At the Cannes Film Festival premiere of Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, Elizabeth Olsen climbs onstage inside the iconic Palais des Festivals et des Congrès de Cannes. Looking old-school glam in a plunging blush-colored Miu Miu gown, she takes in the scene, smiling as the audience delivers its enthusiastic applause and Sheridan introduces the film. It is not Olsen’s first time at Cannes, but from her perspective, it might as well be. “The first time I was here, I didn’t soak it in,” says the actress during our beachside stroll the next day. “I was overwhelmed, and I don’t have very many memories of being present.”
This time would be different, she determined, starting with the decision to clutch her pink heels in her hand while onstage. “During Sundance, I had a bit of a panic attack when we were onstage. You have all the lights on you, and there’s really no point of focus. I hate it. It freaks me out. So, I thought, ‘I’m going to take my shoes off.’ And I remember every moment,” she says.
As not even a 2am post-premiere photo call manages to rattle the actress, you get the sense Olsen knows not only how to navigate the chaos that is the world’s most renowned film festival, but is also competently steering a career that, in the past seven years, has launched her to fame far beyond what maybe even she expected. “Now that I feel a bit more solid about what I’m making and I have a very clear intention for myself, I’m a happier person,” explains the 28-year-old. “I’ve started to figure out how I want to function as a human being in the world and balance it with work.”
She may feel like she is only now coming into herself, but from the outside, it seems like Olsen has always had a strong sense of direction. While the actress has, in the past seven years, made an impressive 18 films—ranging from well-received indies like Martha Marcy May Marlene to major blockbusters like Godzilla and The Avengers films—her love of acting and performing was established long before her 21st birthday.
The youngest sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley made her on-screen debut at age 4 in her siblings’ films, before deciding at age 7 she would not pursue the same path as her famous sisters. “I did try and audition when I was younger. I thought, ‘Well that sounds fun. I see what my sisters do.’ I went on a few auditions, Spy Kids being the first one, and they asked me to read the script. It looked bigger than the Bible to me,” Olsen recalls. “I didn’t understand why I would ever read something that big. I realized I would miss out on after-school sports and forfeit things I enjoyed doing at a young age. My dad had me write a list of pros and cons, and the cons side was bigger. I decided to stick to my after-school activities.”
Despite the 15-year hole in her résumé, Olsen never gave up acting. “The [activities] my family [came out to support] me in were probably painful to watch,” she laughs. “From ballet recitals to plays to some experimental things—it was constant. But [these] were hobbies, not a job.” They were, however, the things she cared about the most. After high school, Olsen enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she learned the discipline of the craft, even spending a semester at the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia. “All these teachers [were] trying to scare [us], letting [us] know that [acting] is hard and you’re going to be rejected 99 percent of the time. Every time someone said it to me, it was a challenge, like, ‘I’ll show you.’”
That, she did. Olsen’s breakout role came as the titular character in Martha Marcy May Marlene, about a young girl who, after several years of living with a cult, manages to escape. The film, which garnered numerous critics’ awards and brought her to Cannes for the first time, launched a noteworthy career out of the gate. “I’m so lucky [director] Sean Durkin wanted to go with someone who had literally no film experience,” says Olsen. “I think the reason Sean liked the idea was because I didn’t know what I looked like on camera, and I didn’t care about what angle of my face looked good. It added to the awkwardness of Martha.” The experience, which Olsen says took place during a restless time in her personal life, cemented her love for acting. “My favorite thing about working and being on set as an actor is having to be so present in what you’re doing,” she says. “It’s such a relief—it’s almost meditative. The only thing that matters is the moment.”
Her glorious debut was more luck than strategy, Olsen admits. She eagerly tried out for guest roles on TV procedurals like CSI and Blue Bloods early on in her career, reading every script that came her way. “[In the beginning] I was like, ‘What? You want to hire me? Sign me up!’ I was a mess,” she laughs. “But, now, there’s more of an intention behind it. I’m happy to go from one project to the next, but there has to be a reason to do it. And if there isn’t, then I’m going to be unemployed and figure out how to keep myself busy.”
She was immediately drawn to no-nonsense FBI Agent Jane Banner in the thriller Wind River, which recently hit theaters and required learning how to operate a gun and assert authority in dangerous situations. “I’m scared of everything, and I get to play someone who is in control and confident,” she says. “To get to find that inside of you is a thrilling thing to do.” Olsen also looks for films with social commentary, like Ingrid Goes West, where she stars as a social media influencer who becomes the obsession of a mentally unstable fan. “I’m hoping to generate a better through line within the work I’m interested in and the work I find intriguing,” she says, “which doesn’t mean it’s all serious and poignant messages. I also think a sense of humor is important.”
The world of social media is still a mystery to Olsen, who only started exploring Instagram as a way to research her character. Even the idea of a public persona appears to perplex the actress, who, early on, received tips from her sisters about life in the spotlight. “They’re very tight-lipped—notoriously so—and I was not caring what I was saying [in interviews] because I’d assumed no one would read it,” says Olsen. “That’s when we’d have conversations. They’d say, ‘You know, even if you don’t think anyone’s going to read this article, someone might pull the quote later for [something else].’ It’s all part of how you hope someone interprets you, and how they frame who you are and the work you do.” That advice is now what keeps her from divulging much about her private life, which, according to news sources, currently includes musician boyfriend Robbie Arnett. “If it only involves me, then I’ll share it, but if it involves another party, ever, then I won’t,” she states. “I don’t want to tell anyone else’s story.”
Olsen’s story is that she is laying down roots. For the past 2 ½ years, she has lived in Los Angeles, where she was raised, and feels like it is home. “In New York, I felt so confined to such a small space, and I would feel guilty if I wasn’t out all day,” she says. “[Here] I have friends over for dinner more nights than I don’t. I take advantage of having a deck. I cook more than I ever did in New York. I don’t feel bad about being in my home.” So much so that she eventually sees herself filling it with a family of her own. “I just bought a house for the first time. It’s very exciting. I’m renovating it right now, which has been so much fun and stimulating creatively,” she says. “But I was also thinking, ‘There’s this small room upstairs, which would be good for a kid.’ I don’t know where things will lead, but I do think about it in that way: ‘I think I could raise kids here.’”
That, however, seems to be way off in the future. At this point in time, Olsen looks forward to another milestone. “Your 30s sounds like the best decade for a woman. I can’t wait!” she exclaims. “I still deal with so many anxieties of how I come across. I’ll go home at night, spinning with a guilt complex of, ‘Did I say something stupid to that person who I respect? Do they think I’m a freak?’ I don’t want to think like that anymore. What’s so beautiful about being older and wiser is you are sitting heavier in your shoes with your feet on the ground.” Or, as the case may be for Olsen, with your shoes clutched in your hand.
Photographed by John Russo | Styled by Jacqueline Zenere | Art direction by James Aguiar//Hair by Mark Townsend for Dove Hair Care at Starworks Artists | Makeup by Georgie Eisdell at The Wall Group using Chanel Palette Essentielle | Manicure by Stephanie Stone at Forward Artists using Chanel//Assistant to Mark Townsend: Clay Hawkins; Photo Assistants: Jackie Brutchey and Jason Bush | Producer: Justin Miller