The Marvel star takes us inside her transformation to a new kind of hero
GRAZIA: Elizabeth Olsen is a trooper. We are in a field in Surrey on the outskirts of the Marvel studios; it’s a biting minus one and she is standing in a Chanel broderie anglaise sundress and increasingly soggy UGG boots. Her feline cheekbones face skywards, but Olsen is slowly sinking into the mud, trilling out high notes to keep herself warm (possibly distracted) and of course with spirits high. “It was the wind I think, that was worse than the sideways rain,” she jokes as we trundle back to the soundstage hangar that we are using as a studio. It’s the kind of moment that could go viral on Instagram, that is, if Olsen were on social media. Yet one of the biggest stars of our current cultural moment is completely offline – and that surprising fact might just be the least interesting thing about her. If anything, it is a sign of how Olsen has come into her own as a confident, decisive star with the power to create her own universe.
On the cusp of her 32nd birthday, Olsen is fastidious and professional, yes, but also bright, engaging, creative, and collaborative. Born and raised in the California sunshine, she is surprisingly at ease in the blustery conditions that deluge the English countryside in late January – or, it’s that she’s very good at acting. “It was one of the ugliest days of this winter – just hilarious – but I knew we wanted the shot,” the 31-year-old actress says.
Since October, Olsen’s been living in the leafy British countryside with her “man-guy-partner,” musician Robbie Arnett, just a short drive to the Surrey compound where Doctor Strange is being filmed. It’s a closed set, masked in secrecy as much as the socially distanced masked crew dotted all over the 200-acre studio. “It feels right being in a small city right now,” she says.
Of course, more than ever, it feels right being an Avenger. Olsen will be reprising her role as Wanda Maximoff (nom de plume Scarlet Witch) in Doctor Strange, following the rampant success of Marvel’s current miniseries (and first foray into television) WandaVision, starring Olsen and Paul Bettany. Olsen has been part of the Marvel cinematic universe (and one of the most successful film franchises of the last decade) since 2014 when she cameoed in Captain America. Bridging nostalgia and action, the buzz of WandaVision is global: from critics to comic book fans, and almost everyone else. It is arguably one of the most meta screen offerings in a long time, arriving on our screens in television’s Renaissance.
Indeed, Olsen is a modern-day Renaissance woman. Learned and dedicated to her craft, she studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, with a semester at the Moscow Art Theatre School studying Stanislavski. (Surely, no matter how much of a genius the Russian theatre master was, he never could have conceived of the Marvel universe.)
Approached with the concept of WandaVision, “I thought it was perfect for television, and a very original idea that made me excited,” Olsen says. Also, she was happy she would get to work with Bettany again: “He’s very precise, like me.”
In many ways, WandaVision is a love letter to the first American television heyday. Olsen, who stayed up late watching Nick at Nite reruns as a child, says it’s a bit of a homecoming in that way. “I was a very hammy, performative child,” she explains. “So, I do think I got to live out some sort of childhood dream doing the show.”
“The highlight was really getting to tell a story about these superhero individuals told in different decades of American sitcoms, trying to match the tone of those sitcoms in order to help orate the story,” she says. “But keep it playful and fun.” Little did she know just how much we’d need that.
Half-filmed pre-pandemic in Atlanta and half post-pandemic in LA – with a six-month hiatus in-between “until all the unions figured out to work safely” – WandaVision was released almost a year into the pandemic. In many ways, it is an artifact of its time: centered upon a yearning for the simplicity of earlier days, yet shot through with the creeping realization that such days may never return, and perhaps never existed to begin with.
Indeed, the weekly story of suburban superheroes Wanda and Vision has played out like a parable of our times: Wanda living in her chosen bubble, her trauma resonating in the world we find ourselves in today. Olsen appreciates a good metaphor, but feels people may be projecting a bit much. “I see Wanda as a victim of extreme trauma, who does not understand how to process it,” she explains. “She has been a human experiment.” (Not to belabor the point, but haven’t we all?)
Being summoned by Marvel is like being called to a parallel universe for an actor: thrilling, yes, but not without a tinge of terror and a dash of the unknown. Six years in, though, it’s become like family in some ways. As a member of two dynasties – Olsen and Marvel – family is key to Olsen. She checks in on her mom (who still lives in California) and, like many American daughters, is researching which vaccine mom should get.
The performative gene runs strong through her family, of course – and no, we don’t mean her sisters. Olsen’s mom was a ballerina. Still, when she first started auditioning, Olsen took special care to carve her own path – one far from Full House. “Nepotism is a thing and I’m very aware of it,” she says. “And of course, I’ve always wanted to do it alone.” She did just that, her acting credentials consistently rising as her sister’s cemented their fashion kudos. Olsen bears a noticeable resemblance to her fashion-designer older sisters and her sartorial DNA is similarly low-key. She loves The Row (of course) and NYC label Khaite’s denim and cashmere.
For Olsen, her day job is like playing dress-up. This time around, she walked away from WandaVision with the girdle worn underneath her 50s wedding dress, laughing, “I mean, to have a custom undergarment like that, I felt like it was necessary!” Her WandaVision co-star, Kathryn Hahn, also became her shopping cohort when filming.
