Elizabeth Olsen’s new thriller Silent House opens in theaters this weekend (read our review) and it offers audiences another opportunity to experience the strength of the young star’s talent. One of last year’s breakout performers, Olsen’s gripping portrayal of a young woman seeking to extricate herself from a cult in the psychological drama Martha Marcy May Marlene caused Hollywood to sit up and take notice. But Olsen (sister to the famously harangued paparazzi-hunted Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen) was originally hesitant about pursuing a career in film.
The actress recently spoke about working on Martha, the madness of awards and the unique experience that was Silent House, at the Los Angeles press event for the film.
Olsen knew that she wanted to be an actress from a very early age, but purposefully maintained a focus on theater throughout her teen years. Being a first-hand witness to some of the pitfalls of child-stardom may have tempered her drive to enter the public arena prematurely. Instead, she choose to concentrate on her training. When Martha Marcy May Marlene brought her to the world’s attention, no one was more surprised than she.
“When we made ‘Martha’ I was like ‘cool I get to work on some cool material,’ Olsen said. “I didn’t understand what happens after you make an independent film. I didn’t understand festivals, buying and selling and so on.”
Though Martha Marcy May Marlene was released well before Silent House, Olsen shot the films virtually back-to-back. A lifetime fan of horror films such as Arachnophobia, Jaws, Tremors and the more recent French film, Them, Olsen was intrigued by the challenge that Silent House presented.
In Silent House Olsen plays Sarah, a young woman who has traveled with her father and uncle to their vandalized country house in order to clean, repair and prep it to be sold. While there, she begins to hear noises and see glimpses of figures, indicating that they are not alone. The camera follows her in (what appears to be) one continuous take as she investigates the hidden horrors that the house holds.
In order to create the illusion of the one-shot movie, Olsen was required to perform in extended sequences (some fifteen minutes long) over-and-over again throughout each day on set. Because the camera follows her character, she was afforded no rest from the action.
“It was difficult to go through a scene so many times and record it at 100%. We would get through an eleven or twelve minute take and something would go wrong ten minutes in, which would make every single thing you did completely unusable. That was the hardest. Because you would think ‘can’t you just use a little of that?’ and it’s like ‘no we can’t because that’s not where our stitch is.’ On a lucky day there were two usable takes.”
The shooting style presented both technical and emotional challenges for the actress.
“You play with your imagination and you try to keep a barometer of knowing what minute you’re in. And you hope that even though you do something over and over again for twelve hours that you can maintain the beats without going too far because you have so far to go later. That was a very difficult acting challenge for me because we did twenty takes at times. So the question became, ‘how can you maintain going through the first time you see your father in the state he was in, but not have that be as big as something that happens later?’ It was difficult to try and figure out how to change beats from an acting point-of-view. But you live and you learn.”
Olsen may be feeling some additional pressure with her sophomore film, given the overwhelmingly positive critical response to her truly breathtaking debut. The young actress found herself in the rare position of being in the midst of the awards circuit following her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene - an experience that was even more surreal than what she would have imagined.
“You’re part of this thing for a night that is not reality. I got to bring a friend so we would just turn to each other and be like, ‘well this is weird, what is happening?’ I’m from LA, I’ve always had friends and family who exist in this world, so at a certain point you think you’re numb to it, but then you get there and your like, ‘this is nuts! I talked to Tom Colicchio today, that’s nuts.’”
Despite her connection to, and experience with, the entertainment industry, Olsen is still able to enjoy ful- fledged, star-struck, geek-out moments with foodies like Colicchio and her number one idol from her childhood…
“Catherine O’hara. My best friend said to me, ‘ If we see Catherine O’hara I’m going to die.’ But we thought, ‘Why would we see Catherine O’hara? It would be cool but we probably wont get to see her.’ But she was there at an event and my friend and I turned to each other at the same time and gasped. We approached her and said, ‘We are your biggest fans. We have senses of humor because of you! We’ve been quoting you since high school!’ She probably thinks we’re on ‘Glee.’ She had no idea who I was and was just like, ‘Okay…thank you.’ She thought we were crazy.”
As she moves forward in her career with an eye on doing her work and maintaining a sense of grounded reality in her life, Olsen will doubtless become more an more recognizable in the industry at large, making the moments where she is an unknown entity, very rare. We certainly look forward to seeing what she does next.
Silent House opens in theaters this Friday, March 9th.
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