Martha Marcy May Marlene follows a young woman dealing with the aftermath of time spent in a rural cult-like commune. Writer/director Sean Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen—younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley—spoke to City Weekly by phone.
City Weekly: Elizabeth, you got a lot of attention at Sundance, initially for the curiosity factor of your family connections. Did you feel comfortable being that center of attention?
Elizabeth Olsen: When I decided [to be an actor], I knew it was something I’d have to address: “I didn’t know there was another child in that family!” … But maybe it’s just the way my dad raised us, when I’d hear someone say, “You’re the ‘It Girl’ of Sundance,” I’d think, “Only certain people pay attention to [Sundance] and the rest of the world doesn’t.” I try to get the bigger picture.
CW: There was a different angle here from other films about cults, in that Martha’s family isn’t actually aware she’s been in a cult.
Sean Durkin: I sort of compared it to domestic abuse, and found that people … often can’t confront what’s happening to them. And it’s hard for families to force the issue to get them help. I felt like, in any trauma of this sort, people always are alone at first.
CW: There’s a lot of ambiguity in the ending. How do you shoot a scene so that viewers aren’t entirely sure what a character is thinking?
SD: It was important that Martha was in this survival mode. … But we’d never say, “Okay, in this moment we need your facial expressions to relay this, this and this.” Because it’s too much to think about.
EO: I don’t know if I could answer without a spoiler alert. … For me, it was very important that all the fear was real. When someone is sick, even if it’s just paranoia, for them, it’s real.