The Love & Death star talks taking on the story of Candy Montgomery.
HARPER’S BAZAAREElizabeth Olsen doesn’t like true-crime stories, nor was she looking to star in another show on the heels of the critical success of WandaVision and Sorry for Your Loss. But when the Emmy-winning writer and producer David E. Kelley approached her about playing Candace “Candy” Montgomery, the suburban Texas housewife who was accused (but never convicted) of the brutal axe murder of her neighbor Betty Gore in 1980, Olsen found herself unable to turn down an opportunity to re-examine a case that had been ripped from the headlines.
“The thing that I found interesting about [Love & Death] was this portrait of a woman who didn’t feel like someone who was diagnosable, like [with] multiple personality disorder,” Olsen tells BAZAAR.com on a recent video call from New York City. “It was someone who was put in such absurd circumstances. What are all the steps that led to the decision making that happened and for the decision making to have gone so wrong? What happens in someone’s life that leads to that? So it’s not so much about the sensationalizing of a murder, but it was more a character study that I thought could be interesting.”
Created by Kelley and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter (Twin Peaks, Mad Men, Homeland), the seven-part HBO Max series, which premieres today, stars Olsen as Candy; Lily Rabe as Betty; Patrick Fugit as Candy’s husband, Pat; and Jesse Plemons as Betty’s husband, Allan, whose 10-month affair with Candy preceded his wife’s demise. Following a 1990 made-for-TV movie starring Barbara Hershey and a recent five-part Hulu series starring Jessica Biel (which Olsen has yet to watch), Love & Death is just the latest project to revisit this true story, which Olsen feels is “stranger than fiction.”
Below, Olsen discusses the research and preparation that went into her portrayal of Candy, her attraction to playing characters that make morally questionable decisions, and her future as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch in the MCU.
You used John Bloom and Jim Atkinson’s book, Evidence of Love, as a guide to fill in any gaps in the story for your portrayal of Candy. How did your research inform your approach to the character, and what was the essence that you wanted to capture about Candy and the women of that era?
What I learned most about Candy from that book was just an insight [into] a state of mind of emotional intelligence and youth. I found the letters that she wrote to Pat when they were courting each other. It was all very pure. [There was] an idealized way to communicate with someone you think you’re supposed to love in order to fulfill the dreams that you have. She also read a lot of airport romance novels. So I think those were really informative of someone’s expectations of themselves and others and what they want to project out to the world.
And just basic things like trying to figure out how she talks, because I don’t have a recording of her voice. [With] someone who’s moved around so much, there’s still ways to have regional qualities of speech, depending on how much time you’ve spent and where. She’s moved around all over, including France. I thought of her as someone who thinks of herself as this well-traveled woman because of being an army brat. There are elements like that where we were like, “Oh, and she would have this kind of top, because it’s a little bit elevated from what most people would normally wear.” Things like that just made her feel like she had a step up in the world—that was really all about the illusion of projecting some sort of idealism.
Given that there were two women involved in this crime and only one lived to tell her side of the story, how did you all come to an agreement of what you wanted to portray as the truth?
My job was to tell what her truth was that she presented and allow for space for there to potentially be another truth. In performance, there are opportunities to maybe create a window into “Maybe there’s another truth besides the one that I’m telling.” But ultimately, it wasn’t a conversation I had with David or with Lesli. The only thing I can compare it to, really, is in Martha Marcy May Marlene, I never really talked to [writer and director] Sean Durkin about what he perceived to be the truth or the reality. All I was thinking about was my reality, and we realized while we were doing press for that movie that he never actually told me what he thinks about the ending, and I never asked because in my mind it doesn’t matter.
I think what’s interesting is sometimes when you have characters, there’s a truth that I decide about the character, and then there’s a truth that the director decides about the world, and sometimes those [truths] not being aligned could create an illusion of tension that could be interesting—or there could just be confusion. But whether or not Lesli thinks she’s just a liar, I don’t know.