A ‘Liberal’ Discussion with Elizabeth Olsen

Elizabeth Olsen as Zibby Josh Radnor as Jesse in Josh Radnor’s LIBERAL ARTS. ©IFC Films. CR: Kevin Moss.


HOLLYWOOD—Following her star-making turn last year in the psychological thriller “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and subsequent worthwhile performances this year in the horror thriller “Silent House” and the psychological thriller “Red Lights,” Elizabeth Olsen returns to the big screen playing a character a little closer to home in “Liberal Arts.”

The younger sister of twin billionaires Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Olsen plays a young woman attending a bucolic Midwestern college who meets and falls in love with a man 16 years her senior. But thoughtful, upbeat Zibby, much like Olsen herself, appears wiser than her anxious paramour (played by Josh Radnor, who also wrote, directed and produced the romantic drama).

The native Californian has become Hollywood’s “It” girl since her breakthrough performance in 2011’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” But the blond, green-eyed actress seems to take her newfound celebrity all in stride. Perhaps that sense of calmness is something she learned from her ultra-famous siblings, who starred in the long-running TV series “Full House.”

The 23-year-old is herself a college student, just a few credits shy of graduating from the prestigious New York University, where she has been studying acting.

Catching up with her by phone in New York, Olsen, who’s single, has a roster of films on the horizon. But she’s intent on completing her education. It’s just a matter of finding spare time between movie projects.

Front Row Features: How’s college going? Are you ready to graduate?

Olsen: I still have a couple more classes. That will happen in January. They have these winter sessions at NYU where you can go between semesters and that’s when I’m going to finish, so it won’t take up too much of my time.

Front Row Features: Having gone through the college experience and playing a coed in “Liberal Arts,” were there any personality traits you shared with Zibby? Or were there some ways you related to her?

Olsen: Not from my college experience but my high school felt more along the lines of things that make Zibby excited in the movie such as the literature and the idea of speaking about these types of theories and how they mean something to the world. That happened to me in high school. I had really great literature teachers in my junior and senior year. So I was a geek when it came to writing huge essays and I still love writing academically. I’m much better at that than fictional writing. I went to college for acting so all it was all about rehearsing and talking about theories when it came to theater.

Front Row Features: You haven’t had to take science courses or anything like that?

Olsen: I did, but because the acting school takes up so much of your time, you just figure out how you can get it done so you can go to rehearsal.

Front Row Features: You play a positive, forward-thinking person who’s wise beyond her years. Are you like that or do you have moments of cynicism or doubt?

Olsen: I’m a pretty positive person, by nature. But what I loved about Zibby is that I totally can relate to the idea of feeling like you rush through the part wherever you are and get older and as an adult, I actually protracted because I used to be that way completely when I was in school. I just completely wanted to be an adult and now I’m really happy with completely pretending I’m a child.

Front Row Features: You’re acting opposite Josh Radnor, who’s also the writer, director and producer. Was it weird doing that? How did he handle all those jobs on set?

Olsen: He’s someone who’s very good at taking care of himself and because of that, I think he’s able to take on all those roles. He’s very clear in what he wants and the story he wants to tell, and the characters he and how he wants to edit at the end, so it ended up being a very specific way of working. You never ended up shooting anything that was just a waste of time. Everything had a purpose. He was like very fully prepared and meticulous.

Front Row Features: You’re character enjoys reading cheap vampire romance novels. I was wondering if that was an inside joke since you have Elizabeth Reaser, who plays Esme Cullen in the “Twilight” films, in the cast?

Olsen: I thought it was hilarious that she ended up being (Josh’s) girlfriend at the end of the movie. I thought that was a great little irony. I don’t know if that was an intentional inside joke between himself and her. But I always found that hilarious.

Front Row Features: Do you have any guilty pleasures, like trashy romance novel or a bad movie?

Olsen: I think my only guilty pleasure is watching TV shows on Bravo and I don’t feel that guilty about it. (She laughs.) I watch “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” all the talk shows and all that good stuff.

Front Row Features: You’ve gone to school in the city, which is different from going to a private liberal arts college in the country or in the suburbs. Do you feel you’ve gotten the full college experience despite that?

Olsen: I actually don’t. I feel I’ve gotten something completely different out of college, which ended up being perfect for what I think I needed or wanted. I gathered a big group of friends that are actors and a got to know a creative group of people. We have each other’s backs. I have a core group of writers, actors and directors who are inspiring to me. That’s what I got out of college. I feel like I got (the Liberal Arts” experience) out of high school so I don’t feel like I was short-changed.

Front Row Features: Do you think you’ll go back to high school or college reunion 15 years from now?

Olsen: We had a five-year (high school) reunion while I was filming so I guess I was lucky I didn’t have to make a decision to go to that. I don’t know. I see all the people who I went to high school with regularly. They’ve been my best friends since kindergarten so I feel like I have a reunion every time I go to L.A.

Front Row Features: What’s your viewpoint on dating older men?

Olsen: It’s funny. I feel like people grow up and mature at different ages so I don’t feel much about it really. Some people are right for each other at different points in their lives and whatever age you are at that point is different for lots of people.

Front Row Features: Your character has an affinity for classical music. Do you like classical music or is there some other music form you particularly enjoy?

Olsen: I don’t actually listen to classical music unless I’m stuck in traffic. I feel it passes the time faster. But I was a ballet dancer so that’s when I’d listen to classical music, without even choosing to, about four times a week. I have ballet music that I prefer to dance to but normally I like listening to folky type music.

Front Row Features: How do you stay fit?

Olsen: I really love boxing.

Front Row Features: Boxing?

Olsen: I’m like a big gym person now. I’ve become more aggressive or something.

Front Row Features: Is that for pleasure or are you planning to play a superhero?

Olsen: No. No superhero in my future. I just enjoy (boxing). The guy who I train with is one of my close friends. So we have a fun time doing it.

Front Row Features: What’s next for you?

Olsen: I filming three scenes in a movie called “Kill Your Darlings.” So I’m sure that will start hitting the festival circuit at the beginning of 2013, I’d imagine. Then “Therese Raquin” will probably come out in the midpoint of the year. “Very Good Girls”—I’m not sure. But I start shooting “Old Boy” this fall. It is a remake of a Korean movie with the same title.

Front Row Features: Is there martial arts in it?

Olsen: Not for me, no.

Front Row Features: Are you coping well with celebrity? Do people stop you on the street now?

Olsen: I’ve never had a problem with paparazzi unless they’re trying to take a picture of someone else who lives near me and then they just happen to see me walking by.