From home decor to biodiversity, Elizabeth Olsen’s interests are rooted in the glorious nature of the Golden State. Here, the bona fide star of big and small screens tells C about her ambitions beyond the Marvel multiverse
You think you know Elizabeth Olsen. A fixed star in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The younger sister of the identical uber-celebrities Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Heart-stoppingly beautiful on any red carpet, charmingly relatable on any talk show, about as close to a natural-born celebrity as you can get, having made her screen debut at age 5 in the Olsen TV movie, How the West Was Fun.
And yet nothing about Elizabeth Olsen is quite as you expect. A few minutes into a conversation that was supposed to have something to do with the new Doctor Strange movie in which she stars, we have somehow moved on to the evils of pesticides and the importance of cover crops. Yes, Hollywood is all very well, but Olsen still dreams of studying agriculture and starting a progressive farmstead.
“We just eloped. Traditions aren’t very important to me”
“You know, monocrop culture is so damaging to the planet,” she says. She has been inspired by the “closed ecosystem” they’ve got going at the forward-thinking Hanzell Vineyards near her home in Sonoma. “They incorporate so many different kinds of crops in order to feed the people who work there, but also to encourage the proper kind of nutrients for the soil.” This stands in marked contrast to the miles and miles of single-crop fields that line so many Californian freeways, where all life is exterminated to make one thing grow. “I just think it is really wild that we keep thinking we need to become vegetarians and vegans to save the planet. But, like, really the best thing to save the planet is biodiversity.”
I didn’t expect to be talking about the perils of Big Ag quite so soon into our conversation — and neither, I suspect, did Olsen, who suddenly cuts herself short, wary of being cast as some sort of pollinator spokeswoman. “You can’t say too much about anything anymore because then you become part of a platitude that you never signed up for, you know?” But a fear of monoculture becomes a running theme. Why concentrate on one thing to the exclusion of all else? Why do we expect everyone to be the same?
I had started out by complimenting Olsen on the stylish floral blazer she’s wearing, sitting in a pool of light in the kitchen of her newly renovated other home in the San Fernando Valley. It’s a fixer-upper just off Mulholland Drive dating from 1972. She and her husband, the musician Robbie Arnett, took it “down to the studs” and fully reimagined it. The kitchen and garden in particular are her “happy space,” a sentiment that has rung true long before cooking and planting became the go-to lockdown activity. “What I thought was so funny was everyone discovering how to make bread,” she laughs. “No one’s been wanting to eat bread for decades!” But her favorite room is the bathroom adorned with chartreuse tiles and green marble.
Property is the other Olsen family business — her mother, Jarniewas a dancer, and her father, David, was a real estate agent. Olsen actually has a real estate license herself, dating back to a summer job when she was a drama student in New York. And she has one of those curious minds that will take the intellectual route to any given subject. Whenever something catches her interest — growing citrus trees, regrouting a bathroom, method acting — she will study for it. “I’ve already thought about going to school either for design or to get a contractor’s license just to understand better how things need to function.”
Still, I doubt she will need to head to college anytime soon. Right now, her acting career is looking rather lush and fertile, thanks in large part to her starring role in the delightfully creepy Marvel miniseries WandaVision. Airing in early 2021, it became one of the huge hits of lockdown, admired even by those who usually see Marvel as a malign monoculture. Its success even surprised Olsen and her co-star, Paul Bettany, who plays her on-screen husband, Vision. “We really thought that we were like this awkward cousin to the Marvel movies and we didn’t really know if it was going to work or not,” she says. “[It’s] very rare to be a part of something that kind of sparks. In hindsight, I’m kind of in awe of it.”
It also created a new set of opportunities for her. She is used to some negative reactions from directors who pin her down as someone who does “that Marvel thing or whatever.” Now, an array of options are before her. She is just back from Texas, where she has been shooting the HBO Max series Love and Death. She plays Candy Montgomery, the real-life Texas housewife who, in 1980, killed the wife of the man she was having an affair with by hitting her 41 times with an axe — but successfully pleaded self-defense. “She’s like the ultimate optimist, caretaker, nurturer, who’s caught in a bad situation,” Olsen says, rather breezily.
There is also Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, her seventh Marvel project but a first for her character Wanda Maximoff aka the Scarlet Witch as the lead antagonist. Filming took place in England during successive coronavirus lockdowns. Living by the deer park in Richmond-upon-Thames seems to have accelerated Olsen’s Anglophilia. “There’s not many more beautiful places I think in the world than Richmond, England,” she says. She also had the chance to spar with Benedict Cumberbatch, fresh from his multi-Oscar-nominated film Power of the Dog. “I’m a huge fan of his and the work he does and so I was really curious to get to see his process,” she says.