“She’s dangerous!” Olsen says. “She has the most exquisite, minimal but expensive taste.” It was Hahn who led Olsen to the independent boutique where she found the belted Julia Jentzsch trench that she wore to our shoot.
At the rail of samples compiled by the stylist, Olsen gravitates towards a spacious linen boilersuit and longline cashmere cardigan. Has she always been a tomboy, I ask? “I think I felt uncomfortable being a child being told they were pretty,” she says of her early auditions at age 10, adding that her love of ballet and musical theater could leave her “feeling exposed” at a young age.
Speaking of over-exposure, Olsen is distinctly offline in a time when so many are defined by their social media presence. Among celebrities and regular digital citizens, the perfect balance of online and off is up for debate, but Olsen is clear: social media saturation is a choice for all of us, and everyone needs to draw their own boundaries.
“It has to be a personal decision, right?” she begins. “So, my opinion has nothing to do with what anyone else does or doesn’t do with it.” Her own journey began when she momentarily dabbled with Instagram (since deleted), while filming Ingrid Goes West, director Matt Spicer’s frightening and funny debut feature about a social stalker, co-starring Aubrey Plaza.
Up until that time, she says, “I had never touched it before. I thought, ‘This is an interesting social experiment for myself, to see if it is a good source to talk about charities or a good source to talk about small projects, or to share something goofier about myself.’ But I think at the end of the day, what I discovered was one, I’m really bad at creating a perceived identity!”
“I didn’t find it very organic to who I am as a person,” she continues. “I found some joy in putting up silly videos, but I think the main reason I stopped – not I think, I know the main reason why I stopped – was because of the organization in my brain.”
“Lots of horrible things happen all the time. Or, lots of great things happen all the time. Whether it’s something terrifying, like a natural disaster or a school shooting or a death, there are so many things that happen, and I love processing information. I love reading articles. I love listening to podcasts. I love communicating about things that are happening in the world to people around me. And what I don’t love is that my brain organization was saying, ‘Should I post about this?’ That seemed very unhealthy ….”
“And to then contribute to these platitudes that I don’t really love, you have to subscribe to two different ways of thinking,” she says. “So, I didn’t like that, and there was a lot of it that was just bothering me for my own sake of what value systems I have.”
That’s not to say that there’s any inherent value system – pro or con – in using Instagram. Olsen is clear that like any other method of expression, it’s up to the individual to use it as they see fit. “I do see a use of it and how you can use it well for work,” she says. “But I don’t think that I would like to use that tool to promote myself.”
She’s private for a millennial yes, but not prim. On the photoshoot, lockdown experiences were shared, and Olsen recounted her (hilarious) first at-home bikini wax: banishing her husband upstairs “for an extended chat with his therapist,” her trusted waxer on speed dial, and microwave set to ping! (Yes, Olsen is a trooper, as I mentioned.)
We catch up over Zoom a week later, her hair once again pulled up in a casual topknot, her cashmere turtleneck simmering in a dark claret, and her entire being suffused with covetable understatement. She chats buoyantly against an unexpected backdrop of pirate ship wallpaper in the playroom of a house she shares with Arnett, who proposed with an emerald and diamond ring in 2019.
“We first started to try to make it the gym, but it was so cramped,” she says of the jolly space. The home gym was instead awarded a larger room, where Olsen loves to maintain a varied fitness regime – running, yoga, dancing, more – though after all the intense Marvel filming, she jokes, “maybe it’s time to give up on my body?!” Being comic book fit does sound grueling or “time-consuming fun” as she anoints the “strenuous physical demands.”
Like most of us, she is longing for the spring, but she still takes a regular constitutional walk in a nearby Richmond park, whatever the weather. “The deer are incredible; every time I see them I feel alive,” she says. “We have been lucky to have nature around us in lockdown.” It’s a marked difference from her paparazzi-populated home in the Hills. “They know our walks, where we get coffee, work-out…,” she trails off.
Her haven in Los Angeles is her backyard, complete with a mid-century swimming pool and an edible garden. “It’s crazy the blackberries grow like weeds! I love watching a kid’s first reaction to an edible garden,” she gushes That has been the part of the pandemic travel restrictions she’s found hardest: missing her friend’s children growing up, and others who have been born this past year that she’s yet to meet. They will no doubt all be treated to her homemade blackberry sorbet on her return stateside.
Yet, her time on British soil will likely be prolonged, with a prospective indie commencing filming here when Doctor Strange wraps. Prompted for more detail, her firm charm kicks in. “I can’t jinx it!” she insists. Still, she will share that she’s heavily involved in the creative, and that funding smaller productions in the current climate has been a challenge.
Through it all, Olsen has remained determined and calm. “I feel patience is my superpower. But my weakness also,” she says. “I feel like it gets tested more than others who don’t have a lot of patience. If someone learns you’re easygoing or that you’re relaxed, sometimes it gets taken advantage of.” While she waits for the green light on that film, she is busy producing a new children’s cartoon with Arnett, “about loving and caring for our world,” and has also written a children’s book about to be published by Random House, all while the demands of Marvel life continue to surround her.
Indeed, Olsen is a superhero for the modern age: Multi-hyphenate, but fiercely devoted to the craft that she loves; instantly recognizable, yet thoughtfully protective of her private life; a woman with style, substance, success, and deep rewarding relationships with those around her; focused on a vision of a better world for us all.