After bursting onto the film scene with independent psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen has her pick of the best upcoming projects. With Silent House, Olsen works on possibly even darker fare than the cult analysis with an intense horror flick. Filmed in one continuous take, Silent House is an American remake of a chilling Uruguayan movie, La Casa Muda. At a recent press event, Olsen answers questions about staying out of the spotlight, her sudden success, and her impressive theatrical background.
Izumi Hasegawa: What was harder: remembering dialogue for long takes, or hitting all the marks involved?
Elizabeth Olsen: If you're an actor, just know your lines so you can't ever say that that's hard. It was difficult to go through a scene so many times and record it 100%, and what would happen is we'd have an 11 or 12-minute take and something would go wrong at like 10 minutes and make every single thing you did completely unusable. So that was the hardest, to think, "Can't you just use a little bit of that?" "No, because technically, we can't use it. That's not where our stitch is."
IH: What was the dumbest, most frustrating mistake?
EO: There was one thing that every single department...because this was hard for every department involved. This was hard for lighting, for focus, for everything...for sound. Sound was just like, "I give up. Like, I don't know what I'm supposed to do right now. We're literally in the pathway of an airport." One time, we were doing the very last scene -- and this was actually from the ending that we had for Sundance because we did reshoots, so the ending has changed since then -- but the last scene, the last shot was actually on a Polaroid. Literally, it's a second, and we finished and we're like, "Good, we got it." I hate saying this because it's like "Oh, he did it," but one of the props people had to put the Polaroid in a certain place. Right when the camera got there, there was just a finger pulling out. It was the last second of the whole film! Really, if we had a lucky day, we had two usable takes on a lucky day. So if you get that close... That was the most frustrating mess-up, but Michael felt awful. He felt so bad, and you can't blame anyone. It was very difficult to be props people and do anything with continuity for this film.
IH: How did you summon and maintain the emotional intensity for the duration you needed to?
EO: Eventually, it became a muscle. Actually, it became detrimental in my personal life because I remember having a meeting with someone at NYU. They weren't understanding. I took the semester off, but then they told me that I didn't have my papers in on time, but I did...and this is such a personal story. But anyway, I did have my papers in on time. My advisor didn't file them when they were supposed to be, so it was documented that I didn't have my papers in on time. So they expected me to pay for 40% of my semester. And I was just like, "Wait, but I filled out paperwork before. I don't understand." And I was having this conversation with this woman trying to convince her. Eventually, it all got cleared up, but I'm sitting there and immediately tears come down my face. I'm like, "I'm so sorry. I don't usually...I'm really good. I can't believe I'm crying right now." It was because my body was literally pushed so many times, and there are so many easy buttons to get me emotional. I was so mortified that I'm dealing with something business/work-oriented and I just made it so personal really fast. So it became this automatic muscle, and I think I have snot come before tears, so I got a sinus infection at the end of filming. But you just play with your imagination. You try to keep a barometer of knowing at what minute are we in, and you hope that, even though you do something for 12 hours over and over again, you can maintain that beat without making it go too far because you have so much more to go later. So it was very difficult. That was a very difficult acting challenge for me, because we did do takes 25, 27 times. How can you maintain going through the first time you see your father in the state he was, but not have that be as big as something that happens later? But then again, it's like your father. That's your dad. So it was difficult to try to figure out how to change beats from an acting point of view, but I don't know. You live and you learn.
IH: Did you also want to layer in without telegraphing what we find out in the end?
EO: Yeah, there are a few moments I specifically chose that I don't think anyone else would notice, maybe unless they saw the movie a few times. But there are those moments that I personally thought, this girl's living in the present moment, and right now, she's just scared of this thing that she thinks is after her, and she's unaware of what's going to happen. A lot of times, I didn't need it, but then there are some moments that you just want to make a moment of her clearly kind of being dazed somewhere else, and then coming back to the present.
IH: Did you talk about it specifically?
EO: We didn't talk about it. That's just what I chose to do. I mean, to tell you the truth, we really were focused on everything technically, so everything else, you just tried to make it work.
IH: Has your family seen the movie?
EO: No. I saw a screening of it with my best friend, Clay, but that's it.
IH: So dad hasn't seen it?
EO: Dad hasn't seen it. Dad will see it. Mom, I don't want her...my mom is terrified of scary movies, but she'll probably see it just 'cause she loves me. My brother's a big horror movie fan, so he'll see it. My younger siblings -- my sisters probably will see it. My younger siblings have yet to be allowed to see a movie I'm in.
IH: Does that inform your future choices?
EO: Exactly. I'm like, "I just want Cory to see me in something."
IH: Where were you with horror movie watching? Do you cover your eyes?
