Elizabeth Olsen is one of the creative leaders honored for Variety’s 2022 Power of Women presented by Lifetime. To read about her work with the Rape Foundation and Stuart House, click here. For more honorees, click here.
When audiences last saw Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Disney’s May box office juggernaut “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” it certainly looked like Olsen’s time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was over. Definitively, actually: An entire castle collapsed on Wanda, a building brought down by her own powerful magic after she sacrificed herself to destroy the Darkhold — the evil book that had corrupted her, turning her into a nearly unbeatable villain for most of the movie.
For Olsen, 33, who burst into the movie world with 2011’s Sundance Film Festival sensation “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — and saw her profile skyrocket as Wanda (aka the Scarlet Witch) in six Marvel movies, starting with a mid-credits cameo in 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and later the hit 2021 Disney+ TV series “WandaVision” — the character’s heel-turn into darkness took some adjustment. “Well, this is quite a leap from the woman that I’ve been playing!” she remembers thinking after learning she was to go malevolent in the Sam Raimi-directed sequel to “Doctor Strange.”
But she got into it. “At least in my experience, it’s been hard as a woman to express rage,” Olsen says. “It’s one of the most amazing feelings, because it’s so specific: You can know exactly why you’re angry.”
Over a long lunch on an unbearably hot September day near her home in Los Angeles, Olsen — who radiates tranquility — doesn’t disclose what makes her feel rage. “Oh, those are fun secrets to keep,” she says with a smile. “But I do have rage. I feel like the moment you, as an actor, reveal things about yourself that are kind of your ‘fuel,’ for lack of a better word, then your fuel’s exposed and it means less.”
In her years in the MCU, Olsen’s Wanda has lost her parents, her brother, her husband and her two sons, all of whom exist somewhere in the multiverse. She’s got a lot to be angry about. According to Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, Olsen’s skills are why Wanda’s arc has been so complex. “We only even would have dared attempt something like ‘WandaVision,’” Feige says, “because Lizzie is such an outstanding actor.”
During the vibrational reaction in Hollywood to “Martha Marcy May Marlene” more than 11 years ago, it became almost a curiosity that Olsen was in fact the younger sister of the twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen: Her incipient Sundance-y celebrity felt diametrically opposed to their massive, mainstream popularity. The Olsen twins became famous as babies, splitting the role of the infant Michelle Tanner on “Full House,” and eventually became moguls, presiding over a $1 billion empire built on straight-to-video movies (when they were tweens) and fashion (in their 20s). Olsen doesn’t know when she realized how famous her sisters were but does recall going on cruises on which hanging out with the Olsen twins was the main draw for fans. Was that fun? “Well, I enjoyed it, because I wasn’t working.”
At age 8, while living in the San Fernando Valley, Olsen started auditioning. But after her schedule caused her to miss too many ballet classes, her dance teacher told her she wouldn’t be allowed to perform in that year’s “Nutcracker,” which “really bummed me out. And so, after that, I just stopped auditioning.” Her father advised her to write a list of pros and cons to see whether it was worth trying to act professionally. “And the cons list to continue was really high,” Olsen says. “I really liked sports. I really loved school. I had a really big group of friends.”
So she dropped the auditions and opted for a more typical educational path. Then, at the prestigious Campbell Hall school in Studio City, she says, she “fell back in love” with acting, and decided to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Acting for me was always a study; it was never something you just did for a job,” Olsen says. Through her work at the Atlantic Theater Company, affiliated with NYU, she got the agent she still has today, Rhonda Price, at Gersh — who, after Olsen’s junior year in college, began sending her on the auditions that led to “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and the realtime horror thriller “Silent House,” the two Sundance movies that set Olsen’s career in motion. “Choosing to go to NYU changed the course of my life,” she says. “And it’s wild when you think about that.”
During her breaks from Marvel, Olsen has tended to go back to independent films, with projects such as “Wind River” and “Ingrid Goes West,” both released in 2017. But what she has created as a woman within the MCU is significant. She’s become one of the franchise’s most popular characters and a dynamic, international star. So much so that not only did “WandaVision” launch Marvel’s overall Phase Four, but she found herself as Benedict Cumberbatch’s main antagonist in “Multiverse of Madness,” a movie she’d signed up for thinking it was going to be a typical MCU mélange of Avengers, and she would be one of many in the larger troupe. Marvel famously keeps secrets from even its own main players, and the surprise — about the size of her role, and about Wanda being the movie’s Big Bad — was revealed to Olsen in a meeting with Raimi, Feige and screenwriter Michael Waldron. “I called my team, and I was like, ‘You guys, I’m the lead villain in this film. I didn’t know that’s what we were doing, but that’s what’s happening!’”
The combination of “WandaVision” and “Multiverse of Madness” meant that she played Wanda from September 2019 until April 2021, with a six-month shutdown because of COVID in between. For Feige, that double feature illustrates “what her gift can bring to the world,” he says. “She’s funny, she’s touching, she’s scary. She’s creepy! She’s charismatic.”
But with Wanda on pause, what’s next for Olsen is her highest-profile non-MCU project in years: She’s starring in the upcoming HBO Max limited series “Love & Death,” which even now has Emmy buzz for 2023 (she landed a nomination in 2021 for “WandaVision”).
