Interview: Elizabeth Olsen's Thrilling Career
If Elizabeth Olsen wanted to prove she's more than the younger sister of former child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley, she has succeeded admirably: Last year, the 23-year-old made her movie debut to great acclaim, playing a cult survivor in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
The indie movie debuted at 2011's Sundance Film Festival, followed by a good showing the Toronto International Film Festival. To top if off, Olsen got a best-actress nomination at the pre-Oscar Independent Spirit Awards.
For an encore, she continues to challenge herself - this time, with another tormented character in the psychological thriller, Silent House, opening Friday, March 9.
In the movie, co-directed by husband-and-wife team, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, Olsen plays Sarah, a troubled teen who slowly succumbs to the terror enveloping her at the family's secluded lakeside summer home.
In the beginning, all seems fine, as her uncle and her father prepare to renovate the house. When her uncle heads to town for supplies, her father goes missing, and things start to unravel. Sarah is left alone in the house to confront possible vengeful invaders, who may or may not be from her past.
Not surprisingly, the movie counts heavily on Olsen's performance, which was one of the reasons she decided to do the film.
She also couldn't resist the temptation of working with Kentis and Lau, who also challenged themselves with Silent House, their English-language remake of Gustavo Hernandez's "real-time horror" flick, 2010's La Casa Muda.
"I was filming Martha Marcy May Marlene when I was offered the Silent House job," recalls Olsen from L.A. "The guys working with me at the time said they had seen La Casa Muda at Cannes, and described it as the most terrifying first 60 minutes they had ever seen on film."
Intrigued, she said yes to the Silent House re-do. In retrospect, the actress admitted she didn't realize what she was getting into. "I just thought the idea sounded cool."
On set, reality struck. Kentis and Lau, to mirror the original, shot most of the movie with hand-held cameras, and in a minimalist fashion. It required Olsen to emote for long periods of time in sequences requiring lots of movement and improvisation.
"It was a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be," she said. "We did it in 12-minute takes, and we'd keep re-doing sessions over and over."
Often the filmed moments wouldn't be usable for "technical reasons," but Olsen said she tried not to dwell on it "because it could drive you crazy."
She also had to remember the right tone for the right sequence, as her character's feeling of horror increases gradually. "I definitely had to keep thinking about Sarah's emotional arc."
Certainly, she had time between scenes to review her process. Refusing to return to her trailer between shots, she never really left the house they were shooting in during the long days and nights of filming. Logistically, it made sense. Professionally, she thought it was the right choice.
"It was all about endurance," Olsen said. "I would find some sort of calm, off camera, usually on the staircase, out of the way, just to clear my head for a while. Then they would call me with a two-minute warning, and I'd get back into it."
In the end, the exhausting extra effort was with it. But she did take longer than usual to recover from the ordeal.
"It was the first time I felt like I had to physically unwind from a role," Olsen said. "And I had some pretty bizarre dreams, too."
Her part in Red Lights (out later in the year) was less gruelling. Filmed in Barcelona and Toronto last year, Olsen has a smaller role in the thriller about paranormal activity, which stars Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver.
Meanwhile, Olsen has three more independent features lined up to film in 2012. She's the title character in the crime thriller, Therese Raquin, opposite Glenn Close. She plays Edie Parker to Daniel Radcliffe's Allen Ginsberg in the drama, Kill Your Darlings. Then she's on tap to star in the coming-of-age film, Very Good Girls, with Dakota Fanning.
"It's not really my plan to do these low-budget films," she said. "I just want to keep things interesting and exciting."
Is there any chance she'll work with her twin sisters on a movie?
"No, I don't think so," said Olsen. "They are in charge of four different fashion lines, so they are very busy."
Silent House opens March 9.