The Emmy-nominated actress plays a housewife accused of murder on HBO Max’s ‘Love & Death,’ her latest project decoding a character’s perplexing behavior.
WASHINGTON POST Elizabeth Olsen didn’t know it was a true story.
Reading an early script for “Love & Death,” the new HBO Max miniseries premiering Thursday about a small-town Texas housewife accused of ax-murdering a friend in 1980, Olsen believed Candy Montgomery’s crime to be a work of fiction. She thought the Texas Monthly articles she received with the script were short stories. It could easily have been imagined, the unsettling narrative of a woman who strikes up an affair with the husband in a fellow churchgoing couple and who, after confronted by the wife, ends up on trial for her brutal killing.
When meeting with writer David E. Kelley and director Lesli Linka Glatter, executive producers on the series, Olsen learned the truth. “It’s not O.J.,” the 34-year-old actress says, referring to the high-profile murder trial of former football player O.J. Simpson. But it still happened, and real lives were affected. She wondered how the team would present this astonishing story to audiences without sensationalizing it. And how much creative license would she be afforded in the role?
Quite a bit, it turned out. Though Montgomery was written about in the press — and in the book “Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs,” from which “Love & Death” also draws — there was little footage of her to go off. (Last year’s Hulu miniseries “Candy,” starring Jessica Biel as Montgomery, hadn’t yet been released.) Olsen created her own version of Candy to ground the series, which over seven episodes explores how someone so ambitious and well-liked by her community could also behave selfishly and contain a lurking darkness.
The balance is difficult to master, but Olsen has walked such tightropes before — recently for her Emmy-nominated performance as a tortured witch in Marvel Studios’ “WandaVision,” but also dating back to her debut feature role as a disoriented cult survivor in 2011’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” All mixed up in disturbing crimes, these characters don’t always endear themselves to viewers. The actress, however, savors the challenge of deciphering perplexing behavior.
“I don’t know what people want out of something they’re watching, besides the baseline of being entertained,” Olsen says. “But I do think we want to watch people fail and see how they resolve whatever the failure is. I think we want to watch people make decisions we think we’d never make because it’s like trying to watch someone work themselves out of a puzzle.”
Glatter thought to cast Olsen because of her performance in “Martha,” which the director says left her “gobsmacked.” Olsen was unknown at the time outside of being a younger sister to child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley, who in the past had looped her into their on-screen antics, including a 1994 music video in which they implored a forlorn-looking little Lizzie to “B-U-T-T out” of their business. In a way, she did; Olsen opted out of acting as a child and trained as a young adult at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
While Olsen always wanted to act — the desire is “so embedded in every memory I have,” she says — insecurities got the best of her early on. It wasn’t just the potential comparisons to her sisters, but growing up around so many aspiring actors in Los Angeles that convinced her that she needed to first figure out, as she recalls, “Who am I? And how am I different? And how am I unique?”
She wanted to earn her spot in the industry, and NYU — along with the affiliated Atlantic Theater Company and the Moscow Art Theatre School, where she spent a semester — helped her get there.
“Martha,” in which the title character readjusts to life with her family after fleeing an abusive cult, was one of two projects Olsen starred in at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. (The other was the psychological horror film “Silent House.”) Filmmaker Sean Durkin recalls auditioning “hundreds of people” in search of an actress who could convey discomposure alongside “quiet survival and strength.”
When Olsen came in to read, “there was something in her first take, even,” Durkin says. “It was instant. There was a presence, a vulnerability, an openness and a weight to her.”
Sarah Paulson, who played Martha’s estranged sister, says Olsen made her nervous on set, the way you feel “when you’re in the presence of something that’s about to explode.” Dialogue is sparse throughout the film, which relies heavily on its cast physically relaying emotion. Paulson was struck early on by Olsen’s ability “to have every single thing inside of her come out through those orbs we call eyeballs on her face,” a clear movie-star quality.
She likens the experience to working with Lupita Nyong’o on her debut, “12 Years a Slave.”
“I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had these two very unique experiences … where I’ve had a front-row seat to the moment before they belonged to the masses, before anyone had ever experienced the power of them,” Paulson says. She describes Olsen as “endlessly watchable.”
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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.
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Variety We’re living in a true crime boom in both scripted and unscripted television — but “Love & Death” director and exec producer Lesli Linka Glatter said she hopes her new HBO Max series will be seen as much more than that.
Sure, the series involves the true story of accused (but acquitted) axe murderer Candy Montgomery, played by Elizabeth Olsen. “There is a horrible true crime at the core of this, but we didn’t want it to be just a true crime story,” Glatter said Saturday in a panel discussion after the premiere of “Love & Death” at the South by Southwest festival. And the show doesn’t shy away from Montgomery’s actions. But “it’s really, things are not what they appear to be. You have to go deeper to see what’s really going on. We really tried to look at the ‘how’ and ‘why’ rather than the ‘what.’ How could this happen?”
The “Love & Death” premiere, held at Austin’s Paramount Theatre, served as a bit of a homecoming and reunion for the limited series’ cast and crew. “Love & Death” was filmed in the area, and is a story set in Texas (and even partly inspired by stories in Texas Monthly magazine). With an audience filled by actors and artisans who played a part in the production, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
“This is the perfect place to show our show for the very first time,” Glatter (who was born in Dallas) said before a screening of the premiere episode. “We made it here. It is a Texas story. I am a Texas human. To tell a story that is set here, shot here, I see so much of our Austin cast and crew here…. For me this is about a Texas town and the characters. I fell in love with all of them. But there is also a deep hole inside of those characters.”
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