VANITY FAIR – She’s an Avengers regular and grew up with some very famous siblings, but Olsen has managed to carve out a steady, laid-back niche for herself in Hollywood. After some career choices she now wishes she maybe had played slightly differently, Olsen is back with two very different films and enjoying “nothing being too precious.”
Every time I wear these jeans I forget to ask for a black napkin,” Elizabeth Olsen laments, realizing white fuzz remnants have attached themselves to her black jeans. The actress drove herself to our lunch at a trendy Los Angeles eatery. She’s wearing a very low-key black long-sleeved shirt with the very low-key black pants, and she isn’t wearing any makeup. No one in the crowded patio area, a few days before the Fourth of July, seems to notice her, even though we are seated facing inward, our faces on full display for fellow lunch diners.
Olsen is an actress in one of the most successful film franchises of the decade and she bears a noticeable resemblance to her very high-profile, extremely successful fashion-designer older sisters: so it’s perhaps a bit surprising just how much she flies under the radar.
“[Sometimes] people are like, ‘Have we met before? You look familiar. You’re an actress? What have you been in?’” Olsen explains. “And then you have to start listing your credits, and you’re like, ‘Maybe the Avenger movies?’ ‘No, I’ve never seen a superhero movie.’ [Avengers] is what I always go to . . . I don’t look really like that person in the movie.”
She is inquisitive in a way that actors are not always. She looks up at me after digging in to our burratta appetizer, which I haven’t touched: “This is so good! Are you lactose intolerant?!” When I explain during a digression about live music that I’m always worried I’m blocking people’s views at concerts, she interjects, “By the way, I bet you are!”
The night before, Olsen threw a low-key (everything is so low-key!!) surprise party for her hairstylist and long-time best friend, Clay, at her place near Laurel Canyon. “I got a group together and cooked, and we all ate outside and stayed outside the whole time on the patio and the deck.” This might be hard to believe (though it probably won’t be), but she tells me that before a photo shoot the day before she was walking down a trail by her house and “just picked these weird brush from the ground.” She explains, “I made a little flower arrangement. Just starting your day [like that] is so nice.” During a discussion about film release dates, she takes stock of her chipped nail polish, which had been applied for the photo shoot the day before. “I don’t know why they ever do my nails. This is fresh nail polish, chipped and bent. I need to just take it off. I never wear it, and I wash my dishes too much to have nail polish on.”
This seems like the dream, doesn’t it? To be a very successful actress and yet to still be able to eat out relatively unnoticed and pick weird brush from the ground when you feel like it and to not at all have the vibe of “that person in the movie.”
It is likely for some of these very reasons that Olsen was the first choice for the team behind Ingrid Goes West, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year and hits theaters on August 11, to play the integral character of Taylor. The sizzling, clever film stars Aubrey Plaza as the slightly unhinged Ingrid, who moves across the country after a breakdown, obsessed with a woman she comes across on Instagram. Taylor’s life seems impossibly whimsical and gorgeous and idyllic. “Taylor, for me, was everything,” Plaza, who also served as a producer on the film, tells me on the phone. “That part needed to be someone that was truly obsession-worthy. We had a very tiny, short dream list of women that we wanted for that part, and Elizabeth was at the very top of that list.“
As it turns out, Olsen also has another high-profile film out this month, as she stars in the dark, intense Wind River, opposite her Avengers co-star Jeremy Renner. (She filmed Wind River before she shot Ingrid Goes West last summer.)
Though it could be argued she was extremely well-positioned for a career in the arts, Olsen is very deliberate in pointing out that she put in the work to achieve acting success. She didn’t get into first-choice Brown University, so she attended New York University. She auditioned for roles throughout college (also completing a semester abroad in Russia, where she studied theater). “The first job I didn’t get that I really wanted” was Shakespeare in the Park, she says; but because she did not book it (after going through four rounds of auditions), she was able to take a part in the indie film Martha Marcy May Marlene in 2011. That role—as a woman who escapes from a cult—earned Olsen many film critics awards, and it set her career in motion.
That the film launched her on the trajectory it did came as something of a surprise to Olsen herself. “I didn’t understand independent film. I didn’t follow it. I just assumed independent movies were . . . when I was at Blockbuster and saw a movie that I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know Maggie Gyllenhaal did this movie, I’m going to pick it up,’ that’s how I watched them.” She says that everyone told her at Sundance after the film’s premiere that her life was going to change, but she didn’t believe it. “I was like, ‘Doubt it, but cool. You guys are all living in a bubble.’ I thought everyone was living in a snow globe, and it was a weird thing where everyone thought it was so important what was going on [at Sundance] and I was like, ‘They’re movies.’”
