Why Elizabeth Olsen Embraced Instagram’s ‘Narcissistic Culture’
The star of ‘Ingrid Goes West’ on playing the object of Aubrey Plaza’s affection and getting over her social media aversion.
Elizabeth Olsen—Lizzie to her friends and publicists—used to think social media was “beneath” her. Then she was cast as an Instagram celebrity in Ingrid Goes West.
In the hilarious new social satire film, 28-year-old Olsen plays Taylor Sloane, the type of young woman who portrays herself so flawlessly online that Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid Thorburn literally travels across the country in an attempt to “accidentally” become her BFF. But when the two actresses first met to discuss the project, it was Olsen who found herself intimidated in Plaza’s presence.
Olsen knew that Plaza had a “protective shell” and wasn’t sure whether it would be “penetrable” or not. “Also I was intimidated working with someone who’s well-seasoned in comedy,” she tells The Daily Beast on a recent Thursday afternoon at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. She knew that first-time director Matt Spicer wanted the cast to improvise a lot, a skill that wasn’t exactly in her wheelhouse.
“I had her and Matt over so we could talk about the script and the approach of filming,” Olsen says. “I was almost a cliché of myself, because I go into host-mode when people come over. So I made guacamole and had goldfish out. I was weird.
“I think the thing that surprised me most [about Aubrey] was her producer-type personality side,” she continues. “She really has it together. That was the first thing I noticed that was out of the character I had created in my head. In my head, I thought she would just show up and be like, I don’t care, whatever.”
Whereas Plaza creates a “barrier between her and the world because she wants to keep something that is hers and not fully share it,” Olsen stresses, “I don’t know how to do that.” These personality traits shine through in the film as well.
When we first meet Taylor it is on Instagram, through Ingrid’s eyes. She is blissed out and beautiful. “Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea,” Taylor captions one post, adding, “#california.” And while Ingrid labors to transform her social media identity to reflect the object of her desire, when they finally come face-to-face, she realizes Taylor may actually be as effortlessly perfect as she appears.
Olsen first heard about Ingrid Goes West over a year ago when a friend gave her a heads up that there was a “really funny” script going around town and she should keep her eye out for it. A few months later, her manager and agent casually mentioned the script to her and she jumped at it. “It was kind of something that was possibly going to brushed under the rug,” she says, “just because I don’t think they fully had financing at that point.” She read it that day and three weeks later they were shooting.
The character that Olsen plays in the film is so specific that it seems like she must be based on a real Instagram celebrity. “I could probably name like three people, but I wouldn’t want to out them,” she says. It’s the type of person who goes on silent meditation retreats in the desert and visits sound baths to cure their vertigo. Olsen wants you to know that she is not one of those people.
Early on in the process, Spicer created a fake Taylor Sloane Instagram account and gave Olsen a bunch of people to follow. Among the “influencers” that account still follows today are Ingrid Nilsen, Shea Marie, and Aimee Song, each of whom have well over a million followers who admire their every fashion and design decision from afar.
The fake Taylor Sloane didn’t even hit the 500 follower mark, but since finally joining Instagram for the first time after Ingrid Goes West made its Sundance debut, Olsen has racked up nearly 650,000 followers on her personal account. A recent photo of her posing with Plaza in matching outfits at the film’s L.A. premiere has over 80,000 likes.
“This was my—what’s it called when a drug makes you addicted to other drugs?” Olsen asks.
“Gateway drug?” I suggest.
“Yeah, this was my gateway drug,” she says. “I’m not good at taking photographs. That was an irritating thing to learn, how bad I am at taking a picture of a fucking dog. I couldn’t figure out how you make it look nicer.”
Olsen also had to overcome her prior “judgment” of social media. “Specifically Instagram,” she explains, “because it’s image-based, was solely like me judging this narcissistic culture that we’re creating and people having the confidence to think that people care enough about just their face and their butt and their food or whatever. I just put it beneath me in a really condescending way.”
Once she started looking at what these women like her character in the film were posting, she starting thinking, “Wow, this girl actually has good taste” and “I actually would love that sofa in my house, I wonder where she found it.
“I saw it as me waking up and going, Lizzie, this isn’t going to change,” she says. “As much as you might want it to change, this is where marketing is. It’s a more successful form of marketing than buying an advertisement in a magazine now. So embrace it and join it and don’t judge it and try to figure out how you feel comfortable and maybe kind of yourself on it.”
Olsen says she’s still trying to figure out how to use Instagram to her advantage professionally. That includes coming to terms with the reality that she is not only an actress but also a “brand.” By marketing her face, she is in turn marketing her movies. “So there are all these things that work together,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out, like, this is me, but I’m also awkward and have a sense of humor about this whole thing.”
She admits that she doesn’t engage with her fans at all even though she knows that from a business perspective, “in order to gain more followers, there is literally a list of things to do and one of them is to engage with your followers.”
“I don’t want to talk to strangers,” she says. “I just have never been a kid who liked talking to strangers and I don’t want to start now. So I don’t do that.”
So far, at least, Instagram has not been a “gateway drug” to other forms of social media, especially Twitter, which she insists she has no interest in joining. “I think Twitter is a place to voice your opinions in a huge pot of opinions,” she says. “I like keeping mine private.”
“There’s a thing that personally annoys me, when something devastating happens in the world and you see the list of all the celebrities and what they said to give their good thoughts and prayers,” Olsen adds. “And it’s like, do they really care? Or do they feel they’re doing something wrong by not saying something?” When somebody dies, “It’s like, ‘I knew that person, we had a connection.’ It’s a very strange thing to me.”
As the younger sister of two of the most famous child stars of all time—31-year-old twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen—she has good reason to value privacy. From an extremely young age, she has known what it’s like to have paparazzi follow her every move, up to and including on the set of next year’s Avengers: Infinity War.
“I think it would be impossible for that not to be the main reason why I just go like this”—she holds up her arms in a big X—“with welcoming extra invaders into my space,” Olsen says of his famous siblings.
“It’s not just growing up around it, it’s growing up with the family I have,” she adds. Despite her sisters’ lives spent in the spotlight, Olsen says she has an “incredibly private family.”
“At the heart of it, my dad doesn’t talk about certain things with his friends, my mom doesn’t,” she says. “I’m an oversharer, probably, with all my friends, but my family is a very private family. I want to respect that and honor that and that’s what I gravitate towards because it’s where I’m comfortable.”
She suspects it might be easier for male actors, “because they’re men and they don’t have as many responsibilities” when it comes to marketing their beauty to the world. “I think part of you has to open up a bit, so I’m just trying to figure out what that means, what that looks like,” Olsen says. “And then maybe when I’m like 45 or something I’ll just be like, ‘fuck you all’ and move to northern California and just work on movies and show up to premieres and that’s it.”