EO: No, I love horror movies. I love them, and I watch them... I have my hands over my ears, just in case I want to cover my ears and just in case I want to close my eyes. That's how I watch horror movies.
IH: Growing up, did you like gore movies?
EO: No. For me, in my taste now, I haven't seen the good ones that have come out in the last two years, for some reason. I haven't seen them. But I did see Them, the French movie, and my brother made me watch it, actually, when he found out I was doing this movie. He was like, "You're stuck in a house? Go see this movie. Here's my DVD." That's definitely one of my favorite modern-day horror films. But growing up, my first few memories watching movies in general was Arachnophobia, Jaws, Tremors... It doesn't make sense for a five-year-old, but somehow, being the youngest of four, it was allowed. Arachnophobia: terrifying.
IH: This past year has been such a dramatic introduction to your work, especially for those of us who go to film festivals. Did you expect it to be this whirlwind coming out when you started making movies?
EO: No. When we made Martha..., I was just like, "Oh cool, I get to work on some good material." I also was completely, totally unaware of what happens after you make an independent film. I didn't actually understand all the festivals. I didn't understand buying and selling and releasing and how you release it. I didn't understand any of that, so it's just been a year of first everythings. I know I'm in a very odd situation where the first movie that I've ever worked on without having to do a Law & Order or anything... I auditioned for them. They didn't cast me. It's very odd and lucky, and I couldn't expect any of it, so it hasn't changed my life that exists. It's changed my work life, but everything else has maintained, stayed the same. I wish I could say that I've made money and can buy a home, but I can't.
IH: Is auditioning easier now?
EO: I love auditioning. I've always liked it. It's so funny -- now I don't really audition. You have meetings and I'm like, "I'll read for you. Do you want me to read for you?" Because I like it. I think it's an important part of the process where you get to say, "This is what I've thought. Do you jive with it?" You should have those moments, but I guess you don't when you just meet someone because sometimes you can figure out just by meeting someone if you guys will be compatible working-wise, which, I guess, is just as important.
IH: What was your favorite takeaway from the surreality of awards experience?
EO: It's so funny. You're part of this thing for like a night that is not reality, but I got to bring a friend to everything, so we just got to, together, be like, "Well, this is weird and crazy." And then go home and have these moments in a hotel room together being like, "What is happening?" I'm from L.A. I've always had friends and families who exist in this world, so at a certain point, you think you're numb to it, but when you're actually there, you're just kinda like, "This is ridiculous. I talked to Tom Colicchio today. That's crazy."
IH: Did you practice your face for when they show your clip and cut to you while everyone applauds?
EO: No, because I always think it's weird when you see someone really self-conscious. That's what makes me uncomfortable, so I just keep saying, "Lizzy, just listen to whatever it is. The camera's right in your face, but just keep on listening."
IH: How was the Vanity Fair party?
EO: It was fun. I was with my best friend Clay, and we just would move from different groups of people. I knew some people there, so you talk with those people and then they're going somewhere else, so then you wander over and you're like, "Now I don't know what to do. I'm just kind of standing here with my best friend, and we could be doing this somewhere else, but we're just walking." Then you run into someone you know or a friend of someone you know. It was definitely interesting. Everything's a first right now, so I'm just going with it and accepting that; just be happy and wear a smile, and be thankful that you get to be here and be gracious.
IH: Does anyone make you starstruck?
EO: Tom Colicchio. Oh no, Catherine O'Hara. I literally had the biggest moment in front of Catherine O'Hara because my best friend Clay...she thinks we're crazy. She probably thinks we're on Glee. I don't think she knows. She had no idea who I was, and it was so embarrassing. The week before, my friend Clay goes, "If we see Catherine O'Hara, I'm going to die." And we're like, "Why would we see Catherine? Like, that'd be cool, but we probably won't get to see her." She just is right there and we go [gasp!]. At the same time, we both open our eyes and cover our mouths, and she's just like, "Hi." And we're like, "No, no, no, we're the biggest fans. We have senses of humor because of you. We love you. We've been quoting you since we were in elementary school." And she was like, "Okay. Okay. Nice kids." She thought we were crazy. We were like, "No, we're serious." She's like, "Okay." It was such a weird moment.
IH: What kind of training did you have before movies? Acting school?