In “Love & Death,” from A-listers David E. Kelley, who wrote it, and director-executive producer Lesli Linka Glatter, Olsen plays Candy Montgomery, a Texas homemaker who, in 1980, killed her friend Betty Gore (played by Lily Rabe) — Montgomery was having an affair with Gore’s husband (Jesse Plemons). Eventually, Montgomery was found not guilty, despite the fact she had struck Gore 41 times with an ax. If this sounds vaguely familiar, the grisly murder also provided source material for Hulu’s recent Jessica Biel-led series “Candy.” But according to Glatter, who compares the tone of “Love & Death” to the character focused satires “To Die For” and “Election,” Olsen makes Candy Montgomery “understandable, empathetic, deep, complicated.”
When the series premieres on HBO Max next year, viewers will see Olsen for who she is as an actor: “She is substantial. She always has been,” Glatter says. “She has done the work — on herself, on her craft.” The director spent seven months with Olsen on the “Love & Death” set in Texas, which wrapped in early April. “I can tell you,” she says, “there are a couple of scenes where I am just on her face, and you see the universe. You see the whole story. You see the world, just looking at her face. There’s that much going on behind her eyes.”
As we sit in the crowded restaurant on Ventura Boulevard where she’s a regular and knows to order the trout almondine, Olsen exudes the serene, intelligent and good-humored charm that fans have gotten to know through her Marvel press tours. “I already have a mellow energy, but I’m really mellow today,” she says. Turns out, her husband, Robbie Arnett, with whom she lives in L.A. and Sonoma, has a bad cold, and while Olsen makes it clear it’s not COVID, whatever he’s got is keeping her awake at night.
Even in a groggy state, though, she manages to speak enthusiastically about her work. She also mentions a movie she’s about to begin filming but won’t name (“The director doesn’t want to make an announcement about it, so it’s just … ”), and a two-hander play she wants to do in England but also won’t reveal (“It’s not real yet!”). These are teases that might be irritating were it anyone else. But when Olsen is being reticent, she somehow sells the secret as a tantalizing mystery that will be revealed in due time: It’s almost hypnotic. In the big picture, though, she says it’s taken her a long time to develop a larger ideology for her career choices. For years after “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Olsen says, “if I was available and there was a job offer and the character seemed like something I hadn’t done yet, I would say yes — that’s all it took.” She says she was “lazy”: “I was doing what I knew would get me a pass, but I wasn’t trying to go beyond that.”
What snapped her out of her rut was being an executive producer on “Sorry for Your Loss,” a series for Facebook Watch that ran for two seasons beginning in 2018, during the brief period when the social media giant decided to flirt with scripted content. Olsen played Leigh Shaw, a young woman whose life is upended after her husband dies, on the heartbreaking, well-reviewed show. “I just cared so much,” Olsen says, “and it feels really good to care a lot.”
Since then, she feels like she’s clearer about what she wants to do. “I certainly have a philosophy about how I want people around me at work to feel, from a leadership standpoint,” Olsen says.
Glatter underlines this attitude from her experience with Olsen on “Love & Death.” “When we wrapped, everyone was weeping,” she says. “And one of the things Lizzie said, which moved me incredibly, was ‘This was a production led with kindness.’ And I feel very strongly about that. You treat everyone with respect — which is what she did.”
Yet those years of Olsen having a more passive approach may be why she’s almost incredulous when I tell her Feige had mentioned that she’d done six Marvel movies. So she counts them off on her fingers, realizing that he’s right, of course. “That’s weird,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s, like, half of the job credits I have! That’s why I don’t have as many credits — because they’re long jobs.”
Olsen is curious about what Feige said about Wanda’s future. “It’s good for me to know how he communicates about it,” she says. “Because I really, genuinely feel like my job is to keep my mouth shut until he makes an announcement of any kind.”
There are a lot of fan theories about what could happen if Olsen were to clock any more time in the MCU: She could star in a stand-alone Scarlet Witch movie; join an upcoming “Avengers” movie; appear in “Agatha: Coven of Chaos,” the Disney+ spinoff of Kathryn Hahn’s fan-favorite “WandaVision” character, Agatha Harkness; or even help to launch whatever Marvel’s future “X-Men” plans are.
Feige, for his part, isn’t ready to make anything official, but it certainly doesn’t sound like he’s done with Wanda, or with Olsen. “She’s incredibly humble and incredibly down-to-earth,” he says. “And yet when those cameras roll, it’s a force of nature.” And what about Wanda? “There really is so much more to explore,” he says. “We still haven’t touched on many of her core storylines from the comics.”
Asked about that building that appeared to crush her, Feige affects a blasé tone: “I don’t know that we saw her under rubble?” he says in upspeak. “I saw a tower coming down, and a little red flash. I don’t know what that means.” This is Kevin Feige, the decision-maker for the MCU, sending a clear signal to Wanda Maximoff stans: They never found the body, as the saying goes.
“I’d work with Lizzie for another 100 years if we could,” he continues, and then throws out one final hint before he signs off. “Anything’s possible in the multiverse! We’ll have to see.”
Even when told that information, Olsen still takes the tried-and-true path of, as she’d put it, keeping her mouth shut, when asked her thoughts about playing Wanda again — other than to note she’d like to see “some sort of redemption” for the character after the bloodbath she perpetrated in “Multiverse of Madness.”
“I really don’t know my future,” she says. “There’s nothing that has been agreed on.” Changing the subject abruptly, she then looks down at the remains of her trout almondine: “God, look at that! Just butter, butter, butter.”