Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lizzie Olsen Comes Of Age In Her Maiden Movie Voyage

Lizzie Olsen as Martha in Sean Durkin's psychodrama "Martha Marcy May Marlene". 
Fox Searchlight

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
day, October 16, 2011


"OH NO, NOT YOU AGAIN!", joked Lizzie Olsen last month to a film critic she'd seen for the third time in 15 hours.  This Groundhog happening had arrived, and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" director Sean Durkin, clad in Ray-Ban eyewear, was busy laughing it up.  Ms. Olsen, his lead actress in the film, continued to joke around outside on a garden patio of a local hotel on a sunny, hot September afternoon, as real summer in this City arrived.

The night before Ms. Olsen had talked of how she loved watching tennis, football, soccer and various other sports, while Mr. Durkin vividly recalled the disasters of his beloved Arsenal Football Club of the English Premier League, whom, he was reminded, were routed 8-2 in August by bitter rivals Manchester United.  "I still have a scar on my foot where I kicked a chair," referring to another game in which a last-gasp goal last April gave Liverpool a tie with Arsenal.

"What's wrong with a team tying?", wondered Ms. Olsen, as Mr. Durkin, a bearded, bespectacled and polite man in his late twenties or early thirties, explained how his wife was converted into knowing the difference between a football win and late-tie heartbreak.  Thanks to his efforts, the director explained, Mrs. Durkin has become a passionate fan of Premier League football.  Mr. Durkin developed a love for Arsenal while living in North London for a short time earlier in his life.  He hasn't been back in 15 years.  In the intervening years film has become a priority, although Mr. Durkin still keeps up to date with Arsenal, who have struggled mightily this season in the Premier League.

"We saw it around the set, it happened there too," Ms. Olsen teased, referring to Mr. Durkin's facial expressions and mood at times regarding Arsenal's ups and downs.  "But it didn't influence or affect the way he treated us when he directed us.  He was great at all times."

Told that Venus Williams had withdrawn from August's U.S. Open Tennis tournament because of a diagnosis of an auto-immune deficiency disease causing her joint pain and exhaustion, Mr. Durkin expressed genuine concern.  "Do you think her career is over?," he asks.  Ms. Olsen, a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, had at another time revealed that she wasn't happy with what she called "dirty tactics there" in the last couple of games of the NBA second round playoff series defeat against the eventual basketball champions the Dallas Mavericks last spring.  The Lakers, champions the previous season, were swept aside in four games.  (By the time you've read this sentence, the entire 2011-2012 NBA regular season will very likely have been cancelled due to an impasse between players and owners.)

While their sports acumen is sharp Ms. Olsen and Mr. Durkin are by contrast newcomers to feature films.  Mr. Durkin's debut feature film "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is an intense drama about a woman (Ms. Olsen) escaping a cult in upstate New York, only to suffer haunting moments, traumas and dissonance as she returns to the seemingly safer confines of the home of her estranged older sister, who is newly married.  The film was shot in 2010 in the Catskills in upstate New York.  Ms. Olsen had actually shot a film prior to "Martha Marcy" called "Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding" with Jane Fonda.  For at least a week she drove herself back and forth across New York State for three hours between set locations of both films as their shooting schedules temporarily overlapped.

"Martha Marcy", which opens on October 21 in New York City and Los Angeles, is a study in disorientation, identity and memory, told not necessarily in flashback as much in blips of edits of experience.  We inhabit the mind of a traumatized soul and are forced to make sense of things as Martha does -- which makes for an extraordinarily suspenseful experience. 

In "Martha" Lizzie Olsen, who is 22, looks older in the title role, more mature, yet her character is a restless and tormented childlike being, scanning the landscape and unlearning, or reliving the nightmares of her membership in a cult headed by none other than John Hawkes, soon to be affectionately dubbed "the creepy one" for his powerful, unsettling work in such films as "Winter's Bone".  Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet (pronounced "Corbay") also star in Mr. Durkin's film, budgeted at roughly a million dollars. 

Lizzie Olsen as Martha and Sarah Poulson (right) as in Sean Durkin's psychodrama "Martha Marcy May Marlene".  Jody Lee Lipes/Fox Searchlight

"Martha Marcy" was based in large part on Mr. Durkin's friend's real-life story of cult involvement, one that was very traumatic for her.  Mr. Durkin, who had directed short films including a Cannes-award-winning short starring Mr. Corbet that helped "Martha" get made, took the template of his friend's story and wrote the screenplay. 

Oscar buzz has already been generated for the film along with strong critical acclaim. At a recent breakfast organized for the local film critics' circle here Ms. Olsen dismissed the buzz, with an air swipe of her hand over her head.  "I don't pay attention to it.  And I don't go on the Internet to read what people are saying," she adds.  Mr. Durkin concurs, but neither are disappointed with the way "Martha May" is being received so far.