But as it ended up playing out, it was the sort of moment an actress dreams and dreams and dreams will come to fruition. You’ve been on the audition grind in New York for years, and now you’ve got your breakout indie-film role and you’re at awards shows and on red carpets and appearing on magazine covers. You open your front door to find towers of scripts piled on top of each other.
When Olsen talks about those first few post-Martha years, though, it is clear that she perhaps wishes she had made some different choices (her subsequent films included the Josh Radnor indie Liberal Arts, the poorly reviewed Very Good Girls opposite Dakota Fanning; and a Godzilla remake). “I think the thing that I wished was that I had maybe, I mean I don’t wish anything was different . . . But what I would have told myself then was to be patient in choosing the next jobs and to believe the noise a bit and to know that this is a hard place to get to. It just kind of happened quickly. I had to learn how to make work choices; I had to learn how to pick jobs differently. I went through a few years of kind of just doing things because I was so lucky and happy to be offered opportunities. I just was so happy that people wanted to hire me and so I just kind of did things that, in hindsight, I could’ve made smarter choices that could’ve led to a different place.” She continues, “I learned in time and that’s good, [I] eventually figured it out, but there were certain opportunities that I think I could have waited around for, to work with certain directors and be a little bit more niche.” She snaps back to the present, and to the two films we’re discussing: “But I love where I am now and I love these projects that are coming out, and I feel like I’m starting to get into what I really want to be. . . . I’m right now having so much fun with nothing being too precious and having the ability to make smart decisions.”
After the success of Martha, she says, “I kept thinking, ‘I’m not overwhelmed’—but I was. Looking back, I didn’t know what was going on.”
Olsen was not an Instagram user when she took the part in Ingrid Goes West, but she says she immediately had a sense of who Taylor was, the sort of woman other women (and men) couldn’t help but stalk obsessively on the platform, wanting to be her and also semi-hating themselves for wanting to be her.
Plaza describes her first meeting with Olsen for the project. “[The director] Matt Spicer and I went to her house and met her there. And she has homemade guacamole set out in a beautiful bowl. It was like a scene from the movie. She has exquisite taste. And she is just one of those women that just kind of does it all and looks great while she’s doing it.”
The film helped Olsen to understand social media a little better, and she now has an account for herself, outfitted with “official” in her handle and all. “I don’t want to create more attention on myself,” she says. “I know that [being on social media] might help with maybe getting some sort of [brand] campaign or something, but primarily, I care about my work, which is being a actor, not a brand and not that I eventually start selling something.”
When I ask if she’s concerned at all about distracting from her on-screen acting work with her social-media presence, she says she has changed her thinking on that topic slightly. “I think I used to say that—I want people to just see me as my character for whatever they’re watching—but I think at the same time, you can reach a certain amount of success, the way Jennifer Lawrence did, where you’re watching her and you can make the decision about whether or not you’re distracted because you know Jennifer Lawrence or Anne Hathaway or someone who’s super-famous . . . or their acting is that great that it transports you. I don’t think you can control that.” She adds, “I definitely, consciously don’t go to events I don’t really need to be at, and I don’t go to things that don’t make sense for me to be photographed at because, one, I don’t like being photographed; two, I don’t like going to those events unless I have a purpose to be there.”
Olsen is not a fan of paparazzi, no surprise. “I’ve never enjoyed, obviously, having a paparazzi pop out of a car or a bush. It feels like someone is trying to hurt you.” And she does not seem thrilled with questions about Mary-Kate and Ashley, either. It’s not until lunch is nearly over, as we’re about to get up from the table, that she references the twins directly. She says the question she is most sick of being asked by interviewers is what her childhood was like. “Probably less weird than yours!” she says with a laugh, mimicking her go-to response. “They were always working. It wasn’t like they weren’t working and then they were,” she explains. And that’s true: for as long as she’s been alive, Mary-Kate and Ashley have been Mary-Kate and Ashley. It’s, as a melodramatic narrator in a film might say, the only life she knows. She concludes, as we stand up: “Also, I’ve been doing this for five or six years now—are we really still talking about [my sisters]?”
When I ask if she has a “Taylor” in her own life, someone she’s always looked up to in an aspirational sense, she brings up another set of sisters entirely, the Haims, with whom she grew up, and who now form the eponymous, critically-adored pop-rock trio. “There were always the cooler kids, the ones who were just cool, who wore bright-colored hats and lived in do-it-yourself homes or D.J.’d. They found the coolest things at a thrift shop. The Haim sisters, I knew them growing up, and I was always like, Danielle has the coolest style. . . . I would see them—this was obviously before they were successful—I just remember seeing [Danielle] in high school and being like, that’s a really cool jacket, a really cool vintage piece. Those were the people I looked up to.”
