During her career, Elizabeth Olsen has played a broad range of characters, from a damaged cult escapee in 2011’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” to an in-over-her-head FBI agent investigating a murder in “Wind River,” to a narcissistic influencer in “Ingrid Goes West” — and, of course, the tragic, terrifying Wanda Maximoff (aka Scarlet Witch) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Next year, she’ll star in “Love & Death,” an HBO Max limited series about Candy Montgomery, a Texas homemaker who in 1980 had an affair with her friend’s husband — and then murdered her friend, hitting her 41 times with an axe. It’s based on a true story.
Yet “Love & Death,” written by David E. Kelley, and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, isn’t grim, according to Olsen — in fact, “I think we were trying to find the humor as much as possible,” she says. And as for playing a murderer in Candy, she compared the experience to getting into the character of Wanda. “What’s fun for me is trying to understand why people make the decisions they make,” Olsen says. “I just feel like that’s my role is to defend, defend, defend. And so I adore her, and I’m impressed by her.”
During an in-depth interview for Variety’s Power of Women issue, Olsen discussed all of these characters and more — and Marvel Studios president, Kevin Feige, all but stated that Olsen’s time in the MCU ain’t over yet. Here, Olsen delves deeper into some of her MCU experiences, and details why she and her husband, Robbie Arnett, collaborated on “Hattie Harmony: Worry Detective,” a children’s book designed to help kids manage anxiety. She also talks about her past and future career — and whether her attempts to become a stoner have been successful.
You’re blipped away at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War.” What was your experience of working on that movie and “Endgame”?
I mean, those movies I really don’t know what’s going on. I just get my pages, so I understand the part of the story I’m fulfilling. I get a story that is told to me from the Russos about what’s happening in the rest of the movie. And it isn’t in the script that everyone gets blipped.
You couldn’t read the entire script?
Those movies, you could read a script in an office, with a security guard, on one specific iPad. And I was like, “Can you just give me what I need to know?” And I don’t really need to know what happens with Robert [Downey Jr.]’s whole part of the film.
Did you know who died?
Well, I knew he died, because I filmed it.
Oh, yes, of course.
But we called it “The Wedding” on the schedule. But I didn’t know I got blipped away until we shot it. That was told to us that day. All of us went to the van where they had a bunch of equipment to show us pre-viz: Scarlett [Johansson], Chris [Hemsworth], Chadwick [Boseman], Sebastian [Stan]. We were all just in this van, and they said, “This is what’s happening. You guys will disappear.” And we’re like, “OK.” It was shocking. I mean, we didn’t know. We thought the movie ended differently.
What did you think was —
I don’t even remember. I mean, we knew Vision died, but I didn’t know that anything went on past that.
What was filming that scene like?
So, it’s very embarrassing shooting those kinds of things, because, like, the world depends on you doing it. And we did some improvising, which is hard to improvise those moments. But it also felt good, because at that point, Paul [Bettany] and I really had each other’s back. It was one of the last things we shot. I felt really comfortable with him as an actor if we had to improvise that beat a little bit. We were trying to find it, with the Russos guiding us. And then, once it was over, it was a huge amount of relief. And I just remember being giggly the rest of the day, while Brolin had his helmet on. And I don’t know. These movies are very silly, but you have to act your ass off for them to work.
What’s embarrassing? I mean, I guess I can picture it, now that you say that.
Because you’re like — [holds out her hand]. Ugh, I’m doing this in public. But you have one hand out that’s stopping something with energy. And then you’ve got another hand that’s extracting this fake thing from this dotted face. And it’s painful and emotional.
What’s his physical appearance on the set?
He’s so purple. And then he has a layer of glitter over the purple. So, when he touches you or kisses you, you get glitter on you. And then you’re sweating also, because it was Atlanta. And so, he would just be melting. And then, he had these ear things where he’d have to open up his ears and go like this, and it would just drip water.
It’s just silly. There’s a lot of silly stuff. I always wish that one day they just release a version of the film without any special effects, because then you understand how ridiculous it feels. And how spectacular the work is that goes into making these.
And how does it work when you’re part of the MCU? You have a contract for a certain number of films, and they just tell you when to show up?
Gwyneth Paltrow is in my head —
I don’t really know how she talks about it. She doesn’t remember which ones she’s in?
She didn’t remember she was in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
Right, right, right, right, right. Yeah, that’s very funny.
