one or two options that they were allowed to use in editing, because everything else would have a mistake in it and it’d be technically for nothing.
I was watching closely the blood splattered on your neck, for example, to see if it moved or changed shape across shots.
To try and find the continuity? [Laughs] Yeah. There were so many pictures taken at all times. Once we’d finished — actually completed a take fully, all 12 minutes, and they felt confidently about it — every single department was snapping away, all over the set, all over my body. It was just, we literally would have to pick up continuity and be, “Oh, you had a tear here — we have to put a little shiny thing here.” [Laughs]
So you were being watched very intensely by all these people?
Yeah. But it was really fun to do these long takes and have the crew be a boom guy and a camera guy — and that’s it. And you’re just in a house, playing make believe. There was something really cool about that. I mean, it was exhausting and difficult, but there was something cool to it.
Did filming these multiple long takes help heighten the intensity of the performance?
It did build the intensity. I don’t know if it helped or not, because I tried hard to try and have some kind of journey and variation; but sometimes — because of the repetitive nature of how we filmed it; there’s no other way to do it, I don’t think — it definitely made things more intense. And you know, if it works it works. I sometimes wish I could go back and be like, “If only I were more brave in that part,” ’cause I feel like that was needed, or something like that — but you’re always gonna do that for every movie, so I’m just letting it go.
This character’s pretty traumatized. How do you get to a point where you’re able to escalate that trauma? What sort of preparation did you do?
You know, we did discuss a lot — and obviously I don’t want to give away the ending — but we did discuss a lot about what happens with trauma and people who hide it, and things like that. So that’s just something that I needed to learn a little bit more about, to justify what happens in the end and understand it. When it comes to just being chased around the house and being scared for your life and trying to get out, I have a pretty fatalistic imagination — and eventually, as we were filming it, it just became like this muscle. And I was actually very sensitive in my everyday life. For instance: I wasn’t driving, but let’s say if I was driving and someone flipped me off or something, I probably would have cried. [Laughs] I was so sensitive. I feel like it was such a muscle that came on, like being scared or hurt or nervous — because of doing it over and over again.
Those are real tears in the film, then.
These characters you’re playing — Sara in this, Martha, and even some of the parts you’ve got coming up — are so harrowed and in such emotional peril. What is it with you and these kinds of roles?
I’m really interested in working on movies that are also kind of like different genres. I feel like Martha‘s one genre, this is a different type of genre; both are difficult in their own ways, and challenging. But I did do this movie Liberal Arts with Josh Radnor that was at Sundance; I really wanted to do something happy [Laughs]. And I did.
Okay. I was getting worried about you there.
[Laughs] And I’m doing a really fun movie with Dakota Fanning that’s more based in, what do you call it? It’s not like a comedy but it’s also not a drama. It’s just kind of real. We’re doing that, and then I’m doing two different period pieces — so I am trying to mix it up.
Are you looking forward to playing [writer and Jack Kerouac’s wife] Edie Parker in Kill Your Darlings?
Yeah, I’m so excited. We do that in New York at the end of March. I feel like I’m doing her autobiography in my mind, but I’m really doing four scenes of her life. [Laughs] But I’m very excited. It’s gonna be a great movie.
Silent House is in theaters this week.