Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on November 26, 2013, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
Having first made her name in the cult drama/thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene and then spent 88 real-time minutes terrorized in the Silent House, Elizabeth Olsen is back exploring the dark side in Oldboy. FANGORIA got the chance to sit down with the actress to chat about Spike Lee’s remake, and get a few words about her involvement with the new Godzilla.
In Oldboy (reviewed here), Olsen plays Marie Sebastian, a social worker who tries to help Joe Doucette (Josh Brolin) readjust to life after his 20 years in unexplained captivity. As he seeks revenge against those who imprisoned him, Marie becomes drawn into his violent quest—with, as fans of Park Chan-wook’s original know, a nasty surprise waiting at the end of the story. The actress followed up the Oldboy gig by taking part in another English-language revisiting of an Asian classic: Gareth Edwards’ megabudget Godzilla, due next May. (She’ll also be seen the following summer as Scarlet Witch in the superhero team-up The Avengers: Age of Ultron).
How familiar were you with the original Oldboy when you took on Lee’s version?
I just knew of it, I hadn’t seen it. I read the script first, so that was my first experience with this story being told, and I was just kind of gutted; I was like, “That is so crazy, I would never expect that.” Then I saw [Park’s] film the same day, and loved it. It was genius. My brother calls it almost a perfect film. It’s amazing, but to me, not a lot of people know this story. Film people do, and people who follow the cult favorites do. So why not retell a story that’s so shocking and cool and crazy that a lot of people haven’t seen yet?
Were you intimidated at all once you watched the original, thinking about what the new movie had to live up to?
I was at first, but at the same time, it was like, we had Spike Lee. Ours was already going to be different. He has his own style, and he wasn’t trying to cop anyone’s approach. Spike has made an entire lifetime of work in his own style. We were doing our own version, the American version. We made references to some of the things we wouldn’t be doing—just nod at them for the people who like the original—and then just did a westernized version, a modern film.
Marie is a character who’s kind of on the outside of the action, not really aware of what’s going on, discovering the story along with the audience. What went into approaching that side of the character?
The important thing to me was creating enough of a background, so that when Marie meets Joe, it makes sense why she wants to help him and then becomes invested in his situation, and psychologically develop some sort of baggage so that it makes sense for the two of them to meet each other at a certain point. And other than that, it’s a linear story. She’s thrown some curveballs, but not like the curveballs the other characters experience.
You, your co-stars and Lee did two weeks of rehearsal on Oldboy; did you add anything significant to your role or your dialogue over that time?
We did. We just did what we wanted [laughs]. Mark [Protosevich] wrote the script—I don’t want to take that away from him—but in that room, we came up with a lot; it was just about how we would want to say something. We would improvise and work through scenes, and then be like, “Well, that kind of makes sense” and write that in. It was amazing to have that experience, and Spike is so open to collaborating.
Were there any scenes in particular that had a lot of those improv moments in the final version?
I can’t really remember how much of it is in the movie, but there’s one scene that’s completely different in the film than it was on the page, when we’re at the car talking about my past or his past. That was mainly just us trying to figure out where we connect. Some moments of lightness.
Was it light on the set, or was the shoot as intense as the material?
It was the funniest set I’ve ever been on! We had such a good time, with such a great group of people. The crew, the cast and everyone was just so terrific.
How was it working with Josh Brolin specifically?
Amazing. He was like my big brother; he was very protective of me, and I’d make fun of him like I would my brother. I have a feeling that we’re going to be able to do something again together, because we work well with each other.
Were there any scenes that were especially difficult?
Yes, but not because they were hard to navigate; the scene where I get attacked was the most challenging, because I was literally taped to the front of the chair, I had this gag thing in my mouth, and even though I was hyperventilating as an actor, I still had to go through the motions of the scene. Even though I could laugh and make a joke about it after—and I think everyone on set appreciated that, because, like, the props guy felt so bad having to tape and untape me, and I wanted to make him feel comfortable—I still had to put across the physicality of having gone through something that was so uncomfortable and weird. That was probably the hardest.
Back when we talked about Silent House, you said that after that film and Martha Marcy May Marlene, you were looking forward to doing something lighter, getting out of the dark places…
And I did!
So how did it feel going back to the darkness again?
I missed it [laughs]! I did; that’s why I was like, “Oh, I want to do Oldboy!” I was actually choosing between Oldboy and this other film, and the other one was more along these light, ethereal lines, and I’m sure it’s going to be a beautiful film, but with the scheduling I had to pick one of them, and I was just like, “I want to do this one.” I wanted to work with Spike and I wanted to work with Josh.
Is Lee someone you’ve always wanted to collaborate with?
25th Hour is a film I love. I love Ed Norton, and I watched it when I was probably too young. I’ve always wanted to work with Spike, and I did my homework and saw as many of his movies as I could, and Spike’s just unique. You know when you’re watching a Spike Lee film, and it’s really cool that you can be flipping through the channels and come across one, and just based on the color and the angle of a shot, you know it’s Spike. That’s rare.
Did you get to read the manga that Oldboy is based on?
I flipped through it, yeah. I didn’t sit down and read it cover to cover, but we definitely looked through it. Josh had it, Spike had it, so it was always around in New Orleans.
Speaking of which, even though Oldboy was shot in New Orleans, which is a very colorful area, the movie’s location is very nonspecific.
Yeah, and that’s kind of how I feel about the whole film. Yes, there’s a year [it takes place in], that’s very clear with the 20 years that have passed, but it almost seems heightened from reality. Just the creativity and the brutal violence are so imaginative and odd that they don’t feel based in real life. Everything seems slightly off, and having it take place in a nondescript city makes it feel even more so. I think that’s really cool.
After Oldboy, you revisited more Asian-based territory with Godzilla.
Yeah, and we actually got to work with the original designers. This is the only American Godzilla they’ve had their hand in. It’s gonna be awesome. The clips I saw at Comic-Con were unbelievable. I was shocked, like, “I was in that movie? I was part of it? That’s crazy!”
It must have been a very different experience, coming from small, contained films and then being thrown into this gargantuan machine of a production.
There’s something really cool about that, because no matter what, you never know how the final edit will look. You never know what the final product’s gonna be. The funny thing to me about Godzilla is that I feel like that final element they’re going to put into it will justify all the weird shit I did. That almost helps you as an actor, in a way—like, I feel more taken care of because there’s a monster in the movie. All those weird reaction shots I did have a purpose now, you know?
So it was a lot of reacting to a tennis ball on a stick?
No, it was buildings. It was windows, it was eyelines. I just imagined snipers all over the place. Yeah, it was weird.