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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 4, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 44
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen of Martha Marcy May Marlene
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen of Martha Marcy May Marlene

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene is not an easy movie. It's the story of a young woman, Martha (brilliantly portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen), who after three mysterious years away comes home to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) and refuses to talk about where she's been or what she's experienced. It's an emotionally complex drama filled with numerous questions and very few answers, as the newbie writer/director forces the audience to come up with the answers for themselves.

For Olsen, taking on the role of Martha became something of an obsession. 'I don't get that feeling too often,' said 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 promote their film, and after sitting down with them in a small round-table situation at the downtown Fairmont Olympic Hotel, I knew immediately these were two artists passionate and proud about what they'd accomplished. Their eagerness to talk about the film sent our discussion into a variety of places. Like the movie itself, I was never quite sure what was going to happen next.

'I was so lucky [Sean] wanted an unknown for the part,' continued 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. & What's fun about [the audition] is it's 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, 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 admitted. '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. 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.

'We never called it a cult while we were shooting,' stated 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 members, Martha in particular. Each instance is intimate and distinct within itself, 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 ever looks or starts at the beginning. That's not the world I discovered in my research and talking with my friend. We needed to have a place that was appealing, a place where the audience could understand why someone as 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?' asked 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 your 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. 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 regard to this film. I don't remember all the difficult days I had, I just remember the good.'

Now that the movie has finally left the festival circuit and has entered the multiplex, both Durkin and Olsen are still taken a little aback by just how much buzz and acclaim their tiny independent production has managed to garner. 'It's surreal,' she candidly admitted. 'You're acting alongside people like John Hawkes and Sarah Paulson, and yet everyone keeps focusing on you. & 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.' As for the director, the excitement generated from the film's Sundance debut last January and the buzz

surrounding its slow platform release is something he doesn't take for granted. 'It's incredible,' he said with an exuberant smile. 'Making movies is a huge fight, just dealing with yourself to stay disciplined and focused is such a great challenge all on its own. It's so much work. It's just really rewarding when there's such a positive response, and while you don't do it for that, this doesn't make it any less wonderful. If you believe in what you're doing, if you put your heart and soul into it, good things will undoubtedly happen.'

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