Littlest Olsen steps out of the shadows
Mary-Kate and Ashley's little sis Elizabeth talks to Paul Byrne about her movie
A childhood spent watching your siblings become a multi-billion-dollar brand has got to make you think twice about stepping into the limelight. What if you too tried to be an all-singing, all-dancing cute kid, and you fell flat on your face? Or worse, fell straight into fame and fortune?
You'd have to spend your every waking hour in front of bright lights -- on a film set or in front of the paparazzi?
For Elizabeth Olsen, seeing older twin sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley become child stars -- the duo made their debut at the age of one on the TV series Full House, -- and accumulate the kind of fame that made them an almost permanent fixture in the tabloids must have been mind-blowing, right?
"Yeah, it was, a little," laughs Elizabeth (22). "It happened step by step and seemed pretty normal most of the time, but you would be made aware of just how successful and famous they were every now and then. And it made me think, okay, I need to find something else to do with my life."
Having popped up, aged four, as Girl In Car in her sisters' 1994 movie How The West Was Fun, it would be 17 years before Elizabeth would step in front of a camera again. The film that drew her back in is Martha Marcy May Marlene, a dark tale about a girl having trouble adjusting to the real world after she escapes from a cult. If Olsen was hoping to stay under the radar though, her plan backfired.
At Sundance last year, Martha Marcy May Marlene caused a sensation -- Fox Searchlight picking up the low-budget thriller for $2m -- and almost instantly, Olsen found the Los Angeles Times dubbing her the It Girl of the festival.
"I was definitely surprised," she nods. "And then, by the end of the festival, there were five It Girls. I'm not saying that like it's a bad thing -- it's a great thing. It's been a good year, I think, for all of those girls."
Elizabeth has already shot another four movies (including Red Lights, co-starring Robert De Niro and Cillian Murphy). First though, let's deal with Martha Marcy May Marlene. A title like that has its own built-in hall of mirrors, reflecting the schizophrenia and paranoia that Olsen's cult escapee is going through. Did our leading lady feel the need to go deep into this world?
"Actually, paranoia and schizophrenia -- that's how I found my way into the character. Those psychological games that people play when they have those illnesses are fascinating to me. Even though that's not what I want people to take away from the film."
Olsen lets out a laugh. She's clearly enjoying the mild madness that's building up around her. Having just made her magazine cover debut too -- on the US fashion magazine Nylon -- Olsen has also had her first fan encounter on the streets of New York.
"I got excited about the man recognising me, actually," she smiles. "'Cause that's what you want. That's what you hope doing the magazines will bring. I have no interest in over-saturating myself, but I have every interest in making people see this movie. So, trying to find that balance is a difficult and interesting line to thread, and I'm going to try and figure it out."
So, is Elizabeth ready for fame?
"It wasn't really a decision," she answers, "it was more this natural evolution of events. I went to school for acting, at the Atlantic Theater Company, and they function as a theater company in New York City, too, and they had me audition for things, off-Broadway. I worked as an understudy for a year, and then I went to Russia, to study abroad. And then I started auditioning again.
"It was just being in the right place at the right time."
Finally, there's always going to be a bit of baggage when you've got world-famous siblings. Or two. So, what was it like for Elizabeth, growing up with James Trent Olsen?
She lets out a laugh. "He's actually my oldest brother. He's the main reason for the type of aesthetic and literature and music and films that I like. He's got an encyclopaedic knowledge of all media -- including comic books -- and he funnelled all that through me as a little girl.
"So, he's actually responsible for a lot of what I do, and how I do it.
"Mary-Kate and Ashley gave some invaluable lessons, too. Like how to handle people like you . . ."
Martha Marcy May Marlene hits Irish cinemas on Friday