Elizabeth Olsen’s Guide to Screen Chemistry

Photo: The Weinstein Company, Neon and Marvel

To hear Elizabeth Olsen tell it, good acting usually requires a good scene partner. “It’s harder for me to do it on my own!” she told Vulture recently in Los Angeles. “It’s a lot easier when you’ve got someone there with you.”
Of course, most critics would argue that Olsen is a fine actress no matter who her co-star is: Since hopping onto Hollywood’s radar in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, she’s been one of the most in-demand young women in acting. Still, since she so often stars in two-handers — or, even in the massive Marvel movies, drills down and find something intimate with a fellow superhero — Vulture decided to give her a chemistry test. What has she learned from working with some of her most notable scene partners, such as Jeremy Renner (with whom she co-stars in multiple Marvel films as well as this weekend’s Wind River), Ingrid Goes West’s Aubrey Plaza (their film’s out August 11) , and her Marvel beau Paul Bettany?

“You just want to feel like you trust the actors you’re around,” Olsen said, “so you can forget about all those people watching you and just be present.”

Jeremy Renner
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Wind River (2017)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

In part because of their long-running Marvel contracts, Olsen has started working with Jeremy Renner on a near-annual basis. Still, the first day they filmed together on Avengers: Age of Ultron, she worried about what she had gotten herself into. “I was intimidated by him because of his dryness and because he doesn’t sugarcoat things,” said Olsen, adding with a laugh, “He’s not overly friendly.”

Added to the Marvel cinematic universe in that film as the telekinetic Wanda Maximoff (also known as the Scarlet Witch), Olsen had segued from low-budget indies to one of the biggest tentpoles imaginable. As she tried to keep up on that daunting first day in Italy, while ushering hundreds of extras into an airship alongside Renner’s Hawkeye, Olsen began to panic. “My character had these powers I was trying to figure out for the first time,” she said, “and I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”

Fortunately, Renner came to her rescue. “I asked him, ‘This is really overwhelming — what do you even focus on?’ And he started talking about his character’s family, and how that roots him into something tangible,” said Olsen. “That’s exactly what you should be doing, and I should have already known that before starting: that you need to find something tangible in these moments of chaos.”

Renner’s ability to stay grounded came in handy when shooting Wind River, in which Olsen plays an FBI agent who comes to rely on Renner’s Alaskan game-tracker to solve a murder. “He really is incredibly present on-screen,” said Olsen. “He’s there for you. Sometimes when you work with people, you’re acting with them, but they’re just thinking about what they’re gonna do next. That’s a really annoying feeling on the other end, and I’m sure I might have done that at some point as well! But with Jeremy, we both know that we both have to be present for the rope to stay taut.”

And now that Olsen has come to appreciate Renner’s no-bullshit attitude, she can play around with it. “It’s fun to poke at him a bit so that he knows you see him,” she said. “Like an ‘I have your number’ sort of thing. We don’t really need someone to be fluffy with us.”

Aubrey Plaza
Ingrid Goes West (2017)

It’s the young actress’s lot in life: Since so many movies are geared toward men, there aren’t many opportunities to play more than just the love interest or the single significant female character. That’s why Olsen is so excited about her upcoming comedy Ingrid Goes West, which marks the first time in years that she’s gotten to co-lead a movie with another woman, Aubrey Plaza.

“It’s sad that it’s so rare, because it’s some of the most fun you’ll have working,” says Olsen. “I’m sure it could be the worst if you’re paired with someone who’s not a girl’s girl, but working with Aubrey on this was just so great.”

In the film from first-time director Matt Spicer, Plaza plays the titular Ingrid, who moves to Venice, California, to befriend social-media “influencer” Taylor Sloane (Olsen), the object of her Instagram obsession. A wiser woman might cotton on to Ingrid’s unhealthy interest in her, but the narcissistic Taylor enjoys being adored. “She’s not a complete idiot, but she’s thinking so much about her image and how she’s coming across that she doesn’t realize,” laughed Olsen. “Anything Ingrid says where someone else would think, ‘That’s weird,’ Taylor thinks is a compliment.”

Since Plaza hails from improv-heavy projects such as Parks and Recreation, Olsen was initially curious if their acting styles would mesh. “I would have said a year ago that I hate improvising and I’m scared of doing it,” she said. “I felt like there was a pressure to be funny, but if you get rid of that, you realize that improvising is just trying to be, in some weird way, as interested in the character as you are in yourself.”

Improvising also requires you to listen to your co-star, and Olsen says she hit it off with Plaza so fast that the two actresses immediately began pushing their characters further and further, just to see what hilarious remark the other would come up with. “A lot of it was just trying to throw the other one off, or make the other one uncomfortable in some way,” said Olsen. “Both of us would get disgusted by some of the things that we came up with — you don’t want to admit that you understand these people so well that you can improvise anything they’d say.”

Now, though, Olsen is chomping at the bit to explore more of her comic chemistry with other actors, and recently shot the indie Kodachrome opposite Jason Sudeikis. “After Ingrid Goes West, I was like, ‘Put me in any movie with a comedian!’” she said. “I just think it’s so much fun.”

Paul Bettany
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

“Sometimes when you’re on a movie with a lot of money and a lot of people helping you, the stars can kind of lean into the whole ‘I’m an ac-tor’ thing,” said Olsen, mockingly enunciating that last syllable. Fortunately, there’s an absence of thespian ego when working with Paul Bettany, whose Marvel character Vision has now become Olsen’s primary scene partner.

“Being on set with him is a lot lighter,” she said. “We might talk about wire work and feeling uncomfortable getting swung all over the place, but then we would make these sarcastic jokes with each other: ‘Oh, if only people knew how difficult our lives are! We’re on a big movie being paid well to do something we love to do. It’s so hard.’ There’s always that sense of perspective when I’m working with him.”

That levity comes in handy when portraying one of the Marvel series’ most unusual relationships: Though they were pitted against each other in Captain America: Civil War, android Vision and witchy Wanda have a bond that’s hard to break. “I think it’s a really strange and touching relationship,” said Olsen. “Even though he’s a robot, they have this Romeo-and-Juliet kind of arc, or even a ‘will-they-won’t-they’ kind of thing.”

So … will they? In the comic books, Vision and Wanda get together, but in the Marvel movies that have come out so far, Olsen and Bettany shared significantly loaded scenes without any sort of romantic consummation. According to Olsen, though, a potential love connection has been in the works ever since Vision lifted Wanda out of some wreckage in the Joss Whedon-directed Age of Ultron. If you picked up on their chemistry even in that brief scene, it was by design.

“Joss obviously didn’t write the one we’re working on now, but I remember on Age of Ultron, he said, ‘Hopefully, Marvel will continue this.’ Since then, I’ve definitely made it a point to keep that thread, and I know Paul has as well,” she said. And while Olsen won’t confirm exactly where things go in the still-shooting Avengers: Infinity War, the poster and secret trailer seem to bring Wanda and Vision even closer. “I do think it’s exciting to have that payoff,” said Olsen. “Sometimes you look at an older Marvel movie and you can see the actors trying to tilt towards a story in the future but maybe the writers and creators didn’t want to go down that road. Luckily, with [Infinity War], we got that through-line.”

Elizabeth Olsen’s Guide to Screen Chemistry With Your Costar