Elizabeth Olsen got her start in the theater and her big break – all her breaks – in independent films.
From “Martha Marcy May Marlene” to “Liberal Arts,” “Kill Your Darlings” and the new period piece “In Secret,” the younger sister of Olsen twins Mary-Kate and Ashley has put commercial considerations on the back burner, even as she dipped her toe in potentially more commercial films such as last fall’s “Oldboy.”
But now, with “Godzilla” due in theaters and the role of Wanda Maximoff, aka “Scarlet Witch,” in the “Avengers” sequel that shoots this spring and summer, “Lizzie” Olsen is stepping into the big budgets and big paydays of mainstream Hollywood. Not that she sees it that way.
“I look at ‘Avengers’ as this amazing ensemble piece,” she says. “All these wonderful actors, a fun character to play, and I shouldn’t have to do any rigorous extra training for her. How could I say no?”
She thinks that “every job informs the next job.” And stardom is still new enough to Olsen that every film is a “first.” Maybe she’s not checking off hash marks on her movie-making life list, but “In Secret” was, in a way, prep work for taking on a comic book adaptation.
“I was in period costumes for ‘In Secret.’ I’ll be in something just as elaborate for ‘Avengers.’ And ‘In Secret’ was the first time I’ve ever filmed on a sound stage. That experience, acting in a space where your world is not 360 degrees around you, that’s got to be good preparation for an effects movie. Right? I feel like every film is, whatever the rewards, a new experience and a stepping stone for me.”
“In Secret” is based on the 19th-century Emile Zola novel, “Therese Raquin,” that was later a play. Olsen is at the center of a French love triangle, unhappily married to a sickly cousin – a marriage arranged by her aunt – but in love and lust with a rogue, an artist and friend of her husband.
The French novelist Zola, who died in 1902, has never enjoyed the popularity or reputation of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Such works as “Germinal” have been filmed, in French, but in the English-speaking world he grows more obscure by the year.
“I read the script right around the time I was taking an academic theater class at school (NYU), ‘Realism and Naturalism,’ ” Olsen says. “Our first assignment was to read the (1867) book and the play. Just a coincidence that I had studied the play, academically, and looked at its structure and how the story works. I am amazed we even got to study it. But that made me excited to try and do it, so the offer was a case of perfect timing.”
“Therese,” as the planned film was called, would be directed by Charlie Stratton, who had directed a play based on the novel. At one time, Kate Winslet was set to star. At another time, Gerard Butler was to be the hunky artist and Jessica Biel would be Therese, with Glenn Close as the cruel aunt who forces Therese to marry her son.
Olsen came on board, despite that tortured production history, with Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy from the “Harry Potter” pictures) as the cousin/husband, Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) as the tall, dark artist and Oscar winner Jessica Lange as the heartless aunt who becomes Therese’s mother-in-law.
“The fact that Kate Winslet was originally attached to the film, and that she ended up reading the book on tape, made me even MORE interested in it,” Olsen says. “If somebody as good as her wanted to do it – and I listened to an interview of her talking about why she wanted to make it – I had to make this film. I have such huge respect for her and her taste.”
Early reviews have given the film a thumbs up, with The Playlist raving about Olsen and Isaac getting across the “passions … brewing beneath the corsets and vests.”
Olsen, who laughs at the idea of doing her first “bodice ripper,” loved her character’s “impulses” and romantic “cravings. She’s referred to as ‘bestial’ in the novel. Zola talks about her as being someone of this wild, natural African descent. We don’t play that up, but the idea that she has this inner, unexpressed life force about her that she can’t express really drives the character.”
And just three years into her screen career, Olsen is “learning to appreciate the feeling of safety I get from a good leading man.” In an overheated romantic thriller like “In Secret,” “You have to know that everyone is respectful and respected. There’s so many (romantic) moments on a film set that you have to make sure it’s all just fun and games. You need to be able to rub off whatever you were doing all day at the end of the day.”