However, there was more physical interaction in front of green screens than verbal exchange. (“It’s more posturing, more image based.”) But such is the nature of the Marvel beast — and really what made WandaVision, with its mash-up of styles and genres, such a refreshing change — a “playground” for an actor.
It arrived at a time when Olsen was beginning to reassess her career and admit to herself that, perhaps, she had been coasting, perhaps getting a little comfortable being a small cog in a big machine. Her CV is hard to get a handle on, split as it is between CGI behemoths like Godzilla and dark and challenging roles like her lead debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which she played a woman recently escaped from an abusive cult. In fact, it was the 10th anniversary of Martha Marcy May Marlene, together with the experience of producing the black comedy Sorry for Your Loss, for the now defunct Facebook Watch, that reconnected her to why she is doing all of this in the first place. “I got so excited to just work for a period of time, but then also there was a time where I got lazy. You just have to kind of admit that to yourself at some point.”
She did not, after all, take the easy route to acting, and she easily could have done. Olsen doesn’t remember her infant screen debut at all (“It was my sisters’ work and it was just basically being babysat by the set”), but far from riding on any family coattails she went to every drama class and camp she could and made sure she had proper training before she dared call herself an actor. She ended up studying acting at the highly competitive NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she became known as the “rehearsal Nazi” for her insistence on doing things with due rigor. She also found time to spend a semester in Russia, studying at the Moscow Art Theatre, where Konstantin Stanislavski pioneered his famous method acting and Anton Chekhov debuted all his plays. “It was really a profound three months,” she says. “The theater was the best theater I’ve ever seen anywhere.”
But she is clearly proud of her sisters’ rather more American approach too; they have, after all, been working professionals since the age of 9 months old. “I mean I’m in awe of it all the time when I actually see my friends’ kids,” Olsen laughs. “They created a whole different kind of lane for themselves that wasn’t an obvious choice — and they did it with a lot of taste and were really reserved and smart about it.”
“There’s a lot of advice my sisters have given me thatI didn’t listen to”
What they impressed most upon her was the need to keep public and private separate — not that Olsen was always receptive. “There’s a lot of advice they’ve given me that I didn’t listen to and then I eventually listened to it and they were right,” she says. “It’s really annoying when you try to make your own decisions and you’re like, oh f**k it! They were right.” She abruptly deleted her Instagram account in 2020, saying at the time that she hated the “narcissistic cycle” of having to share her thoughts on every issue.
But in many ways her instinct is to be open — just in a low-key sort of way. She mostly used social media to post baking and gardening projects. She likes to walk around L.A. as much as she can and seeks anchor in her favorite local spots (she raves about The Joint, a fish market and coffee shop in Sherman Oaks), though, again, she has to watch out. There are always paparazzi at the local farmers market, so she tends to drive to other neighborhoods to pick up her heirloom tomatoes. That must be annoying, I say. “It is so f**king annoying!”
It’s also one of the reasons she and Arnett are now spending more time at their place in Sonoma. “That’s not a thing there and not a place my mind ever goes to,” she says. “If I think about, you know, building a family, I don’t want that to be a part of the life experience of a child.”
Not that she is necessarily thinking of building a family, just to be clear! She and Arnett married in secret in 2019; she only let slip when she accidentally referred to him as “my husband” in an interview. “We just eloped, the two of us, and yeah, it was something that we wanted to do just the two of us.” She doesn’t seem too fussed about ceremonies or parties. “Traditions aren’t very important to me.”
We talk about how strangely old fashioned the whole idea of marriage still is, likewise the decision whether to have children or not. “I find it weird having children should be a default. It should be the opposite,” she says. We’re not really at that point yet where we must continue making babies, you know? I feel like there’s plenty of us on the planet!”
But this is the other reason she deleted her Instagram. She couldn’t bear the pressure to conform, to advertise the correct opinions, to agree on everything. “When has this planet ever functioned like that and why are we assuming it should?” she laughs. “I just think that’s odd. Like, we all come from different places and have different struggles and different experiences of life.” We are back to monocultures again, the need for biodiversity in all its forms. Social media, she is convinced, is the ruin of culture. “It just creates a world that looks like one thing and that’s not what’s interesting about this world.” Let many flowers grow.