She sighs. “It’s a lot of effort to be that cool for me. For some people it comes easily; it did not come easily to me. I’ll just be my weird nerd, the quirky whatever.”
Olsen had worked with Renner on Avengers, and was thrilled he wanted to come on board Wind River—Sicario and Hell or High Water screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut—after she had already committed to the project, which opened Friday. Renner plays a game tracker, who finds himself wrapped up in a criminal investigation on a Native American reservation; Olsen plays an upstart F.B.I. agent who arrives on the scene to try and make sense of the tricky case. “I found [Renner] to be really intimidating at first. . . . When I found out that he wanted to do Wind River with me, I was like, ‘Whoa, he wants to work with me?! He thinks I’m O.K.!’”
Olsen says the “best thing” that came out of the movie was her work at the Rape Treatment Center (the investigation in the film centers on the rape and murder of a young woman on the reservation). “I trained to [become a volunteer] and then did Wind River, and it had a deeper meaning in some way because I’ve never been assaulted, I’ve never had to personally deal with anything like that.” Olsen now volunteers at the center every Tuesday. She says she was reluctant to talk about this volunteer work during recent film festivals promoting Wind River. “It was like, ‘I don’t need to tell people what charity I do.’ I think it’s funny when people are like, this is my charity. It’s also not something to brag about. It’s a really devastating thing in the world.”
The current political climate is on Olsen’s mind, as well, and also has had effects on how she has approached her job. “There were certain things . . . when we were editing Wind River where I was like, ‘I’m not going to change that line, because if a man said it no one would give a fuck.’ You’re just like, ‘I’m going to fight this one. I don’t care if she comes across as being a little rude.’” She elaborates, “I think you just want to represent women well, period, and I felt that way before the election, and I feel that way now. There’s a new meaning to it now.” She recalls, when filming the most recent Avengers film, that the whole group of actors were glued to their phones while on set. “I think we were trying to watch, live-streaming [one of the James Comey–related hearings]. They are literally saying, ‘Rolling,’ and we were supposed to be dealing with some equipment, and [Don] Cheadle and [Chris] Evans and Scarlett [Johansson] and me and [Paul] Bettany and [Mark] Ruffalo were all like streaming.” Politics bled into actual scene work, as well: “[Director] Joe [Russo] would say, ‘It’s as if you just saw’ . . . fill in the blank with a real thing that just happened. So it is constantly bringing it back to rooting it and grounding it and knowing why we’re doing these movies.”
She says she would have loved to play Elisabeth Moss’s part in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the series about a dystopian, paternalistic world. “When I saw that there was a TV show that was coming out I was like, ‘How did I not see this?!’ I’m assuming [it was because] Elisabeth Moss was attached from the beginning. I was like, ‘I wish I had heard about this.’” When trying to sum up the sort of roles she finds herself drawn to, she acknowledges it can be hard to connect the dots. “Talking about the through line of my work that I’m choosing to do—not that [the projects] need to have anything in common tonally, obviously between Ingrid and Wind River I want to be in Avengers. . . . It seems all over the place but it’s what I love: it’s quirky, it’s dark, it’s important. It’s different. [The projects I want to do] show life through some sort of more metaphorical landscape and [focus on the] kind of absurd.”
Olsen says she does not have specific goal posts for her life or for her career. “When I was younger, I wanted to own a house by a certain year, and that never happened,” she says; as each year ticked by, she would think to herself, “Yeah, but I feel like if I hold off I can get a better house later . . .” As a result, she says, “I don’t make those calls.” She does not have any upcoming film projects announced, though she is excited about a dark comedy “adult female-driven animation” project, which she says she is “finishing the deal on” now.
As we walk out of the restaurant, she tells me she’s taking private Spanish lessons now, though she isn’t progressing as quickly as she might like because she isn’t dedicating herself fully to it. We part ways on the sidewalk, and she heads to the valet to go get her car. I imagine her driving home and stopping by the side of the road to pick up a quirkily-shaped rock, or to take a photograph of a chic pond (with an actual camera, I imagine, not her phone). I’m reminded of when she told me during lunch that if acting ever became something she did not enjoy, she thought she’d “go into flipping homes.” She’s probably having a low-key barbecue tonight, I think. She’s probably going to be serving delicious mint iced tea in mason jars. All super low-key!! I take out my phone and follow her on Instagram.