“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” (“M”) written and directed by Sean Durkin, is a compelling psychological thriller that mines the depths of the cult experience of a young woman played by Elizabeth Olsen, who gives a break out, “Oscar buzz” performance as the troubled Martha. Olsen is part of the successful entrepreneurial Olsen clan that includes Mary-Kate, Trent, and Ashley.
John Hawkes has been a successful working actor since 1985. A consummate character actor, he has appeared in dozens of films and some of the most successful television programs, including the highly acclaimed “Deadwood,” “Monk,” “24,” and “Lost.” Some of his movie credits include “The Perfect Storm,” “American Gangster,” and “Me You and Everyone We Know,” which won the special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Camera d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Hawkes received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his gripping performance as Teardrop in the award-winning film, “Winter’s Bone.” He gives yet another stirring performance in “M” as Patrick, the enigmatic cult leader.
Sarah Paulson received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on Sunset Strip.” She trained in New York at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the High School for Performing Arts, making her Broadway debut in Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosenweig.” Her television credits include guest appearances on “Law & Order,” “Deadwood,” and “Desperate Housewives.” She is probably most recognized for her performance on the supernatural drama, “American Gothic.” Paulson co-stars in “M” as Lucy, Martha’s older, estranged sister who, along with her husband Ted, very well played by Hugh Dancy, tries to deal with the traumatic aftermath of Martha’s cult experience.
The following interview, conducted at a recent press conference, has been edited for continuity and print purposes.
Did you base your character on anyone who actually belonged to a cult?
Olsen: There was only one person that I had entertained the idea of meeting who I thought would understand the emotionality of this character, but when I thought about it, I didn’t want to meet her because then I’d feel like I’d have to tell her story. Also, I thought her life was very private and there was no need to invade her privacy for something that is actually fictitious.
As you immersed yourself in Martha, did you find yourself getting depressed?
Olsen: I keep myself very separate from what I work on. It’s very clear in my head that I am not that person I’m pretending to be. When you have to relate in some way, you’ll have harder, more draining days than others and get more tired. It was emotionally exhausting, but we did have a lot of fun so I didn’t feel like it was heavy all the time.
John, you’re an amazing actor and are comfortable in any medium, from stage to film to television. Do you use a different technique depending on the medium?
Hawkes: I think so. I feel like it’s always trying to find your part as a character in a story and how you can best tell that story, so that rule doesn’t change. It has to do more with if you’re on stage, obviously the audience is in a set position far away from you, but if you’re filming, the audience is often a foot away from your face, depending on where the camera is placed, so that causes you to adjust your performance. The thing about stage is you can’t be edited and that’s pretty exciting. On the other hand, the one thing I love about film is that you can be edited, so it’s kind of a double-edged sword.
Did you base your character on someone you know?
Hawkes: I often draw from personal sources, including family members and friends or people I’ve met along the way. For the character of Patrick, I took a different tact and wasn’t interested in trying to ape anyone’s previous performance as a cult leader and there was no one in life that I wanted to draw from. I wanted to feel like Patrick fell from the sky and landed in this place. The whole film is elusive and deals so much with questions and mystery, that I almost wanted the character to be a mystery to the audience, and I wanted him to be a mystery to me, as well.
Sarah, you’ve done stage, film, and television. Which medium do you prefer in terms of developing a character?
Paulson: I prefer doing theater to almost anything just because it’s an experience where the focus or the attention is paid on the entire journey that the character takes – the beginning, the middle, and the end. I love the idea of continuing to explore every night and every time you go out there, it’s a new opportunity. You can have a bad show one night and the next night you have a new opportunity. The audience only remembers the last thing they saw, so you if have a really (expletive) false moment, you can find a way that something really organic is born out of that moment and they’ll only remember how you leave them. I always feel like I figure out what to do with the part most clearly on the last day of performance.
Have your successful siblings influenced your career?
Olsen: Perhaps somehow they did influence me, but I never made choices based on the choices they made. I always made choices based on following how my path was going. Obviously, your family influences you in every choice you make, one way or another, but, this was something I always wanted to do and went about it in a different way and was in a position where I could go about it in a different way.
