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.
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.”
It’s an especially valuable trait for someone on the payroll of the prolific Marvel Studios. While she has continued to star in indie films such as 2017’s “Ingrid Goes West” and “Wind River” — as ll as the 2018 Facebook Watch series “Sorry for Your Loss” — Olsen’s most famous role to date is Wanda Maximoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which she joined eight years ago with “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The character, a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch, was killed off in a subsequent Avengers flick but resuscitated before the 2021 spinoff series “WandaVision” — and then maybe left for dead (again) in the Doctor Strange film released last year.
“WandaVision,” which mimics American sitcoms through the decades, is set in a blissful alternate reality Wanda creates and manipulates as a means of coping with the death of her partner, Vision (Paul Bettany). Its nine episodes offered Olsen the real estate to dive into the psyche of a reformed villain whose grief encourages her to revert to some of her more harmful tendencies.
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While Marvel can seem “like this infernal machine that grinds on,” Bettany says, the projects are, in his experience, “incredibly collaborative.” He recalls his longtime co-star being “very inquisitive” about Wanda’s motivations and underscores “the amount of respect given her, dramaturgically,” by everyone from series creator Jac Schaeffer to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.
Olsen “has a very good sense of where a story should turn and how things should be surprising and what the meta-meaning of a scene is,” Bettany says. “They were fascinating rehearsals to be in.”
Acting can be a very analytical craft; Olsen often thinks before she feels. She relays a version of the Practical Aesthetics technique developed by Atlantic Theater Company co-founders David Mamet and William H. Macy, which — in short — involves identifying what is happening in a scene, what a character wants and what universal human desire they’ll act upon to get it. “The general rule of making something interesting,” she says, “is not making your action and your want the same.”
On this April morning, Olsen video-chats from a storybook kitchen in Northern California. She periodically sips from the mug cradled in her hands as she speaks freely about the process of inhabiting Candy in “Love & Death.” While the character outwardly resembles the sort of 1970s housewife Olsen’s “WandaVision” antihero dreams of being, Candy finds herself dissatisfied.
She wants to feel something. She wants to push boundaries. But she is stuck in her marriage to the kind yet emotionally distant Pat (Patrick Fugit), who at one point accuses her of always wanting more, no matter what she has — an assessment she unabashedly agrees with. So she proposes an affair to Allan (Jesse Plemons), who is married to her friend Betty (Lily Rabe). They spend a few months setting the boundaries of their affair, and several more actually having it.
All the while, Candy maintains a cheery exterior. Olsen began by adopting a disarmingly feminine voice she imagined would have helped Candy navigate her patriarchal community, and the character’s manicured mannerisms “fell into place.” In “Love & Death,” Candy attacks Betty with the ax in self-defense; the series buys the explanation that Betty came at Candy first while confronting her about the affair, as did the jury in real life.
As for why the real Candy swung the ax 41 times, her lawyer reportedly took her to a clinical hypnotist, who traced the surge of violence to deep-rooted childhood trauma. Olsen found this slippery to hold onto as an actress and, in examining Candy’s motivations for keeping her supposed act of self-defense a secret, returned to her original understanding of the character.
“The thing that I had to use as my North Star all the time was the fact that there were always two things happening,” Olsen says. “She was always an optimist, trying to make the best of every situation, and she just cared so much about … what she was presenting to the world.”
Because Candy is also in search of acceptance, yet another want misaligned with her actions. She is determined — and even headstrong — in her day-to-day, while incredibly uncertain about where her life is headed. To Glatter and Kelley, the latter known for HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and “The Undoing,” the mystery of “Love & Death” was not in the how of Candy’s crime, but the why.
And they found just the actress to solve it.
“If we naturally jump to making a huge, sweeping judgment on someone and then, in a story, you can understand where they’re coming from,” Olsen says, “then I think that’s ultimately helpful for humanity.”