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Elizabeth Olsen Rises From the Shadow of Her Famous Sisters

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Elizabeth Olsen stars as a young woman struggling to put behind her a terrifying two-year stay with a cult in this 2011 Sundance hit co-starring Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes and Hugh Dancy. Opens July 10.

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How exactly does an actress go from being "the Olsen Twins' younger sister" to a critically acclaimed breakout star hustling to the top of every major award shortlist? 

“I was new, young and naive, and I just really wanted the job,” chuckles 22-year-old Elizabeth “Lizzie” Olsen.

Olsen debuts this week in the tense indie “Martha Marcy May Marlene” – playing a young woman who walks out of a cult-like group and struggles to resume an mainstream life and reestablish a relationship with her disconnected sister (Sarah Paulson). It's generated so much festival buzz (it catapulted Olsen to instant "It Girl" status at this year's Sundance Film Festival) that Oscar voters are eagerly awaiting their screener discs.

Olsen, a student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, says she's done some due diligence researching what the lives of former cult members were like, but was encouraged to make the character her own.

“If I had talked to someone who inspired some of the events in the story, I would feel like I owed them reverence in a weird way,” says Olsen. “I’d want to tell their story, and this is a made-up story from Sean’s imagination. There also wasn’t really much time, which was to my advantage because I didn’t second-guess all these things.”

Of course, Olsen probably knows some folks may be second-guessing how she came by the part: Her 25-year-old twin sisters were darlings of the 1980s and 1990s as they took turns starring as the adorable Michelle Tanner on the hit show "Full House." They later went on to star in a series of sweet, teen-oriented movies and today are accomplished fashion designers behind The Row and Elizabeth and James.

But the youngest Olsen landed the role on her own merits, says writer-director Sean Durkin.

“We never stopped to think about it,” says Durkin. “[The Olsen twins connection] obviously crosses your mind for a second, but literally for a second. For this we decided we wanted an unknown actress, and she was one of almost 50 people to audition.

"And that was it – she was just the best person. She has an ease about her performance. She never feels like she’s trying, and she can convey a lot with her eyes without saying anything." 

Even before early rave reviews began rolling in for Olsen’s impressive debut, her co-stars say they recognized on set that the actress was delivering a particularly exceptional performance.

“I think it’s pretty remarkable," says John Hawkes, the Oscar nominated “Winter’s Bone” actor who plays the half-magnetic, half-creepy leader of the cultish community: “Having worked with Jennifer Lawrence the year before and now Lizzie, I feel elated and lifted, and have a great deal of hope for what’s coming along.”

Olsen says she's eagerly anticipating the reaction of more mainstream moviegoers. “What I think is so fascinating about this film is that it’s a new cinematic experience. It’s a new way of telling a story. It’s something that we’re not used to.”

“That’s why I’m more interested for people like my father to see the movie,” she adds. “When he saw it, I knew he was going to be frustrated that things weren’t tied up at the end.

And he was, but he liked it – and not just because I’m his daughter. He thought it was an interesting story, and thought it was deeply disturbing, but he enjoyed watching it, and he enjoyed not knowing what was going to happen and not really understanding everything. I hope that other people, who just like going to see movies, will have that experience, and not just fight against it, but be game for it.”

“Martha Marcy May Marlene" opens in limited release Friday Oct. 21

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