Cult of Personality
Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen Discuss Martha Marcy May Marlene
Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene is not an easy movie. The story of a young woman, Martha (brilliantly portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen), who after three years mysteriously away comes home to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) refusing to talk or speak about where she’s been or what she’s experienced. It’s an emotionally complex drama filled with numerous questions and very few answers, the newbie writer/director forcing the audience to come up with the answers to the majority of them for themselves.
Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene © Fox Searchlight
For Olsen, taking on the role of Martha became something of an obsession. “I don’t get that feeling too often,” says the young actress. “That feeling that a role was meant to be mine; that I was born to play it. I don’t if that’s because of fear or lack of confidence or the fact this was only my second movie, but when I read [Sean’s] script I knew immediately this was something I wanted to do and I felt like I was capable of inhabiting this character.”
Both Olsen and Durkin were here in Seattle for a couple of days to do promotion for their film, and sitting down with the pair of them in a small round table situation at the downtown Fairmont Olympic Hotel one knew immediately these were two artists passionate and proud about what they’d been able to accomplish. Their collective eagerness to talk about the film sent out discussion into a variety of places, and almost like the movie itself I was never quite sure what was going to happen next.
“I was so luck [Sean] wanted an unknown for the part,” continues the actress. “It’s really hard when you first start working and the fact he was open to a newcomer at least gave me a shot. So I went into the audition as prepared as I could be, and what’s fun about that is [the audition] is the only time the character is completely your own. Everything you do is yours. And in this case I tried to bring as much as I thought was necessary for the character – I wore no makeup, my hair was a mess, I made a point to try and look like I’d just rolled out of bed – and thankfully when I met Sean he seemed to respond to my approach.”
While an entirely original idea, Durkin was struck when he first fleshed out his scenario on paper to discover one of his closest friends was actually the survivor of a cult much like the one he was intent on depicting. Much like Martha, it took ages for her to be able to speak about her experiences, and even when she was finally able to the doing so was at times far more painful than cathartic, a fact the director couldn’t help but take note of.
“It was crazy,” he admits. “I had just started working on the film and I was writing and I felt like it was going pretty well and, I don’t know, suddenly she just decided to share her story with me. We talked a lot, actually, over the course of a couple of years in fact. It was interesting because I’d read a lot about manipulation and what living within a cult is like and the things she said matched all of that almost down the line. It was like I was already going down the right path and she just confirmed that, was able to talk about things she had seen and had experienced that made what I was writing about even more real and human.”
At the same time, calling the commune run by actor John Hawkes’ character Patrick a cult might be slightly disingenuous. The director made it a point to leave what was going on at the farm, the way people were behaving, why they were falling under this man’s spell as nondescript as he could while still giving the audience all they would need to piece everything together for themselves. For both Durkin and Olsen, this was an extremely important element that made the main character’s journey all the more emotionally complex and fascinating.
Sean Durkin, writer and director of Martha Marcy May Marlene
© Fox Searchlight
“We never called it a cult while we were shooting,” states the filmmaker. “We never used the word. It’s a dysfunctional family, a very dysfunctional family, and through Patrick it is one that is full of manipulative power that has quite a crushing effect upon some of its member, Martha in particular. Each instance is intimate and distinct within themselves, the members of this family not thinking, maybe even refusing to think, about the larger ideas.”
“The first thing I knew at the very beginning was I didn’t want a religious sermon sort of feel, I didn’t want that crazy wide-eyed women with shaved heads thing going on. That’s now how it every looks or starts at the beginning. That’s not the world I discovered in my research and with talking with my friend. We needed to have a place that was appealing, a place where the audience could understand why someone has smart and as confident and Martha could allow herself to fall under Patrick’s spell. There are some good, wholesome values there that a person could be drawn to. They just get manipulated.”
“You know what’s funny?” asks Olsen. “I feel like because I had just finished my third year of acting conservatory, all you do is run the gamut of human emotions from class to class. I think when you’re instrument is used to it, when it has been exercised so well, you’re able to access certain things you’d never imagine you could have otherwise.”
“The hard part is crafting the story. Giving things specificity. Making sure there is a clear journey. That’s the harder part. So what was so exciting about this script and then about the way we shot the movie itself is that Martha was like this large playground that [I] got to play on and it wasn’t like I could just hang on the monkey bars as you could in say a genre specific film. It was being able to access as much of yourself as you could, to be able to explore. It was this fun thing to do. Maybe that makes me a bit of a masochist but, seriously, playing Martha was a fun thing to do. When women give birth they have this release of biochemicals of something that makes them forget the pain. I feel like that happened with me in regards to this film. I don’t remember all the difficult days I had. I just remember the good.”
In the end, now that the movie has finally left the festival circuit and has entered the multiplex for consumption by the general public, both Durkin and Olsen are still taken a little aback by just how much buzz and acclaim their tiny independent has managed to garner, the latter in particular. “It’s surreal,” she candidly admits. “You’re acting alongside people like John Hawkes and Sarah Paulson and yet everyone keeps focusing on you.”
“I try not to notice it, and unless I’m in an interview I usually can. But all the Oscar talk and all of that is flattering, and I’m honored my performance is being discussed in that way, but it isn’t something you have any control over so you can’t really dwell on it. At the end of the day I’m still the same person, my friends still forget to return my phone calls and I still have to get dressed and go to work in the morning like everyone else. It’s exciting, and if I’d asked myself a year ago if I’d be sitting here right now I’d have said I was crazy. But as cool as it all is I still have to live my life and remain who I am. That’s the most important thing.”
Olsen and Durkin on the set of Martha Marcy May Marlene © Fox Searchlight