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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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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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