When you saw that, were you like, “What the hell?” Or is that you’re part of a troupe and you don’t actually know —
I know exactly what I’m doing. But I feel like she does a lot of things besides being an actor. So, maybe she just kind of feels like, “Oh yeah, this is this thing I do sometimes. And then this is my real job, running this empire,” or whatever.
You talked in the New York Times about not being able to do “The Lobster” with Yorgos Lanthimos because of your Marvel commitment. Which part were you going to do?
It didn’t get to the point of us making that decision, but he was gathering a company of actors. And we were talking about two different parts. They were smaller parts that I really thought would have been fun.
The reason why I brought that up in the New York Times article is because I do feel like as you get older, the types of jobs you say yes to become the types of jobs that come your way. And I felt like there was a gap in my experience of saying yes to jobs that would take me down a path of being considered for certain types of films. That I didn’t understand at that time. I guess the best language is, I didn’t have a philosophy, like a personal philosophy of why I want to work on certain things at that time. That has, as I’ve gotten older, started to kind of become more clear in my mind.
Any chance you would work with him on something else some day?
I mean, if only he would work with me. He makes marvelous films.
I spoke with Kevin Feige, and he said, she’s done six movies and a TV show with us —
That’s what he said.
Whoa. [Counts them off on her fingers.] That’s six. That’s weird. That’s, like, half of the job credits I have!
Look at you, Gwyneth!
That’s why I don’t have as many credits, because they’re long jobs. That’s wild.
Some funny things went viral during the “Multiverse of Madness” promotional tour, like in the Vanity Fair lie detector challenge when you said that you’d never met John Krasinski.
I was very confused when she was asking me those questions. I also had a terrible cold while doing press, so I feel like I had no filter because I was so sick. I didn’t have COVID, but I was sick for 14 days and it was amazing doing press sick. You just don’t care!
But I also had never met John Krasinski. I wasn’t lying! We filmed it separately. I was with the stand in. I don’t even know if they’d figured out he was doing it.
Let’s do some fun, rapid-fire —
God, my brain’s so not rapid-fire right now. When I’m not working my brain’s like… [makes a slow-moving chugging sound]
I believe in you. Have you seen the rumor that you and Henry Cavill are joining “House of the Dragon” in Season 2?
No, I haven’t seen that rumor! But I’m up to date on “House of the Dragon.”
So that’s a no.
[Nods] Also, how random. Why him? Why me?
I made sure on Twitter yesterday that I saw the latest of what people are saying about you. And that was it.
I can’t even think of how random that is. I don’t even know that guy, either!
I guess someone made it up! How did writing the book “Hattie Harmony: Worry Detective” with your husband come about?
It came about because there is a concept that Robbie and I were trying to make into a children’s book, and then — nothing’s rapid fire for me, sorry. The publisher at Penguin liked the writing, and had suggested if we could come up with a concept that had to do with children’s mental wellness. And Robbie came up with Hattie Harmony, and that was it.
We wanted to write children’s books. It really became this thing about us wanting kids to be curious about the world around them and the people that are in it. And trying to figure out a fun way to engage with children. That’s why children’s books just started to become a fun thing for us to do together.
We have one more that’s coming out next year, next summer. And then we would love to develop it beyond that. I think it’d make a great preschool show.
Were you a worried kid?
No. I didn’t understand what anxiety or a panic attack was until I was 21.
What happened when you were 21?
Started getting panic attacks. I remember I would get them on the hour every hour. I used to live on 13th Street between 6th and 7th. I was crossing 6th Avenue at 14th Street, and I realized I couldn’t cross the street — I stood up against the wall, and I just thought I was going to drop dead at any moment.
If I went from cold to hot, hot to cold, full to hungry, hungry to full — any kind of shift in my body, my whole body thought, “Uh oh, something’s wrong!” And I just started spiraling. It was so weird. A ENT doctor said that it could be vertigo related because it was all about truly spinning. So it was an interesting six months.
How did you get past it?
I had a friend who was seeing a neuropsychiatrist — or psychologist, I don’t know if they medicated — because she had panic attacks before me. And learned a lot of brain games. It actually was very similar to an acting exercise that we did at Atlantic, which is called repetition, where you just are constantly making observations about the person in front of you and you’re just trying to connect. When I would walk down the street, I would just start naming everything I saw out loud to get myself out of the spiraling thoughts in my brain. That was a helpful tool. But it just became a practice that got me out of it. I didn’t want to be on medication, but I had medication in case I felt like I was having an emergency and just having that in my bag felt good. It’s very weird because I was not an anxious child. I was very loud and confident.