Ms. Olsen is slender, beautiful and has gentle, large, soulful light green eyes and wears a matching gray and navy blue top and navy blue pants and black shoes.  Her shoulder-length blonde hair is unlike the hair color her character Martha sports in Mr. Durkin's film.  With one more city to go on what has been a nine city, eleven-day U.S. press tour, she is asked if she ever feels she has to act during interviews whether or not they are tedious and repetitive.  "Oh no.  I pretty much say everything -- I don't hold back -- which can get me in trouble."  She laughs, looking at Mr. Durkin, who scoffs at the notion of being artificial or scripted during press interviews for expediency's sake.

Among films released in 2011 Ms. Olsen disclosed that she loved "The Tree Of Life", Terrence Malick's impressionistic drama starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.  "That was like art museum cinema, an exhibition in an art gallery.  That's what it looked like.  It was beautiful."  She adds that she's a fan of Mr. Malick's films and gets a big kick out of watching Orson Welles' films.  She lamented that a movie theater in Connecticut had to post advisories about Mr. Malick's latest film, and was in disbelief all over again as she was reminded of the advisory's specifics. 

Ms. Olsen's romantic comedy tastes are discerning.  During an informal conversation she reveals "Friends With Benefits" was a film she wholeheartedly enjoyed.  "Did you see 'Friends With Benefits'?" Ms. Olsen asks her "Martha Marcy" director.  "I've got a movie marathon lined up for the weekend," replies Mr. Durkin, who concedes he's far behind on seeing the year's films.

Lizzie Olsen couldn't wait to see "Warrior", starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, which has since opened in theaters.  "I love Tom Hardy!" she declares with all the wide-eyed adoration that a teenage girl might have for The Beatles. 

Last month she and Mr. Durkin were at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Martha Marcy" played, seeing the film with her father.  Weeks prior to this she'd spoken of days on Mr. Durkin's set when she would receive phone calls from her dad asking if it was okay to visit.  Ms. Olsen would invite but warn him. 

"It's an intense scene today," she'd advise. 

"'Lizzie, is there nudity?'", she recalls her dad asking.

"Yes," came the reply. 


Of greater concern to the actress than the nudity, of which there is some in "Martha May", an R-rated film, was the seduction of the lead character by cult leader Patrick (played by Mr. Hawkes.)  "That makes me more uncomfortable, you know, having my dad see a man controlling me in a cult, and seeing him do these bad things to me," she said.

Director Sean Durkin last year on the set of his haunting psychodrama "Martha Marcy May Marlene".  Fox Searchlight

"Martha May" is a film that shows some bad, harrowing things but avoids judgments of them.  Mr. Durkin creates both sharp and murky atmospheres, keenly observed with the same dread, fear and paranoia in both universes where Martha is a fish out of water; malleable, impressionable.  What's particularly noteworthy about Ms. Olsen's performance is its realism and lack of pretense.  There are class struggles in the two universes Martha exists in, but Mr. Durkin said he wasn't consciously making any political statements about them. 

Ms. Olsen is new to the Hollywood game but there's every reason to think that she will soon be part of the regular rotation of actresses that includes Amanda Seyfried, Emma Watson, Carey Mulligan, Emma Stone, Elle Fanning, Jennifer Lawrence and Mila Kunis, all of whom have become regular fixtures on the big screen over the last few years. 

"What we've found is that audiences want specifics.  They want answers.  They're uncomfortable with loose ends," Ms. Olsen said of the many Q&As she's done on "Martha Marcy May Marlene".  Mr. Durkin's film flies in the face of comfort, and doesn't tie anything up in a neat and tidy bow.  One thing that Mr. Durkin has been adept at in his travels is keeping inquiring audiences craving more.  Often asked what happens after the final scene of his film, he cheekily replies, "I don't know -- the movie ended."

For Ms. Olsen completing her education is of paramount importance.  Born in Southern California, she lives in New York City in Downtown Manhattan.  She is what one might readily call the girl next door, the woman who would smile, say hello and joke with you.  Her smile is kind and frequent; her attentive gaze calm and relaxed.  Ms. Olsen, an old soul, is down to earth, sunny and confident, and it shows.

On the more personal side Ms. Olsen wants the following to be known regarding relationships.  "I think I have time for them but I do not have one."  She bursts into laughter.  "I would like to say for the record, I have plenty of time to be in a relationship, God help me."

"Elizabeth Olsen is available," Mr. Durkin chimes in.

"I'm so available," Ms. Olsen adds.

"That's a good tagline for a comedy, like a romantic comedy," Mr. Durkin suggests.

"Elizabeth Olsen IS AVAILABLE!", they say in cheery unison.

