Elizabeth Olsen wasn’t crazy about the version of her “Oldboy” character in the original film. The actress stars in the remake of the 2003 South Korean vengeance classic, playing a young woman who finds herself helping our lead (here played by Josh Brolin), a mysterious, haunted, angry man trying to track down the person who mysteriously imprisoned him for 20 years.
“She’s kind of a female tool. She has no past or life of her own,” Olsen says of the character in the original. Working with the screenwriter, Mark Protosevich, she sought to deepen the character, in part by giving her a history of drug abuse. “There’s only a coupledays in this movie. And for a girl who’s so damaged to throw herself at some guy — I’m not interested in that story.
In addition to being an up-and-comer — and due for both the latest “Godzilla” cash cow and the Scarlet Witch in “The Avengers” sequel — Olsen is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. That an Olsen sister could be a terrific actress shouldn’t be that shocking, and from her loopy, distant breakthrough in the unsettling indie “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” she’s excelled at playing grounded, serious characters, as in “Liberal Arts,” “Peace, Love and Misunderstanding” and “Kill Your Darlings.”
In “Oldboy” she’s the calm center of what is otherwise a garish and nutty film, specially crafted by its director, Spike Lee. Olsen was attached to the film before he came on. “’25th Hour’ was my first knowledge of Spike,” she explains, referring to his 2002 drama about a drug dealer (Edward Norton) on his last day before going to jail. “I saw it when I was probably too young to see it. I loved it. I loved Ed Norton. That was my ‘Ed Norton is my favorite actor’ phase in high school. When I got this job, I did all my proper Spike Lee homework.” She still counts “25th Hour” as her favorite, tied with “Do the Right Thing.”
“He brings a lot,” Olsen says of Lee, of his well-known respect from major actors. “But it’s also just the idea of, ‘Yeah, I did the Spike Lee movie.’ He’s just one of those guys who’s so epic to get to work with.” It’s more than that, of course. “On set, he makes the happiest crew. He cares so much. He isn’t rude to anyone. He’s inspiring, he’s fun. And he lets you do your thing. He coaches you as directly as possible, and that’s all I ever want.”
Lee’s films are filled with a generosity and an interest in what a variety of people think and say — even things Lee himself may not agree with. He’s like that in life, too. “The first thing he did was ask me what I thought of a scene. I told him I wasn’t in this scene. He said, ‘I know, but what do you think about it?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know, it’s not good.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I don’t think so either, I think we’re going to change it.’” He even asked her if she liked her character name, then changed it on her suggestion. “That was our first time meeting. He cares. He really cares about your opinion.”