EVENING STANDARD – With her indie flicks and blockbuster roles, Elizabeth Olsen has cultivated the kind of career most actresses dream of. She tells Tiffanie Darke about her famous sisters, her fears for America and how she plans to build her empire
It’s a sweltering day downtown in the Bowery, the sort of humid August heat when it feels like Manhattan is melting. Boys in artful sarongs and beards cruise the sidewalk, girls in high-waisted cut-offs and snapbacks lean against open-air bars. It’s noon, and no one dares move too fast.
But Elizabeth Olsen is not hot. In fact, she says she has frostbite in her fingers. Wearing black Calvin Klein jeans she picked up for $20 in a vintage store, slim black ankle boots and an oversized Altuzarra blouse, she’s been in air-conditioned TV studios doing interviews all morning and needs to defrost. She has asked that we meet in Il Buco, a rustic Italian restaurant with the sort of premium paysan menu you’d recognise from places such as the River Cafe. This, she confides, is her favourite restaurant in New York: ‘My sisters have been bringing me here for my birthday since I was 15.’
Ah yes — her sisters. Mary-Kate and Ashley, the button-cute Disney twins who grew up in the full glare of the public eye, then reinvented themselves as fiercely private fashion entrepreneurs (their label, The Row, is as hot as ever, and they now own high-end concept boutiques in New York and LA). Elizabeth — or Lizzie as she introduces herself — shares their delicate features: blonde locks, Bambi eyes and symmetrical porcelain face. But what’s intriguing about this sister is that she can turn those looks to power.
Six years after she burst on to the scene with a critically acclaimed performance in the indie flick Martha Marcy May Marlene, her carefully chosen roles have included Scarlet Witch in the unstoppable Marvel franchise, Avengers; Audrey Williams, Hank Williams’ wife and manager in the biopic I Saw the Light; and most recently, FBI agent Jane Banner in Wind River, a harrowing story of rape and murder set on a Wyoming Native American reservation, directed by Oscar-nominated Taylor Sheridan.
This is the kind of career about which most actors dream: balancing respected low-budget independents with blockbuster international fame. Olsen, it becomes clear, possesses an acute understanding of how to make the business work for her. Doing films like Avengers ‘allows you to sell a film to investors’, she explains, as she helps herself to black kale salad and slivers of pata negra. ‘It gives you recognition in an international market. You then have more freedom of investors for independent films.’ At 28 she has also finally launched herself on social media, having created an Instagram account last year. Under the guidance of her friend, the comedian and actress Aubrey Plaza, she is using it to simultaneously cultivate her fan base and poke fun at herself (check out Olsen’s ‘Feed me Friday’ posts featuring unflattering paparazzi shots of her eating). But she also has an eye on the prize. Any aspiring actor who wants to pick up a commercial deal needs a sizeable social media following. And those commercial deals give you exactly the sort of fame you need to get those independent film projects off the ground. ‘That’s why George Clooney does Nespresso,’ she explains. So far Olsen has cameoed for Miu Miu, but now she’s ready for something more: ‘People want to be a part of something that’s giving back to something else. I would like to be a part of that because it’s something that I would be proud of. But it’s also something that would help me as an actor trying to get films made.’
In this way Olsen is classic New Hollywood — clever, independent, well behaved, working the system. And like every good millennial, she is also strong on activism. ‘It’s horrible to think how the rest of the world is viewing the United States right now. You don’t really know how to fix it as an individual because you can’t. What is cool about what’s happening right now, however, is that while people have always talked about causes that they are interested in, now they are actually actively a part of them.’
Research for her role in Wind River has only made her more socially aware. ‘I ended up visiting the rape treatment centre in Santa Monica. It’s an amazing facility, for adults and minors. I was like, “What could I actually do?”’ Volunteers run the playroom, so Olsen went through a training course. When she finished filming, she returned to volunteer and now makes it a habit every Tuesday. ‘Going and playing cards with a bunch of really sweet people and just making them feel like a kid when they’re going through a traumatic experience — that to me is something I can walk away and be happy with… You make connections. If you go at the same time every week you see the same people. I see the same people every week when I’m in town. It’s a beautiful community… It’s really an incredible, supportive place. I love being a part of it.’
