Birth.Movies.Interview: Elizabeth Olsen On CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

The Scarlet Witch talks hand jazz and serious Visions.

In Captain America: CIvil War the biggest guns - the Hulk and Thor - are off the board. But Avengers: Age of Ultron introduced two other heavy hitters who are still making their presence known in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Paul Bettany as The Vision and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, aka The Scarlet Witch. And while you might expect them to be sidelined in a Captain America movie, the two of them - and especially Wanda - are central and have major arcs of their own. 

Elizabeth Olsen may have debuted in the MCU with Ultron, but Civil War feels like her true coming out party, as she is able to get deeper into the character of Wanda Maximoff and make her feel less like a side element and more like a person who can - and will - be central to the MCU. I'm glad that Olsen gets more room to breathe in this movie, because I've admired her since her debut in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a harrowing movie where she delivers the kind of fully realized performance that can only come from an actor brimming with raw talent. While Civil War is about as far away from MMMM as you can get in terms of budget and subject matter, that raw talent is still there, and Olsen takes a funny book role just as seriously as any other. 

One of the fears of interviewing an actor is that they'll have little to say, but when I sat down with Olsen I found her not only forthcoming but incredibly thoughtful. Oh, and totally charming - this was one of those interviews where I walked out of the room thinking we could be BFFs. Now THAT is good acting.

Wanda Maximoff has been a hard character for writers to write because she has so much going on. What’s your in to her as a character? I imagine she must be as hard to portray as she is to write.

I’ve talked about this - Joss really loved her a lot. So he really had a huge say in how she talked, how she looked, how she moved, what drove her. It was very tangible in Ultron, but now it’s become about her stepping into her role and her powers. Her position in the Marvel Universe is limitless - the only thing that limits her is her own mind, and the possibility of being caught up in how she manipulates reality or the trajectory of her maybe going a little insane. The things that have to be written always have to be some sort of inner struggle, and you want that to be as specific as possible. You can’t always have the same story every time, and I don’t think we’ve done that. Each time it’s different, and what happens at the beginning of Civil War would screw up anyone. She was saving someone that was very important, but wasn’t strong enough to be able to hold on a little more. She has to deal with the repercussions in her mind of killing people. That’s a different kind of conflict than, ‘Oh, how should I use my powers?’ She’s totally unsure if this is even a good idea anymore.

I think for me… I don’t know what the in is. If I could articulate it I wouldn’t anyway. But there is something I discovered from House of M, just from reading the comics, that made me enjoy how her mind functions.

That story is one we may never see in the films. For Tony Stark there’s the Demon in the Bottle story where he becomes an alcoholic, but the movies have never really gone there. For Wanda there’s no guarantee that she’ll go to this equally dark place in the movies. As an actress it’s interesting that you have an idea of where she goes in the comics, but she may never get there in the movies.

With source material you pick and choose what hooks you in. It will come through, if only because this is the way you understand something and it’s what gave you an idea. I feel like that’s what reading the comics did, whether or not they go there. I think they could have so much fun with her, though, and I think it’s definitely going to expand a lot, how she’s used. I’m not sure because they don’t tell me, but you hope so, because she’s someone who can link so many things together.

We didn’t want to do a lot of mind control stuff because we did so much of that in Ultron, so we focused on the inner struggle. And also on the idea that her powers aren’t just for destroying - she was able to help Cap out and use them in more clever ways.

You said that even if you knew what the in was you wouldn’t articulate it. Is that a very private thing for you?

I’ve always been like that. I remember doing press for Martha Marcy May Marlene, and it was my first time doing press, and people would ask me why I connected to her, what I brought from my personal life, and I remember thinking: ‘I’m not going to read your diary!’ That’s such a personal question!

Thats’ why I like source material so much, because it helps lead to that. But the movie I’m doing with Jeremy Renner right now there’s no source material, you make it all up. You make up the back story and everything. There’s a lot more writing, a lot more conversation, and then you find something that clicks and you’re like ‘Oh, that’s my secret.’

Kevin Feige has said that this movie has a Soderbergh level ensemble. As more people come into the MCU there are more chances for MCU actors to work with each other outside of costumes. You are shooting Wind River with Renner now, you did I Saw the Light with Hiddleston.

It’s really funny!

Is this the new Rat Pack?

I don’t know! But what makes me feel so lucky with Wind River is that I was attached to it for a while and then we needed a new actor and the first person our director wanted was Jeremy. Jeremy didn’t want to work, so he wasn’t going to read anything, but the reason he read is that I was in it. And that felt really good! Because we get along, and we joked about wanting to do something different together. Now working with him has been such an amazing working experience, and it’s totally different from Marvel. He was the first person to introduce me to this whole world when we were shooting in Italy, on Ultron. We were filming with like 400 extras, and I was like ‘What the fuck’ and he was able to say some things that really grounded and helped me. I remembered that when we were shooting Wind River the other day and I thought, ‘God, that’s so funny,’ because I am learning so much from him from a producer’s standpoint, of being an actor who isn’t trying to take control but is making his opinions clear. It’s really cool to work with him and learn that part of the job.

That must be useful in the Marvel movies, where you’re not playing the lead and your character is coming into other movies and you’re working with other directors. You want to be able to walk in and have a point of view of who Wanda is, and to make that point of view clear.

Yeah. The specific thing - because I think the Russos have a really cool idea of how to use her - but I think at first they were overwhelmed by her. They were like, ‘She can do anything. If someone is fighting she can end it quickly. I don’t know what to do!’ Now they, I think, are a little more comfortable in how to write her. It’s like they figured her out during filming.

But the thing they don’t care about - not that they don’t care about, but that they don’t have specific impact on - is the way I move. Joss had actual movements in his brain, and that’s how the movements started. We would try and hit these marks that Joss, literally in front of us did. He also has these funny knees and wrists and hands, and my choreographer Jenny and I were like, ‘Man, he really worked hard on this.’ But we’ve taken full control of that, and even if the Russos just say ‘She needs to launch Cap,’ we think ‘That’s not fun to look at, is it?’ So we figure out what’s more interesting. That’s ownership I love. Some people might think it’s random, but it’s not - it’s very intentional. After seeing pre-viz, where I can see why I’m doing what I’m doing, or what I’m picking up or what I’m throwing, in my head I’m doing all of that.

You have scenes with Paul Bettany as the Vision that could be really silly in another movie.

I know! You have a purple man talking to a girl who has red things coming out of her hand and they’re talking about how their powers are something that confuses them or scares them!

How do you find the humanity in this total weirdness?

Because what they’re talking about is something that makes them feel like an outcast or an outsider, and what connects them as two people is something they have in common where they feel like outcasts. Everybody has that in life… we just happen to be talking about the Mind Stone.

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