Do you ever write fiction?
No. I love editing and I love script analysis, but I’m not a great writer.
I think “Hattie Harmony” is good.
Anything that’s cute in “Hattie” is my husband, anything that’s more about the lesson learned is me.
Is there a role in your IMDb that you wish you could travel back in time and do again?
I’d like to do “Ingrid Goes West” again, because it was so fun — and awful at the same time. Like, everything went wrong that could have gone wrong with logistics. We had fires, we had squatters on locations, we didn’t have secured locations, so we weren’t allowed to film in the places we were supposed to film.
But it was still a great group of people. I love Aubrey; I want to work with her again. So I guess for that reason, it was really fun.
What are the most meaningful projects you’ve done?
“Wind River” felt pretty meaningful. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was one of the most informative experiences I’ve ever had in my career — a huge learning experience. “Sorry for Your Loss” was incredibly meaningful, and “WandaVision” was meaningful.
There’s something about filming that show before the pandemic, and then during. Kathryn [Hahn] had said, “Going to work almost felt we have to step our feet back into a world that was.” We were quite literally in a bubble. There was something about getting to do our job — which is so fantastical and silly — that felt more real than the actual reality that we are all living in. So that was really meaningful.
Is there a person’s career that you look at and say, “This would be a good map for me”?
It’s so hard to compare yourself to anyone else’s experience. Because I look at Emily Watson, and I think about the career she’s had, and I admire the decisions she’s made. “Breaking the Waves” is one of the most spectacular movies I’ve ever seen. I think Kirsten [Dunst] is an incredible actress, and is part of some of the most iconic films in the last three decades, and I think she’s bottomless — the way she’s able to continue to surprise audiences with her abilities. I’m obsessed with Diane Keaton. I think she’s hilarious, and she just doesn’t give a fuck about anything, it seems like. So I guess those three random women who have nothing in common!
What they have in common is they mean something to you. Do you want to do more producing?
I think so. My issue with being an actor who produces is I am so obsessively involved that it will become a year of my life. I love pitching projects — I’ve been doing that a bit more often. I enjoy being a part of that very first step, to building a crew, to a cast, and then all the way through production and then post-production. I just think that’s hard to do if you want to do more than a couple projects in a year.
I know people do it, and I’m also someone who works really hard at my job but, I also really know that I need to have [a] life as well. Like, work isn’t my life. So I feel like it’s hard for me to do. I also don’t necessarily want to produce everything I’m in. It’s nice to just come in and do a part as an actor and leave — and leave it up to someone else you trust.
Are you interested in directing?
I’m not sure, I go back and forth on that. Maybe. People say that sometimes, like, “You should take up directing!” or whatever, and I think it’s just because I’m really proactive on sets. I just get into everyone’s department, and I try to know it.
Already, you do that?
Yeah. So I think that’s why people think to say that to me, because I always become really nosy and want to know everything about what’s going on in every department.
What do you get out of acting that you don’t get out from other parts of your life?
There’s a team effort that I’m obsessed with. I love working together with a group of people problem solving. I love being on a team so much, and it’s something you get to do a lot as a kid. I would never be like a tennis player, because I really love the team environment and that’s what being on a set feels like. I know there are other ways to do that in your life, and if there was another job I were to do, it would be something that was collaborative with people.
I also love getting to explore why people are the way they are, and why they make decisions that they make. It’s just something that will never be boring to me. We spend the time getting to understand people’s life experiences, and I feel like a story is like a really artful way of exploring why we are the way we are. And I don’t get that from life except for meeting new people,
To me, it’s like you go over to someone’s house and have dinner and then you’re like, “Oh my God, that was amazing!” Like, that doesn’t happen all the time. But I get that from work — that constant peeling away at human behavior.
You also said in the Vanity Fair lie detector that you were an aspiring stoner.
How’s it going?
I think it died! I literally smoked weed three times in two weeks, and that was it. I watched “The Matrix,” I watched “Trolls World Tour” — and that was it.
No, but not for any reason, I just — it’s not something I think about. I’d rather have a drink! But someone made a joke to me that I just ran into and they said, “Keep trying!” You don’t realize the shit you say gets picked up, and you have random strangers yelling at you stuff like that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.