Miss Sundance

01.25.12

Miss Sundance Elizabeth Olsen on ‘Liberal Arts,’ Her Wild Year, and Her Own College Experiences

For the second year in a row, the Sundance Film Festival is buzzing the other Olsen sister, who stars as a quirky 19-year-old romancing an older man in Josh Radnor’s college-based romantic comedy Liberal Arts. The actress opens up to Marlow Stern about her crazy year, aversion to child stardom, and her own college experience at NYU—creepy guys included.

The stars turned out for the Museum of Modern Art’s Tribute to Pedro Almodóvar in mid-November. Sarah Jessica Parker and Blake Lively shoot the breeze with fashion mavens Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld. A stunning, doe-eyed blonde emerges, posing for photographs before a Raúl Àvila–designed wall of 25,000 crimson roses. Donning a black Chanel fall 2009 couture dress accented by a red waistband, she resembles a softer, younger Michelle Pfeiffer; a paragon of glamour and sophistication at just 22 years of age.

“Elizabeth Olsen, I saw your movie!” a man exclaims. It’s the guest of honor, Almodóvar. The Chanel-clad ingénue is in a state of shock. “Oh my god!” she shouts, “I wrote a paper about you when I was in high school!”

Back at the college dorms, the same gal, a bookish theater major, is studying when she’s interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Yes?”

“Is there a party in here?” asks a mystery guy.

“No … No one’s in here,” the girl replies.

“OK, sorry, I thought I heard a party.”

Such creepy occurrences are normal in the dual life of Elizabeth Olsen: college student and movie star.

“Students knew which one was my dorm room so they’d come by and knock, which was really weird,” said Olsen, who is just two classes away from her degree at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “The reason why I love NYU so much is because I love being involved in the city and I love New York, but I guess I never had a ‘real’ college experience.”

Instead, Olsen is simulating a “real” college experience in the film Liberal Arts, which made its world premiere on Tuesday at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by Josh Radnor, best known as the star of the hit CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, the film centers on Jesse (Radnor), a 35-year-old guy stuck in a state of arrested development. When he returns to his alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio, to send off his favorite professor, he attracts the attention of Zibby (Olsen), a precocious 19-year-old sophomore whose love of classical music and handwritten letters soon wins over the jaded New Yorker.

Dubbed “Sundance’s ‘It’ Girl” at last year’s festival for her riveting performance as a young woman who escapes from a brainwashing cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene, as well as her turn in Silent House, a horror film about a girl’s descent into madness, Olsen quickly moved out of the shadow of her famous older sisters, Mary-Kate and Ashley, and into the spotlight in her own right. Awards recognition for Martha followed, and the stunning actress began gracing magazine covers and red carpets, garnering a reputation in the fashion community for her timeless style. But it came at a price: this past fall was very hard on Olsen, who was enrolled at NYU full time while also promoting Martha.

“That was so stressful and I was miserable,” said Olsen. “I have two classes left to get my degree and they’re just humanities courses, but I’m not going to take three months again out of my year. I’ll probably finish up during the intermediate semesters either in the summer or winter.”

“I’m very happy I didn’t get it because I didn’t want to be a child actor.”

Olsen has reclaimed her title of Miss Sundance at this year’s festival with a pair of high-profile films—the crowd-pleasing romantic comedy Liberal Arts and the psychological thriller Red Lights, opposite Cillian Murphy and Robert De Niro. This year, however, Olsen is no longer the new kid on the block.

“It differs because I actually feel a lot more comfortable and relaxed this year at Sundance,” said Olsen. “Last year I didn’t know what to expect, so I tried to do everything right and I didn’t even know what that meant. I was going to bed early, waking up early, and trying to be completely with it. Now I’m just relaxed and hanging out.”

Despite the critical acclaim of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the movie grossed under $3 million stateside and, due to a cramped field in the Best Actress (Olsen) and Best Supporting Actor (John Hawkes) categories, the film was left out of the Oscar discussion. However, Olsen is very pleased with the way Martha performed.

“The truth is, for an independent film that we made for below $1 million, it’s kind of insane what it did do,” said Olsen. “I just don’t think it’s a time of movie-going where box office sales go through the roof unless it’s a franchise. I know Winter’s Bone was in theaters for like six months, which was amazing, but it’s not the norm.”

Olsen has said she was initially reluctant to get into acting because of what her older sisters went through—in particular, her sister Mary-Kate’s struggles with an eating disorder in 2004. She even chose to go by the name “Elizabeth Chase” in high school to avoid comparisons with her sisters. But the acting bug was never out of her mind—when she was 10 years old, Olsen auditioned for Spy Kids and came dangerously close to landing the part.

“It was my first audition and I had a callback immediately, they gave me the script, and I met Robert Rodriguez—who would not remember me,” laughed Olsen. “They asked me if I’d read the script and I said yes, but it was a lie because it was the biggest thing I’d ever seen. And I’m very happy I didn’t get it because I didn’t want to be a child actor.”

She eventually fell in love with the acting craft through the theater, including a stint at the Atlantic Theater Company, and she’s pursuing a degree in theater at Tisch.

Unlike degree collector James Franco, whose higher-education exploits have resulted in a viral photo of him sleeping through class as well as a lawsuit alleging unfair treatment, or Harry Potter star Emma Watson, who was reportedly bullied at Brown and eventually withdrew from the school, Olsen has managed to strike a balance between her burgeoning acting career and getting her degree. She has two more independent films currently in preproduction—Kill Your Darlings, opposite Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe; and the lead role in the costume drama Thérèse Raquin, alongside Glenn Close. When Olsen talks about her upcoming roles, she can’t help but unleash her huge smile.

“I am loving every moment of this,” she says. “I couldn’t be happier.”