It’s no surprise that Wind River led her down other paths. Based on the true stories of the writer and director Taylor Sheridan following the years he lived on a reservation, it shines a light on the loophole in American law that lets those who commit a crime on a reservation (an area of land managed by a Native American tribe, rather than the state government) walk away free if they are not charged within the boundary lines. Given the limited police resources for investigating crimes within these vast jurisdictions, there are numerous undocumented cases of missing Native American girls. No national register exists to account for them. ‘It’s just another example of how we’ve screwed over this group of people from the beginning of this country,’ says Olsen.
We’re chatting easily now; this is usually the point at which the interviewer attempts to find out if her celebrity is going to divulge any details of who she is dating/fancying/breaking up with. Olsen has been linked to a few leading men in the past, including Tom Hiddleston and singer-songwriter Robbie Arnett. But I can’t quite bring myself to ask. The thing I liked most about Wind River was the absence of a romantic play. With Jeremy Renner — a local hunter whose own missing daughter and broken marriage haunt his every move — taking the title role opposite Olsen, you would expect the actress’s FBI agent to step in as romantic saviour. But she doesn’t. There is no love affair concluding the movie.
‘Taylor had to fight people on it,’ says Olsen. ‘Because some people want that to happen. They think that it’s going to make it a better movie or more people would want to see it. Which was one of the reasons I loved the script. It’s just a man and a woman having a partnership trying to figure out how to provide justice for this young girl.’ These are exactly the kinds of roles women want now. ‘The women in his film end up being the strongest. They’re the ones that fight for their life the hardest. He wanted the women to be the survivors.’
The waiter, who has now begun to suspect that pretty blonde ‘Lizzie’ might be someone more important than a walk-in, is bringing offerings of oozing burrata to the table. It’s becoming clear why this is an Olsen family favourite — the deli round the corner, I’m told, is ‘insane’. Olsen says when she was at film school in New York (she studied at Tisch School of the Arts) she shopped there all the time. Then she remembers Pesantissimo in Primrose Hill, where she lived for a time while filming Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2014, and used as a pit stop off-licence as it had ‘amazing wine’. ‘If I could live in any city, I would want to live in London,’ she says. She was put up there by the Marvel team and hung out with her friends the Taylor-Johnsons, exploring as much of the city as she could by foot. ‘People from London thought I was insane walking from Primrose Hill to Shoreditch along the canal. I ended up having to stop and get blister pads.’
I can imagine this. Despite her commercial and industry nous, Olsen is not a conventional starlet. She insists she hates the red carpet and finds fashion confounding and difficult — ‘It’s not my comfort zone,’ she shudders. A recent trip to the Paris couture shows was different. ‘I went to a Dior show and ended up getting to wear a look to the premiere in New York. I felt great that night just because I felt like I was in something that I love. Sometimes when I’m not in something that I love I cry on the way to the premiere and I’m posing with my shoulders as far back as they go. Then I look at the photos and I’m like, “It did look nice. Why was I crying?”’ Another revelation for her was this shoot for ES at The Whitby Hotel. ‘The photographer was great, we were in a cool hotel, it was a really great atmosphere. We had a great time. Like genuinely — I ended up getting in a bathtub at the end of it and got my hair wet. It was just fun.’
She has recently bought a house in the Hollywood Hills, which she is renovating while she rents with a friend. Much of her family lives in LA; her parents, Jarnette, a personal manager, and David, a property developer and mortgage banker, divorced in the mid-Nineties and she has a brother and two half siblings: ‘We have weekly family get-togethers, either my dad cooking at my place or the occasional Valley sushi spot. Sometimes it feels like a lot of things to fit in but it’s good we do it.’ While in New York, though, she is enjoying catching up with Mary-Kate and Ashley: ‘I just had dinner with Ashley when the premiere was happening. She was very sweet to come with me to the after-party.’ She clearly adores them. ‘I just think they’re brilliant women. [On their shops] they’re like, “I like this. I like this world. I like art, I like architecture, I like photography, I like fashion,” and they’ve made it into a company… I’ll go visit them at the office and sit in a meeting if I’m in and out of town. They’ll be talking about piping or buttons [and] they have taught me about art.’
Like many switched-on young women, Olsen sees herself in the round. The movie career she describes as a ‘part-time job’. On top of that she is also a reluctant fashion muse, fledgling brand ambassador and, most recently, rape crisis volunteer. It might be a lot to handle, but it also means that in these more uncertain times, if one thing goes wrong, there’s plenty more to fall back on. New Hollywood, indeed.
‘Wind River’ opens in cinemas on 8 September