It’s telling that when master storyteller Joss Whedon recruited Elizabeth Olsen for his upcoming Avengers film, he cast her as the Scarlet Witch, a clairvoyant who weaves spells and gets inside people’s heads. That is Olsen’s essence as a performer. She reveals character and makes herself felt with mesmerizing assurance.
Since her 2011 breakthrough debut as a paranoid cult runaway in the indie chiller “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Olsen has played major roles in nine films. She has chosen parts requiring range and nuance, shunning token pretty-girl roles.
“In Secret,” an erotic thriller set in 1860s Paris, is her latest project. She plays a young woman in a loveless marriage who falls for a rakish painter. The film paired Olsen with one of her acting heroes, Jessica Lange, who portrays her controlling mother-in-law. “She’s such a life force on the set. That to me was a gift, the kind of thing I didn’t think I’d get to do” until later in her career, she said.
The 25-year-old encountered the project three years ago while a theater major at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, juggling classes and film work.
The part offered her two new experiences. She had never done a film in a historical setting and had never had a dramatic screen romance. “It’s kind of a daunting thing as an actor, especially as a female, to realize I have never had to do this before,” she said. “I want to explore anything I’ve never done before.
“So much happens in it, so much life goes by so fast, and I kind of loved that rhythm, that life force. She travels to so many different places of desire and regret. I feel safe in these tortured people.” She laughed. “I’m a very happy person, but somehow I do feel comfortable in characters with all these secrets to hide.”
It’s a preference that drew her to her freshman film, 2012’s horror hit “Silent House,” filmed before “Martha Marcy” but released after it. The psychological thriller was shot to mimic one continuous real-time take.
The logistically complex film was a nightmare to shoot, she said. “It was my first film and I said, ‘This is so hard, I’m never doing this again.’ ” But her most challenging experience to date was in a miserable off-Broadway production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Some days you just feel like you have no idea what the hell you’re doing,” she admitted. “Those things happen all the time. Mostly in theater,” she added with a chuckle.
Olsen will be moving into big, effects-driven films next. She’s the female lead in this summer’s “Godzilla,” which she describes as an emotionally driven and character-oriented take on the monster epic. The film will deliver all the expected chaos, and real acting besides, she said.
“There’s Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn,” and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Olsen’s husband, who leads San Francisco’s defense team against the behemoth.
“You got all these people to do it because of that. These aren’t actors you see all the time in these movies.” Her character, she promises, will do more than slowly look up, widen her eyes, and scream.