The reluctant star is returning as the witchy Wanda in ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’. She talks to Jacob Stolworthy about superhero film flak, her famous sisters’ advice, and why she rarely watches herself on screen
Elizabeth Olsen is covering her eyes. “I can’t look at the screen. I’m sorry.” The cause of the actor’s dismay is not, as you might think, my face, but her own. It’s midway through our interview and I’ve switched off my laptop camera to evade internet issues, leaving Olsen alone, staring back at herself. She spends the rest of the chat with her eyes modestly directed to the right. “We should have caught up in person,” she says.
This isn’t the behaviour you’d expect from a bankable Hollywood star of Marvel movies – and one who comes from an acting dynasty. Her siblings are Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, stars of tween films and fashion lines. Younger sister Elizabeth has been acting since the age of four, but she didn’t appear in her first film till she was 21. Instead of going the way of the twins, she oscillated between smaller indie films and blockbusters, including Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla (2014) and several Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films.
Each role has been vastly different to the last – a spirited drama student in cosy comedy Liberal Arts (2012), a narcissistic social media influencer in 2017 Instagram satire Ingrid Goes West, and a timid rookie FBI agent in violent murder mystery Wind River in the same year.
But it’s for her character in the Marvel universe that she’s become best known. She played the perennially unlucky witch Wanda Maximoff in 2015 Avengers sequel Age of Ultron, before returning in a further three MCU films – Captain America: Civil War; Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame. Then Wanda proved so popular that she was given her own TV show, WandaVision.
In the space of nine inventive episodes, Olsen became a Marvel favourite thanks to her ability to switch fluidly from comedy to emotion with a flick of the wand. She shows this in our conversation, too, discussing sensitive topics, including the media’s treatment of her sisters, while playfully reacting to the persistent postman who won’t stop knocking on my door. “See ya!” she shouts after he informs me, through my letterbox, that he’s leaving my package on the doorstep.
It helped Olsen’s cause that WandaVision, Marvel’s debut foray into television, was an ambitious project that put time and care into a character previously given short shrift in favour of the dominant figures – well, big strong men – Iron Man, Captain America and Thor.
“I only signed on to do a couple movies, so it continues to be a surprise when they want to use me for more projects,” she says, adding: “I’ve been confused by how lucky I got with them wanting to make WandaVision.”
Olsen was living in Richmond, London, when the show launched in January 2021, during the second lockdown. It became one of the best-reviewed Marvel projects of all time, and the word-of-mouth hysteria surrounding it saw the series accomplish the feat of attracting non-fans as well as diehards. Olsen, though, says she “totally dissociated” from the frenzy it whipped up, and is “not really attached to it emotionally”.
I don’t like presenting at awards shows. I tried and I don’t like it
Olsen is returning as the character in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which pits her against Benedict Cumberbatch’s superpowered sorcerer. Although she praises the collaborative shooting process, an approach favoured by director Sam Raimi, Olsen hints several times in our conversation that she doesn’t really enjoy discussing the project, despite it being the one she’s here to promote.
“I’m trying to ignore it and not talk about it, but that’s what’s going on,” she says with an amiable grin. “I actually do this thing where I get very comfortable with it not taking up a lot of space in my mind, because it’s safer and I don’t feel as vulnerable.”
‘I only signed on to do a couple movies’: Elizabeth Olsen is surprised by her Marvel success
Olsen’s tactic, however, appears to be less to do with concerns about the film’s quality, and more about her modesty. “When we were doing press for WandaVision, I was mortified because it was the first show from the Marvel universe. There was this total fear, and now I have this pressure all over again connecting to Doctor Strange. I just didn’t have it as part of those ensemble films.” Olsen admits that this even extends to viewing the end product. “I’ll see it eventually,” she says.
If these nerves are a troubling trait for someone whose face is currently emblazoned on posters around the world for a film that will be one of the year’s most profitable hits, she isn’t showing it. In fact, Olsen has the pleasant demeanour of someone clearly at ease with the rules she’s established in her life – both privately and professionally – one of which came courtesy of her older sisters: “‘No’ is a full sentence.”
