Oldboy's Elizabeth Olsen on Remakes, the Fashion Biz, and Nude Scenes

Actress Elizabeth Olsen on nude scenes, the brutal fashion biz, and Hollywood remakes.

Photo: FilmDistrict

If all were right with the world, Elizabeth Olsen would be an Academy Award winner by now. As a scarred ex-cult member in 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene, Olsen (the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley) gave one of the finest breakthrough performances in recent memory, conveying a fractured psyche with eerie believability. The turn didn't land Olsen a Best Actress nod, but it did open a great many doors for the 22-year-old, who has since played more beautiful-yet-troubled women in both last year's Silent House and the newly released Oldboy—a remake of 2003's South Korean cult classic. Directed by Spike Lee, the new film casts Olsen as Marie, a social worker who forms a bond with Joe Doucette (Josh Brolin), a rough-and-tough, long-imprisoned antihero who, as anyone who has seen the original knows, is tied to a horror house of unsettling secrets. Sitting down with Details at New York City's Conrad Hotel, Olsen dished on the virtues of remakes, why fashion is tougher than film, and how she feels about nude scenes.

DETAILS: Was it a difficult decision to say, "Yes, I'm going to plunge into this edgy world of Oldboy?"

ELIZABETH OLSEN: I love how every time I talk about a movie with people, they assume that I was offered a part. [Laughs] I tried to get this job. I didn't audition, because they didn't ask me to, but I would have. I read the script, and it was my first experience with the story, and then I saw the [original] movie the same day. And I loved it. I was just like, "This is crazy. This is heart-wrenching. This is awful." I never knew it was going to go where it ends up going.

DETAILS: How do you feel about the argument that the film, a cult favorite, shouldn't have been remade?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: My brother's a big film guy, and he was like, "Why would you do that?" And I said, "Well, why would you do Romeo and Juliet 100 times?" [Oldboy] is a good story, and to me, it reminds me of this Oedipus complex or something. If you have this amazing story to tell, with this complex relationship, which turns on itself at the end and shocks people, why not tell that again in 10 years, in a different way? I have no qualms about doing it.

DETAILS: Why do you think you gravitate toward so many dark roles?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: I do feel like it's kind of 60/40 when it comes to the dark roles versus the others. I don't know. I have done quite a few light things; the light things just don't wind up getting a lot of press. I actually was kind of craving this sort of thing when I read the material. I had just done [the 2013 Sundance selection] Very Good Girls, and I was like, "Boy, that was light. Give me something real." You know? I always just want to change. I just finished a play yesterday, and I really don't want to do a play now. I'm glad that's out of my system.

DETAILS: The woman you play, Marie, is pretty damaged, with an ambiguously painful past. Can you share some of your thoughts about her?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: Our whole goal, without having to offer boring exposition in a film that really isn't about Marie, was to try flesh out her relationship to drugs, her relationship to self-abuse, and her background, psychologically—what would cause you to become a social worker. Instead of taking care of herself, she's taking care of others. And then she sees a man [Joe] who isn't asking for help but maybe needs it. You just try and psychologically justify why the two of them come together and meet each other.

DETAILS: When last year's Silent House was released, you mentioned that you found psychological horror and warped mental states to be the scariest things for you. If you were in Joe's shoes, what do you think would be the hardest thing about the confinement, and what do you think would be the toughest adjustment when thrust back into the world after 20 years?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: With confinement, you can't kill yourself, as there's nothing around to kill yourself with. And at a certain point, I think the nature of survival kicks in. You just have to be able to meditate and be a Buddhist! As for coming back into the world, I was just talking about being frozen. Could you imagine if they unfroze your body in 50 years? You would suffer more loss than you ever would have otherwise. Everyone you knew would be dead. And to have them all out of your life, and to try to catch up with everyone else—that would be the hardest thing, I think.

DETAILS: In Oldboy, you have a very complex relationship with Joe, Josh Brolin's character, that culminates with this very oddly erotic sex scene. What was it like to tackle that, and how do you feel about nude scenes in general?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: We talked about it all the time, from the first day that I met Spike. He had the whole script in front of him, and only one page was dog-eared—it was that scene. I think Spike was more uncomfortable with those scenes than anyone else, honestly. So he wants it all to be out in the open and have us all talk about it as plainly and directly as possible. Since filming the scene happened later in the shoot, everyone had already established a bond, and Josh and I had a great rapport. Nudity's not that bad when you know why you're doing it and if it helps tell the story. For purpose of story, I'm cool with nudity. For purposes of titillation, I'm not.

DETAILS: You have In Secret opening soon, a period piece based on Emile Zola's 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin. Is this the most challenging role of your career so far?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: Maybe. I still wish I had more time with it, honestly. And that's a frustrating feeling to have when you're done with a film. But I might feel that way about a lot of things. You give what you can, and then it's completely not yours. That's why having some sort of producing control is something I'm interested in and starting to care about more and more in my life.

DETAILS: You'll also be playing the Scarlet Witch in the upcoming Avengers sequel. Do you like having source material to work from as opposed to building a character from the ground up?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: Some people feel like they don't need to have that source material if the script and story are already there for them, but I love it. I'm having a field day right now reading comics. And not just the comics themselves, but the whole condensed history of every single thing that happens in the [Avengers] world. I'm having to even look up words. I didn't realize comics could be so difficult at times! [Laughs] Like, "What's a nexus?" It's fun, though.

DETAILS: Your sisters, Mary Kate and Ashley, named their clothing line Elizabeth and James after you and your brother. How would you compare your interests in clothing to those of your sisters, and what's your relationship to the line?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: I have an opinion about clothes. Would I ever want to design them? No.

DETAILS: Why's that?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: It's a never-ending job. [Fashion lines] don't stop, especially when you have quite a few of them. Also, it's weird—you have to plan what everyone's going to love. There's a lot of pressure in that world. I feel like there's more hate in critics in fashion than there is in film. And film is pretty hard—you're kind of having daggers thrown at you all the time. I just think it's really intimidating to have to be the person who says, "These people are going to want this. In a year."

DETAILS: Have you ever modeled any of your sisters' clothing?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: No. But I wear it. Daily.

DETAILS: Do they offer unsolicited styling advice?

ELIZABETH OLSEN:Yes. Absolutely. They have my entire life. They never say, "What the hell are you wearing?" but they've instilled me with a lot of thoughts and concepts about fashion.

—R. Kurt Osenlund is an arts and entertainment writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @AddisonDeTwitt.

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