Martha Marcy May Marlene, opening October 28, concerns a girl dealing with the psychological effects of fleeing her cult-like farming community. Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, plays the conflicted runaway. She's been receiving stellar reviews for her breakout work since the movie premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won the Directing Award for first-time feature filmmaker Sean Durkin. I spoke with Durkin and Olsen at the Liberty Hotel when they visited Boston in August to promote the film.
IF YOU TRACE CHARISMATIC CULT FIGURES GOING BACK TO THE '60S, THERE'S ALMOST UNIVERSALLY A RELIGIOUS ELEMENT, AND YET YOUR FILM SEEMS INTENTIONALLY TO AVOID RELIGION.
SD: I wasn't interested in that. I didn't want a religious element.
TOO EASY TO SCAPEGOAT?
SD: Yeah, I just didn't want to draw any comparisons like that. The only religion that made its way in was Buddhism, but I didn't want it to be in the forefront. I wanted it to be in their philosophy, but in a way that suits where they live, you know? They're trying to live on a self-sustained farm, trying to live in the moment.
PRIOR TO SEEING THE FILM, I WAS HAVING THE DAMNEDEST TIME REMEMBERING THE TITLE. BUT NOW THAT I'VE SEEN IT, I'VE FOUND IT A HARD NAME TO FORGET.
SD: Yeah, that's cool. EO: That's been a lot of peoples' reaction, so that's really cool.
DID YOU COME UP WITH THE TITLE BEFORE WRITING THE SCRIPT, OR DID IT EMERGE DURING THE WRITING PROCESS?
SD: Before. I got it when I was reading about different people going into groups and discovered they are always renamed. It's like a very standard thing. But also, [so is] having aliases, and so I just had the idea that her name would be Martha and that it just flowed. The first time I ever wrote it out, I wrote out her full name like Martha . . . nobody knows her last name, so it was Martha, a/k/a Marcy, a/k/a May, a/k/a Marlene, and it became Martha Marcy May Marlene.
ELIZABETH, THIS IS THE FIRST OF FIVE UPCOMING SCREEN ROLES FOR YOU. HOW DO YOU FIND THE TIME? AREN'T YOU STILL IN COLLEGE?
EO: I took a year off last year to work. SD: Slacker! Haven't graduated yet, and you're 22. EO: I always thought, "Oh, those stupid slackers," and now here I am, a fifth-year senior.
WITH FIVE ROLES. I WOULDN'T EXACTLY CALL THAT SLACKING.
EO: Right, but I went to NYU for theater, and it's a three-year conservatory for the acting part, so that's all done. All that's left are the liberal-arts things, but that's all really important to me. I'm really in love with academia and just yearning for a higher education, as opposed to getting a degree just to serve a purpose for a job. So I'm still finishing, and I started auditioning last January after I got back from studying abroad. I went over to Russia to study acting there for a semester. It was awesome. The Moscow Art Theater School is really cool. And when I got back, I started working with an agent, and this was one of the first 20 or 30 scripts I read, probably 30. And then I auditioned in, like, May or June.