"Abs-o-lut-ely!" Ms. Olsen emphasizes. 

And she is dead serious.

"I can make it work."

When someone suggests that her availability is the tagline for the interview, Ms. Olsen laughs, repeating her mantra: "I can make it work."

Perhaps Lizzie Olsen can also make it work because, as she puts it, her life "hasn't changed much."  She's in school at New York University at the Tisch School Of The Arts in a three-year conservatory program.  "It's a year of liberal arts right now so I just have a little more than a semester left over to do whatever academics I want," she said last month.  "So it's been a lot of fun.  School's really important to me.  That feels really personal to me."

Ms. Olsen is sincere as she speaks about education, which comes first and foremost.  She said that many teachers and students had no clue of who she was and what she has been doing on the big screen.  (In addition to "Martha Marcy" Lizzie Olsen has "Silent House" opening next Spring; "Red Lights" opening sometime next year; and the films "Liberal Arts" and "Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding" on the festival circuit seeking distribution.)

Lizzie Olsen and John Hawkes in a scene from "Martha Marcy May Marlene".  Jody Lee Lipes/Fox Searchlight

In New York City anonymity works well for many actors, in a city that makes little muss or fuss about its celebrity dwellers unless perhaps, they are named Derek Jeter, he of the New York Yankees.  If it's actor-spotting you want, Gabriel Byrne can be seen walking alone and uninterrupted on the Upper East Side in the 80s on a regular basis.  Matt Dillon was spotted at one of New York's bazillion Famous Ray's Pizza haunts in the wee early morning hours in Greenwich Village.  Kathy Bates was seen walking her dog in Midtown.  (She, not her well-behaved dog, had a big smile on her face.)  In his day the late John F. Kennedy Jr. would speed down a set of steps into the underground #1 subway train at 66th Street (or 59th) faster than a flash. 

As big as all of these names may be, the Big Apple is bigger than them all.  People in New York notice the famous -- but nothing more than notice, if that.  Fanfare stays firmly at home, rooted in a permanent backseat to the bright lights.

For Ms. Olsen though, being recognized or unknown seems not to concern her.  School is the driving force in her life.

"School is -- it's frustrating how much I really care about it because if I didn't it would make my life a little bit simpler.  But I do care about it, and I do care about a higher learning just for learning's sake.  I feel so privileged to be able to take like any academic class I want to take at a great university that I can afford -- that my family can afford to send me to.  So it's important for me to finish up that degree right now."

For the record, Mr. Durkin and his wife live in Brooklyn, a borough that has been restored to primacy in New York City as the place to be, re-supplanting Manhattan as the "in" place.  More people are moving out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn these days, and at a faster rate than before.  (By the way, Mr. Durkin, who went to NYU Film School, would later say that he wound up on the path he's on now by first writing "silly little stories" at the age of five or six.  He would "draw stupid little pictures."  He'd also take his parents' VHS camera and shoot and "create characters.")

As for the characters of New York and all of the city's nine million stories and the pageantry surrounding them, Frank Sinatra sang it best: about wanting to be a part of it all, and New York has something that no other city has.  Ms. Olsen is thankful to live there.  She loves it. 

Lizzie Olsen talks about the time she first got bitten by the acting bug.  "I think I formed a memory at the age of four or something.  And I remember always, I just loved Frank Sinatra musicals.  Loved!  And so all I wanted to do as a little girl was eventually play opposite him in a musical.  And then one day -- I think I was eight or something -- he won a lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards.  And it was my first time noticing that he was an older man.  I didn't realize that these were old movies.  And I think this was the first time I ever experienced what it feels to be heartbroken.  And I still had that basic love of musicals.  I would lie to my friends when I was in second grade and I was like, 'when I'm in sixth grade my mom and I are moving to New York so I can audition for musicals!  And they're like, 'really?'  And I'm like, 'yah!''

Sean Durkin is laughing his head off.

Undaunted by the delirium she's created Lizzie Olsen continues.

"And I literally -- I literally tried to get an audition for 'The Lion King' (musical)."

A pause.

"'The Lion King' does not cast white people as Nala." 

Everyone is laughing.

"So my entire life I've been wanting to do this!" says Ms. Olsen, now laughing uncontrollably.  "From a very, very little young age.  But I can't do musicals because I don't have a musical theater voice."  Her voice perks up an octave: "I like singing though!"

Lizzie Olsen is invited to sing but declines.  "Sean hates listening to me sing." 

There's a look on Mr. Durkin's face, and Ms. Olsen catches it, then reassures the director:  "I'm kidding.  I'm joking.  I'm yoking."

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" opens in U.S. theaters (specifically New York and Los Angeles) on October 21; with expanded release in various U.S. cities on October 28.

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