On her third day at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, Elizabeth Olsen’s life changed. She was the star of two movies in Sundance—Silent House, which is a horror film, and, more importantly, Martha Marcy May Marlene, the riveting, chilling, psychologically complex story of a damaged young girl who escapes from a cult. Martha had resonance—intended or not, the film had parallels to current religious and cultlike political movements such as the Tea Party, as well as echoes of Charles Manson—but at first the talk of the festival was focused on Olsen’s performance. Olsen, who is 22, had only started auditioning for films in February 2010, and was vaguely known, if she was known at all, as the youngest Olsen, Mary-Kate and Ashley’s little sister. The twins had named a clothing line, Elizabeth and James, after her and their brother, but until Sundance, until Martha Marcy May Marlene, few knew what Lizzie, as she is called, looked like—or that she could act.
After the initial showing of Martha at the Eccles Theatre, word spread immediately around the festival that a star might just have been born. “For the first two days at Sundance, nobody noticed me,” Olsen told me nearly six months later. “The third day was completely different. Suddenly, walking down the street was an experience. I could hear people whispering about me or staring a little too long. It was so weird that it made me laugh. In every picture from Sundance, I am laughing.”
Olsen was laughing now—a kind of joyous, carefree laugh that is consistent with her personality. Unlike her character in Martha, she is decidedly not fragile, not conflicted, not haunted, not troubled. Instead, she is poised, engaged, and un-neurotic, which is unusual for someone so young. In fact, despite her round, clear eyes and open face, it’s easy to forget that Olsen is still in college at New York University; she has the sophistication and perspective of someone much older who managed to stay unjaded.
We were eating lunch in one of her favorite health-food restaurants, around the corner from her apartment in downtown Manhattan. Olsen was wearing black shorts that showed off her long, bare legs, a sheer orange top, and flat Céline loafers. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and the streaming sunlight seemed to amplify the glow of her face. “Lizzie takes the light in an amazing way,” Sean Durkin, the director of Martha, said. “It’s not typical. She can look like a stunning, old-Hollywood actress one minute, and then, she can turn away from the light and blend in like a regular girl.”
FROM WHEN SHE WAS EIGHT, Olsen had wanted to act. She grew up in Los Angeles, and studied with Mary-Kate and Ashley’s on-set coach from Full House. Olsen started auditioning in the fourth grade, landed a commercial, and then at 10 decided to quit. “My dad wanted all the girls in our family to be independent,” Olsen explained, as she drank a dark green shake of kale, spinach, and other assorted leafy vegetables. “All the women in the family have this crazy drive. As a kid, I always liked auditioning, but after five auditions or so I missed ballet and after-school sports. My father told me to write out a pros and cons list: acting vs. ballet and sports. I needed to have reasons to decide to do one or the other.”