Inside the cult of ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen are teacher and student ... and then something more, in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which is in theaters now.

You’d think that celebrated actor John Hawkes, 52, and newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, 22, might lack a rapport after having shot a number of fiercely awkward scenes in their new film, “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” The former plays the charismatic leader of a small cult in the Catskills and the latter plays one of his newest followers — for whom he has both a paternal and somewhat romantic affection. Fortunately, the two actors are plenty comfortable talking about all of their strange and disturbing on-screen moments together.

The cult initiation scene is especially tough to watch. What’s the most difficult part of filming something like that?

Hawkes: One of the creepiest things about that was that there were rats in that little spot, and I really dislike rats. We were all hoping — [to Olsen] perhaps not you, because you were on the ground — but that one would just kind of run through in the background. And that’s the thing. Another actress could’ve been really beyond difficult. Maybe even un-shootable. But Lizzie was so — I think you were just so green you had no clue.

Olsen: I had no idea. I was like, “You want me to do what? OK.”

Hawkes: She was really game and courageous.

One of the most fascinating things about the movie is the cult itself. Did you work out a backstory for the group?

Hawkes: I think that [director Sean Durkin’s] approach wasn’t to be obtuse for that sake — but more that it’s the most interesting way to tell the story. That’s part of the haunting aspect of it, that it’s not all answered for you and there’s a lot of room for you to fill in details. It’s a satisfying thing having it that way rather than having it all sledgehammered into your head.

The real ‘It’ girl

Liz, so much press for this film has discussed you as being the new “It” girl. Since you’ve been exposed to fame from a young age with your sisters [Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen], do you think you’ve handled this attention differently than an outsider would have?

Maybe. But it’s not just my family. It’s also growing up in L.A. and having lots of my friends, their parents being professionals in this business as well, in all different aspects. I never thought of acting as the carpets and the glitter or whatever. I always thought of it as work.


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