BEST IN SHOWS

Elizabeth Olsen, Much Like Wanda Maximoff, Comforts Herself With Classic TV

Chaos magic, she wrote.

by Lynn Hirschberg

Elizabeth Olsen as Jessica Fletcher from 'Murder, She Wrote.' Photographed by Robbie Arnett. Hair by Clayton Hawkins

For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

WandaVision was the first television show produced by Marvel Studios, and any gamble Disney+ took to make the series happen immediately paid off. At one point during its nine-episode run, WandaVision was the most popular streamed show in the world (beaten only recently by another Marvel series, Loki). The suburbia-set series received critical acclaim, snagging 23 Emmy nominations—one of those for Elizabeth Olsen, who was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for her performance as the titular Wanda—and convinced even the biggest Marvel skeptics to buy into its delicious plot.

It might come as a surprise, then, that Olsen doesn’t really watch that much contemporary television herself. But who could blame the actress, when most of her time is spent filming scenes for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Wanda Maximoff (also known as the Scarlet Witch), a wielder of chaos magic who materializes in the small town of Westview—first as a 1950s-era housewife married to a humanlike robot named Vision (played by Paul Bettany), then as a ’60s housewife, then a ’70s housewife, and so on. When the actress does watch television, though, she prefers to get into some of those older shows, like Murder, She Wrote, which she chose to re-create above, and, of course, episodes of ’90s sitcoms like Full House, of which there was no dearth in the actress’s childhood.

How did WandaVision come to you? You had already played the character Wanda Maximoff in the Avengers films, but WandaVision was a whole other ball game.

My contract with Marvel was done. Kevin Feige, who runs Marvel, had me come into his office, and he pitched me WandaVision. I loved the concept of it, but I was terrified of a new streaming service—that is now Disney+.

Did you know the entire concept going in, or was it revealed to you over time?

He told me that he wanted to create a story about Wanda Maximoff manipulating reality to mimic the sitcoms that she grew up with in order to comfort herself. He wanted it to be kind of trippy, for it to feel like a sitcom, but twisted, kind of Twilight Zone-y. That reminded me of Twilight Zone: The Movie, where there’s a boy who is obsessed with television, has a horrible family, and he conjures up a bunny that kills his whole family. It’s really wacky. I just thought, It would be incredible if we do anything that’s a piece of that.

Were you personally a fan of I Love Lucy and other old sitcoms?

Yeah, I watched Nick at Nite all the time. I loved I Love Lucy, Laverne & Shirley. I didn’t like The Brady Bunch, but I loved the Brady Bunch sequel movies. That made me excited to get to reference The Brady Bunch [in WandaVision].

Did you shoot the episodes in order, or did you go back and forth between the 1950s and ’60s?

We tried to film everything in order. The exteriors, though, we hopped around. Our fences, the color of the houses, the flowers all look different from decade to decade. Luckily, it was pretty contained, but it really was sad to wrap the sitcom. We wrapped it when Paul and I and Kathryn [Hahn] and Teyonah [Parris] were filming the ’70s opening montage to the Brady Bunch theme, and that was how he wrapped it—in six bizarre outfits, with a pregnant belly on a tandem bike.

Did you keep anything from the set?

I’m not a keeper, because I feel like I’m not allowed to [keep things]. I feel like everything goes into some box that they hide from everyone, then maybe eventually they’ll retire and reuse shit. I have no idea.

I thought you might keep Wanda’s apron!

That would have been a really impractical apron. It was made out of gauze. Anything would bleed right through it.

Do you have an understanding of women in each decade now? Did you have to wear the undergarments and the whole nine yards?

Yeah. I loved the undergarments. It’s all helpful for the time, for the character, for how women move, how they talk. The shoes were the worst. I did wear vintage period shoes. And that’s awful. My feet don’t even like heels, let alone heels that have quite literally no support.

Is it difficult to have kissing scenes with all the purple paint on Paul Bettany when he’s dressed as Vision?

It’s really hard. It comes off on me, even though they try as much as they can to powder him. They have to powder his hands all the time, because if he wants to touch my face... They have to be on top of us for those scenes. It’s really not practical.

So which character did you decide to play for our portfolio?

I decided to be Angela Lansbury [as Jessica Fletcher] in Murder, She Wrote. I asked my friend Clayton Hawkins, who’s a hairstylist and great with wigs, if he could get a cheap wig and wrap my hair. And that’s what we did. I was watching Murder, She Wrote in London a lot.

During lockdown?

I was filming there, and in and out of lockdowns, but filming through lockdowns as well. And that was one of the things that would be on the television. I think I never really sat down and watched Murder, She Wrote until then. It’s fabulous. Great guest stars, great whodunits. My favorite moment is when they solve it and play it out for you in the solving of the mystery and going backwards. It’s just delicious, and it feels good to watch. There’s a great horse-racing episode that I loved, because I love the racetrack.

Did you have a TV show you loved growing up?

I never did Dawson’s Creek, I never did any of those shows. What did I watch, though? I loved Family Matters, Step by Step, The Torkelsons. And I loved Full House. We had all the VHSs, and it was very easy to watch at my house.

Did you have a crush on John Stamos?

Yes.

Who was your cinematic crush when you were growing up?

Frank Sinatra. I didn’t know they were old movies that I was watching. So when you say “TV shows,” what I consumed as a child was all old musicals, like Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, Carousel, West Side Story. I loved classic musicals, and I was in love with Frank Sinatra. I would do scenes with him in my bathroom, which then turned into scenes with George Clooney as I got older and I realized Frank Sinatra was an old man. I was like, Well, maybe if I get older, I can at least work with George Clooney, as his daughter’s friend or something, and then we have a thing.

What was your first red carpet look? Was it for Martha Marcy May Marlene?

Yeah, Cannes was my first red carpet look. I was in the Row. I was in a black Row skirt and a lace top, and I didn’t have an undergarment on. I didn’t know that flash photography at night was going to be my enemy, and my publicist worked really hard to try and remove those pictures from the Internet. [Laughs]

Do you have a secret skill?

You know what I’m really good at? Removing stains. I believe I can remove a stain from anything.

How did you learn to remove stains?

Probably started with my mom, who’s a soaker. That’s kind of the first rule: patience. And then, because I cook so much, I think I just had to learn. I’m pretty “woman of the house” handy.

I thought you were going to say that your secret skill was that you can sell real estate. Because when I first met you, you had a real estate license.

I did. It’s definitely expired. I got my real estate license because I didn’t want to work in a restaurant in New York as a summer job. So I thought, I’ll work in a real estate office. I was dealing with my sister’s friend who was a realtor, and I dealt with his rental clients. And I would mispronounce streets in New York all the time, because I had just moved there.