Entertainment - Film
How Elizabeth Olsen Fended Off Career-Threatening Mental Health Issues
It was during a 2018 interview for her upcoming movie Wind River that Elizabeth Olsen made an admission to a journalist that neither expected. “I’m getting a lot more fear-based as I age,” she said. “I worry about that stuff. I’m becoming increasingly fearful.”
The statement seemed at odds with an actress who is, let’s face it, a fearless performer. From her unforgettable breakthrough as a cult escapee in Martha Marcy May Marlene to her fan favourite turn as the Scarlett Witch in the Avengers, Olsen strikes you as an actress willing to do it all, and risk it all.
Over the subsequent weeks and months Olsen, 33, removed her almost entirely from social media, hunkered down at home and spent the various Covid lockdowns surmising what it was she really wanted from the industry.
After TV work with Love and Death and WandaVision, she now reprises Wanda Maximoff in the big screen return of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch…
RSNG You are back – all-action, all you?
ELIZABETH OLSEN, ACTRESS “I feel that way, yes. I feel I have had time to recharge, work a few things out, scope out a path I want to pursue in future. I’ve also been spending time with Benedict Cumberbatch, which is, well, you know, an okay thing to do.”
RSNG You return in the all-action genre that many feel has become your own, with the upcoming release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness?
ELIZABETH OLSEN “Well Wanda was due a return and I guess so was I. I have had a nice break from things – from a lot of things. I have got married, lived through Covid, like everyone else, taken a step back from the realities of life and what the industry expected of me, and I feel I have returned a better person.
“Whether I have returned a better actress is for other people to judge, but I think when given the opportunity we should all, sometimes, seek to look out for different projects and explore new angles by which we can educate and inform ourselves.”
RSNG You have your confidence back and seem to be the perfect form to play badass women again. Do you feel that way?
ELIZABETH OLSEN “I think the term ‘bad ass’ is thrown around way too much. I can see why it’s used and I use it myself, but I feel sometimes it degenerates from the point of the character, and if you do that you lose a lot of the context from the plot.
“Do I look for bad ass characters? Not really, I would instead say I search out emotionally powerful individuals struggling with adversity, with internal conflicts, who have to prove themselves. Individuals who are damaged - I like damaged characters, I think I seek out damaged characters the most, or at least, that’s what I’m sent the most, haha!”
RSNG Do you prefer big or small movies?
ELIZABETH OLSEN “Several years ago I saw that even if you're part of good films you still won't find a lot of work unless you have the recognition that comes from doing bigger movies. When you do big studio films it gives you the kind of visibility that helps you do films like Wind River and Ingrid Goes West.
“I've seen what a big difference it makes when you're going to auditions or meeting with directors. I'm constantly looking forward to being able to do both the big movies and smaller, passion projects.”
RSNG You seem so at home in this genre though?
ELIZABETH OLSEN “But what's been really weird is 'having powers' and throwing fireballs. At the start you’re like, ‘okay, this is a little different than expected.' It feels silly. I was a little conscious and maybe too aware but now I feel like I own throwing fireballs. If you told me to shoot someone over there, it'd be like, 'Oh yeah, let’s do it one of three ways’, haha!
“I had to watch myself though because I kept making all these noises when I was throwing fireballs. Oh god yeah, I make these noises when I do that. And you have to try your best not to do it because it gets picked up on the microphones. You have to remember not to do it.”
RSNG Was it a big leap for you to go from making smaller pictures early in your career to doing Godzilla or The Avengers?
ELIZABETH OLSEN “It was actually kind of thrilling for me to be part of those massive films because I grew up watching films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Lord of the Rings. Those are some of my favorite movies of all time and I used to watch them with my brother and father.
“I was always hanging out with guys when I was growing up and I was also pretty competitive from playing volleyball. I was never the kind of girl who wanted to dress up and I'm still a bit shy when it comes to going out on the red carpet and wearing fabulous designer outfits. That's really not my style.”
RSNG You started acting at a young age. Would you consider yourself a former child actor?
ELIZABETH OLSEN “It wasn’t like that. I only ever did two second moments in my sisters’ movies, and that was only because myself and my brother would be on set with them and they’d say, ‘Hey Lizzie, you want to be in this scene. We do need to put gum in your hair.’ That would be the extent of it. And from that, came my apparent childhood acting career, haha!
“The only thing I ever professionally did as a kid, was a commercial about internet safety when the internet first became a thing.”
RSNG Were you a natural performer?
ELIZABETH OLSEN “I was always performing, always putting on little musicals, always singing and dancing. I went to camp, musical theater camp, made short movies with my friends, but I didn’t want to be an actress, especially because I grew up in LA – very cliché. Plus, I liked academia – I liked chemistry and the periodic table. I liked learning, and acting, to me, didn’t follow that path of learning.”
RSNG You've taken a very different approach to how you present and project yourself as opposed to your older sisters?
ELIZABETH OLSEN “I would rather live as privately and quietly as possible. That’s why I'm not on social media anymore because I would rather keep my opinions and thoughts out of the public eye and save them for my friends and conversations over dinner. I like being able to have the kind of career where I'm seen as an actor rather than a celebrity.
“My sisters are amazing women, and they are incredibly talented fashion designers and great at business. I'm always so impressed by how good they are at what they do. Yet I wouldn't want to live with all the attention that they've had to endure, and this is why I removed myself from social media.
“I ended up in really quite a terrifying place where I realized social media was giving me a voice and expectation I just didn’t want… and more to the point, didn’t deserve. That’s not why I got into acting; that’s not why I started up an Instagram account. I don’t want to be a sounding board or a soapbox for the world’s issues – I am not anyone to judge.
“The issue with social media that I realized too late is that you are lambasted when you raise an opinion, but totally pilloried when you don’t raise one! That ability and insistence to judge is actually really damaging and I am glad to be away from it, to be honest, because I could feel the weight of expectation eating away at me, and affecting my whole desire to carry on doing what I was doing, which was to make films.
“If I was always going to carry around this additional baggage of being expected to say something, was it all really worth it? I am all too capable of tripping myself up, and therein lies the problem!”
RSNG Do you miss social media in any way?
ELIZABETH OLSEN “No! I always found the balance hard. I was always trying to find the right humor to make fun of myself. I liked that side to it, but approaching it with all sincerity, you know, the idea of taking a selfie in the morning and hashtagging, ‘Mondaymotivation,’ I don’t need to do that. It doesn’t feel natural to me. For those who it feels natural for and who enjoy doing it, I totally respect and celebrate that. Jokes on Instagram, making fun of myself, that’s as far as it will ever go.
“For a long time I didn’t quite understand it – I just thought it was very vain, narcissistic. I think taking pictures of yourself all day, that’s bizarre behavior. I thought all social media was a horrible blight on the world, and clung onto what was wrong with it.
“Of course, I’m a total overthinker – I think way too much, and I don’t regard it in the same way nowadays… but I still fundamentally don’t like it.”