EO: I very consciously chose to focus on theater when I was in high school because I wanted to be an actor. I thought the idea of doing film work was very intimidating because it is a much more public thing that you're choosing to do. So theater, to me, just felt like something that I wanted to do when I was in high school. So I went to a conservatory. I worked, obviously, at school, and I did camps my whole life, and I also did acting classes when I was a little kid, with professional child actors, but I didn't do that myself. I just enjoyed doing it. Then, when I was 17, I went to Strasberg school in New York for a summer, and then I went to NYU at the Atlantic Theater Company. Then I went abroad to the Moscow Art Theatre School, and I understudied off Broadway for a semester while I was in school. That's how I got my Equity card. Then I understudied on Broadway. So my entire sophomore year, I understudied and was in school full-time doing conservatory. That was really an informative time because my school then became very active in letting me audition for things, because the Atlantic Theater Company is a great theater company of its own in off-Broadway theater in New York that does amazing material. They would have me understudy or audition for understudy parts that they were producing, so I got to meet casting directors that way, and I got to meet an agent that way. Then I started auditioning for things once I stopped, because at NYU, you have three years of a conservatory training, and I decided I didn't want to try to work until at least those years are done. Then I started auditioning, and that is just what happened. That was two years ago.
IH: Were you an acting geek?
EO: I am a theater nerd, and I didn't realize I was until I went to theater school in college.
IH: What other passions do you have?
EO: I'm a huge foodie. I love cooking, and I love going to restaurants. So that's something that I actively do. For my birthday, my mom went to Williams-Sonoma, and she bought me pots. I couldn't be more happy to have a new set of pots because I was using really bad ones before that made everything burn, and it was so frustrating. That's a big passion of mine. I also just like traveling. If I get the opportunity to, I try to take it. Especially if someone else is going to send me somewhere, I will take it. So I love traveling and I really like being a student.
IH: What's your dish?
EO: My best thing? Well, I started doing dinner parties when I was 17. I did dinner parties for my friends seasonally, which is kind of weird. So I try to cook based on whatever the season is. I haven't been doing as much cooking now, but during the summertime, I would just get so many heirloom tomatoes and cook them three different ways. Or I really like making this one pasta soup with raw zucchini. You just make zucchini look like pasta and you marinate it in a sauce, and it just becomes a pasta.
IH: You can design your own career at this point. How do you want to do that? Big blockbusters or stay in indies?
EO: What's happening right now for me is that I'm, first off, so excited that right now I have choices. So I'm going through this thing where I'm like, "I'll do that and I'll do that and I'll do that." I want to do everything because I've never been in a position like this before, so it's really exciting. So I'm doing a small part in this Allen Ginsebrg movie, Kill Your Darlings. I'm in four scenes. I can't wait to work on it. So that's cool. Then I get to do a movie with Glenn Close for three months of my life, and I'm very excited to do that, and that's a period piece. I'm just trying to do things right now that are something that I've never worked on before, that's a challenge, and that is interesting to me, and it's with people that I respect and want to work with. And I'm also well aware that the life of an actor goes in and out and goes up and down. So right now, I feel very lucky to be working, and I'm going to keep trying to work until I have so many misses that I need to try to work again back up. But I'm very well aware that it's going to be a roller coaster, and right now I just feel so lucky that I'm in a position where I get to work on things that really get me going. And I also don't have children, and I don't have to pay for a mortgage and things like that, so I can make choices to do independent movies because I just take care of myself. So I'm also lucky in that way. "Because I don't have a child" -- that sounded weird.
IH: But you don't have to do something for the money.
EO: Yeah, I don't have to do something that I don't want to do, which I understand. When I'm a parent, I'm going to try to do as many animation movies as possible. Are you kidding me? I'm going to pay for tuition very easily.
IH: Growing up in fame firsthand, what were your feelings about that, were it to happen to you? Did you not want it or prepare for it?
EO: I think both of those things. I don't really want it to infiltrate my personal life. I don't really live in a part of L.A. I didn't grow up in a part of L.A. that are like hotspots, so so far it's fine. I'm very well aware of what reality is, and I'm very well aware of what these other things are and that's work. Even if you're going to a party, that's work. It's not your life. It's definitely not my reality. I'm seeing my little sister play in her championship basketball game tonight. That's my reality. So I don't know, you just try to work and know that that's why you're doing your job.
IH: What's your dream role?
EO: I have a few. There's a Eugene O'Neill play called Strange Interlude, and it tracks the life of a woman from about 20 until 50. So I think I have to be a little bit more in the middle of those ages to be able to play that part. That's a big one. I'd really love to do a Sam Shepard play, and I'd really love to do something by Martin McDonagh -- whatever it is, whether it's television, a movie... Seeing his plays in a theater is so fun for me, and I just think he makes it a ride. So those, and I also love Lucy Thurber, who's not an unknown, but she does awesome, awesome plays that are kind of removed from reality a little bit. I got to do a workshop of hers when I was in college at a theater festival, and I'm a big fan of hers.
IH: What's your dream country to visit?
EO: I really want to go to Rome, Italy and Greece.
IH: Favorite L.A. restaurant?
EO: Ink. Have you been there? Unbelievable.
Open Road Films' 'Silent House' is released in theaters on March 9, 2012.