This rule has led to Olsen feeling comfortable with turning down certain things she’s asked to do. For example, as has been noticed by her fanbase, you won’t catch Olsen on the stage at the Oscars or the Emmys anytime soon. “I don’t like presenting at awards shows. I tried and I don’t like it. It is not worth the feeling of passing out that I get, like, every time. It’s just not worth it.”
Olsen says the way she’s adopted her sisters’ mantra has changed over the years, and that, when she was younger, she “used it more as a young female who was always ready for some sort of aggressor or something”. She smirks, as if admonishing herself. “I’ve always kind of been tough like that – maybe to a fault at times.” What does she mean by that? “I just think maybe I could have massaged things a bit differently, or maybe I could have had some nuance. But I do think it’s an important thing for a young woman to know, or hear, or empower themselves with.”
Her twin sisters were all the rage in the Nineties, leading their own TV shows and films, right up until 2012 when they announced plans to quit acting so they could focus on their fashion careers. Olsen, who is three years their junior, watched on as her teenage siblings found themselves at the centre of increased media scrutiny, which made her almost quit acting altogether.
‘I could only benefit from their healthy perspective’: Olsen with her sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley
“That was when the media was what I found to be abusive to my sisters,” Olsen told Nylon in 2011. “They would follow us shopping and [Mary-Kate and Ashley] would almost get into car accidents because of the paparazzi, and I didn’t want to be a part of it.”
Fast forward to 2012. While Olsen was signing autographs for fans, a photographer asked her: “How come you’re so much nicer than your sisters?” In a video that went viral, Olsen could be heard replying more politely than was deserved: “Because you guys have been bothering them their whole lives.” It was this detrimental treatment of her sisters – and the admirable way they held themselves under intense exposure – that has since helped shape her own experience when it comes to dealing with the press.
I’m really in awe of what my sisters have built
“I think my sisters are some of the most amazing people to look at, with what they’ve created for themselves and how they conduct themselves,” Olsen says, an air of pride apparent. “I’m really in awe of what they’ve built, and I do think that came from them having such a healthy perspective – and I could only benefit from that healthy perspective. I think it has informed how I conduct myself.”
But for all the sage advice her sisters doled out, Olsen wasn’t always so receptive. “They’ve had so much advice for me, but most of the stuff, when I was younger, I didn’t do ’cause I was like” – Olsen adopts a cartoonish voice – “‘I’m going to do it myself! You can’t tell me!’ And then they were right, and I ended up doing the thing they told me to do. But I had to fail first, on my own.”
She’s certainly not failing now. But even so, I wonder what somebody in her position feels about the criticism directed Marvel’s way in recent years. Most controversially, Martin Scorsese described MCU films as being “closer to theme parks” than cinema, while The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola described them as “prototypes made over and over and over again to look different”. Olsen says it’s when people “make them seem like a lesser type of art” that she gets frustrated.
“I’m not saying we’re making indie art films, but I just think it takes away from our crew, which bugs me,” she says. “These are some of the most amazing set designers, costume designers, camera operators – I feel diminishing them with that kind of criticism takes away from all the people who do award-winning films, that also work on these projects.
“From an actor’s point of view, whatever, I get it; I totally understand that there’s a different kind of performance that’s happening. But I do think throwing Marvel under the bus takes away from the hundreds of very talented crew people. That’s where I get a little feisty about that.”
In terms of her MCU future, Olsen is open to possibilities. “I don’t know how big the plans actually are, but I’m down for anything as long as there’s a good idea attached to it,” she says. This includes a possible second standalone series focused on Wanda. Olsen also says she’s “curious” as to how the X-Men will be folded into future films following Disney’s acquisition of Fox. But for Olsen, it’s not signing her up to these projects that’s the issue – it’s getting her to sit down and watch them. “Honestly, the Marvel movie magic is lost on me now, which is too bad,” she says. “I have to get my kicks elsewhere.”
‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ is in cinemas now