The path for “Martha Marcy May Marlene” began way back at the Sundance Film Festival in January. In the cold chill of Park City, Utah, a dark yarn bewitched audiences and a breakout actress was announced to the world.
It might have been a bit of déjà vu for actor John Hawkes. Just 12 months prior, the same narrative was being spun out of the festival.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is so odd,'” he says. “‘In less than two years I’m working with two young women who are extremely talented and dedicated and smart and have a very healthy approach to their work, and an effective one.”
The two actresses in question are Jennifer Lawrence, who starred alongside Hawkes in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” and Elizabeth Olsen, who shares the screen this year in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” It’s probably a bit unfair that one film is so often compared to the other, but the outward parallels of the two are difficult to ignore.
“They’re very different actresses, but both, I guess, surprisingly beyond their years,” Hawkes says of Lawrence and Olsen. “Lizzy was, as Jennifer was, game for the difficulties in difficult scenes that we shot and she was tireless. She’s in nearly every frame of the film. And like Jennifer, she’s able to kind of let that darkness go when the camera stops rolling. She has a great gift. I was just hugely impressed.”
The Sundance experience has meant a lot to Hawkes over the years. In addition to these two films, he’s had the pleasure of working at the festival’s film lab as an actor a few times, helping out first-time writer/directors, and he always enjoys himself. But while the experience of working on a film and seeing it through the PR experience might be a bit of old hat for Hawkes, it’s all very new for Olsen.
The younger sister of actresses Mary-Kate and Ashley (of “Full House” fame), Olsen took a different approach to her career. She’s reticent to discuss how the journey of her sisters through the surely difficult rigors of a child actor’s lifestyle might have influenced her decision, but she went to school at NYU and took her time before taking the plunge. And in so doing she’s offered up one of the most impressive debut performances of all time.
“I knew in high school I probably wouldn’t be able to handle that type of pressure,” she says. “So I just decided to continue studying and just focused on being as confident as possible in what I do before ever working professionally.”
She took on some understudy parts in theater, found her way to an agent and really just sought out an organic approach to wading into these waters, she says. Within the first seven months of auditioning for film roles, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” came along, and she saw it as an opportunity, though she wasn’t sure what would come of that opportunity.
“I just knew that it was a great part to grow from and learn from and try to explore and it would be my first time playing a lead,” she says. “And all that was just a great learning experience.”
In the film, Olsen plays an impressionable young lady who finds herself drawn into a cult in the Catskill Mountains. Though both Olsen and Hawkes prefer not to call it a “cult” so much as a community, but the fact is, it’s a scary, foreboding community. Writer/director Sean Durkin has said his intention was to make a cult film that wasn’t over the top but rather in a way that was modern and naturalistic, that felt like it could actually happen.
Obviously Hawkes and Olsen didn’t run off to join a cult in order to prepare for their roles, but for Hawkes, a self-confessed “over-preparer,” he says it was more a process of subtraction.
“I knew that I wasn’t interested in an over-the-top portrayal as this cult leader,” he says. “And the word ‘cult’ is not even in the script. It just conjures up so many images that lead straight to a kind of shorthand that I think the film really avoids and tells a much different story than what we normally see around cults. So I guess you’d say I work by subtraction. I always, as an actor, consider what is the story and then how can the character I’m playing help best tell that story.”
The instant Hawkes’s character appears on the screen, he says it would have been a mistake for him to appear as the personification of evil or the devil incarnate. It would take away from the character, he says, so a more shaded and nuanced approach was preferable, if for no other reason than it gives Olsen’s character credibility.
“If the character, Patrick, is someone that isn’t so obviously troubled,” he says, “if it’s a guy who, as an audience member, you can say, ‘Well I can see how she would want to follow him or how she fell in with those people,'” that makes for a better story.”
Having a weathered character actor like Hawkes on the set, who Olsen calls a “giving” and “selfless” actor, was a huge bonus for the actress. She was already in the middle of shooting another film, “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding,” and she was driving back and forth from one set to the other each day due a week’s overlap in filming. So any chance to keep things grounded was naturally a welcome commodity.
“I appreciated the fact that he’s not an actor who tries to play games or get inside your head and all those things,” she says. “And what I learned from him and from Sarah [Paulson] was how much you can give to an actor when you’re not on camera, because he would find moments where he would just be delivering me lines off camera.
“Obviously you always just try and stay present and as giving as possible to another actor when it’s their coverage, but I didn’t realize that you could do something more, because you can change the sound, you know? And I didn’t really realize how much can happen in post. So he would throw me off when we were doing my coverage and he’d think of great things to say to get a reaction out of me and I was so thankful to him at those moments.”
Hawkes is coming off his first Oscar nomination (for “Winter’s Bone”), and that was a moment he wasn’t expecting. “I don’t think I was really thought of as one of the five, necessarily, on a lot of people’s radar,” he says humbly. “I think I live by pretty low expectation in general, so I wasn’t really going to be too upset if it didn’t happen. But I was quite surprised that it did and I know that my family members and friends were all really excited and proud. It was great.”
This year, he’s certainly in the running again, given the presence he has in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” but it’s Olsen who is really the breakout of the film and could be the one surprised to find herself in the line-up on Oscar morning.
And wouldn’t that be serendipitous? After all, as always, the nominations will be announced while the Sundance Film Festival is right in the thick of things, on January 24.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” opens in limited release Friday, October 21.