Elizabeth Olsen is no stranger to intensity. After making her film debut in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” as the survivor of a cult, she opened herself up to even more abuse in “Silent House,” a home invasion thriller in which she spent 80 minutes being menaced by evil forces.
But those two movies were walks in the park compared to “Oldboy,” a blood-drenched revenge saga that subjects its characters to plenty of psychological and physical torture. Spike Lee directs the flick, a remake of the 2003 cult classic from Korea’s Park Chan-wook. Think “Kill Bill” with hammers and a lollapalooza of a twist ending.
The younger sister of child-stars-turned-fashion-icons Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Elizabeth didn’t wait for the makers of “Oldboy” to come to her. She went to them and, essentially, begged for the harrowing role.
“I love how every time I get to talk about a movie with [journalists] they assume that I was offered a part. I really tried to get this role in `Oldboy,’” she said. “I didn’t audition, but I asked if they wanted me to. I would have auditioned. “
And why exactly was Olsen so eager to jump aboard?
“I read the script and that was my first experience of the story, and then I saw the Korean movie the same day and loved it,” said the actress, 24. “I was like, ‘This is crazy. This is heart-wrenching. This is awful.’ I was so surprised. I had no idea it was going to go [where it went].”
Josh Brolin stars in “Oldboy” as a man kidnapped and locked in a mysterious room for 20 years. When he’s released, he goes on a mission to destroy those responsible for his imprisonment. Olsen plays the troubled social worker who takes pity on Brolin and tries to offer him comfort.
The actress says she was drawn to “Oldboy” even though her brother questioned her desire to remake a movie that already has a huge critical and cult following.
“My brother is a film guy and he was, like, ‘Why would you do [a remake]?’ I said, `Well, why would you do `Romeo and Juliet’ a hundred times? It’s a good story’….If you have this amazing story to tell, a story that turns on itself in the end and shocks people, why not tell that again in 10 years in a different way?’ “
In the Korean original, Olsen’s character is a blank slate, but in the new version, she’s been given a back story which fleshes out her dodgy past as a drug addict.
“[It makes sense] that she’d [bond] with a man who isn’t asking for help but maybe needs it,” said Olsen. “You just try and psychologically justify why these two would come together and meet each other. That was the whole goal that we had for [my] character.”
“Oldboy” was littered with tough scenes but, for Olsen and her director, the most challenging sequence was the love scene between the two main characters.
“From day one, Spike had the whole script and only one page was dog-eared and it was this one scene,” said the actress. “I think Spike is more uncomfortable with those scenes than anyone else.
“We wanted it all out in the open and we talked about it as plainly as possible and as directly as possible. It happened later in the shoot so everyone had become a family. And Josh is like a big brother to me.”
Even though “Oldboy” has a theme that’s “gnarly,” to use Olsen’s word, the set of the movie was a cheerful place.
“Spike [runs] a happy set,” reported the actress. “He takes care of his crew and his crew is happy. We finish early. He knows what he wants and then he moves on. He’s got a great spirit and a great sense of humor.”
Having a few laughs while she’s shooting a movie, no matter how intense, has become something of a priority for Olsen.
“Yes, you want your movies to do well and you want them to be successful so you can keep working. But the time that you actually spend making the movie should be fun and…and worth it.
“You want it to be [learning-intensive] and you want to meet people who you want to work with again. This movie, next to `Martha,’ was my favorite filming experience because of the people involved.”
While Olsen officially made her film debut in “Martha,” she’d already performed cameos in six of her sisters’ films, including “How The West Was Fun” and the straight-to-video series “The Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley.”
Olsen admits to being inspired by her older siblings, particularly in regards to their fashion sense.
“I’ve been stealing their clothes since I’ve developed that concept of a thought,” she said with a laugh.
But don’t expect Olsen to follow her sisters into the world of fashion.
“It’s a never-ending job,” said the actress. “[They] have to plan what everyone is going to love. There’s a lot of pressure in the fashion world. I feel like there’s more haters and critics in fashion than there are in film. Film is pretty hard. You’re getting daggers waved at you all the time but, with fashion, everything is intimidating.”
With “Oldboy” in release, Olsen has already turned her attention to her 2014 and 2015 projects. She plays an unhappy housewife opposite Aaron Taylor Johnson and Jessica Lange in “Therese” and is a key cast member in Warner Bros. reboot of “Godzilla,” which also stars Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad.”
Perhaps the highest profile film on her docket is “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” in which she’ll play Scarlet Witch for director Josh Whedon. To prepare, Olsen has been hitting up her comic-book-obsessed brother for reading material.
“I love having source material [to draw upon],” said Olsen. “I’m having a field day right now reading comics. Not only just the comics, but the whole condensed history of every little thing that ever happened in the comics. I’m having to look up words. I didn’t realize comic books were so difficult at times. I’m like, ‘What’s a nexus?’ It’s just fun.”