Fall Preview: Elizabeth Olsen discusses escaping a cult in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and breaking from the traditional Olsen Sister path

Fall Preview: Elizabeth Olsen discusses escaping a cult in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and breaking from the traditional Olsen Sister path (photo)

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In “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” actress Elizabeth Olsen plays a young woman who struggles to acclimate with life after escaping an abusive cult. Winner of the Directing Award and at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is the feature-length film debut of writer/director Sean Durkin, and was one of the most talked-about films at the annual festival.

As the younger sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Elizabeth is no stranger to cameras, but in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” she arrives in the Hollywood spotlight by a decidedly different path. I spoke with Olsen recently about the upcoming limited release of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” in theaters, the responsibility of bringing such a tense, ripped-from-reality story to life, and the award-friendly film’s place in her burgeoning acting career.

IFC: Cults have been in the news quite a bit lately, so I assume there’s no shortage of research material to be found out there. This feels like the sort of role you need to really get inside in order to pull it off, so what did you do to create the right headspace for your performance?

EO: When Sean wrote it, he was inspired by someone he knows – her story. It’s not a retelling of her experience at all, but it is inspired by it. She was involved in a sexually abusive cult. So for me, rather than doing research from an outsider’s perspective — I didn’t want to meet her or infringe on her privacy — Sean kind of clued me in on everything that happened to her within her first year.

She didn’t actually tell anyone what happened to her for a year. She couldn’t put it into words herself, so it sort of comes from that, and hearing what happened to her while she was there and why she left. There was a man who was sort of like John Hawkes’ character for her. Sean told me she remembered seeing him wherever she went for an entire year, and lived in fear of that. Her personal story was what I needed as a launching point.

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IFC: When we see so many of these news reports about cults and people taken in by them, it’s easy for us to say, “Oh, I’d never fall for that,” or write it off as something that only happens to other people. As you were doing the film, didyou find yourself understanding how someone with common sense might get roped into this type of scenario?

EO: Absolutely. Sean wanted to make sure that people couldn’t write off these characters as spacey or unintelligent. He wanted to make sure that these people could be anyone. That was a very conscious choice on his part, but also for me, because when you think about it, all it takes is someone who’s really vulnerable and has a huge void in their life — whether it’s a void of meaning, or family, or love. That’s all it really takes.

And it always starts off with a good idea about how to live life, too. In this case, it’s a self-sufficient farm where everyone’s kind of equal. There are just these elements that make you think, “Wow this is how society really could live happier.” And soon you end up thinking things like, “Well, your body really is everyone’s body,” and that sort of thing. That’s just the beginning of being manipulated. You don’t have to just be someone who’s susceptible to peer pressure or anything like that.

IFC: You and Sean both seem to be at similar points in your careers right now. Did it feel like you two were in sync professionally when it came time to make this film? Did that feeling add anything to the movie-making experience with “Martha Marcy May Marlene”?

EO: We do have a very similar personal theory and reason for why we like making movies. I think because we have a similar goal and the same principles, that’s why we still get along as friends after making the movie.

IFC: “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a unique film to take on at such an early point in your career. Did it feel like a unique experience? Why was this the right film to do at this point in your life?

EO: First off, this is only my second job opportunity, so this being my second job opportunity is kind of remarkable to me. To me, this was such a challenge and it was something unlike all of the other scripts I was reading. When you’re an unknown, you don’t really get to see a lot of the great scripts. You feel like a scavenger sometimes, like you’re eating people’s leftovers or something. [Laughs] So when I got to read this script, everything in my being was like, “Oh my god, this is so right. I would love to do this.”

IFC: How did the script arrive in your hands?

EO: It was one of the scripts my agent gave me, and I fell in love with it and wanted to do it so badly. I think Sean knew he wanted to cast someone who was an unknown – not necessarily not experienced, but an unknown of some kind. And yes, I think we both sort of met on the same level of tonality, and during the audition, I think we both understood we approached work the same way. So it was a good match.

IFC: While “Martha Marcy May Marlene” has a great supporting cast, the film is clearly resting on your shoulders. Your character is the foundation of the entire story. Was that a daunting prospect for you?

EO: It could’ve been, but the truth is that I was cast three weeks before we started filming, and I was filming another movie at the time called “Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding,” so I didn’t have the extra time to psyche myself out. That’s the truth. If I had two months leading up to it, I’d probably be worried about how I was going to prepare, and trying to read all sorts of books and psyching myself out. But all I had was the script and my instincts for those three weeks, and in between scenes of the other movie, I just tried to analyze it and make the best choice possible for what was to come.

So no, I just didn’t have the time to psyche myself out.

Also, while we were filming it, because I’m very new to making movies, I didn’t really understand the festival circuit and the larger independent film environment. For me, making the movie was in our environment, it wasn’t in the world’s environment. It was just this small world, and whatever happens with the movie happens, and I didn’t think anything more about it until they started talking about it going to Sundance. Now I’m learning about a whole other aspect of this industry.

IFC: You’re supported by a pair of really impressive actors in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” – John Hawkes and Sarah Paulson. Did you find yourself learning from them as the filming went on? What were some of your takeaways from the time you spent with them on the film?

EO: John’s a really selfless actor, and when he’s offscreen, he does everything he can do to get a new reaction to something, and he always says, “If you need anything or if there’s anything specific I can do to help, just tell me.” I had no idea what to tell him. I was like, “I have no idea what I even need.” [Laughs] But what I learned from him is that there is a way you can be effectively helpful offscreen for another actor rather than just being present. You obviously want to be present when someone else is working, but he’d do something extra.

Sarah was like a sister to me. She and I became really, really friendly, and it was almost frustrating to Sean, because we’d be singing or laughing between takes of scenes that really weren’t funny. With her, the ability to be able to step outside of what you’re doing was a really great lesson.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” hits theaters in limited release October 21, 2011. The film is written and directed by Sean Durkin and stars Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, and Sarah Paulson.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.