Did you always want to be an actress?
Olsen: Yes. I was a theater camp kid and was always creating movies and plays in the playground with my friends. Instead of playing, we would be rehearsing musicals we wrote. I was always around creative people growing up in the Valley (San Fernando Valley). I had great teachers in high school who gave me the confidence to pursue acting for real instead of just a fun fantasy.
John, were you worried that the character of Teardrop in “Winter’s Bone” might be similar to your character in this movie?
Hawkes: I had a minor trepidation that it might be sort of rehashing that territory, but it was fleeting. They’re very different projects and the characters have an opposite arc. They’re both rough guys in the woods, but the characters are very different and the stories are very different. I actually felt, in a strange way, that Patrick needed less research than Teardrop did, because Teardrop was so specifically regional, for one thing.
There was also Daniel Woodrell’s novel to work off of, so the character could kind of be from anywhere. What was the shoot like?
Hawkes: There were no grizzled Teamsters around and the amazing thing about this film was that the crew was so of a peace, that if felt like everyone there, outside a few of us actors, were friends already, and had all worked together. That creates a short hand and a continuity of focus that’s there before you even begin to roll, which is a great gift. They were young, but really focused, and an interesting bunch of reprobates.
The film ends with a big question mark as to Martha’s future. What do you think happens to her?
Olsen: I have no idea what’s going to happen. It ends where it ends. I just love that it ends in a transition and begins in a transition and doesn’t tie anything up and give the audience relief. I feel that audiences want the satisfaction of something tied together or a crazy twist, but a lot of times they are unsatisfied with that satisfaction. I think Sean (Durkin) created an interesting ending that was unpredictable.
Hawkes: Whatever questions the audience has at the end of the film are the same questions Martha has. This film is all questions and I hope it’s a gift to an audience to have a chance to live in a very different world and a different kind of film where things aren’t answered for you. I know manifested for me in the strangest way. I saw the film at Sundance and only recently saw it again. There have been several times where I was haunted by a scene in a movie and it took me a moment to figure out what it was and realized that it was this film, that I’m in, which is so odd. It’s never happened to me before – to have a film dwell with me and sit with me and have me think about the film as though I was not even a part of it. It’s a really cool thing.
When you were cast as a Jewish merchant in “Deadwood,” you were concerned that you’re not Jewish. The show’s creator asked if you ever felt shame or sadness or ostracized and you said, “Every day” to which he replied, “Then you’re Jewish.” Can you expand on that comment?
Hawkes: Oh sure, but I don’t want to get too personal. I think any creative person, or perhaps performers more so, have unusual needs and maybe deficiencies in growing up that I think are great gifts that help them inform their work, so I don’t think I’m alone in feeling those feelings.
Your character has no direct connection with the cult. Did that impact on how you shaped Lucy?
Paulson: I think it was very important that I knew nothing about cults because in the movie, Martha tells Lucy nothing about it. So, it’s important that my own confusion and my desire to know more was my own desire to know more. It helped inform that sort of complicated frustration of wanting to have her come to me and not knowing how to fix what had been fractured between us.
Does that mean that you didn’t read the entire script?
Paulson: I did read the entire script and knew what happened, but decided not to do any research on cults and didn’t look at a lot of pictures from things they had shot, such as continuity photos. I thought it best for me not to have any information about what she went through. I would ask Martha about her bruises sometimes and the bruises in the movie were all her real bruises. I stopped myself from asking her questions about her time at the farm.
What do you think the bottom line is for Martha?
Olsen: I think Martha was trying to find a place of belonging and purpose and acceptance and I think everyone tries to figure that out in some way or another in their lives and that journey continues to change as you grow. Sean equates it to a soccer team or to going to church school or finding community in your job. Martha is someone who had no community at all. For me personally, I always felt like I had a community with my friends and have the same friends since I was in Kindergarten.
Do you think the title is hard to remember?
Olsen: I just make a joke about it before I even say the title. This driver was taking me the airport and asked me the name of the movie. The first thing I said is that you won’t remember it, but you will remember that it’s a movie with four M’s in it and you’re not going to confuse it with another movie.